This story originally published in the February 2017 issue of POWDER. PHOTO: Jonathan Selkowitz
By Dave Bertsch
THE WHO: They are a ragtag clique of ski shop employees comprised of first-year rental techs and wily vets sporting neon wigs, throwback '80s gear, plenty of duct tape, and no trace of the wiser gender. The competitors are martyrs for the pride of their respective shops, representing those who turn screws, fit boots on weirdly shaped tourist feet, and inhale hot wax all winter. Some are ex-racers and some are just ballsy, but the winner of the Jackson Hole Rental Derby, held at high noon on April 1, is usually both. Past victors include heroes like Doug Coombs and Hunter Wood. Frankie Gibbs, an ex-racer from Sugar Bowl, is in his lucky speed suit: neon pink, yellow, and aquamarine and autographed by Bode Miller, Hermann Maier, and Picabo Street.
At the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, everyone grabs a pair of crappy rental skis—I snag some comically short Rossignols. Then it's onto the tram. The pack's vibe is jittery and jovial. The tram operator blasts "We Are The Champions" as the red box docks atop the summit. The skis are tossed in a pile 10 yards from the start and scrambled together. The start gun cracks and the contestants run to untangle their kit. Then it's point 'em and pray.
THE WHAT: The derby started in 1989, when a sparse snow year caused unrest among the staff of Teton Village Sports. "The season was a dragger," recalls Jeff Brown, "and morale was low."
Dave "The Swather" Fett cooked up an idea for some friendly competition. The rules were simple. At noon, after a proper PBR lube-up, a few dozen rental rats bull their way down all 4,139 vertical feet of Jackson Hole using nothing but rental equipment: skis no higher than your chin, binding DIN set for a beginner, and some stinky old excuse for boots. First one to the bottom wins.
The race begins with a Le Mans-style sprint to the pile of skis, which have been jumbled to encourage horseplay. The preferred route skirts Corbet's by way of the Ten Sleep Traverse, down the Expert Chutes into Amphitheater, and ends with an eye-watering, teeth-loosening straight-line down lower Gros Ventre. Mike Bessette, long-time Teton Village Sports tuner and 20-year local, says it's the scariest run he's ever taken in Jackson Hole.
THE WHY: Eternal glory. That and a chance to have your name engraved on a ski with Coombs and other local legends. There is no awards ceremony and hardly any spectators. It's all about pride—ego, really—and who can lay claim to being the raddest skier in the raddest race on the country's raddest mountain using the world's crappiest gear.
THE WTF: Jackson Hole skiers have bravado to burn. It's a put-up or shut-up society. If you can surf your rental kit from top to bottom at a speed no sane tourist would attempt, you'll forever have your name in history. On April 1, 2016, I ride the thawing slush to near victory, down the clattery upper traverses and through a corned-up Lonnie's Chute. With my legs torched from the mashed potatoes on lower GV, I give one last look over my shoulder and find Fast Frankie Gibbs screaming through the warm slop to overtake me right before the finish.
As he would tell me later: "The best part was rejoining the Gaper Day crowd with a sweet story to tell." What an asshole.