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  • John Giuffo

Killington Goes Big for The World Cup

Updated: Nov 27, 2018

East Coast weather and Mikaela Shiffrin share the spotlight at Vermont’s biggest winter race party .

Almost 40,000 skiers, race fans, athletes, vendors, and visitors made Killington ski party central last weekend. Photo: John Giuffo

The two pilots – two Green Mountain Boys (one of whom is a woman) – gun the throttles of their twin F-35s on takeoff from the Vermont Air National Guard base in Burlington, retract their landing gear, and set a course for the four-minute flight to Killington. They roar in low and fast from the northeast – only about 1,000 feet above the grandstand at 450 miles per hour – and angle up as they rocket straight over Superstar, then bank left and swing around for another pass on their way back north, while 18,500 sports fans below go bananas over the bone-deep rumble of fighter jet engines.

Just another race day at Killington.

Not too long ago, FIS World Cup racing was a thing of the past on the East Coast. Before Killington became the newest stop on the world racing circuit three years ago, the most recent World Cup competition was at New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley in 1991. But for the third year in a row, Killington has been able to provide a reliable race venue for the throngs of visitors who want to get together, ski, and watch their favorite women racers compete. It’s the biggest East Coast ski party of the year.

And this weekend was the biggest yet, with almost 40,000 skiers, spectators, racers, coaches, and others gathered to watch the world’s best female slalom and giant slalom racers fight for podium space. The sounds were deafening: coaches screaming encouragement at the starting line, the cheers of thousands, the clang of cowbells everywhere, and one guy constantly blasting what must have been the loudest goddamned vuvuzela on the planet.

Musicians such as Paul Oakenfold, Michael Franti, and singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, above, rocked the crowd between and after race runs. Photo: John Giuffo

True to the international nature of the event, there were fans, family members, and visitors from a wide variety of countries. Slovakian mixed in the air with French, blended with Italian. Young ski racers from mountains all along the East Coast screamed for their favorite skiers (usually Mikaela), and all of it was bookended by high-energy concert performances by Paul Oakenfold, Guster, and Michael Franti, and KT Tunstall – the hit songwriter from Scotland who spent a few years busking on the streets of Burlington and knows a thing or two about Vermont. “As East Coast skiers, we can all agree that if you can ski here, you can ski anywhere,” said Tunstall and the crowd woo-hooed in agreement. Families danced in the snow, kids ran around with temporary Killington tattoos on their faces, and skiers who drove up from Maine, Boston, New York, and Philly mingled in one giant embodiment of early-season stoke.

The wide-open flat area in front of Killington’s K-1 Lodge is the perfect venue for a sizeable event village, with clothing, food, and gear vendors lining the aisles, all with an ideal vantage point of both the pros-only lower section of Superstar as well as the amateur action on Cascade and Highline.

Thanks to this epic Snowvember to Remember, there was an unusually large amount of terrain open, especially for Thanksgiving Day weekend. Almost everything in the Canyon was skiable, glades such as Tin Man and Patsy’s were open, and with the help of a final round of snowmaking on the Snowshed and Ramshead sides, mountain ops was able to open a ton of beginner and intermediate terrain just in time for the holiday weekend. It may seem like the World Cup crowds would be enough to chase some skiers away from the slopes, but the lift lines actually tend to be shorter than on a typical weekend day.

In true Northeast fashion, Friday morning was fearsome cold, with early temps in the teens, which provided squeaky, cold packed powder conditions. Saturday was mostly sunny, with the Fahrenheit hovering in the low 30s, and, of course, Sunday followed with a band of wet morning weather just to remind everyone on the hill that yes, even though there’s been an amazing amount of natural snowfall and some great snowmaking windows, this is still the east, and things can always turn on a dime.

Mikaela Shiffin crosses the finish line on her second run of Sunday's Slalom competition. Photo: John Giuffo

Which is why Sunday was my favorite day to ski. Those wetter days can sometimes be the best. The prospect of rain chases away the less-devoted – those who are easily scared off by the less-than-ideal conditions – the snow is spring-soft, and there’s never a wait for a lift. It’s on these days when you want to make sure your pants and shell are as waterproof as possible, or that you’ve put them through a wash cycle with some Nikwax to rejuvenate the durable water-repellant that might have worn away.

They’re also the sorts of days when a ride on a gondola is something of a godsend – an opportunity to step out of the precip and warm up a bit for the next run. Riding up, we went from rain, through sleet, and into Killington’s climactic sweet spot, where it all had changed over to big, fat snowflakes that made the peak and Northridge areas seem like they existed on some other mountain where it wasn’t raining at the base.

On one ride up, Adam and I shared a gondola with two young racers from the Killington Mountain School who became super animated when we discussed the standings after the first run on Sunday. They were extremely familiar not only with Mikaela Shiffrin’s career but also with the recent challenges faced by Nina O’Brien, who also attended the Burke Mountain Academy and had just competed in her first World Cup race. “She’s been off her game recently,” one of the young racers said. “She’s usually much more confident in her turns.”

They were perhaps the biggest success of Killington’s efforts to bring World Cup skiing back to the East. It was in these girls’ enthusiasm, their knowledge of their favorite racers, and in the drive that keeps sending them back up the gondola for a few quick runs despite the party below, that the impact of the whole grand circus became obvious. Here they were, celebrating their skiing idols as fans and young athletes themselves, yet still finding time to go skiing in the spaces in between. For all we knew, we’d be cheering for one of them in ten years.

For those skiers willing to brave the wet conditions below, fluffy snow awaited on high mountain trails such as Powerline. Photo: John Giuffo

Killington threw every type of weather imaginable at us over the weekend. The pros were getting bucked off their lines by the hooky snow, and less experienced skiers were having a harder time turning in the water-logged snow (I saw a few more sleds than I’d like), but the surface let you put a carve down and ride it hard around its turn radius, which is not something that could be said a couple of days earlier, when the mountain was still covered with packed powder at the end of Thanksgiving’s deep freeze event. What had been firm boilerplate Friday morning on the steeper sections of Lower East Fall became edge-hungry hero snow by Sunday afternoon.

Sunday was, in short, an iconic East Coast day. One for which Mikaela Shiffrin had been well-prepared during her years training at the Burke Mountain Academy. After a shaky start on Saturday, Shiffrin just missed a podium appearance during the Giant Slalom event, but she delivered on Sunday with her third-straight Slalom victory at Killington, putting her just one medal shy of a new World Cup record and ensuring her a place in the history books – all on a day where rain mixed with sleet and snow. While other racers got thrown off the course – nineteen put down a “did not finish” for the day – Shiffrin was in her element, pulling to victory more than a half second ahead of her rival, Slovakian racer Petra Vlhova.

At a press conference following her win, we asked if her training at the Burke academy helped her in Sunday’s mixed weather. “Spending quite a lot of time racing on the East Coast, you get used to having a lot of different conditions in the span of two hours, let alone an entire day,” said Shiffrin. “Waking up this morning, I knew that there was going to be some nasty weather, some pretty nice weather, it could be warm, then it might get cold – anything could happen. On the first run, there were fog clouds rolling in for some racers, and then in the middle of the course it was like, ‘I can’t see a thing!’ and you just kind of expect that. You expect the unexpected, and having spent some time here, I was able to do that.”

Mikaela Shiffrin credits her time spent training at the Burke Mountain Academy for helping her prepare for race conditions like those on Sunday's course. Photo: John Giuffo

“It maybe gave me an advantage, or at least - it felt comfortable,” she added.

There’s a certain amount of pride to be earned by getting comfortable in challenging conditions, and the three-time Olympic medalist, race rockstar, and soon-to-be history-making Mikaela Shiffrin wasn’t the only skier getting after it full-throttle on the mountain that day.

But she was the best, and it’s an awesome thing to see in person. If you haven’t yet made it up to Killington for the World Cup, you owe it to yourself next year. There’s nothing else like it on the East Coast – or anywhere else, for that matter.

© 2018 by ICE COAST MAGAZINE.

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