The 8-Ball Rally

Finding the fastest route to the bar in Crested Butte, Colorado

The Who: It was 2002, or 2003, nobody really remembers or cares. Who won that first year? Eh—not really the point.
This, we know: Crested Butte Mountain Resort was putting on a tele festival, and in addition to tele cross, tele slopestyle, and a tele freesking competition, JW Smith and Alan Bernholtz pitched another kind of race… to the bar.
The organizers were, like, “No.”
“So me and JW were, like, ya know, ‘Fuck it,’” remembers Bernholtz. “We don’t need someone to tell us we can do a race from the top to town.”
Because it was an unsanctioned event, and physically really intense, they called it the 8-Ball Rally.

A dirty place for a dirty race. PHOTO: Trent Bona
A dirty place for a dirty race. PHOTO: Trent Bona

The What: “It’s a ski race from the top to the bar,” says Zach Marquis, who knows his 8-Ball. He had a winning streak for about five years.
The skiers meet at the top of Crested Butte’s High Lift late in the afternoon. The race is only for the elite—it peaked at 20 contestants. The skiing, he says, “gets immediately rowdy, so everyone is slightly nervous.”
“A lot of people are scared of it,” says Craig Burbank, better known as Bernie Downs, who Marquis refers to as the “Soul of the 8-Ball.” “It’s just one of the more balls-out, fun ski town races probably never to be duplicated.”
Once patrol does its sweeps, the T stops running. The person who won the previous year counts down and then, as Marquis says, “Alright, see you at the bar, fuckers.”

“It’s just one of the more balls-out, fun ski town races probably never to be duplicated.”

They charge 2,000 vertical feet through “less prescribed” routes to the base, then skate a mile along the Nordic path, before arriving in town.
“The best thing about it, it’s never the same year to year,” says Burbank. “It’s pretty horrible skiing at times to get through there—waist-deep shit and little trap gullies, and it’s a chore to get through.”
The 8-Ball Rally has one rule: No wheels. OK, two rules: You have to make it to the bar with all your gear—no ditching your boots or skis.
After the skate, which Marquis, a tele skier, says is where the race is typically won or lost, the snow runs out and the skiers speed-walk in their boots.
“It’s always muddy and snowy, you come out and end up weaving through town. I generally run in front of cars and cut people off. People don’t realize what’s going on—just some dude with snot and chewing tobacco all over his face,” says Marquis. “Then you take a right on Elk Avenue—people cheering you along—you get to the Eldo, go up the stairs, through the noise, through the doors, slap the bar, and get a beer.”

The Why: Crested Butte, like a lot of ski towns, is changing. (Whatever, USA, anyone?) The 8-Ball is a gritty tradition of the sort many ski areas are quashing. “It’s unsanctioned and uncivilized,” says Bernholtz. “There are no posters, no official this, no official that. No one complains. You just go.”

The WTF: Smith announces the time and place of the annual 8-Ball by writing it in the men’s bathroom at the Eldo. It typically happens when the time changes in the spring—spring forward for one more hour of partying.
The original trophy was a martini glass glued to the tip of a ski with a toothpick holding an 8-ball from a car antennae at the tip. The current trophy resides at the Eldo with all the signatures of the event’s previous winners.
Who are increasingly creative. While you can’t use wheels, nobody said anything about wings. One year, Ben Eaton skied from the top of High Lift to Silver Queen, where his paraglider was waiting. He landed in town and thought he had the thing in the bag before someone else cut him off by taking the back alley by the post office.
Burbank says he’s never been in the race to win it, although he’s only missed a few—an ACL tear, the flu, and most recently, because his kid was born on the day of the race. His son’s nickname? “8-Ball.”