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Stomping Grounds: Summit County

6/21/2010

A brochure writer could make a solid case for Summit County, Colo., as being the perfect base for a professional winter freerider:

Bullet point No. 1: It's only an hour's drive to Denver International Airport (OK, three hours on a Saturday afternoon), which counts for a lot if you're Seth Morrison, a longtime Frisco resident who travels most of the winter. With Denver so close, getting your culture or sports fix is just as easy.

Bullet point No. 2: The lift-served turns commence in early October and don't end until June -- nearly as long as it takes a pregnancy to run full-term. This tends to attract the die-hards and jonesers, who seek two seasons for the price of one and whose career trajectories often reflect as much.

Bullet point No. 3: Four of the nation's best resorts exist within one county's boundaries: Breckenridge, Copper, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin. Worst case, you're a 15-minute drive from the closest ski area; best case, a two-minute walk.

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Bullet point No. 4: There's a realistic chance the skier next to you in the lift line is: (A) an X Games gold medalist (Peter Olenick, Simon Dumont and Bobby Brown, to name a few who train in Summit); (B) on his or her way to becoming an X Games gold medalist (Keri Herman rides for Breckenridge); or (C) that kid you just saw on the cover of Powder (Duncan Adams, age 17).

With contests like the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, the Winter Dew Tour, the Winter Gravity Games, the U.S. Freeskiing Open and the Vans Triple Crown having taken place at Summit County resorts over the years, it makes sense (and cents) for a pro to maintain a room in "Colorado's Playground," as Summit is known. But the truth is, the county was home to pioneering rippers long before it landed on the mainstream map.

Nestled in a majestic cirque on the west side of the Continental Divide, Arapahoe Basin, or simply "The Basin," opened in December 1946 with $1.25 lift tickets. Breckenridge followed suit in 1961, Keystone welcomed its first skiers in 1970 and Copper did the same in 1972.

In 1984, Breckenridge became the first Colorado resort to let snowboarders buy lift tickets. But the rippingest athletes in town were still skiers: Scott Rawles, who coached the U.S. moguls team to three Olympic medals last week in Vancouver, was known for jumping hundreds of feet off of natural kickers, and "Crazy John" Mueller, a 40-year local who is better known as CJ, recalls when the resort's general manager forced ski patrolmen to destroy his homemade kicker with dynamite because it was too large. Mueller went on to set a world record in speed skiing at the 1992 Albertville Olympics, tucking downhill at 137 mph.

Gradually, the focus shifted from bumps and racing to freestyle experimentation and big-mountain lines, despite snowpack that can be dry, unpredictable and dangerous in the backcountry. But there are plenty of spots that were just gnarly enough. If you head through the gate off the back of A-Basin, for example, you'll come to a large cirque called Chihuahua Bowl. Skier's right of Chihuahua proper is a line that looks like a fang: a giant cornice looming above a 45-degree face peppered with jagged exposure and must-make turns.

"That's Deano's," said Rex Wehrman, a Summit local since 1990. "Because he jumped the cornice into it."

When he did that, future World Extreme Skiing Champion Dean Cummings was living in a cabin in Montezuma, a 50-person town on Summit's eastern edge that flanks two 14,000-foot peaks. Wehrman, who beat Shane McConkey in 1998 to win his first of two Crested Butte Extremes titles, used to rip around A-Basin with Cummings on 200-centimeter straight skis. "He was on another level," Wehrman said.

Meanwhile, 25 minutes away, a group of future superstars was getting after it in Breckenridge. Snowboarder Todd Richards, who went on to become an Olympian and win two Winter X gold medals in the halfpipe, moved to town in 1993. "When we first got there," he said, "there was no park or pipe. We'd ride all over the mountain looking for stuff to jump, making little hits in the woods."

Eventually the resort built a park. "But they called it a snowboard park, and we'd get in trouble for going in there," said longtime Breck skier Chris Hawks, the 1999 X Games gold medalist in the slopestyle precursor known as "Triple Big Air." Hawks, 37, coaches local freeskiers now, but keeps an enduring image handy: that of Seth Morrison teaching himself off-axis backflips on Breck's Peak 10 because he wanted to throw them off big cliffs.

Five miles west, on the other side of the Tenmile Range, Greg Tuffelmire, Nick Mercon and a handful of other Copper Mountain freeriders were getting rowdy on their own terms. Tuffelmire, a Michigan native who moved west in 1994 (but didn't know Dexter Rutecki), revolutionized the spin-to-win concept in Copper's pipe. He landed the sport's first competition 1260 in the spring of 2003; three years would pass before anyone else matched it.

"We'd have big parties, and all the different sets of people who were doing the same thing at different ski areas would come," recalled Tuffelmire, now 33. "You'd have us, the Breck guys, the A-Basin guys, the Keystone guys. And we'd all ask each other: 'What are you working on?' You didn't want to get shown up if someone came to your hill."

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As the innovation carried into the 2000s, the trickle of transplants became an ever-steady flow. Shortly after Seth Morrison convinced snowmobiling legend Jay Quinlan to move from Alaska to Summit County to ease his travel hassles, Quinlan learned to backflip at the end of a remote dirt road outside Breckenridge, on a homemade ramp. He landed the historic first flip in competition at Jackson Hole in 2003.

Drawn by huge, carefully manicured parks and pipes as well as the area's proximity and growing reputation, snowboarders like Chad Otterstrom, TransWorld's 2005 Rider of the Year, and Steve Fisher, a two-time X Games gold medalist in pipe, followed Richards' success with renown of their own. Janna Meyen Weatherby (six total Winter X medals) and Andreas Wiig (seven total Winter X medals) trained here as well.

"For me, it's the attention to detail that Breck gives the park features," said Fisher, who moved from Mammoth in 2001. "Some mountains will spend a lot of time on their jumps and rails, but slack on their pipe. You can go to Breck any day of the week and every feature is perfect."

Even Keystone, long labeled a family-first resort, committed major resources to the freeride movement. Its new A-51 terrain park opened in 2003 and has its own lift. The park is now a perennial top-10 finisher in magazines. Copper, which hosted the opening U.S. Olympic snowboarding qualifier this season, has made Summit even more of a year-round base with its Woodward indoor training facility. Because as sure as the sun rises, every pro loves a foam pit.

Despite all the growth and evolution, most of Summit County's soul endures. You still have original ski shops like the Norway Haus and Lone Star in Breckenridge and "the V.I." -- Virgin Islands Ski Rental -- in Silverthorne. You can still finish up an A-Basin powder day with a microbrew at the Sixth Alley Bar. You can still get a cheap, hearty Breck breakfast at Daylight Donuts. And of course, you can still party your tired legs off in downtown Breck, world-renowned for hopping nightlife and places like the Breck Brewery, Sherpa & Yeti's and Cecilia's (see: Karaoke scene in the video).

Yes, these resorts, located so close to Denver, tend to back up like clogged drains on holiday weekends. And yes, Shaun White owns a condo at the base of Breckenridge -- for better or worse, the big names are everywhere. "Even if I'm just going to the gym, I'm guaranteed to see at least three pros who are on the competition circuit," said Bobby Brown, 18.

But that's how the innovation carries on, by feeding itself. The newest trend has Summit County natives like Eric Willett and the snowboarding Black brothers knocking on stardom's door.

"It's just a chain reaction from generation to generation," said Olympic medalist JJ Thomas, who began riding at Breckenridge when he was 12. "All the kids get to watch the best in the world practice every day, and they're just inspired to raise the level of their own riding."