A vital landmark in American skiing | SteamboatToday.com

A vital landmark in American skiing

At the ripe old age of five, Ayla White is a veteran skier at Howelsen Hill's Magic Carpet-served slope. Several of the youngsters skiing at Howelsen on a Sunday morning in late January were two and three years old.
Tom Ross

— Howelsen Hill is known for training Olympians, but it’s also the place where toddlers first stand on skis

Howelsen Hill, the little ski area just across the Yampa River from downtown Steamboat Springs, has earned an international  reputation over its remarkable 100-year history for nurturing the careers of 84 Winter Olympians as of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Quite naturally, residents of Steamboat take immense pride in that statistic and what it says about the community’s devotion to tradition and winter sports.  Some have even speculated that there is mineral magic in the local spring water that makes youngsters here ski faster.

Walt Evans, a coach and director of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in the mid-1980s, who went on to a three-decade-long career with the United States Ski Association, says the magic can be found in the community’s relationship with the hill itself.

Howelsen is easily accessible from schools, Evans said. It’s relative autonomy as a stand-alone ski training facility sets it apart from others. And its ability to adapt to the ever-changing trends in winter sports, from ski jumping to freestyle, and more recently, snowboarding, have contributed to its longevity, Evans added.

The development of Howelsen Hill was sparked in the second decade of the 20th century by the Norwegian ski jumping champion Carl Howelsen, whose enthusiasm for ski jumping was unbridled. He arrived in Steamboat Springs and soon established the first Winter Carnival on Woodchuck Hill in 1914.

By the end of that year, he had inspired residents to build a new ski jump on the opposite side of the river, where previously, the locals held informal rodeos and kept a small elk herd in a reserve. That jump was built in 1915.

A few years later, the new ski jump was named for Howelsen, and Carl’s legacy, along with the historic trajectory of skiing in Steamboat, was set.

Now the director of excellence at the Aspen Valley Ski Club, Evans has worked closely with competitive skiing programs and emerging national-caliber athletes all over the country during his USSA career. He understands better than most, the place Howelsen Hill holds in the greater landscape of competitive skiing in North America.

“Howelsen Hill is a trademark for any elite skiing athlete,” he said. “When you can ski Howelsen Hill, you can ski just about anything. I really commend Steamboat for nurturing Howelsen for what it is and sustaining that great environment.”

///The post-World War II era///

Crosby Perry-Smith survived the mine fields to make his mark on skiing in Colorado.

The 91-year-old, who moved back to Steamboat from a home in Ouray last year, represents a generation of rugged skiers who trained for the unlikely role of ski troops in World War II and fought valiantly in Italy, although seldom on skis. Perry-Smith was among those who returned to the United States to take part in long-deferred Winter Olympic Games, and later lavished tough love on the next generations of competitive skiers.

Perry-Smith’s recalls that training with the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale near Leadville before being sent to Italy was rugged.

“It was pretty severe,” he said. “We carried heavy packs, and our equipment and clothes were heavier than they are today. You were tested every day. Before we went out on maneuvers, we walked two miles (away from the barracks) and slept out under the trees, then marched back in for breakfast. We (sometimes) went out on maneuvers for three weeks and never came in.”

When he finally experienced combat in the lead-up to the famed battle for Riva Ridge, his job was to sweep for mines.

“Three of us would go out every morning with mine detectors to clear the road,” he recalled. “We got so far out in front they had to get patrols out in front of us so we wouldn’t get captured. It was dangerous work, but I’d rather do that than running through a mine field that hadn’t been cleared.”

After the war, he spent just one month at home in Lake Placid, where he learned to ski jump as a boy, before boarding a train for Steamboat Springs to resume his ski jumping career. He was recruited to re-build the profile of Howelsen Hill’s ski jump to make it safer and coach a little bit more length out of the jumps. It didn’t take him long to win the Rocky Mountain Championship on his new home hill.

Perry-Smith went on to help establish the first competitive ski team at Western State College in Gunnison. And he was named to the 1952 Winter Olympic team that competed in Oslo, Norway.

For a couple of years in the mid-1950s, Perry-Smith was employed as both the ski area manager and head coach at Howelsen Hill, tutoring future ski greats like Moose Barrows, Loris Werner and Jon Elliott. He even coached future Alpine great Buddy Werner in ski jumping when he was a boy of about 10.

Playing the dual role of head coach and ski area manager kept him very busy, Perry-Smith told Steamboat Pilot & Today in February.

“It’s hard for me to describe the amount of duties I had to perform,” he said.  “One was to get the fire going in the lodge, next, make sure the tow was running OK. Sometimes, the cable would come off the bull wheel up on top – I had to walk up there with a crowbar and pull the cable back onto the bull wheel. This was part of the job.”

Once the trails, both Nordic and Alpine were smoothed, Perry-Smith would head for the elementary school to coach the youngsters, returning to Howelsen to work with the high school-age athletes.

“One day it would be slalom, the next day downhill or jumping, and then trying to get them to ski cross country on weekends, which was a little difficult because they didn’t like to run, and there was a lot of cussing, so I had to discipline them a little bit.”

What was Perry-Smith’s style of coaching?

“Give ‘em hell!” Perry-Smith said with a hearty laugh. “Well, a lot of it is psychological, and trying to figure out what they are thinking and what they should be thinking and encourage them to demand more from themselves at all times. The easiest thing in the world is to be mediocre, so you’ve got to get that feeling that they’ve got to stretch themselves more and more, each and every day.”

///////Hed or subhead/////

The modern era

Walt Evans brings a unique perspective to the history of Howelsen Hill.

Walt Evans, who grew up on a ranch outside Fraser in the 1950s, was the head Alpine coach at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club from 1973 to 1978 and became its first executive director in 1977, serving in that capacity for six years.

When he moved on, it was to begin a long career with the United State Ski Association, and ultimately, he became that organization’s sports development director. Evans has interacted with ski clubs all over the country and says the longstanding relationship among Howelsen Hill, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, the city of Steamboat Springs and the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. is difficult to replicate elsewhere.

“When I was in grade school, every Friday we would go to Hot Sulphur (Springs) or Winter Park or Tabernash and have a ski competition,” Evans said. “In the 1950s and ‘60s, every little town had a rope tow and a little ski hill, a jump and a little cross-country loop. It was just the best environment ever.”

Howelsen Hill started the same way, Evans said, and just kept growing.

“Howelsen Hill had sustainability, local energy, great athletes coming up…it’s awesome that it has been sustained for 100 years,” Evans said. “Having a year-round park there with rodeo grounds and ball fields, it’s just magical the way that thing all came together.”

Evans said the Aspen Valley Ski Club’s athletes train on all four mountains operated by the Aspen Skiing Company. Howelsen Hill’s relative autonomy has set it apart from many other ski clubs with aspirations of developing elite athletes, he said, and he thinks the steps taken by the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. to provide a wider range of training operations at the big ski area is a wise move.

“Kids do need more real estate and more opportunities to experience Alpine skiing and other sports,” Evans said.

But what really sets Howelsen Hill and the Winter Sports Club apart, Evans said, is the ability to bring adult volunteers into the fold.

“The thing Steamboat does better than anywhere else in nation, is volunteer development,” Evans said. “They recruit well, they train them, they recognize them. Generation after generation they have the best volunteers anywhere. They are a can-do club, that’s for sure.”

////////Howelsen Hill renaissance////

All of the Olympic glory attached to Howelsen, the longest continuously running ski area  west of the Mississippi, tends to obscure the other side of the ski area’s personality.

Howelsen Hill, after all, is part of a city park where youngsters build self-reliance and get in touch with their competitive instincts while learning to ice skate, to ride mountain bikes, race barrel horses in the rodeo, and yes, how to stand on their own two skis and even launch off the end of a ski jump.

It feels safe to say there could be no more than a handful of municipal parks to match it.

For all of the Olympians who have either grown up skiing at Howelsen, or in many cases, spent a couple of winters sharpening their skills on the way to the Olympics,  there are many more youngsters who have realized some of their earliest adventures on skis at Howelsen Hill.

That youthful exuberance was plain to see on a bright January morning in late January when about eight parents brought their 2- and 3-year-olds to the out-run of the ski jumps at Howelsen to make some of their earliest attempts at Alpine skiing on the Magic Carpet ski lift – for free.

Kaia Bravo, 2, of Loveland, looked hesitant as she stood at the top of a little slope not more than 50 feet in length. Dressed in pink ski pants, a yellow jacket and a black helmet, Kaia was standing between her mother Rachel’s legs and leaning back on her for support.

“My husband, Jake, and I like to come up to Steamboat and snowboard,” Rachel Bravo said, and added that they discovered Howelsen while mountain biking, then learned it was a nurturing environment in which to introduce the oldest of their two daughters to skiing.

The Magic Carpet lift at Howelsen is essentially a slow-moving conveyor belt that is set flush with the surface of the snow. Children learn quite naturally how to step on and off of it. Learning to ski down the gentle slope adjacent to the Magic Carpet is another matter.

After several trips up and down, Kaia, was tired and beginning to whimper, but her grandmother, Peggy Broulette, wisely offered her a drink of hot tea from a thermos, and Kaia was ready for round two.

Thirty minutes into her first ski session, the toddler was skiing independently, grinning widely and clapping her hands – a clear demonstration of the sense of accomplishment she felt.

Valerie White of Steamboat Springs said she brings her youngsters Lawson, 2, and Ayla, 5, to Howelsen from their home on Pamela Lane.

“Even people who have passes to ski the big hill (Steamboat Ski Area) come down here for their kids and to see each other,”  she said.

Also riding the Magic Carpet that same Sunday was gung-ho Sam Pulford, age 2 1/2, who not only skied straight down the Magic Carpet slope but engaged his mother, Tiffani, in a playful game on skis. He was wearing a Ski Wee tether meant to allow his parents to afford him a sense of independence while keeping a grip on him should he get out of control. But on this day, Sam’s mother took hold of the end of the tether and raced ahead of him, pulling her son in a wide arc – a mild version of crack the whip.

Parents teaching their children to love skiing – that’s the heart of Howelsen HIll.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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