Looking for Murphy: Roberts family finds more than a race in Holiday Classic

Joel Reichenberger
Steamboat Springs skier Hig Roberts cuts down the face of Howelsen Hill toward the crowd Tuesday night during the Murphy Roberts Holiday Classic in Steamboat Springs. Roberts worked to have the annual slalom racing event named after his brother, Murphy, who died in August. Hig went on to finish second in the men's race.
Joel Reichenberger

Tuesday Holiday Classic results

Men 1 Vegard Busengdal, University of New Mexico, 1:33.80 2 Hig Roberts, U.S. Ski Team, 1:34.30 3 Dominique Garand, Ski Club Vail, 1:34.84 Women 1 Ann-Kathrin Breunig, Westminster College, 1:24.48 2 Monica Huebner, University of Denver, 1:24.55 3 Sarah Schleper, Mexico, 1:24.73

— Blood pumped from his nose and down his cheeks, and Hig Roberts had only a snowball to stop it. He held it tight against his face, looking up the slope of Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat Springs as racer after racer bobbed and weaved through Tuesday night’s slalom race course.

Skiers glided all around, laughing with friends and celebrating their own results. Fans, warmed by flickering fires and hidden flasks, cheered loudly nearby, and an announcer boomed over it all on the public address system.

Roberts stood alone in the crowd, however, finished with his run and, with an ever-more-red snowball tight in his hand, looked up the hill. He watched, and he tried to feel what he’d felt all night and what his entire family had come here to feel — the lingering memory of his younger brother Murphy, who died last summer.

“Ski racing, it’s not all about ski racing,” Hig said. “I fight for my brother every day. He was a ski racer. He knows what it’s like.”

On the mountain

For the Roberts family, finding Murphy means coming to Emerald Mountain, towering above Steamboat, and Howelsen Hill, the small city-run competition-focused ski area that juts off the face of Emerald.

Murphy was 22 when he died in August after suffering a diabetic seizure while hiking in Utah with his sister, Cassady Roberts. He fell and hit his head, which led to a series of complications and his death.

It’s been a difficult couple of months for his family since, and each of his siblings, Dylan, Cassady and Hig, have sought their brother in different ways.

For Cassady, that’s meant time hiking on Emerald, Murphy’s favorite place. She made as many trips up its slopes in the fall as she could. Last week a full moon sent her up again, with hiking skins for her skis and a bundle of emotions providing the motivation.

“He loved sunsets, and he loved full moons,” Cassady said. “Some days it’s hard to get up and get out of the house, but I skinned up for the full moon. I really didn’t want to. I wasn’t feeling great. But I did it. I got up there, and I just felt like he was there.”

Hig responded a different way.

All four of the Roberts children raced competitively with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, then went on to compete collegiately. Both Hig and Murphy competed for Middlebury College in Vermont.

Hig has been skiing with the U.S. Ski Team since graduating. Murphy, meanwhile, decided after a slew of injuries to retire from the sport late last winter, in his junior season. 
He immediately took up coaching with the Middlebury team, but he planned on racing one final time, in Steamboat Springs this winter at the Holiday Classic.

Hig came to the Holiday Classic to find his brother.

At home at Howelsen

The Holiday Classic has always been a special race for the Roberts family. It is for any Steamboat racer, really.

“If you grow up skiing Howelsen Hill every day, going up at night and seeing those lights of the city down below, it reminds you of being a kid,” Cassady said. “It’s such a nostalgic feeling to be up in that start, looking down and knowing this is your hill and your town.”

Hig has always made a point of attending. He missed a year ago while racing in Europe with the U.S. team but won it in 2014 and raced it so many times in the preceding years he struggles to come up with a count.

One year he went straight from the Yampa Valley Regional Airport to, an hour later, the starting gate at the top of Howelsen.

It wasn’t so complicated this year. He flew in Monday night after a series of NorAm Cup races in Canada.

The Holiday Classic is something you just don’t want to miss.

“Races at this level don’t really look like this anywhere else in the country,” Hig said. “The crowd, skiing under the lights, the announcing, the atmosphere, it’s unparalleled to anywhere else in the country, and I’ve raced everywhere.”

That passion is what lead him on a campaign for his brother, a campaign to rename the nearly 30-year old event after Murphy.

He called the Winter Sports Club and quickly found plenty of help.

Hig’s day Tuesday started fast. Racers get two runs in slalom racing, and Tuesday’s runs were split between an afternoon start in the daylight, and a night-time run under the lights, with the crowd and the fires and the flasks and the announcer.

Hig laid down the fastest first-run time and led going into the second run.

Before it, he took to the announcer’s stand, however, and let the crowd know the race had been renamed. It is now and always will be the Murphy Roberts Holiday Classic.

“All four of the kids came through the Winter Sports Club, and we knew the Holiday Classic was important to the family,” Winter Sports Club Executive Director Jim Boyne said. “It’s a wonderful event, and this is a way to create a lasting memory of Murphy and to help ease the family’s pain at a difficult time. We were glad to help facilitate that.”

A Murph kind of race

Hig and his family got together to write the speech. He told the crowd about his brother, about the hill, about the race and about what they all had in common.

“I just wanted to tell the crowd how important this race is to our family and was to Murphy,” Hig said. “If he was here, he’d be racing it.”

Then, Hig went to the top of the course and took his second run.

He’s not exactly sure what happened next. Somewhere on his way down a slalom gate caught him in the nose, setting off the blood.

“It’s slalom racing,” he said. “It’s hard to tell.”

At another point, he briefly lost control and veered off the course.

He got back on and made it down, but that lapse cost him valuable time. University of New Mexico skier Vegard Busengdal slipped in just ahead to claim first place by half a second.

“I got a little in a hurry and fell over,” Hig said. “It’s a bummer.”

He couldn’t help but wish he’d won the inaugural Murphy Roberts Holiday Classic, but he didn’t dwell on the result.

Murphy wouldn’t have.

In fact, when Hig approached his family later, he did so with a wide smile, thinking about his brother’s propensity to fight through mistakes and finish races. 
“Scrappy,” Hig explained.

“That was a Murph kind of run,” he said.

He didn’t win and that disappointment came and quickly went as he stood at the base of the ski hill, his eyes fixed up the hill and his blood soaking his snowball.

But he hadn’t come to win. He came to find Murphy, and when it was all over, he had.

“I was imagining he was coming along with me,” Hig said. “He was always my No. 1 supporter. I’ve had an interesting ski racing path getting to the highest level, and he was so proud of me. He never stopped telling me that.

“I like to think we’re a team, and we’re still doing it together.”

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email or follow him on Twitter @JReich9

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.