The very day Vail announced its Epic Race (the globe-trotting contest to ski all 26 Vail-owned or affiliated resorts), three friends of mine independently forwarded the newspaper article to me with a note attached to the effect, “Rosi, your name’s all over this.” I guess I have a reputation for needing a change of scenery and for believing geography is no object.
I signed up as soon as I could clear my Thanksgiving to Christmas schedule. Friends began pinging me with notes to the effect, “You’re crazy.” I know I’m crazy; I just wanted to take this test of just how crazy. Why? For the same reasons people like icy polar bear swims on New Year’s Day. It’s invigorating. This sounded like a trip for thrill seekers who like relative safety. (No parachute-less stunts involved.)
INTERNATIONAL TREASURE HUNT
An international treasure hunt on snow sounds enticing, but who would have guessed that over 300 people felt they had what it took: a month without too many responsibilities and about six grand. We scurried all over creation checking out new resorts and crossing paths with other racers at designated photo locations and airports. Relationships went from early cold-shouldering (one competitor was genuinely miffed when my skis came off the Reno airport carousel ahead of his) to later full-blown bonding that occurs among soldiers in the trenches. We struggled together and laughed at each other’s foibles — lost passports, missed connections, over-night drives, lost rental car keys. One racer has video footage of his wife in a lift line, and on closer inspection they can see someone reaching into her parka and pick-pocketing her cell phone. There were some even less predictable snafus; one racer arrived in Europe only to remember that she had forgotten to ski Michigan! So she doubled back and forth, and hardly missed a beat. I rushed to return my rental car in Detroit to catch the flight to Geneva, when I noticed I had left my skis an hour away at the cafeteria door at Mt. Brighton. We laughed at each other, but no one laughed too hard, knowing tomorrow could bring their turn.
I polled many for their highlights. One group’s best afternoon of the entire trip, no kidding, was their visit with the man who maintains the ice for the “Frozen Dead Guy,” near Eldora. No kidding. (Festival is in March.) One racer came home to find his roommate in the bathtub in France, scrubbing his one piece ski suit, while wearing it.
There were a couple of race-ending tragedies: one chipped neck bone from having skied into a ravine in a whiteout in Austria and one competitor who flew home on the eve of the final day to be with a dying parent.
At the end of 12 consecutive days of skiing and moving to new hotels across the U.S., it became more and more apparent that the European ski area opening dates would allow for about six buffer days, a lot of room for error, or time to go home to work or take exams. Gradually we all reckoned with the truth that there was really no “race” left in this race. On one hand, this went completely against the grain of our competitive-beyond-belief personalities — and on the other hand, it whooped up the apres ski festivities to epic proportions. Confusion set in about just how seriously we were to be “competing.” This caused each of us to realign personal priorities; some chose to fly stealth and lay back, some chose to appease Facebook fans and achieve daily leaderboard status that really didn’t matter to those of us in the know (we knew that the final day, at resort No. 26, was the only one that actually would count, but try explaining that to race fans used to believing a leaderboard).
We enjoyed the charm of the Austrian Alberg resorts, all steeped in ski history. Lech is cozy, Zurs is cushy, St. Christoph is a hidden gem, Stuben has mega-terrain. St. Anton likes to party slopeside, and thank heaven last call is at 8 p.m. That’s still enough drinking hours for the Swedish and Norwegian tourists to put a blip in the Austrian GDP. We moved on to Switzerland where Verbier became the new group favorite. None of these resorts had much snow to speak of, but we were their come-hell-or-high-water customers. We consoled ourselves with the early season benefits of no lift lines and dry roads to drive on. Once we moved on to France, and the world’s most massive ski zone (over five times that of Vail), we savored the foreignness of showers without curtains and very smoky bars, not so much.
The Vail staff who conceived of this race seemed to be flying by the seat of their pants, morphing the rules almost daily. It was a beautiful concept, this race, but the details of the planning fell short in the competitors’ eyes. Vail seemed to be one beat behind us, managing the event from a vacuum in Broomfield, without any boots on the ground to really understand many situations. Almost half of the assigned photo locations were unachievable (for lack of snow) which was extremely frustrating and could easily have been remedied had they been more in touch. The final day, where the lifetime passes were actually on the line, was fraught with technical glitches from Vail’s website, where our clues were to be published, and sloppy planning that allowed some racers to have a headstart because they had found the “hidden” photo spots on the evening before. By the end of the race, there was a general sentiment among the racers that there was a big imbalance between our efforts on behalf of Vail and their efforts on our behalf. Many felt we’d poured heart and soul into jumping through its hoops and that this was not properly reciprocated by Vail. We began referring to ourselves as Epic Rats, and we raised beer mugs to Vail’s chaotic experiment — what else was there to do? After all, we were consenting adults to the whole game.
Vail had created a PR monster for itself. They enjoyed lots of social media stir by the racers — but may now face a C minus grade from many competitors, some of whom have become near-professional bloggers. Vail may be decreasingly in control of its own Epic Race story. I have been skiing Vail for 40 years, I have bought five Epic Passes every year since they were available. I will continue to do so. Vail is a great company with a reputation for excellence and “getting it right.” It blew this one though. When you have this many people, putting this much energy toward something that benefited Vail, it needed to do better than get it partly right.
It was indeed an epic month. I would have just rewritten the end — it might as well have been a lottery drawing, instead of a faulty contest. As they say in France, c’est la guerre!
Rosi Littlefield lives in Champion, Pa.