The Perils of Course Crew

At a ski race, whether it’s the 2015 World Championships or a Youth Ski League race at the local hill, spectators tend to focus on the ski racers. Naturally. But what of the volunteers who prep the course? It’s harder than you think.


Working course crew at a junior ski race at Eldora. Shoveling was really a step above my pay grade.

A few weekends back, I crashed in the race course at Eldora, Boulder’s hometown hill. It was a full-body-slamming, bell-ringing, snow-packed-down-the-sleeves kind of fall. I steamrolled a gate. And I do believe I gave myself a mild concussion.

Now, this would not be notable if I were a masters racer or if I had jumped into a NASTAR course. I was, on the contrary, serving as course crew at my son’s ski race. I was side-slipping at the time.

Part of being a ski racing parent is volunteering. There’s gate keeping, collecting bibs, manning the scoreboard, hand timer, starter, and course crew. For some of these positions you need to have a certain skill set.

Let me say for the record: I’m a very good side slipper. When it comes time to smooth out ruts, I have above-average control while traveling at high speed with my skis perpendicular to the fall line. I am skilled, people.

After a few runs, I had a near miss when my ski tip came a few millimeters from a gate, and I thought, “Gee, that sure would be embarrassing to fall in the course.” I even had a chuckle with a few other parents. “Could you imagine?” I said. We all shook our heads and agreed that would be a devastating indignity indeed. (Foreshadowing would be the literary device at work here.) “My husband won’t even let me be on course crew,” one mom said. “He says I’m just not qualified.”

You're much less likely to humiliate yourself as a gatekeeper.

You’re much less likely to humiliate yourself as a gatekeeper.

On the next run, the course crew coordinator gave me a shovel to dig out the back sides of gates and scrape away any snow buildup around the insides of the gates. This was, perhaps, pushing my skill set.

I did once man a rake at a World Cup at Lake Placid’s Whiteface Mountain in the mid 1980s. I figured that if I once ironed out the ruts for Tamara McKinney, I could do a little shoveling at a race for 10- and 12-year-olds.

The shovel may have given me a false sense of confidence. It was like giving a pimply 17-year-old a security guard uniform and a badge. I did the shoveling job handily enough, far as I knew, and headed back up to slip the course again. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. About halfway down, I spotted a particularly rough spot in the course and thought, I’ll get some speed and hit it hard with my awesome side slipping.

But I didn’t quite get enough momentum and caught my downhill edge, slamming down on the snow. Of course, at this point, there was a huge crowd of spectators. “Whoa, take it easy there,” said a fellow volunteer. I couldn’t see who it was because my vision was all wonky. But frankly, the comment came a little after-the-fact.

So, you know, worst fears realized. Total embarrassment. “You were side slipping, Mom?” my son asked me later. “That is so uncool.”

Manning a firehose on skis would for sure be well above my pay grade. Photo: Ric Moreno

Manning a firehose on skis would for sure be well above my pay grade.

But here’s what made me feel better: My husband told me the tale of a Steamboat coach who went down even bigger than me at the same race. Someone’s backpack had tipped over, spilling out the lunch, including an apple, which was rolling down the fall line. The coach went chasing after it, bent over to grab the apple and traveling at a pretty high rate of speed.

Later, the coach would recall: “I was just thinking, uh-oh, I think a gate is coming up, when BAM!!!” He hit the gate, crashed, lost a ski and a pole. The apple’s whereabouts are unknown. This all happened in full view of what’s known at Eldora as “coach’s corner.” Everyone had a good laugh.

Now imagine being on course crew at the 2015 World Championships in Beaver Creek. That hill is as slick as a frozen marble; there’s a crowd of thousands; and most of the time you’re surrounded by cameras broadcasting internationally.  Or, if it snows overnight, you might be tasked with side slipping in the dead of night with a headlamp. This sounds crazy, but I have it on good authority that this actually happens.

When I was at the races in Beaver Creek last week, I ran into a ski coach I know. He was volunteering for course crew as the guy who fills up the air bags that line the course. The potential for eating it on the Birds of Prey track for him was compounded by the fact that he had a giant leaf-blower-like device strapped to his back, which is the kind of thing that can mess with your center of mass.

“So, you just blow a lot of hot air all day, huh?” I asked.

“Pretty much.”

While I was on course crew (junior race division), I met a woman named Mel who told me she’s been doing course crew at World Cups for years. She’s seen it all. The worst, she told me, was a guy who was in his ski boots on a bulletproof hill without any crampons. “He never should have taken his skis off,” she said.

Naturally, he slipped on the ice and started into a full-on slide-for-life downhill. “We didn’t have up the A-netting yet, and he was heading straight for the trees,” Mel told me. The only thing that stopped him from certain death was that two other course crew workers had a hose spread out across the run and they held it up like the arresting wires on an aircraft carrier, snagging the guy like he was a fighter jet landing on the flight deck.

So, you see, it could be worse. I crashed in the race course; I got up; I ate a nice slab of humble pie. The next weekend, I joined course crew for my daughter’s race, again at Eldora. If you can believe it, this time they let me pull gates out and carry them downhill. Clearly a job well above my pay grade. But I didn’t drop a one.

For more on the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Vail and Beaver Creek, click here.

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  1. LOVE this Helen! I actually saw you go down, but didn’t know it was you. But if you, of all people, could lose it slipping, I swear I will never volunteer again. Also, was it wrong that I had Pete read this before course crewing the World Champs this past Saturday? I’m sure it helped with the anxiety.

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