For many, a parade down Main Street and a fireworks show are key components of your average mountain town's winter festival. Throw in the only marching band on skis in the United States, 6 and 7-year-olds launching 30-plus feet after being towed into a jump by a horse, grown men and women riding snow shovels down the street tied to the back of horses, and a full-grown man skiing down a pitch black slope with 70 pounds of fireworks strapped to his back, and you've got a cocktail of fun that can only happen in one place—Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Seemingly stuck between deciding if they are a ski town with a cowboy problem or a cowboy town with a skiing problem, Steamboat Springs still holds tight to the spirit of the Wild West. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the annual Winter Carnival. The longest continuously run winter festival west of the Mississippi, Steamboat celebrated their 105th Winter Carnival this past weekend, and like many mountain towns, they know how to throw a party.
I first heard of the Winter Carnival when I was skiing Steamboat back in December. Someone had described it as the biggest party of the winter, and when I heard there was a competition where you tied a snow shovel to a horse and got dragged down the street, I was sold. As a self-described aficionado of making questionable decisions that may or may not end up with me in the hospital, I knew I had to go. The livelihood of my 23-year-old ego, and body, would be put on the line.
So, late on Thursday afternoon, I hit the road West out of Denver with a pair of skis, a mountain bike, and a $15 snow shovel from Ace Hardware in my trunk, completely unaware of what I was about to get myself into.
My first event would be a dual slalom mountain bike race down the slopes of Howelsen Hill, a small ski hill owned and operated by the city of Steamboat Springs. The first thing I noticed—other than the course running down the steepest face on the hill and far more spectators than I expected—was how underprepared I was. About half the field was on fat bikes (bikes with 5 inch wide tires, built for riding on snow) and the other half were on burly downhill rigs, with big screws sticking out of their homemade studded tires for traction on the icy hill. I looked down at my aging Kona dirt jumper with nearly bald street tires I should have replaced two summers ago. I ran back to the car and chugged a beer—I was going to need more liquid courage.
After receiving my bib, my first challenge was to just get to the top of the racecourse. As I looked around for people hiking their bikes up, I saw everyone lining up for the Poma lift. Now, riding a Poma lift is fairly simple when you're on a pair of skis—grab the handle, toss the platter between your legs, and away you go. On a bike, however, things proved to be a little more interesting. Riders had varying ideas on how to do it best, some simply mounting the Poma and jogging next to their bike, others opting to put it underneath their armpit and holding onto their bike for dear life.
After I reached the top of the lift utilizing a best-of-both-worlds strategy (cramming the platter between my butt and the bike seat) I looked back to see a young rider fall off his bike as he attempted to dismount. His bike, however, with brake cables conveniently wrapped around the platter, continued onward, slowly climbing its way up the rest of the hill. This is a complete shit show, I thought to myself. And the race hadn’t even started.
Thanks to my last-minute desire for liquid courage, I missed the practice window, so my first race would be my first, and possibly only, run down the course. The temperature during the day had hovered around the mid 40s, but with temps quickly dropping as the sun went down, the course was a dangerous mixture of slush and pure ice, with deep ruts beginning to form where riders had been practicing their runs.
Before I knew it, my number was called and I slowly approached the starting gate. From there forward, adrenaline completely took over and I was just along for the ride. Quickly realizing my brakes had no affect on my speed or direction, I held on and hoped for the best. I slid around each gate thinking it might be my last, and thanks to my competitor taking a spill out of the gate, somehow I crossed the finish line first. But with a field of 27, that only meant I had moved on to the next round. Still fueled on a mixture of adrenaline and Coors Banquet, I headed back up the hill for more. Although I was knocked out in the next round, I reached the bottom thankful to have made it down without crashing in front of a hundred people.
We were greeted the next morning by heavy snowfall and a few fresh inches across the resort. With the kind of season Colorado has had so far, I was eager to take advantage of it, and to find anything to take my mind off of that day's event—the shovel race.
We made it into town just in time to catch the last of one of the children's events, the Donkey Jump, which consists of kids as young as 6 or 7 being pulled behind horses and launching off a jump, longest jump wins. As one kid went, a big "24" flashed on the radar detector the local police had set up to track the speed of the horses. "Don't worry," a lady said standing next to me, eying my shovel. "They crank up the speed a bit for you guys."
As the final kids took their turns soaring off the jump, an announcement was made over the loudspeakers that the shovel race was about to start. I made my way to the middle of the street, and I noticed the other contestants decked out in full-face snowmobile helmets, goggles, and nice metal shovels. As I looked down at my open face mountain bike helmet, Pit Viper sunglasses, and $15 plastic shovel, I realized, again, that I was clearly the least prepared person there.
I approached a mustachioed man in a cowboy hat that seemed to be in charge. "Any tips for a first timer?" I asked through nervous laughter. He looked at me and chuckled. "There's only two rules in shovel racing: hold on tight and shut your mouth."
As the first person took off, I realized why the cowboy had included the second rule. Unlike the kids doing the Donkey Jump, who could steer themselves out of harms way, when you're sitting on a shovel, you're right behind the horse, directly in the line of fire. While there had been some fresh snow, temps still stayed fairly high, providing a soft slush for the horses' hooves to violently kick up directly into the face of the poor soul that decided entering the shovel race was a good idea.
After watching two hard bails, my name was called. Back into the same haze as the night before, adrenaline took over. What seemed like a split second after my butt hit the shovel, we were off. The closest feeling I could relate to was trying to water ski behind a boat with a shitty driver. As the rope pulled tight I thought my arms were going to be pulled out of their sockets.
Five seconds in, I couldn't believe I was still holding on. I embraced my inner cowboy and let out a loud YEEHAW—somehow my plastic shovel was holding together. My face covered in snow, I couldn't see anything and the only thought going through my head was to just keep holding on. After what seemed like an eternity, we began to slow down and I felt the rope release from my shovel, I had made it. Legs shaking, I stood up and laughed as I was ushered to the sidelines. "That was pretty darn impressive," said one of the organizers as I stumbled across the snow. Again, I was honestly surprised that I had even made it to the finish line.
That night, after my heart rate lowered back down to a healthy number, we returned to Howelsen Hill for the Lighted Man Ceremony, the crème de la crème of Steamboat's Winter Carnival.
As dusk fell on the Yampa Valley, all the lights at Howelsen shut off leaving the hill in a complete darkness. Slowly, a dim light began to glow along the crest of the slope. With the choreography of a Broadway show, dozens of skiers (it was later announced they were all part of Steamboat's youth skiing program) poured over the crest of the hill illuminating their way down with bright red flares. Suddenly, everyone's attention was on the Nordic jumps as a giant hoop burst into flames at the lip of the largest jump. One by one, skiers wrapped in bright LED lights shot off the jump, through the hoop, and onto the dark landing below. It was like watching Cirque du Soleil on skis. The final jumper was one of Howelsen Hill's own ski patrollers, who hit the jump with a rescue sled, rather, a rescue sled lit on fire, towed behind him.
All eyes turned back to the main slope as the night's big attraction, the Lighted Man, took the stage. A tradition passed down from father to son, the Lighted Man was illuminated in hundreds of LED light bulbs that pulsed and changed colors. Strapped to his back was a contraption specially built to hold 70 pounds of fireworks, not roman candles and cheap fire crackers, but full on, big-boom fireworks. Behind him skied a safety team, on the ready should something go wrong. I recalled earlier in the day talking to a local about the event. She told me she'd been coming to the Winter Carnival long enough to remember the need to break out the fire extinguishers. "It's definitely happened more than once," she said.
Following a safe trip to the bottom of the hill by the Lighted Man with only a few close misfires, the show finished off with a fireworks show that could have rivaled even the biggest Fourth of July or New Years celebration, all for a little town tucked deep in the mountains of Colorado.
Rolling out of town the next day, I felt surprisingly well-rested for spending an entire weekend half-expecting myself to end up in the hospital on more than one occasion. Spending most of my mountain time in Summit County, Colorado in the heart of Vail-topia, it was refreshing to get back to the roots of mountain culture, and celebrate what makes each weird little mountain town so unique. Sure, we probably shouldn't give kids live flares and have them ski down a pitch black hill or tie ourselves to the back of horses and get dragged down the street—but then again, what's the fun in that?