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
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.”