Facing Pepi’s at the GoPro Mountain Games | VailDaily.com

Facing Pepi’s at the GoPro Mountain Games

Vail local Steve Katz, left, overtakes author John LaConte with ease at the GoPro Mountain Games Pepi's Face Off race on Sunday.
Kevin Arnold | Special to the Daily |

The cliffs that you see atop Pepi’s Face on the looker’s right side once extended two-thirds of the way across the run.

Vail’s forefathers bulldozed those cliffs out of there, under the direction of heavy equipment operator Leonard Ruder, a Vail native who built many of the runs we enjoy today.

“He took the cliffs out far enough so he could put dirt back, so that at the top you had plenty of good dirt,” recalls Leonard’s son, Bob Ruder, who was a child when the work was taking place.

Ruder often tells me stories from the original construction efforts his father undertook on Vail Mountain back in the early ’60s. Many of the runs that would have double fall lines or cliff bands perforating the pleasant pitch we now enjoy were shaped by Leonard Ruder. He would bury stumps where ravines would take out unsuspecting skiers, and make runs such as Pepi’s more skiable by removing boulders and adding “plenty of good dirt,” as Bob Ruder said.

Race up Pepi's Face at the GoPro Mountain Games – On the Hill 6.15.17 from On the Hill on Vimeo.

Those words, “plenty of good dirt,” rang through my head Sunday as I slid down Pepi’s Face on my back, going as fast as I would ski down the run. Thankfully, there was plenty of good dirt and grass to slide on, and no rocks stabbing me in the back.


The Pepi’s Face-Off race at the GoPro Mountain Games was a new concept for this year. No race had ever taken place on the run, which is about 250 vertical feet with a 42-degree pitch, one of the steepest runs on Vail Mountain.

It was a hiking version of a criterium-style race, where competitors attempted to see how many laps they could get up and down the Pepi’s Face circuit in a set amount of time — 30 minutes.

In asking about the race, Mac Garnsey with the Vail Valley Foundation gave me some inside information, telling me trekking poles would be allowed, and that the course would take runners up the looker’s right side of the hill, and down the looker’s left. Armed with that information, I entered the competition.

I was not expecting it to be an exciting event, but when I got to the starting line I realized that the visibility of Pepi’s Face made it very spectator friendly.

Crowds were gathered in the lawn area of Mountain Plaza to watch the citizen’s bouldering competition, but those people, with a turn of the head, could watch Pepi’s Face as we made our descent. On my first few tries down, I slid on my butt against the slick surface of the board shorts I was wearing, but by my third try I realized that getting all the way to your back with the slide was a much faster way of going.

It brought me back to the Jungle Rapids slide at Noah’s Ark water park in Wisconsin, where I spent many summers as a youth. I remember when my friends and I realized that a cannonball formation, with the main point of friction occurring just below the shoulder blades, made for the fastest zip down the waterslide. I used this same tactic down Pepi’s Face for a few of my laps and I’m pretty sure I was the only competitor in my heat to do so. I could hear the crowd cheering below, which gave me a second wind. Just for flair I imagined myself skiing down the remainder of the slope, and pole planted into a 360 flatspin over one of the rollers. The day after the event, Mountain Games media liaison Tom Boyd said to me “I can’t believe you did a flip with your poles like that.” I guess that flat 3 got pretty corked out, bro!


I was impressed with Chris Davenport’s live coverage on Outside TV’s Facebook page, which I watched a couple days after the event. I thought he did a great job of keeping things moving; he engaged the hikers as they passed the camera, sometimes too much as we saw him cross a line and actually push someone up the slope. He had a lot of interesting comments for dead zones where there were no runners on screen, filling in details about the Pepi’s Face namesake and the pitch of the slope. Also, I liked how he kept calling us “athletes.”

Indeed, I was surprised to see how many real athletes partook in the competition. Professional kayakers Nick Troutman and Tao Berman were in my heat with me, along with former master’s mountain biking world champion Anne Gonzales. World champion adventure racer Mike Kloser, at 57 years old, took fourth overall, second in our heat.

But the athlete I was most impressed with was the oldest competitor at the event, Vail local Steve Katz.

Katz is 67, 30 years older than me, and on lap three of the Pepi’s Face Off he passed me looking fit and fresh. Katz glanced at a cameraman’s GoPro and gave it a thumb’s up as he overtook me; he ended up completing five laps and finishing 18th among the 27 men who competed. I finished 19th.

I know Katz is no ordinary 67-year-old. This last ski season I saw him drop the 25-foot cliffs in Stone Creek Chutes at Beaver Creek, and I also rode with him in Vail on a powder day where he was the first person to drop the Hollywood cliffs that morning. He hits boxes and rails in the park and is also an avid mountain biker in the summers. He played football in high school, attended CU on a swimming scholarship and even dabbled in amateur boxing. To this day, I’m certain he would knock me out in the ring.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t expecting him to take me apart like that in the Pepi’s Face-Off.

“I was not expecting him to beat you,” said Steve Katz’ son, Sammy Katz, who is also an impressive athlete across a variety of mountain sports. “That means he’s going to crush me when we hike up Snowmass this summer.”


I ran track in college and know the pain that comes with running your fastest. I figured this event would make me feel a bit like I used to feel after a busy meet, where I would have to run multiple 200 and 400-meter dashes in one day.
But it was much worse.

It took a full 48 hours for my lungs and legs to stop hurting. And I only completed five laps, I can’t imagine what the winner, Ryan Phebus, of Basalt, must have felt. He completed eight laps in 31:45.

I gotta say, though, while I can still feel the pain as I write this, I’m already looking forward to next year’s event, should they decide to renew it.

And if it’s still around in three years, then I do expect I will get beat by a 70-year old Steve Katz.

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