STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — I grew up skiing in the hills of western Maryland, where hardpan was always the condition du jour and fluffy snow came only a few times a year. Powder was a rare commodity, but something for which I yearned, being taunted by airline ads showing Billy Kidd bouncing through pillows of fluff at Colorado’s Steamboat Springs Resort.
Kidd was the first man from the United States to win an Olympic medal in skiing, which he did at the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. He is now director of skiing at Steamboat, and his persona embodies the Wild West. One can almost imagine him, with his flashy belt buckle and Stetson hat adorned with a plumage of feathers, galloping on a horse down Lincoln Avenue, the main street here. That sight may not happen often, but during Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival you are guaranteed to see someone, maybe Kidd, clopping along towing a child on a shovel.
This year the carnival is celebrating its centennial. Started in 1914 by Carl Howelsen, it was initially a way to bring the community together and fight winter’s cabin fever. Organized by the not-for-profit Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, also founded by Howelsen, the carnival is five days of music and dancing, races and ski jumping competitions. Today, rather than a series of barn dances and sled races, it’s a tightly organized collection of outdoor events and social festivities. Still held on Lincoln Avenue, the modern carnival hums with energy, representing the cutting edge of winter sports contests with a decisive whiff of the Wild West.
According to Rick DeVos, executive director of the sports club, the club “was Howelsen’s opportunity to show the goods.” The goods were the sport of distance ski jumping. Howelsen was a revered Norwegian jumper, so when he built the first jump in Steamboat, DeVos says, “every boy in town looked and said: ‘Hey! I want to do that!’ ’’ Howelsen responded by founding the club, which would ultimately organize not only ski jumping instruction, but later offer instruction in almost every sport represented in the Winter Olympics today.
Lincoln Avenue is an idyllic thoroughfare. It’s a picturesque strip of restaurants and pubs, facades ringing of the days of old when this was frontier land and one of the largest cattle shipping centers in the West. Brothels and saloons challenged the sherriff’s authority. Cowboys clacked down the center of the dusty road. Times have changed and now Steamboat is a law-abiding village, a true family destination.
The town prepares the carnival by dumping 400 tons of snow on the avenue. Skijoring is one of the many kids’ races. With the bang of a starter pistol, a wrangler spurs his steed, which rears up in the air and with a neigh bolts down the street. The rope he tows pulls tight; a 9-year-old boy on skis holds tightly to the other end as they race toward a ski jump. Gaining speed, the boy launches into the air, pulling his skis into an “iron cross” before landing on the snowy street. Slalom races, events with names like Donkey Jump and Ring and Spear follow, eventually giving way to one of the most popular events: the Diamond Hitch Parade.
Steamboat is steeped in ski history. The town has produced more Olympic athletes than any in the country. Many of those athletes didn’t just train at Steamboat’s Olympic facilities; they also grew up here, went to school here, and learned to play instruments here. Many of them are in the Steamboat Springs High School Marching Band, which crowns the Diamond Hitch Parade just as it has every year since 1935 with members sliding their way down Lincoln on cross-country skis, playing horns and drums as they shuffle.
The first time I pulled into Steamboat it was sunrise and I’d just driven through the night from Montana. I passed throngs of coffee shops and pedestrians in down vests walking handsome dogs. Steam bellowed into the cold air with their every breath and every sip of their lattes. The winding slopes of Steamboat Springs Resort poured from the hills toward the road. On the other side of Lincoln the opaque, green water of the Yampa River flowed in front of Howelsen Hill’s ski jump.
Howelsen Hill rises 440 feet over the Yampa. Its namesake chose this slope on the edge of town as the carnival’s site for ski jumping shortly after the inception of the festival. Over 70 Olympians have trained here. Records have been set here. In 1917, when the jump opened, the soaring skiers gripped the imaginations of onlookers, redefining what they thought was possible to do on skis.
In the morning sun I stopped to watch a young skier pull her planks over the lip of Howelsen’s jump. The girl tucked back her ponytail, adjusted her goggles, and took a deep breath. She eased forward, sliding down the slope and eventually popping off the scoop and sailing through the air. Silently, she touched down and skidded to a halt. There was no one there to cheer. Only I, across the street, and her coach on the flats witnessed her grace. She simply clicked out of her skis, shouldered them, and booted up the hill to do it again.
The 100th Steamboat Winter Carnival will be held from Feb. 6-10.