They call it Skitown, USA, and not without reason.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado, has sent representatives to every Winter Olympics since 1948. All told, 88 athletes make the list.
To qualify for recognition, they must have trained with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. Many grew up in the town and made their first turns on Howelsen Hill, the town’s most local slopes.
Steamboat is also known for its Wild West image of skiers in cowboy hats – and few combine the two personas better than skiing cowboy Ray Heid, who took part in the 1960 Winter Olympics and now still skis at least 80 days a year at the age of 80 while also running a horse ranch some way out of town.
At his spread, Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch, we saddled up with him for a trek through the sun and snow as he told about the old times in this remarkable resort.
Ray comes from pioneer stock – his grandfather ran one of the main stores in Steamboat. But as well as helping look after horses on the ranches around town from the age of six, Ray became absorbed by skiing.
Skiing was so important to the community in the late forties and fifties that it was part of the school curriculum. ‘They even gave grades in skiing,’ recalls Ray. ‘I got an A in downhill, an A in jumping, an A in slalom – but a C or even C-minor in cross-country running!’
He combined his early skiing career with herding sheep and cattle and at the age of 12 made his first chaps with the help of his neighbour Mrs Uintah Raley, a Ute native American. Ray still wears those well-worn chaps to this day.
Other jobs in his varied career include teaching the Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico how to operate their own ski area, Sierra Blanca (now known as Ski Apache).
Ray gazed around from the saddle at the mountain peaks surrounding his ranch. ‘It was my ambition to climb all the hills I could see from the ranch and ski down them,’ he said. ‘And now I’ve done it, every one.’
A skiing cowboy’s gotta do what a skiing cowboy’s gotta do!
Surprisingly, Steamboat’s well-known ambassador Billy Kidd, the race champion whose statue stands at the base area and who still hosts complimentary get-to-know-the-mountain tours, doesn’t make the list because he didn’t grow up in the town and learn his skiing at the Sports Club.
Back on the slopes of Steamboat, the storms had passed and the runs were in fabulous shape. We stayed at the Steamboat Grand Hotel, about 100 yards from the Steamboat Gondola, up to the heart of the skiing. This was the first stop on our road trip to take in some of the 38 ski destinations covered by the Ikon Pass, the multi-resort season pass.
From the entertaining black runs served by the Pony Express lift to the glades of Morningside Park, I rediscovered, with our guide Karri, what a fun and friendly mountain Steamboat is – a warm Wild West welcome to kick off our Ikon tour.
As well as superb skiing (and trying out some of the latest Faction skis), we’ve tried, and enjoyed, a touristy pre-dinner sleigh-ride around Steamboat’s snow-covered golf course, and a snowcat ride from the top of the gondola across deserted pistes to dinner at the impressive Four Points Lodge. This is cunningly converted from a daytime self-service refuelling stop to a sophisticated candle-lit mountaintop fine dining restaurant in the evening.
And if the horse-riding had left us a bit saddle-sore, the answer was to head for Strawberry Park Hot Thermal Springs, where all aches and pains are eased away!
Read MadDogSki.com’s resort guide to Steamboat.
Horse-riding at Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch at www.steamboathorses.com.
Thermal springs at strawberryhotsprings.com.
Haymaker dinner sleigh ride and snowcat to dinner at Four Points Lodge at www.steamboat.com/dining.
Rob flew Heathrow to Denver with IcelandAir .
Rob skied on Faction‘s latest range of skis
‘I got an A in downhill, an A in jumping, an A in slalom – but a C or even C-minor in cross-country running!’, recalls skiing cowboy Ray Heid…