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Boulder Mountain Tour Celebrates 50 Years of Mountain Memories
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Tuesday, January 31, 2023
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Bob Rosso recalls when racing the Boulder Mountain Tour involved a little walking before skiing.

“We used to have to walk the course on skis to knock the air out of the snow so the snow machines could groom it,” he said.

It was Rosso and a couple others who conceived of the race in 1973 to commemorate the occasion when Sun Valley ski instructor Louis Stur skied from Ketchum to Galena Lodge to deliver medicine.

The 20-mile ski race, now in its 50th year, descended 1,100 feet, going up and over the berms lining Highway 75 (then known as U.S. 93) -from Galena Lodge to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters.

Four or five skiers skied the course the day before the race to push the air out of the snow so a snowmobile could pack the course, recalled Rosso. Even then, fresh snow often covered the tracks in the early years of the race.

“I remember one time it was snowing so hard that the snow was sticking to the bottom of our skis so we all stuck together. We decided at the end who would walk across the line,” Rosso recalled.

Thirty-four people showed up for the first race, which was initially called the Sawtooth Mountain Marathon. They paid a $2 entry fee, which went toward Sun Valley’s fledgling Junior Nordic Ski Team.

It had snowed the night before so Buck Levy and his friends went ahead breaking track. At one point, it looked as if zither player Herman Primus would waltz over the finish line first. But Ski Tek’s Brent Hansen, who had waxed for warm conditions, turned on the acid burner at the last, steamrolling past Primus.

It took Hansen 2 hours and 40 minutes to ski the 32-kilometer course from Galena Lodge using classic skis, as Olympic medalist Bill Koch had yet to inject the words “skate skis” into the Nordic vocabulary. He had to break trail for the last third of the way due to fresh snow that covered the track.

Now, of course, a fleet of groomers provided by the Blaine County Recreation District ply their way up and down the trail several times in the pre-dawn hours before the race to manicure the course, which has attracted competitors from as far away as Japan and Scotland.

And racers have covered the trail in as little as an hour and 4 minutes, thanks to the advent of skate skis, high-tech wax and pinpoint training.

But in the early days it took skiers between three hours and six to finish the course, as they’d often  schuss through powder snow at the north end, only to have to deal with sticky klister conditions on the south half.

EJ Harpham once recounted how she put a glob of klister on top of each ski so she could wipe it on the bottom of her skis halfway through the race as the temperatures warmed.

“You had to worry about your kick on the old classic wax skis. If you lost it, you would die,” she said. “The only thing you could do was double pole the rest of the course on your heavy bamboo poles with those big baskets.”

In the days before volunteers manned aid stations handing out banana bites and Gu packets to racers along the trail, the less competitive Boulder Mountain Tour participants stuffed wine and baguettes into their daypacks, making a picnic out of it halfway through the race. Since Power Bars had yet to be invented, they tucked Snickers in their turtlenecks to keep them warm until they were ready to eat them.

“When they finally began setting up aid stations along the way, one station served oysters on the half shell,” Jo Ann Levy recalled.

In the beginning, the race crossed the highway several times. And before Murphy’s Bridge bridged the North Fork of the Wood River, Bob Rosso and other “alpha males” waded out into the river to build a rickety log bridge out of pallets and pine logs, recalled Andy Munter.

“The only time they groomed the course was for the race. And the day after everybody in Sun Valley came out to ski the course before it got covered up with snow,” he added. “Nowadays most of the course follows the Harriman Trail, which we can ski throughout the season.”

Over time, the race became part of the American Ski Marathon series, ranking as one of the most prestigious tours of its type in the United States.

“I’ve gone to these other races, including the Birkebeiner and the City of Lakes Loppet, and I always see people wearing Boulder Mountain Tour hats,” said Kelly Allison, who with her husband Glen served as race director for a few years.  “The BMT is one of the best-known races. We have racers coming from as far away as Florida and Washington, D.C.—places you wouldn’t think they have Nordic skiers, as well as Canada.”

The Boulder Mountain Tour has missed a handful of years. In 1977 there was no snow; in 1981 and 1983  poor snow conditions made it too difficult to set a course.

“We didn’t have the Harriman Trail in the beginning so we’d have to trim brush and to get a course ready just for the Boulder. It required a lot more snow to put in the course,” said Kevin Swigert, who served as race director for several years.

Volunteers shoveled snow onto the bottom of the course in 2014, only to have five inches of snow fall a day later, throwing racers’ waxing plans into disarray.

In 2015 volunteers braved a foot of glop, slop and standing water on the highway to set up the course only to have it cancelled because of hazardous driving conditions. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision as those who skied the Harriman later that day found 30 trees blown down across the trail.

In 2016, BCRD Director Jim Keating ordered snow groomers to keep going up and down the trail from 11 a.m. the day before the race until race time as snow piled up an inch at a time, causing even snowplows to get stuck.

That year Bob Rosso invited a hundred-plus spectators awaiting the racers at the finish line to go out onto the race course and stomp down the mounting snow minutes before the leading racers arrived. Spectators did “the Boulder Stomp” with glee until someone noticed the racers had made the turn into the stadium, and everyone scurried to get out of the way.

And in 2021 742 people skied the length of the Boulder Mountain Tour virtually, with a few people even participating  where they were hunkered down during the pandemic in Sweden, when the pandemic made it too risky to crowd skiers onto buses.

The race has had its fill of bluebird days with fast conditions in which competitors breezed to the finish line. And it’s had frosty ones with slow snow where racers showed up at the finish line with snow caked in their beards.

“One year it was icy and everyone was falling right and left,” JoAnn Levy said. “And another year—2008—my eyelids froze and I couldn’t blink. I could see, but barely. I couldn’t feel one of my fingers on my right hand, either. But I was determined to finish. At the finish line, a volunteer wrapped my frozen finger with a warm towel. I had survived a real adventure!”

This year’s full Zions Boulder Mountain Tour was capped at 830 people another 215 are skiing the Half Boulder, which was renamed the Charley Course Boulder after Charley French who skied it into his 90s.

Forty-five people are skiing the virtual Boulder, skiing the entire course and posting their results in the days leading up to the physical race.

“We sold out the Half Boulder in October and the Full Boulder in November, and we have a wait list,” said Race Director Jody Zarkos. “To my knowledge we’ve never sold out that early before. It’s crazy. I think people are interested in having the experience again, and it’s the 50th anniversary honoring Bob Rosso so that drew people in. We’re giving $14,000 in prize money and we’ve upped the amount of prize money we’re giving to the 25 adaptive athletes who plan to compete, thanks to the generosity of donors.”

The second seed among the elite men this year will be Peter Wolter, a local boy who has been having great results this winter.He will be joined by podium finisher Jack Hegman.

The woman’s field is super strong, Zarkos said, with last year’s second-place finisher Mary Rose, who skis for Sun Valley’s Gold Team, the top seed, along with Erika Flowers and Jessica Heaton. Annika Landis, another hometown gal, is in there, as well.

This year’s winners will receive special snowflake platters commemorating the Boulder Mountain Tour’s Golden Anniversary made by fine arts potter EJ Harpham.

Zarkos said she’s amazed to see how many people have taken part in the race over the years.

“People have worked hard to make this race come off every year,” she added.

THE LINEUP:

THURSDAY, FEB. 2 4:30 p.m.

Nordic Town Springs start at Simplot Lot, 2nd Avenue and Fourth Street in Ketchum with racers racing around an oval.

THURSDAY, FEB. 2 6 p.m.

Champions Reception at The Elephant’s Perch in Ketchum.

FRIDAY, FEB. 3 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

BMT Expo and Race Bag Pickup at Limelight Hotel in Ketchum

SATURDAY, FEB. 4

10 a.m. Race starts at Galena Lodge with top racers covering the course in about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Half Boulder begins at 11:30 a.m. at Baker Creek.

Spectators may catch a bus between 9 and 9:30 a.m. at Hemingway STEAM School with spectator buses leaving Galena to the finish line at 10:15 and 10:45 a.m.

Those wishing to see the finish may park at Barlow Road just south of SNRA and take a shuttle bus that will run from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

SATURDAY, FEB. 4 5-7:30 p.m.

Awards Celebration at Ketchum Town Square


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