WINTER PARK — It might have been 1964 when Cooper Black, a leather-booted ski racer from Winter Park, trudged up the remote mountain pass in July and skied down a glacier above a lake.
“He might have raced himself that year,” says Bob Singley, the 78-year-old ski bum whose resume on snow includes stunt skiing in the James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and in Robert Redford’s “Downhill Racer,” making him one of skiing’s first movie stars.
Black returned to Winter Park after that fateful July day so many years ago and told his pals they needed to host a race up on that glacier.
“We’ve been coming back every year since,” says Singley, sipping a Coors Light amidst fields of alpine tundra in the shadow of the snowfield.
Don’t even ask the name. We’re not going to tell.
The Colorado Sun is not going to the name of the field above a long-abandoned rail line. Or repeat the name of the race. There is no website for the contest, which has run for at least 54 consecutive years, maybe 55. There is no social media trumpeting the winners. No newspaper announcements. Race day is always in July and shared via word-of-mouth.
Organizers don’t want to rile federal land managers who might want permits for the unofficial gathering of skiers on public land. So they like to keep their numbers just below the threshold for needing a permit. Sometimes there are as many as 14 teams of four, racing through the gates listing in the soft snow.
This year, there were about eight teams, many of them grizzled vets with 10, even 20 years of racing for the cup. A peanut gallery — veterans of the 60s, 70s and 80s races — gathers near a keg in the snow to laugh and cheer the racers, some of whom are their children. Or even grandchildren.
“I love tradition,” says Riley McDonough, a lifelong skier who has shepherded the race for the last three years, overseeing a gaggle of stopwatch-clicking old-timers who record racers by their first names and, more often, their nicknames. “This is the heart of skiing beating right here. It takes some serious love of skiing to hike down a mile and then back up a half-mile to ski July snow, you know. Just the best group of people up here.”
Singley is the race’s living encyclopedia. He remembers racers from decades ago. He remembers when racers from the Penn State ski team showed up and sandbagged everyone, taking home all the trophies. (Oh yes, there are trophies.) He remembers even before the race started when the C Lazy U ranch down in the valley brought its guests up to the glacier to ski in the summer, using the wheel of a Model A to turn a makeshift rope tow.
Sitting on the tailgate of his dad’s 1969 Chevy pickup — “Over 300,000 miles; been to every state except Hawaii!” — Singley relishes the longevity of his race.
“So many traditions get wiped away with new things,” he says. “This is something that has lasted through a lot of change. It draws the local people together as well as the visitors who get a chance to really treasure their resources. We have snowfield up here we can use in the middle of the summer. A place to make a few turns. It’s accessible. We are blessed, you know.”