Raft Cross competition finally gets its due
Top three finishers
1 El Chupacabra — Jeremiah Williams and Jordan Kurt-Mason
2 The Whiskey Priests — John Mark Seelig and Matt Norfleet
3 The Paddle Pirates — Erika German and Leah Handelsman
VAIL — You know the new Friday evening whitewater event is off to a successful start when the very first rafters flip their boat and the crowds explode.
With slopestyle mountain biking no longer at the GoPro Mountain Games, Raft Cross filled the big Friday night slot in the program this year, and locals Jason Rittmiller and JJ Pacheco provided the first burst of entertainment. Plenty more would follow.
“We were just pushing too fast,” Rittmiller said. “We got to go for a little swim.”
Big crowds turned out for the Raft Cross whitewater rafting competition, which pits several teams of two against each other in full-contact competition down Gore Creek. A series of gates and buoys must be cleared as three or four teams are racing head-to-head toward the finish at the International Bridge.
Rittmiller and Pacheco, both Gypsum residents, weren’t even to the first gate yet when they ran into trouble, flipping their raft and assuming the whitewater swim position for a trip down Gore Creek. Rittmiller made it to shore quickly, but Pacheco ended up right in “the hole,” the swirling whirlpool of the whitewater park where the freestyle kayakers perform their tricks.
“I tried to avoid it but ended up hitting it right on,” Pacheco said of his scary swim through the hole. “I just ended up going under. I know people were cheering, but I couldn’t see anything and I couldn’t hear anything. I finally made it out with just a little scrape on my knee.”
Winners El Chupacabra defended their title for their third win in five years. The team — comprised of Lakota rafting guides Jeremiah Williams and Jordan Kurt-Mason — was part of a Lakota Guides’ sweep of the podium. Lakota owner John Mark Seelig and Matt Norfleet, the Whiskey Priests, were second and Erika German and Leah Handelsman of team Paddle Pirates were third.
“I think both the competitors and spectators got more out of the race this year,” Williams said. “I feel like there was definitely a bigger crowd this year.”
While competitors rafted down the river, Slackline Industries exhibitionists Josh Beaudoin, Heather Larsen and Taylor VanAllen put on a show on a highline above the creek.
“I love that they moved it to a Friday night. It was definitely more appreciated than on Sunday afternoon,” Seelig said. “Even with a little bit of rain the spectators seemed to stick around.”
On the registration side, Raft Cross was the first event to max out and close at the 2015 GoPro Mountain Games, another testament to its popularity.
“It’s getting really popular so we were really excited to get third,” Handelsman said.
The Paddle Pirates took home $250 for the podium finish, and El Chupacabra $750 for the win. Seelig and Kurt-Mason have both competed at the highest level in the sport as members of USA Rafting; Kurt-Mason said after traveling around the world to compete, it’s the event right back here at home that’s among his favorites.
“GoPro and the Vail Valley Foundation really throw down for the athletes and the spectators, and that makes a huge difference,” Kurt-Mason said. “They bring in top athletes and top judges, and it’s a really cool time interacting with everybody.”