Bearing the torch: Torchlight parade tests mettle, apparel and ski cosmetics | SteamboatToday.com
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Bearing the torch: Torchlight parade tests mettle, apparel and ski cosmetics

Some of the torchlight skiers during the 2017 Winter Carnival's Night Extravaganza.
Shannon Lukens/courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Local firefighters — and even ER doctors — might be raising an eyebrow or two while watching this year’s Winter Carnival festivities. Not just because kids are getting pulled by galloping horses down Lincoln Avenue — and flying off jumps and ringing javelins to boot — but for something far more cringing … and singeing.

I’m talking about the torchlight ski parade down the face of Howelsen Hill. What self-respecting, Darwinism disciple would 1) let their kids ski down a steep, icy face at night without lights or poles; and 2) do so while carrying a flaming torch overhead that drips fireballs onto combustible jackets?

Sure, the smaller kids now use less consequential and litigious LEDs. But the older ones carry torches which, like the P-tex you use for patching bases, can drip Great Balls of Fire onto those shepherding them downhill to the delight of adoring fans below. 

I volunteered for the snowplowing-with-napalm activity a few times when my own kids were in the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. We’d meet at the bottom, ride up the poma (thankfully before the torches were lit) and then assemble up top in the shadows while the masses gathered below like spectators awaiting the lion fights in the Roman Coliseum. 

And then we’d wait, shuttle kids to the trees to go the bathroom, whip arm circles to warm frozen fingers and wait some more before getting the radio call to assemble the troops. Then you’d light the torches and take off, a gaggle of ducklings blindly following in wide, sweeping turns. 

At the bottom, you’d extinguish the flares and scramble to find your own kid in a haze of smoke before assessing the damage inflicted on your gear: burn marks on perfectly good Gore-tex jackets and ski tops charred and marred. But they were battle scars you were proud of because you knew you were taking part in a classic Steamboat tradition. 

According to Sureva Towler’s “The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs,” the first such night show came in 1939 during the 26th annual Winter Carnival, where “a half-hour-long event featured fireworks at the Sulphur Cave, torch-carrying skiers descending a zig-zagging slalom course marked with burning flares, and two ‘flaming skiers’ jumping while holding torches.” The hill was floodlit after the show for anyone wishing to try night skiing.

A lot has changed since then, with about 500 kids now participating in some sort of light-carrying schuss down the face. Back in the day, said the club’s Blair Seymour, “It was a little more loosely organized and consisted of all flares. We tried switching to glow sticks, but they didn’t show up as well in the cold. We’ve been pretty creative trying to figure out ways to light the kids up.” 

Even though she admits “we’re not giving them to 6-year-olds anymore,” the one constant has been the timeless appeal of flares. “They’re definitely a highlight of the year for a lot of kids,” she said.

Part of it might be because ducklings that they are, the kids are emulating older, though not necessarily wiser, role models. The night show also features ski patrollers jumping through a fiery hoop (some trailing a burning toboggan), Nordic jumpers soaring off the 70-meter while lit up like Times Square and other combinations of Alpine pyromania.

If you go: 2020 Winter Carnival

Click here to view a full schedule of events for the 2020 Winter Carnival, running from Wednesday, Feb. 5, to Sunday, Feb. 9, in Steamboat Springs.

“There’s not really much teaching that goes into the fire jumping,” said veteran Tristan Arnis about carrying two torches while soaring through the fire hoop. “You kind of just click into your bindings and go.”

This year, also look for the reintroduction of Roman candles back into qualified skiers’ hands, instead of having them in a sled behind a skier. 

But no one beams as much as the kids carrying torches. And while the activity might not be singled out on an insurance rider, so far so good, said Seymour.

“Some kids have gotten so scared from the fireworks that they’ve peed their pants, but that’s about it,” she said. “There’s been a crash or two over the years, but nothing that bad.”

And the whole show is a little more professional now than it was back in the old days, she added.

“It’s choreographed, coordinated to music and timed out pretty well,” she said. “We’ve tried to create a pretty safe and professional environment.”

What this means: For those up to it, the younger kids carry one flare while the bigger kids carry two. They’re lit and extinguished on cue and are of the long-lasting variety, burning for 20 minutes.

“And they’re only skiing for two minutes, so it never gets close to their hands,” she said. “And if anything happens, you’re surrounded by snow.”

In fact, the main bloopers, she added, haven’t come from the kids but from the Lighted Man, an LED-clad skier who works Roman candles into his repertoire. Mishaps there have included one time accidentally strapping on the Roman candles upside-down and another taking a bow to the crowd before they had all detonated.

Still, despite all the illumination advances and safety steps taken, there’s no escaping the flares’ molten fireballs, which can drip down onto unsuspecting carriers. 

“We tell and show them all how to do it beforehand,” said Seymour, adding the kids have the option to carry them or not. And the veterans have wised up, duct taping their skis, wearing old gloves and visiting LiftUp for protective outer layers.

“But they’re definitely not allowed to wear their club coats, that’s for sure,” she said. 

To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-871-4276 or email ebuchanan@SteamboatPilot.com.


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