Author Archives: Shauna Farnell


An Ode to water

It’s easy to forget that fresh water is not a limitless resource. In fact, there isn’t much of it in the world. The precious supply we do have must be protected and preserved. That’s where Eagle River Watershed Council (ERWC) comes in.

The group, comprised of three full-time staff members, a board, a team of about 1,000 volunteers and countless partners and overseers that range from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Town of Vail, considers itself “the watch dogs” of the Eagle River and the Vail Valley’s rare bounty of fresh waterways. The council works to preserve and restore the Eagle and Colorado Rivers, and all of the tributaries that run through Eagle County. It organizes mass trash pickups along the roads that line the waterways, tests water quality levels and makes sure the ecosystems of the rivers and streams are intact and also cleans up areas that have been compromised by pollution. Some of the organization’s bigger cleanup and restoration tasks include the portion of the Eagle River below Gilman that has been declared a Superfund site due to the area’s mining toxins leaking into the water. Another project involves storm and infrastructure work along Gore Creek to restore the diversity of the creek’s insect habitat, which then ensures that it maintains its status as Gold Medal fishing waters.

Ask any member of the ERWC why the organization refers to the Eagle River as the “lifeblood” of the Vail Valley, and the explanations are staggering.

“We call it the lifeblood because it affects every piece of life here in the valley, whether it’s recreation or the ski resorts,” says Brooke Ranney, ERWC’s projects and events coordinator. “We all depend on the river for drinking water, and we make sure we have a good quality water source. Then, there’s getting out on the river and its economic value.”

According to the group, the fly-fishing industry alone is worth $4 billion, to say nothing of the valley’s most prized asset—the ski industry which relies on the Eagle River for snowmaking.

“The Eagle River as well as the Upper Colorado draw a lot of people here, even if that means they came to ski or snowboard. People are using the mountains for skiing and snowboarding, not realizing that the manmade snow comes from water pulled from the river. As people stay here or come to visit in the summer and expand their visitation of Eagle County, the river plays a huge role in their decision to stay or come back again,” says Holly Loff, ERWC executive director.

Lizzie Schoder, the group’s education and outreach coordinator, heads up Watershed Wednesdays, free interactive tours, workshops and presentations centered around the watershed. The group also travels to local schools, teaching students of all ages various components of the watershed, from vegetation, insects and wildlife that comprise the streams’ habitat to ways they can preserve and protect the water supply—being mindful not to litter, turn off water while brushing teeth, pick up after one’s dog and avoid overusing water for landscaping or washing cars.

“We’re noticing people are unaware that storm drains flow directly to the river, so picking up after your dog is a huge one, not mowing lawns all the way to the river, letting native plants grow along it, being mindful of chemicals and pesticides used on the lawn,” Schoder says. “It’s something often forgotten … that we have so little true, fresh water in the world, so the way we allocate it and manage it is vital.”

The council collaborates with numerous local, regional and national entities to protect and preserve the water that runs through Eagle County. Also crucial to keep in mind is that while the rivers are the lifeblood of everything in this valley—the drinking water, snowmaking source and cornerstone of the flyfishing, kayaking and rafting industries—it also trickles down … quite literally.

“It’s important to note that we’re the headwaters of both the Colorado and the Eagle Rivers, so if we do anything to impact water quality here, everybody downstream suffers,” Loff points out. “If our rivers weren’t protected and there wasn’t vegetation there, it wouldn’t have the impact and draw that it does. Our economy would suffer quite a bit. It goes beyond people who are hardcore kayakers and recreationists. Water slows everyone down and reconnects you to nature and things that are really important in life. The EPA is always front and center in protecting clean water nationwide. Although drinking water is critical to all of us, people need to be more vigilant and stand up for clean water.”

Needless to say, the Eagle River Watershed Council is doing its part for the Vail Valley and beyond.


Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy

Tucked between the mountains at the far side of Minturn, the first indication that Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy is unlike any school anywhere is that it is surrounded by miles and miles of Nordic ski trails. Then there is the massive, state-of-the-art fitness center next door to where Lindsey Vonn and other Olympians work out regularly. No need to even mention the giant Yeti that guards the front door.

Founded in 2007 through a partnership with Eagle County Schools and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV), Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy (VSSA) is the country’s first public school for full-time skiers and snowboarders and is still one of a kind. Housed in the building that was once Minturn Middle School, VSSA is the place where roughly 175 fifth to twelfth graders study algebra, earth science, biology social studies and the standard lineup of academics, just like other kids across America. What sets them apart is that their school is also the place where they refine their halfpipe tricks in the custom-built “trampoline room.” It’s where they move the cafeteria tables aside after their pro-athletic-planned-lunch for a round of floor hockey. It’s where many of them are absent for months at a time as they travel the world training and competing, but have a litany of online resources, study halls and academic coaches to keep them on top of their curriculum when they’re not in the classroom.

“Five days a week we have dryland [training] for an hour and 45 minutes. Mondays and Fridays we tramp and twice a week we’re in the gym,” says eleventh-grader Paula Cooper, who has been attending VSSA since the sixth grade and whose family moved to the valley from Steamboat Springs expressly so she and her sisters could attend the school. “Every day we run, do agility and strength. It’s maybe the reason Ski Club and the school is so successful. We have such a rigorous off season and such a great facility.”

One of Cooper’s older sisters now attends the University of Colorado at Boulder and the other Columbia University. Both are alpine ski racers and active on the collegiate level. Cooper is a free skier who competed in her first World Cup halfpipe event in New Zealand in August. She finished ninth. She is also lined up to compete in the Youth Olympic Games in Norway this season and is hoping for more World Cup starts. Like all VSSA students, she’ll be juggling homework and attending online study halls in between competitions from wherever she is in the world. When she’s back home in the valley, she’ll be going to school and navigating the typical lineup of VSSA on-site programming, which is not by any means typical by American school standards.

“This is a special place. Not many people have a tramp facility in their school. We just get out of class and go tramp. That’s unreal,” Cooper continues. “In the off season, every day you wake up, go to school, do dryland, go home and do homework. To go to school here, you have to be really serious and committed because it’s completely different than any other school. We’re training so hard every day of the week. In the winter the intensity level goes up. You have to be on top of it for school and skiing all the time.”

The Academy is part of the Eagle County Schools but a pre-requisite to attend is being enrolled as a full-time athlete (alpine, Nordic, freestyle, freeskier or snowboarder) with Ski and Snowboard Club Vail.

According to VSSA’s Head of School Geoff Grimmer, the brainchild for the Academy spawned from Mike Gass, formerly with the school district, and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail founder Aldo Radamus. When VSSA launched in 2007 it was comprised of 31 students and occupied two small classrooms in Minturn Middle School. In 2011, the Academy overtook the building. Graduates include World Cup mogul skier Heidi Kloser and U.S. Ski Team alpine racer Abby Ghent.

“The goal when it started was to not lose Eagle County kids. Kids like Abby and Heidi, if we didn’t build a ski academy in Eagle County, they were probably going to go east to places like Burke. This was Eagle County School’s attempt to keep kids in Eagle County,” Grimmer says.

Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin was one Eagle County kid that the district lost to Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. But these days, young, up-and-coming skiers and snowboarders do indeed stick around Eagle County because not many East Coast facilities have better options than VSSA.
Although the school mascot is the Yeti, students more readily identify themselves by their ski club – SSCV. In addition to the trampoline room, which is outfitted with foam pits and a variety of mats, the school has a full-fledged gymnasium regularly used for the younger students’ dryland training (team sports, running, etc). Lauren Lange, the Strength and Conditioning Chef, prepares meals based on a nutrition plan for U.S. Olympic athletes. The options on a given day might be breaded chicken, broccoli and cheese and complete salad bar.

“I spent a lot of time with the USOC (U.S. Olympic Committee) and, one thing we noticed right away in providing the right nutritional program, was providing variety, but healthy variety,” says SSCV director of human performance John Cole, who heads up Minturn Fitness Center, the aforementioned wonder gym next door to the Ski Academy. “When we brought Lauren in, we made sure all the food came from organic grocers, as locally grown as possible. And because of caloric demands, nutrition is a huge part of the recovery for these kids. We look at caloric expenditure on the hill and give back what they’re expending with a variety of different meals. We also customize meals based on allergic and dietary needs.”

The Minturn Fitness Center, which is open to the public, is the training facility for older students -083at VSSA. It’s not unusual to find Olympic skiers or NHL players training there alongside the ski academy students. The center has a dedicated physical therapy area and a slew of bikes and weight equipment, ranging from basic to high tech and non shock-loading, including what Cole refers to as “the Lindsey Vonn machine,” a treadmill-like device that simulates different types of terrain and can be used by alpine skiers and snowboarders alike.

In September, while students convened in algebra class or discovered biomes in environmental science study hall, coaches meet in a classroom of their own for a pre-season planning period and pro technicians are hard at work in the school’s full-time service room.
The room, which was once housed the middle school’s Industrial Arts area, now resembles a Rossignol or Atomic ski factory, serving as the official tune shop for the 700-plus athletes in Ski and Snowboard Club Vail.

“Alpine and Nordic ski racers are by far the most exacting, so as far as equipment preparation, it’s a full-time requirement,” says SSCV pro shop manager Brian Eggleton. “In the season, our guys are here tuning before the kids go to school and long after they go home.”
And, as one might expect, the VSSA school clock ticks to a different schedule than that of most schools.

Once the snow flies in early November, the place is virtually empty Tuesday through Friday mornings because the kids are out skiing and snowboarding. Nordic skiers are on the trails surrounding the school, which have, by the way, played host to the High School State Nordic Championships and will likely host elite Nordic races of all variety – not only high school – in the near future. Alpine skiers are training alongside skiers from around the country and world at Vail’s early season training terrain at Golden Peak, snowboarders and free skiers are traveling to Summit County for park and halfpipe training.

“What’s wonderful about this place is that everyone is a full-time athlete, so the scheduling and everything that is happening is able to support the needs of a full-time athlete,” says SSCV director of admissions, Sharon Schmidt, whose office is located in the school. “Although it’s a two-semester academic setting, it’s broken into trimesters from an athletic perspective. So the fall and spring are much more heavily weighted in terms of the pace of the academics. The load is lightened in the winter trimester.”

If students are in town during the winter, they’re at school all day Monday and shuttled back for lunch after on-snow training Tuesday through Friday. They go to class all afternoon until just before 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays are spent training or racing.

Schmidt gets calls from parents all over the country and world who want their children to attend VSSA. Of course, not all kids can qualify. Besides being a full-time snowsports athlete at SSCV each child must prove to be extremely dedicated, motivated and focused.

“When I’m going through the admissions process, I’m looking at their athletic ability, at their academics, at their maturity. These kids have to be mature beyond their years to be able to handle balancing all of these things,” Schmidt says.

The balance between athletics and academics often becomes a big choice for students once they graduate from VSSA. Many are faced with the dilemma of choosing either a college career or a professional sports career. Besides Heidi Kloser, who chose sports and is a successful moguls skier on the U.S. Team (returning from a knee injury that sidelined her for the Sochi Olympics), freeskier Aaron Blunck is another recent VSSA graduate off to a successful athletic career, having finished seventh in the Sochi Olympic halfpipe contest and with a World Cup halfpipe win to his credit. Then there is Liz Strong who managed to juggle both her athletic and academic success beyond high school. After graduating from VSSA she went on to ski for Harvard and graduated last year with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She is now attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue her Ph.D.

“The common thread for our kids is that they’re passionate about what they’re doing,” Grimmer says. “In the end, the athletics is just a model [by which] they follow their passion and achieve remarkable things. They then go back and use that model and graph it into a particular part of their life, personally or academically … it doesn’t matter really. The common thread is passion.”


Leadville 100 – The Ins and Outs of the World’s Toughest Athletic Endeavors

Find out why the Leadville 100’s veterans keep going back for more

To someone who’s been running nonstop for 10 or 13 hours, by the light of a headlamp, the boulders along the trail can look like mountain lions! Actually, in the lengthening shadows, they look like mountain lions leaping toward you. It’s terrifying. But it helps keep Bill Finkbeiner awake. Otherwise, the Leadville 100 veteran, who turns 60 this year and will compete in his 32nd Leadville ultra marathon this August, might start drifting off. This can happen while putting one foot in front of another, still moving, until he veers off trail or stumbles and wakes with a start.


Marge Hickmann is the opposite sort of runner. The Leadville 100 champion from 1985 (when the race was three years old and she was one of just two women to even cross the finish line), has never fallen asleep while running. At 65, she too will embark on her 32nd Leadville 100 race this August. The Leadville local who claims to have once been “a chubby girl from Pennsylvania” has competed in the 100-mile trail race every year for the last 31 years. She has only finished 16 times – two of them unofficial – because she had exceeded the 30-hour time limit. Although the win in ’85 was spectacular, the highlight of Hickmann’s Leadville 100 career was her tenth   place overall finish in 1997, when she tallied her fastest time – “23 hours and change” – and claims that the last 30 miles of the race “were like running on air.”

Finkbeiner, “sleep jogging” as he was at times has finished the race for 30 years straight. But when the California native started his 31st race last year, he limped to the starting line with knee pain.

“I knew two blocks into the run that I wasn’t going to make it,” he says. “But I’ve run every day for 35 years. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to wait until I was pulled for time. I ended up doing 51 miles anyway. My knee stayed swollen for two or three weeks.”

You have to finish in 30 hours or it doesn’t count

Launched in 1983 by Leadville local, former miner, Colorado State Senator and self-proclaimed cowboy Ken Chlouber, the Leadville 100, also called the Race Across the Sky, has become one of the most popular ultra marathons in the world. It is likely the most difficult, as well.  With a starting elevation of 10,200 feet and topping out at about 12,600 feet, the race climbs and plummets and climbs again, for a total vertical ascent of 16,000 feet. The course starts and finishes on Leadville’s main drag – Harrison Avenue – and takes runners up and out of town on dirt back roads, over Hope Pass on steep, narrow, rocky single-track, and traverses straight through creeks and across marshy wetlands. Racers kick off the starting line at 4 a.m. Typically, less than half of the starters (there were 670 last year) ever make it to the finish. Many stop to vomit at certain points. Many keep running while vomiting. Some sprain their ankles, stop momentarily at an aid station to wrap their injury, then keep going; others change out of their soggy shoes while shoveling a few bites of pasta into their mouth. Many squish along for dozens of miles in soaking wet shoes. Some never stop. In August at 12,000 feet, it’s not unusual for snow to fall at some point during the dark night. At the halfway point, most of the field is hunched over and moving in reptilian lurches; some are slogging along with dragging feet, wearing clothes that look far too big for them and faces fixed with a thousand-yard stare. At 4 a.m., 24 hours into the race, the group resembles a pack of zombies.

Matt Carpenter of Manitou Springs holds the course record from his win in 2005, when he finished in 15 hours, 42 minutes and 59 seconds.

“They look like death coming in,” says Abby Long of Life Time Fitness. The corporate giant operates dozens of events and more than 100 athletic facilities throughout North America. Life Time took over the Leadville 100 run and mountain bike race as well as the Silver Rush 50 and marathon events from Chlouber in 2010. “I cannot wrap my head around the 100 [mile] run, seeing people cross the finish line who’ve been out there for 30 hours, running the whole time, through a sunrise twice,” Long says. “But then you see the folks winning sometimes who look great … like they just went out for a light jog.”

Even the winners, fresh faced as they may appear, will admit that it hurts. Talk to anyone within an hour of finishing the race and he or she will most likely swear to never, ever do another 100-mile race again. But give them a few more hours and they’ll change their tune. Some might call it masochistic.

I’ll never do that again. Wait. Sign me up for next year

“I’m down to 24 to 48 hours after the race when I want to do it again,” says Finkbeiner, who, with his 30 finishes, has more than anybody in Leadville history. After his first ever DNF last year, he is even more charged up for this year’s race. “I’ve always thought that with a 50-percent finish rate, there aren’t a lot of people hurting more than I that finish. If it’s not a medical emergency or missing a time limit, I’m going to stick it out.”

Sure, you have to be in phenomenal shape to even attempt a 100-mile running race. It takes months and even years of training to come close to staying on your feet for that long. But there’s a lot more to it than mere fitness.

“It’s not really about physicality. It’s at least half mental,” says Leadville 100 Race Director Josh Colley of Lifetime Fitness, a Leadville resident since 2000. “When you’re at the finish line, you see those guys who have tried and not made it, then they dig deeper and they finally make it. It’s magical to see.”

Chlouber, who is still involved in the race and has completed 14 of the 100-milers himself, is the king of the “dig deeper” mentality. Now 76, the former senator narrowly avoided a deadly avalanche that killed 11 climbers in Nepal in 2012, after he uncharacteristically turned back from a summit bid on Mount Manaslu, a feat that would have made him the oldest American to climb an 8,000-meter peak.

“Inside each of us is an inexhaustible well of grit, gut and determination,” Chlouber said in a video documenting his training for the 8,000-foot climb. “We have the courage to reach inside to that level, dig deep and go on when others will turn back.”

Still, as Chlouber himself demonstrated in Nepal, there are times when a person simply has to turn back.

Hickmann knows this, having stopped short of finishing the Leadville 100 approximately half of the times she’s attempted the race. But with 16 finishes – 14 under the 30-hour limit – she’s notched considerably more than any other woman in marathon history.

When you think you’re done, dig deeper

“You have to have a tough mental mindset to get through these cause it’s gonna hurt,” she says. “Everybod0y has their own mental games they play to get them through. I tell myself it can’t last longer than 30 hours and then the pain will be over. If I start to lose it, start whining and complaining, that’s when I actually talk to myself and say, ‘Shut up, Marge. Dig deep. Everybody’s hurting. Keep moving.’ ”

For Finkbeiner, whose best Leadville finish was 20 hours and 30 minutes for third place overall in 1992, the secret is to re-structure the way he thinks about pain. Or rather, to not think about it.

“There was a quote that said, ‘pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ I take that to mean that suffering is the mental part of how the pain affects you. Pain is the physical part,” he says. “You have to enjoy and embrace the pain.”

While many out-of-towners have spent their summers in the high Rockies training for the Leadville 100, Finkbeiner, from Auburn, CA, rolls into town the Thursday before the race (which begins at 4 a.m. Saturday morning). The altitude is a bear. It slows him down. And sometimes paired with the fatigue and eye tricks, he sees bears on the course that aren’t there.

“When it’s dark and you’re tired, you start to worry about what is out there that could get you,” he says. “You’re running down Hagerman Pass Road, and if there’s a boulder or tree stump, the shadow is moving toward you, and it looks like this thing that’s going to get you. That can really happen easily. But I’ve never seen a real animal out there bigger than a rodent. My biggest single problem is falling asleep. I start to have a dream. You hit the edge of the trail and trip. You go mile after mile dozing off. That hurts my time, too.”

Hickmann doesn’t have that problem. Her mind is focused on the simple task at hand … putting one foot in front of the other.

“I’ve never had hallucinations,” she says. “I’m also a massage therapist and going through massage school, you learn to be in touch with your intuition and body. I’m very focused on my body when I’m running. I can tell if my shoulders are getting tight, if I need to stretch a little. If I’m in a good running zone, I can just zone out. Sometimes during the day, I’ll think about my mom or dad who have passed away or this and that. But mostly I’m just cruising along on cruise control.”


The 2015 Leadville Trail 100 Run kicks off at 4 a.m. on Aug. 22. Registration has been sold out since January but there are still some qualifying spots available. For more information, visit


Stay On Course

Kitchell, or “Kitch” as he’s known among fellow race volunteers and staff, claims to be the valley’s longest standing World Cup regular.

He has volunteered for every World Cup and World Championship event in Vail and Beaver Creek since 1969, when the World Cup men’s downhill race was held on Vail’s intermediate Born Free trail

These days, Kitchell works on Beaver Creek’s Talon Crew, the group of 350 volunteers that prepares and maintains the World Cup men’s Birds of Prey race courses every year and will do the same for both the men’s and women’s race courses this February at the 2015 World Ski Championships. And yes, even though his regular volunteer workday runs roughly between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., he has indeed been out there at 2:30 a.m. with a shovel.

“There were glow sticks on the turn gates so you’d know where to sideslip and shovel,” he says. “It just kept snowing. We were at it all morning and all the next day.”


In his other life, Kitchell is a general contractor and spent 36 years as a Vail ski instructor. He hikes to the 14,000-foot summit of Torrey’s Peak and skis down every Memorial Day. So it’s not that surprising that he signs up for what he admits is the toughest volunteer job every season.

“I like working hard,” he says. “I like seeing the product of my labor.”

Kitchell might be the longest standing World Cup volunteer, but Jean Richmond, and her husband, Horst Essl, 75, are among the oldest. They have volunteered for races at Vail-Beaver Creek since 1984, including both the 1989 and ’99 World Championships.

Richmond was a Vail ski instructor for 41 years and Essl, originally from Austria, a mountain guide. They both speak German and are close friends with several coaches. As volunteers, they are ambassadors, meaning they see to the comfort of particular nations and teams during the world championships – translating, if need be, as well as guiding the top three finishers through all of their necessary stops – to the press conference, doping control, the awards ceremony, etc., making sure the athlete gets to each place in a timely fashion.

On more than one occasion, however, the couple has ended up chasing down racers, sprinting in their ski boots, waving and screaming. One year they were after Italy’s most decorated skier, Alberto Tomba.

“The guy in second place was disqualified and Tomba was in fourth, so all of a sudden, he was on the podium. But he had already left,” Richmond recalls. “Someone said he had an obligation with a sponsor. So we’re running down the street in our ski boots chasing Tomba and Picabo Street. They were driving around in a sports car filming a commercial for Rossignol.”

On another occasion during the ’99 World Champs in Vail, Essl, is close friends with many of the country’s coaches, had to run frantically around town trying to find a particular kind of ski for a medal winner. One of the winner’s coaches had taken hers and she needed a pair to hold up for photos. Essl ran to several different shops, leaving his watch at one and his wallet at another for collateral.

“I love being a part of
this in any way I can.
It’s like family. It’s like
homecoming week.”


Christian Haeusermann has been a volunteer ambassador for the World Cup and World Ski Championships in Vail and Beaver Creek since 1995. Like Richmond and Essl, he loves the excitement of being in the finish area and the connections he’s made with other volunteers, coaches, athletes and industry staff.

But it certainly doesn’t come easily. Haeusermann recalls leading American stars like Bode Miller and Ted Ligety away for doping control (i.e.: to the toilet so they can pee in a cup) and stopping every split second as they signed autographs and high-fived fans.

“Every kid wanted their signature,” Hausermann says. “They were stuck everywhere.”

One of Hausermann’s funniest and most memorable stories was when Liechtenstein’s Marco Buechel (now retired), who had landed a silver medal in the 1999 world championships in Vail, was on the podium at Beaver Creek.

“I don’t know why we hit it off, me and Buechel, but he’s on the podium. He saw me, he knows he has to go to doping, but they’re starting a couple of speeches. He crosses his legs and says, ‘I have to pee.’ At first I was smiling … trying not to, then I had to laugh. Even today when we see each other, we always remember that,” Haeusermann says.

Also, there is often a bit of misunderstanding as to what doping control actually requires as volunteer.

“People always say, ‘Oh, so you have to hold the cup?’ When we do the chaperone job, we drop them off at the station, they have to sign a form, we put the paper down for the anti-doping agency. Then we leave,” Haeusermann says. “The only cup I have in my hand is the one with red wine in it at the end of the day.”

For all of the volunteers, the end of the day celebration is where all of the hard work pays off with laughter, libations and sharing amusing and sometimes harrowing tales. It might pay more for some than others, depending on how the day went. On the Talon Crew, there is an unwritten rule that mishaps – an inadvertent fall down the course or accidentally dropping a shovel or losing a ski – usually means you’re buying someone a drink.

“I’ve never lost a shovel or anything,” Kitchell says, recounting a time that a volunteer accidently slid into a chute on “the harriest part of the course” and was heading straight toward a snow blower in a scene that “looked like something in a James Bond movie,” until another volunteer yanked her to safety at the last moment.

“I’ve seen skis rocket down at 70 or 80 mph. Shovels go like crazy. ‘Eyes on a swivel,’ that’s the call you get,” Kitchell says. “There’s no official rule about buying drinks if something like that happens. But if you go into the Coyote [Café] and everyone sees you and knows what happened, you’d better be buying them beers.”


There are 2,200 total volunteers slated for the 2015 World Championships, at least 350 of which will comprise the Talon Crew, shoveling and clearing snow off of the race courses, adjusting fences and gates and side-slipping after every racer to keep the race line smooth. As far as what level of skier you need to be to join the Talon Crew, the group’s official Website makes it abundantly clear that you need to be good enough to confidently throw edges down “a vertical ice skating rink.”

Kitchell says there’s no sensation quite like throwing an edge and side slipping at 50 mph.

“I love slipping the course,” he says. “I got to follow Bode one year and stayed pretty close to him.”

Sue Kruger has worked on the course crew for many years and claims that “everybody slides down the course once … not on their skis.” She’s volunteered at World Cup events in Vail and Beaver Creek since 1990, including the World Championships in 1999.

Because her “knees can’t take the on-course work anymore,” Kruger now operates volunteer headquarters, assigning roles, handing out uniforms (all the volunteers get to keep their high-end jackets and hats) and generally running the show. She anticipates steady 12-hour days during the 2015 World Championships but can’t wait to get to work.

“I love being a part of this in any way I can,” she says. “It’s like family. It’s like homecoming week.”

“It’s a kind of vacation, an international party,” Haeusermann agrees. “I always look forward to seeing how everything comes together and being a part of the community standing behind the races.”



Don Watson’s Story

Many people wonder how it’s possible that Don Watson knows so many songs. As it turns out, he has been tested and diagnosed with an auralgraphic memory, meaning he can remember any jingle after hearing it just once.

The man can play at least 3,000 songs from memory – double that with the help of his Vail Valley Band – crossing all genres and several decades. He has been a regular on the Vail après stage since the 1980s but got his start as a kid playing the ukulele at a tiny ski area in Ohio in the early ‘60s. His younger brother had broken his leg and members of the family had to take turns keeping him company in the lodge. Watson took his ukulele when it was his turn and started strumming Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary hits. Before he knew it, skiers began putting money in front of him.

“I became a whiz kid on the ukulele and was performing with folk bands. At the ski hills in those days, people brought out banjos and violins. It was more of a bring-your-own-picnic-basket setup,” says Watson, who switched to guitar in high school and moved with his family to upstate New York, where he performed at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. He made his way to Vail after a life-changing tip from famed guitarist Harry Chapin.

“I was opening for Harry Chapin and asked him ‘how can you make a career out of this?’ He said, ‘you have to pick up the phone


“Part of being a successful
professional is the ability to
create the energy time after
time and do it with a smile and
in a realist way. A good piece
of music gets tired, but the
people performing it don’t.”


and quit your day job,’” Watson recalls. So, in spite of having just become president of the insurance Brokers Association at the age of 22, he picked up the phone. Then made playing music his life.

Besides being Vail’s longest running après ski musician, Watson writes original music, often for famous artists, most recently for country singer Steve Azar. He wrote the opera “Come to the River,” performed at Gerald Ford Amphitheater and Denver’s Arvada Center. He has co-written songs and is close friends with Edwin McCain. don_img_-000He’s done comedy tours with the likes of Sinbad, A. Whitney Brown and Roseanne. He’s writing a play. And, oh yes, and he is also the head coach for Battle Mountain High School’s state title-winning fencing team.

In spite of these many hats, Watson is first and foremost an après ski singer. “I like being an artist, but I make my living getting up in front of people and saying, ‘hey, what would you like to do?’

As a singer, my ‘north star’ is to get a sing-a-long going,” he says.

Over the last 40 years Watson has ignited sing-a-longs at just about every venue in Vail, those that are still around and many long gone. He and the Vail Valley Band – comprised of percussionist/singer and former Broadway star Beth Swearingen, mandolinist/guitarist/ singer Dave Anderson and bass player Peter Fontanese – have been performing together for 15 years.

“We never work with a set list,” Watson says. “That would be like carrying around a phone book. ”We play real-time Dixieland. We have no idea what’s going to happen. Part of being a successful professional is the ability to create the energy time after time and do it with a smile and in a realist way. A good piece of music gets tired, but the people performing it don’t.

Watson and the Vail Valley Band’s unrelenting energy has earned them gigs around the world – playing New Year’s Eve at Sidney Opera House, in Budapest, London, playing Red Rocks with Michael Murphy and the Colorado Symphony.

This February you can catch them performing at the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships or any Sunday night at Route 6 Café. They’re also regulars at the Arrabelle, Blue Plate Bistro and Ritz-Carlton residences. Bring your requests.

“It’s a wonderful thing to be an après ski singer,” Watson says. “I’m blessed to be able to do it.”


Chef Profile

Famous for his slow-cooked prime rib, attention to detail, strong accent, warm smile and for rarely tak-ing a day off, Lancelot proprietor Werner Fehael believes in tradition.

Hailing from Klagenfurt, a small city in southern Austria, rather than growing up a skier like most Austrians, Fehael lived near a lake and was a swimmer. But like many of his compatriots, he has always gravitated toward ski areas.

By the age of 16, Austrians typically have to begin thinking about a chosen vocation, not an easy task for many teenagers. But for Fehael, his path was clear.

“I wanted to do something to get jobs wherever I wanted to go,” Fehael says. “Cooking was something I could do anywhere. My mom was a very good cook. She used to cook big meals and we always helped.”

Although Lancelot’s menu has a variety of meat and seafood classics, it’s far from being tra-ditionally Austrian. For one thing, as Fehael points out, “you don’t get a prime rib in Austria or Germany.” You certainly don’t get prime rib made from pure Colorado beef, slow-cooked in the oven for 20 hours with Lancelot’s top-secret spices.
The evidence of Fehael’s Austrian culinary tradition is the simplicity of Lancelot’s spices and sauces. Fehael aims only to “have special dishes” comprised of high quality meats, seafood and fresh produce with flavors that speak for themselves, enhanced by a dash of rosemary, almond-infused butter, or overnight cooking that produces a rich au jus.



A nod to Fehael’s central European heritage – the only obvious evidence of it on Lancelot’s menu – is the Wiener Schnitzel.

“There are really not many variations on how to make it, but people tell me all the time it’s the best in Vail, even better than the German places,” Fehael says.

Lancelot’s other standout Austrian dish is the homemade Strudel, served warm, crispy on the outside with hot apple chunks oozing out and topped with vanilla ice cream. There is unquestionably something special about the recipe, which Fehael is not at liberty to divulge.

Knowing that he wanted to cook and travel, Fehael earned his chef certification and went to work in a restaurant near Kitzbuhel, home of the most famous downhill race on the alpine skiing World Cup. He then moved to Germany for a couple of years and visited the U.S. for the first time in 1983 – primarily exploring the East Coast. In 1985, he decided “it’s time to move.” He went to upstate New York and cooked for a restaurant in the small ski town of Windham. He then made his way to New York City and was head chef in a large restaurant in Queens, learning English along the way, since he “never paid attention in school.” In the summer of 1990, he made his first trip to Colorado.

“I came to all of the ski towns. Vail is the one I liked the most because Vail Village looked the most familiar, like Austria,” he says.

Feeling strongly he had found his new home, Fehael went back to New York and put a “job wanted” ad in the Vail Trail.

“A handful of restaurants called up,” he recalls. “The first time I came to Vail, I was reading about Lancelot and, Hermann Staufer, was one of the people that called me. I liked Lancelot because it was an established restaurant, very popular and with a lot of history. Hermann hired me as head chef.” And, as it happened, Staufer was a fellow Austrian.

It was always Fehael’s dream to own a restaurant. Now he knows how much work it involves. After starting as head chef 23 years ago and taking over Lancelot 17 years ago, Fehael spends every waking moment at the restaurant. He does much of the daily prep himself and often ends up cooking or seating guests. He is always the one to turn the lights off at the end of the night.

“I’m the first one in and last one out,” he says.

But the Austrian isn’t planning on going anywhere. Colorado is his home and although the work is hard and the hours long, he cherishes the parade of regulars at Lancelot, many of them international. The restaurant has always been a favorite among Austrian and German skiers when the World Cup is in town, including Austria’s most decorated skier, Hermann Maier, who won two titles at the 1999 World Championships in Vail. Plus, some of Vail’s first skiers who tried out Lancelot when it was brand new in 1969 are still loyal diners and make a point to come in every time they’re in town.

“We get some old people coming in… really old. Now their kids come in, too. They came skiing with their parents in the early days and still like it as adults. It’s 45 years we’re celebrating at Lancelot,” Fehael says. “It’s nice that so many mag generations like it here.”


European treats in an American ski town

Where there are mountains, there are Swiss,” owner of Columbine Bakery Daniel Niederhauser says, when asked how he landed in the Vail Valley. And where there are pastries? Well, chances are you might find a Swiss, too.

Like skiing, cookies, cakes, strudels, tortes, and of course, chocolate, are indicative of Swiss culture. For Niederhauser, the two happily collided in the late ’80s to forge a charmed European life in an American mountain town. Columbine Bakery, located in Avon, is a valley staple. People flock for Niederhauser’s traditional Swiss pastries and bread, and then they discover the cozy breakfast and European style lunch, featuring classics like Quiche Lorraine, beef puff pastry turnover and ham and cheese croissant.

“We opened in December 1988 and have been in the same spot ever since,” Niederhauser says. “It was a World Championship year and Vail was hosting. It motivated us to open up a bakery here because it was a busy time, and we thought we would have a good start, and we did.

” By “we,” Niederhauser means Michel of Michel’s Bakery in Eagle Vail. Michel was his original partner, who Niederhauser bought out four years after Columbine Bakery’s launch. Michel, a Frenchman, is part of the reason Niederhauser fell in love with the valley — Vail, he says, is very European, and Columbine Bakery’s slogan is “where Europeans go for lunch.”

“I speak Swiss-German everyday,” Niederhauser says. “I have a lot of Swiss, Austrian and French friends. There’s a big European clientele here.”

Niederhauser hails from just outside Bern, Swizterland. At age 16, he made apprentice ship as a pastry chef, just two years after he learned to ski (which is kind of late for a Swiss, Niederhauser admits). Then he served his four years in the Swiss Army and headed for the States to put his training to work.
“Baking is nice a profession. You can be creative and it’s very rewarding because people like sweets,” Niederhauser says. “It really has no restrictions, you can do what you want with it.”
Before opening up Columbine Bakery, in the States, Niedershauser worked as a pastry chef in Salt Lake, Utah, and at the old Westin in Vail, where the Vail Cascade stands now. Everywhere you work, he says, you pick up a recipe here and there and then put your own influence on it to make it your own.

Columbine Bakery’s most famous recipe is arguably the “Columbine Roll” — little round airy balls of bread, perfectly crisp on the outside, yet chewy and soft on the inside, ideal for dunking into soups, gravies or runny eggs. There’s no doubt these rolls bless the tables
of many in-the-know locals during the holidays, as they order the round bites of heaven ahead of time. The Columbine Rolls may be the most beloved recipe, yes, which hails from Swizerland, by the way, but also one of the simplest, Niederhauser admits.

“There’s no butter, no sugar, no shortening, just flour, yeast and water. It’s the way I bake the rolls that make them so good — really hot for only about 9 to 10 minutes,” he says.

The other coveted recipe is Niederhauser’s Lemon Zucchini Cookie, an item that often sells out by late morning.

“I got the idea when I was working in Salt Lake from my recipe for fruit cake. I took the fruit and replaced with zucchini and lemon,” Niederhauser says.

The result is a cake-like cookie, flaked with nuts and zucchini, baked with a crisp outside and dipped in a powder-sugar lemon glaze — “the icing makes the cookie,” Niederhauser says.

For those homesick Europeans or tourists who want to taste Vail’s Old World heart should try Columbine Bakery’s Bird’s Nest cookie. A traditional Swiss treat, the Bird’s Nest cookie is a crisp linzer cookie on the bottom (hazelnut base, of course), with hazelnut
meringue piped in a circle on top to resemble a nest and then filled with a raspberry marma

“In the States, I have a hard time getting good commercial raspberry jam, so I actually
import a raspberry marmalade,” Niederhauser says. “Most of the commercial jams are set
with starch, and I like a pectin set. It gives it a different flavor.”

Skiing and mountain life brought Niederhauser to Vail … so does he still find time to hit the slopes living a life as a baker and a business owner?

“I get a few hours here and there, but it’s never enough!” he says. “I usually go to Beaver Creek because it’s more convenient for me. And I really like the run Harrier, along with mag some cruiser runs in Bachelor Gulch.”


The Epic Mix Epidemic

Besides the built-in euphoric fun that comes with a day on the mountain, it’s safe to say that people of all ages and skill levels have always felt like skiing or snowboarding is an achievement on some level. Many have long since tallied their ski days and number of runs. Even before GPS became readily accessible, some skiers estimated the vertical feet skied in a day and made note of especially challenging terrain. Maybe at some time they had someone in their ski group take a photo of them standing under a double black trail sign for evidence.

In its fifth season, Vail Resorts’ EpicMix has its young, tech savvy skiers and riders tapped in. Virtually everybody who skis or rides at any of VR’s 10 domestic ski areas (Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly, NorthStar and Kirkwood in Tahoe, Canyons, UT, Afton Alps, MN, Mt. Brighton, MI) has their data collected in EpicMix whether they know it or not. Last season, EpicMix tallied a total of well over 82 billion vertical feet skied.


Even tourists who come in for a day or two of skiing receive a lift ticket in the form of a card containing a chip that collects EpicMix data. The chip’s RF code is automatically scanned at every lift. But you can’t access the data until you open a free account on by entering the number on your pass or lift ticket and creating a username and password. After that, magically all of the information from your ski day(s) will be waiting:

• the number of days you’ve skied at any Vail Resort
• the number and names of chairlifts ridden each day
• the vertical feet skied in a day
• any photos taken by a professional on the mountain who scanned your ticket/pass
• a number of quirky, virtual pins and medals awarded for riding specific lifts, skiing on specific days, etc.
• if you race on an EpicMix course (like Nastar), see how your times sizes up against others, including Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn
• if you’re in ski or snowboard school, see a tally of your level progression

You can then, for your own gloating pleasure, share all of this information and photos on social media, linking automatically to Facebook or Twitter. This is, of course, the most powerful and authentic kind of free advertising Vail Resorts could ever hope for.

Once you’re signed up with an EpicMix account, you don’t have to download the app or log onto the site to check your dashboard. EpicMix emails you updated info after every day on the mountain.


Much like various gaming apps, the competitive component of EpicMix is addictive. After all, we as humans are competitive creatures, wanting to weigh our efforts against others as well as constantly challenge ourselves. Attaining each of the EpicMix pins becomes a conquest, an obsessive one for some. It could start with the inadvertent acquisition of a 50-point pin, for instance, the High Five, awarded for skiing Vail’s High Noon Express lift five times. Then, we might want to push ourselves toward higher point pins – like the On The Hill, worth 150 points for skiing Vail Resorts 40 days in a season. Then, the big 250 pointers become our focus, like the Beaver Creek Conqueror, earned for riding all of the lifts at the Beav in one day. Or the even harder to achieve pins like the Epic Conqueror, awarded for riding every lift at every Vail Resort in the same season. The lesson here is this, if you’ve had a Vail Resorts pass or ticket and haven’t opened a free account on EpicMix yet, you might want to … if not for bragging rights, at least to see if the official tally of your ski achievements matches the unofficial one in your memory. Your stats might surprise you.


While there are plenty of tracking apps – EpicMix, VailGPS, SmartSki and Ski Tracks, to name a few – that record ski data such as vertical feet, slope angle, distance, fastest speed, etc, SlopeTours is a one-of-a-kind app that serves as your local pro on the mountain. Indeed formulated by local experts and longtime skiers at various resorts – Vail, Beaver Creek, Breck, Keystone, Copper Mountain and Snowmass (so far) – the app shows you exactly where to ski and ride. The tours are animated with text directions, based on your ability level – Novice, Intermediate, Advanced or Expert – and on different snow conditions. As far as the evidence of your tour, worry not. The app also has a route tracker, GPS that shows points of interest along the way – great views, restaurants, terrain parks, etc – and has Facebook, Twitter and email sharing capability. Just be sure not to glance at it while skiing or snowboarding. It’s obviously best to use it only when standing still or while on the chairlift.