SUN VALLEY • Sun Valley will sport the fastest skiing on the North American continent for six days this March.
America’s 160 best ski racers, including Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsay Vonn and Ted Ligety, are expected to converge on America’s first destination ski resort March 22-27 for the Nature Valley U.S. Alpine Championships.
And Ketchum and Dollar Mountain will turn into Party Central for the week with street parties, a parade of athletes and a Big Air Bash featuring athletes doing tricks off monster jumps.
“This is a big deal — an absolute world-class race that’s emblematic of Sun Valley’s re-entry into the race world,” said Tony Parkhill, director of Sun Valley’s Snowsports School. “Sun Valley was the center of ski racing at one point, hosting the Pro Am Lange Cup in 1975 and the Harriman Cup. We backed off a little, in part because we didn’t have the critical mass to make it happen. But we decided a few years ago that there was interest among Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation representatives and the community to give it another try, and so we are hosting this high level of ski racing this year and in 2018.”
On Friday morning a contingent of people including USSA course designer Tom Johnston, who designed the race courses for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea, spent three hours going over the race courses they designed earlier in the year on the Warm Springs side of Bald Mountain.
Johnston, who’s been involved in designing all the major U.S. World Cup courses, came out earlier to help Sun Valley modernize its historic course.
Among other things, they estimated what the snowpack will look like by March 22 given weather forecasts and talked about how to sculpt the snow that is there into a primo race course.
Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain boasts one of the most impressive vertical rises of any U.S. ski resort, with 3,400 vertical feet that plunge down Warm Springs without any flat spots.
But the race course doesn’t start at the top of Warm Springs because it would exceed maximum International Ski Federation regulations for a race course. Instead, it will start nearly a third of the way down Warm Springs, with the men’s starting gate positioned on one cat track and the women’s embarking off Pete Lane’s cat track a little farther down.
From the Challenger start, men will plunge down a steep face before hitting Warm Springs. A couple of turns and they will cross a side hill manicured to look like the walls of a dam between two cat tracks atop Greyhawk. From there they will ski down the steep Greyhawk to the finish line, where at least 2,000 people are expected to be cheering in the race arena.
Slalom races will be held on the nearby Hemingway run.
Sun Valley workers buried concrete blocks that will hold safety netting along the race course before the ski season began. Impressive poles towering along the edge of Greyhawk will hold A-nets made of a couple of layers of nylon that will envelop racers and slow them down should they begin to fly off course.
“The orange netting we have on Bald Mountain are B-nets that slow skiers and cushion their fall,” Parkhill said. “These A-nets feature an inertia system that will wrap around the skier and pull together should they go off course.”
NBC Sports will broadcast the event.
Onlookers will be able to watch about two-thirds of the Super G from the race arena. Six fixed cameras and several mobile ones will provide real-time coverage of the start and the rest of the action on giant screens at the bottom.
There will be no charge to view the racing, as there is at some World Cup events. However, VIP who donate $500 to the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation will get special bleacher seating and a couple of lift tickets.
“This is a chance for people to see the athletes in action and to get a chance to talk with them,” said Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley’s marketing manager.
“I had an opportunity to see a pro downhill down virtually the same course when I moved here in 1980, and it was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen,” Ketchum businessman Baird Gourlay said. “To see that level of athletes make turns at speed … when they go by it’s like a car going by.”
A few racers who grew up in the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation program are expected to compete in the event, including Tanner Farrow and Haley Cutler, both of whom are expected to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
The championships will follow another family-friendly event that will be a kick for spectators — the 2016 Junior National Freestyle/Freeskiing Championships, which will be held March 10-13 at Sun Valley with moguls, slopestyle contests, half pipe and aerials.
The athletes are expected to arrive for the alpine championships on March 20. The next day will be given over to free skiing and a chance to inspect courses.
Most of Bald Mountain will remain open to the public for skiing and boarding during the races.
Gourlay said the Parade of Athletes on March 24 will feel much like the Olympics with the athletes walking down Fourth Street from the Community Library to the Town Square, where Olympic medalist Christin Cooper and others will welcome them.
Johnny Neel, who played and wrote songs for the Allman Brothers, will pair up with former downhiller Byron Freeman to provide entertainment for the evening.
“Johnny’s a blind pianist, and he’s phenomenal,” Gourlay said.
The Big Air exhibition March 25 will kick off with youngsters showing off their skills in the rail park from 3 to 4 p.m. Pro athletes will take to a monster jump made from the snow of two 50-foot jumps to perform triple jumps and other feats until about 5:30 or 6 p.m. All the action can be viewed from the patio outside Carol’s Dollar Mountain lodge.
“Five thousand people turned out for 48 Straight skier cross, so we could easily have that many for the Big Air,” Parkhill said.
“I’m just excited about the whole week,” said longtime Sun Valley skier Bonnie Wetmore. “We’re talking about a chance to see some of the best skiers, some of the best skiing in the world, right here on Bald Mountain.”
March 22: Men’s Super G/Slalom/Alpine Combined begins at 9:30 a.m. on Warm Springs and Greyhawk. Men’s Slalom/Alpine Combined at 12:30 p.m. at Hemingway and Greyhawk. Awards at 2:30 p.m. at Warm Springs Plaza.
March 23: Women’s Super G/Alpine Combined begins at 9:30 a.m. on Warm Springs and Greyhawk. The Slalom/Alpine Combined begins at 12:30 p.m. on Hemingway and Greyhawk. Awards ceremony at 2:30 p.m. at Warm Springs Plaza, followed by a 4-7 p.m. street party and barbecue with live music at the base of Warm Springs.
March 24: Men’s Super G starts at 9 a.m. on Warm Springs and women’s at 12:30 p.m. The awards opening ceremony and Parade of Athletes will be 4:30-9 p.m. at Ketchum Town Square.
March 25: Women’s first slalom race starts at 9 a.m. on Greyhawk and men’s at 10:30 a.m. Race two for women starts at noon and the men’s at 1:30 p.m. Awards ceremony at 2:30 p.m. at Warm Springs Plaza. Big Air Exhibition with live music and fireworks follows. 4:30-9 p.m at Dollar Mountain.
March 26: The men’s first Giant Slalom Run starts at 11:15 a.m. on Greyhawk with the second at 12:30 p.m. Awards ceremony at 2:30 p.m., followed by a street party with live music, 3-6:30 p.m. at the base of Warm Springs.
March 27: The women’s first Giant Slalom Race starts at 9:30 p.m. at Greyhawk, followed by the second at 12:30 p.m. An awards ceremony at 1:30 p.m. on the Warm Springs Plaza concludes the week of races.