The first Saturday after Thanksgiving, thick November fog morphed and undulated over Killington Peak, the second tallest mountain in the state of Vermont and the largest ski resort on the East Coast. Even at 4,235 feet, winter was still young; only a few trails at Killington were open to skiing and snowboarding. And yet down below, the parking lots were overflowing. Dedicated fans waited in an hour-long shuttle line at nearby Pico Mountain or hiked the last few miles of road shoulder, thumbs extended, to Killington’s K1 Base Area. The crowd gathered at the bottom of the Superstar trail, in view of the final pitch of the first FIS World Cup race course to come to the Eastern United States in 25 years. When a neon figure split the fog and smashed through the first visible gate, cheers and cowbells echoed off the mountain.
The FIS — the translated French acronym stands for “International Ski Federation” — World Cup is the Grand Slam of alpine ski racing. It was dreamed up in 1966 by alpine ski team directors Bob Beattie of the United States and Honore Bonnet of France. In every year since then, athletes from over a dozen countries have competed each winter in events that carry as much prestige as the Winter Olympics. The race schedule is demanding, with races held in a different country every week vying for the best times in slalom, giant slalom, super G, and downhill. There are big bucks at stake for the fastest racers; last year, Lindsey Vonn earned an estimated $434,870 in prize money. For a resort, hosting a race is a hefty investment but comes with its own merits in the form of global name recognition.
The recent women’s races at Killington broke a historic drought. It was the first World Cup for the resort, ever. It was also the first time in 25 years any World Cup event has been held at an East Coast venue — the last races were hosted by Waterville Valley in New Hampshire. It was the second time they have come to Vermont; the last time being the GS and slalom races held at Stratton in 1978, the same year that Fleetwood Mac released the album Rumours and the video game Space Invaders was developed in Japan. After 1991, US races went west to resorts like Park City, Utah and Vail, Colorado, and stayed there. Since 2003, every World Cup event in the United States has been held at Aspen or Beaver Creek, both in Colorado.
The last time the World Cup came to Vermont, in 1978, Fleetwood Mac had just released the album Rumours and the video game Space Invaders was being developed in Japan.
The West hasn’t always dominated the American ski racing scene. The first-ever US World Cup races were held at tiny Franconia, New Hampshire. After that, Waterville Valley, New Hampshire held a total of 11 World Cup events between 1969 and 1991, making it the venue with the fifth most races to its name in the country (behind the four aforementioned western resorts). Add races at resorts in New York and Maine and it becomes even clearer that the first 25 years of the World Cup were markedly more bicoastal than the last.
The women’s Thanksgiving races are typically held at Aspen in what FIS calls a “classic,” meaning a race that is held at the same venue every year. This year Aspen decided to host the finals and, because no resort can host more than one event in a season, a gap opened, allowing Killington to step in and place a bid. Becoming a first-time host is not easy. The FIS performs an initial evaluation of the course and the resort’s facilities, then lays down a strict set of requirements and deadlines for preparation. Bidding wars can also develop between resorts seeking the right to host, but thanks to some help from the US Ski Team, Killington was the only resort gaming for the spot this year. The opportunity to host the races was a “tremendous honor and opportunity for Killington and the surrounding community,” said Mike Solimano, the resort’s president and general manager. Their successful execution “had the entire town gushing with pride,” he said.
The East Coast, and specifically Vermont, have a long history steeped in skiing. In 1934 Robert and Elizabeth Royce constructed the country’s first rope tow on a hill in Woodstock near their inn. Two years later came the installation of the first J-bar at Bromley Mountain; four years after that, the first T-bar appeared at Pico Peak. The first National Ski Patrol was developed at Mt. Mansfield by Charles “Minnie” Dole after an injury forced him to perform a self-rescue on the mountain. He would later lobby the US War Department and inspire the creation of the famed 10th Mountain Division. In 1966, the same year of the founding of the FIS World Cup, Vermont had over 80 ski areas in operation and enjoyed the most skier visits in the country. And Vermont’s dominance in the snow doesn’t end with skiing. Jake Carpenter, founder of Burton Snowboards, is largely credited with the invention of the modern snowboard, which he tinkered with in his barn in Londonderry. The country’s first halfpipe, first snowboard school, and first national snowboard championship? All from Vermont.
Vermont still consistently ranks third nationally in annual skier visits thanks to the state’s proximity to Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. But over the past two decades the state has seen the departure of almost every large-scale national snowsport event. Mount Snow hosted the ESPN Winter X Games in 2000 and 2001 — but then the event moved to Aspen. Later, the Dew Tour, a freestyle skiing and snowboarding competition, made a stop at Killington in 2012, but it turned out to be a one-off. Perhaps the most devastating abandonment was the move of the Burton US Open snowboard championships from its home of 30 years at Stratton, Vermont, to Vail, Colorado in 2013. The company has never explicitly stated why the move was made.
During the FIS championship events, hometown race clubs from unknown ski hills brushed parkas with members of the European ski elite.
When Killington was awarded hosting privileges, the vacuum left by those departed events finally imploded, and fans rushed in to fill the void. Hometown race clubs from unknown ski hills brushed parkas with members of the European ski elite, hustling to see the sport at its highest level. Over 16,000 spectators showed up, historic numbers for a women’s event. It was proof that in New England, of whose six states only one has a professional sports team, skiing is still the big time.
It wasn’t only fans who benefitted. In the village of vendor tents erected around the base area of the resort, a few local companies — including Cabot Cheese, Woods Maple Syrup and Vermont Cedar Chair Company — carved out space between the big ski brands. “It’s great for Vermont companies to be able to be represented at ski events,” said Jack Gilbert, local restaurant owner and producer of Gringo Jack’s chips, salsas and barbecue sauces. “It provides a venue to help expand awareness of the product… and with an event this big you’re reaching a much bigger audience.” Marketing on such a level is invaluable for small companies, but it’s also “wildly expensive,” Gilbert said as he refilled a sample bowl of salsa, made of curried eggplant and garbanzo beans.
The hefty price tag of the event falls on Killington as well. Officials declined to state an exact number, but remarked that costs were “substantial.” Return will be difficult to quantify over the course of this ski season and the next. The huge marketing push that comes with hosting the World Cup will surely boost the resort out of the starting gate during the coming holidays. But Mother Nature is fickle, and a bad snow year can destroy a ski season — an especially troubling concern for East Coast resorts. Just last year, Killington received 81 inches of snow compared to an average of 250 and only managed to eke by thanks to a comprehensive snowmaking system.
That system is equipped with more than 250 guns capable of transforming 10 million gallons of water into frozen flakes every day. In the weeks leading up to the World Cup the guns fired “during every cold-weather window,” according to Solimano, and piled more than enough snow onto the Superstar course to host the races and maybe even last through the winter and into May, La Niña permitting. (Interestingly enough, while the East Coast races went off without a hitch, the men’s events at Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada had to be cancelled due to unfavorably warm weather; men’s “classic” races the following weekend at Beaver Creek, Colorado were also cancelled due to lack of snow. It seems that no ski resort, East or West Coast, is immune to the unpredictability of warmer winters.)
While some spectators scrambled eggs and sipped flasks at their car fenders, others hustled straight to the grandstand.
“It’s becoming a lot more apparent to everyone that the future of winter sports could be in danger,” said Christine Feehan, the women’s alpine media coordinator of FIS. While the FIS doesn’t actively support climate initiatives, some venue resorts have it built in with their normal operating procedures. This March, Squaw Valley, California, which will be hosting its first World Cup event since 1969, announced that it will make the event carbon neutral by buying carbon credits that support clean energy initiatives including a local solar power installation.
The skies were clear of fog for the final day of Killington’s races. The parking lots filled hours before the first run, and while some spectators scrambled eggs and sipped flasks at their car fenders, others hustled straight to the grandstand to get a good view of Mikaela Shiffrin, the 21-year-old national phenom. Shiffrin spent her formative racing years at Burke Mountain Academy and is adored as a local; before Killington, she had won 20 World Cup slaloms, but never on the East Coast, where her family, including her 95-year-old grandmother who had never seen her race in person, could watch.
The base of Killington peak erupted in excitement as Shiffrin launched out of the start. The sound drowned out the thwap of skier-meeting-gate as her pink blur traced an irregular sine wave down the icy face of the mountain. It took Shiffrin less than 45 seconds to finish her run, take the gold medal, and set off a charge amongst the thousands watching — a charge pent up over the last 25 years.