Howelsen makes for a tough slalom course, and even the home team can’t always nail it |

Howelsen makes for a tough slalom course, and even the home team can’t always nail it

Steamboat Springs High School skier Caroline Baur punches a gate out of the way during a slalom race at Howelsen Hill Ski Area on Thursday, Jan. 13.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

There’s a reason that Howelsen Hill Ski Area is a frequent host of the NCAA championships and a stop on the World Pro Ski Tour. The oldest continuously operating ski hill in North America is built for slalom. Its face is short but steep, with shifting angles of descent. That makes it a challenge for most athletes — and a pleasure to compete on for homegrown Steamboat Springs athletes.

The Steamboat Springs High School Alpine team hosted a slalom race Thursday, Jan. 13. They train on the intimidating slope of Howelsen Hill frequently, but even the Sailors aren’t immune to the difficulties of slalom racing.

After watching a couple of his fastest teammates veer off course in their first run, Steamboat junior Tomás Niedermeier left the start gate. He made it 80% of the way down the course before he hit a gate, part of a hairpin combination toward the bottom.

“It’s not difficult, technically,” Niedermeier said of the course. “I think the hardest part about it is it’s so straight, you get going really fast. It’s hard to control your speed through the combinations.”

A hairpin is just one combination that can be seen on a slalom course. There are also flushes and, rarely, a royal flush. A hairpin is a combination of two vertical gates, a flush is three vertical gates, and a royal flush is four.

Each allows racers to gather speed while quickly shifting which edge of their ski hits the snow. All combinations are meant to switch up the tempo and test the abilities of the racers.

Another feature of a slalom course is a delay, or an under gate or banana turn. For example, a skier passing by a red gate and turning left must pass through a pair of blue gates before turning left to meet the next gate. It forces athletes to pause, or delay, their turn.

Niedermeier favors flushes — and despises hairpins.

“(A flush is) just a big tempo change, and it’s pretty straight,” he said. “You got two gates and can kind of get in the flow of things. A hairpin is one combination less than a flush and you don’t really flow through it.”

Niedermeier said the amount of crashes at Howelsen is what makes it fun, though.

Sailors senior Audra Gowdy had the second-fastest time after the first run of the girls race Thursday but made a mistake in her second and earned a DNF.

Senior Ellie Blair was the highest finisher among the Sailors women, taking fifth. Senior teammate Caroline Baur took ninth.

Blair said Howelsen is always hard, and having even a fraction more confidence and familiarity on the slope helps the home team. She said she felt confident Thursday, which obviously showed in her results.

“You really have to stay on your toes,” Blair said. “It kind of comes at you. You got to be ready at Howelsen.”

Baur said there is no time for relaxing on the course.

“Coming out after the steep (section) was pretty difficult,” she said. “It was pretty turny, so you really had to be on it, but when you get to the bottom, it was fun.”

Often, the end of the course features a flush, and the last third is kicked off with a hairpin. The combinations give skiers plenty of speed going into the flat section before the finish line.

“Coming down the last 10 gates of Howelsen is the best part of the course, always,” Blair said. “You can hear everyone cheering you on and you go fast. You let it go at the bottom.”

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