Foundations of fun: Mountain Games, now celebrating 20 years, evolved out of ’70s and ’80s recreation in Vail
Kayaking was once deemed illegal on the Eagle River
When mountain culture enthusiasts and athletes descend on Vail for the 20th annual Mountain Games June 7-12, they will carry on a tradition that dates back to the 1970s in Eagle County and was once deemed illegal.
The GoPro Mountain Games began as the Teva Mountain Games in 2002, but at that time, the event was described as an evolution of the already existing Vail Whitewater Festival.
“The whitewater festival has evolved out of the water,” Ian Anderson told the Vail Daily in a 2002 preview story about the new Mountain Games.
Anderson was the communication manager for the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, which hired a company called Untraditional Marketing to put on the Mountain Games.
The idea was to build off the already successful outdoor events which had already become a staple in the Vail area, like the whitewater events which had been taking place in Dowd Chute on the Eagle River north of Minturn for years.
Support Local Journalism
The area first became popular among kayakers during the 1970s, when kayakers had to fight the law in order to battle the rapids.
Those events are recalled in Steve “Louie” Boyd’s 2013 book, “The Understories, A patrolman’s tales of life in the early days of Vail and Aspen.” Boyd describes a time when the Eagle River was deemed closed to kayakers, and he received an Eagle County court summons for running rapids on the Eagle River south of Minturn.
Boyd held fundraisers to help his expenses and rally other kayakers to the cause.
“We maintained that we wanted this soon-to-become Constitutional issue to go to as high a court as necessary,” Boyd wrote.
Boyd said in January of 1981 he was absolved of wrongdoing by the Colorado State Supreme Court and since that time “other foolish Sheriffs have tried in vain to close rivers, I suppose in order to protect us from ourselves.”
Boyd, in those days, was part of the first group of kayakers to regularly run the Dowd Chute area of the Eagle River. The group, known as the 5 O’Clock Club, got its start in the mid-1970s.
Later, Dowd Chute would become home to the Champion International Whitewater Series Kayak Race in the 1990s.
The first Mountain Games took place on Memorial Day weekend, Friday through Sunday, May 24-26, 2002. A Friday night kayak disco rodeo kicked off the event in Vail Village on Friday, and the competition concluded on Sunday with a PaddleCross whitewater rafting competition in Dowd Chute.
But in addition to the paddling competitions which had already become famous in the area, the Mountain Games brought to Vail climbing, mountain biking and trail running competitions which were open to amateur competitors. A Friday night film premiere and Saturday night concert added to the overall vibe of the event.
“What we are trying to do is brand Vail as the ultimate little playground,” Joel Heath with Untraditional Marketing told the Vail Daily in a 2002 preview story. “We are trying to create an opportunity for our future markets to make a relationship with all the recreation Vail has to offer.”
In the Vail Trail’s 2002 coverage of the first Mountain Games, reporter Bob Berwyn wrote that the event resembled “a routine weekend in Vail, with people running trails, paddling rafts and kayaks down the river, or riding their mountain bikes and climbing sheer rock walls.”
Alongside Berwyn’s coverage was a column from Steve Boyd’s son, Tom, who wrote that he and his kayaking buddies often become “hellfire explosively mad-happy” during the whitewater season in Vail.
In the years that followed, the Mountain Games would indeed accomplish what Untraditional Marketing set out to do in showcasing all of the summer recreation that Vail has to offer.
In 2010, the Mountain Games introduced Eagle County to stand-up paddle boarding when it hosted some of the first-ever SUP river racing and cross competitions.
In 2012, locals saw competitive slacklining for the first time.
In 2013, multi-billion dollar action camera company GoPro became the event’s title sponsor, leading to the nickname “The GoPro Games” which is much combated by the Vail Valley Foundation, who took over ownership of the Mountain Games in 2008. Part of the effort to grow the event into what it is now has been the branding of the “Mountain Games” moniker by the Vail Valley Foundation.
And these days it’s Tom Boyd – Steve Boyd’s son, the kayaking columnist – who is working for the Vail Valley Foundation to ensure the event is a success each year.
Tom Boyd joined in 2015. Steve died a few years later.
“Mountain Games came up out of the deeper history of this being an awesome place to kayak, raft, climb and be on the trails,” Tom Boyd said this week. “It was a brilliant amalgamation of all the things that were already in play in this valley from all these people who had started this stuff in the ’70s and ’80s … and then a lot of people who were involved with those activities in the 2000s took it to the next level, and it became the Mountain Games. So for me to be a part of this event, that’s one of the best parts of my job.”