Howelsen is a tough slalom course, and even the home team can’t always pull it off

Steamboat Springs High School skier Caroline Baur hits a gate wide during a slalom race at Howelsen Hill Ski Area on Thursday, January 13.
Shelby Reardon / Steamboat Pilot and Today

There’s a reason Howelsen Hill Ski Area is a frequent host of NCAA Championships and a stop on the World Pro Ski Tour. The oldest continuously operating ski resort in North America is built for slalom. Its face is short but steep, with changing angles of descent. This makes it a challenge for most athletes – and a pleasure to compete for local Steamboat Springs athletes.

The Steamboat Springs High School Alpine Team held a slalom race on Thursday January 13th. They train frequently on the daunting slope of Howelsen Hill, but even the sailors are not immune to the difficulties of slalom racing.

After watching a few of his fastest teammates veer off course on their first run, Steamboat junior Tomás Niedermeier exited the starting gate. He made it 80% of the way before hitting a gate, part of a downward hairpin combination.

“It’s not difficult, technically,” Niedermeier said of the course. “I think the hardest part is that it’s so straight, you go really fast. It’s hard to control your speed through the suits.

A hairpin is just a combination that can be seen on a slalom course. There are also flushes and, rarely, a royal flush. A hairpin is a combination of two vertical gates, a flush is three vertical gates, and a royal flush is four.

Each allows riders to pick up speed while quickly changing the edge of their ski hitting the snow. All combinations are meant to change the tempo and test the runners’ abilities.

Another characteristic of a slalom course is a delay, or under-gate or banana turn. For example, a skier going through a red gate and turning left must go through a pair of blue gates before turning left to encounter the next gate. This forces athletes to pause or delay their turn.

Niedermeier promotes hot flashes – and despises bobby pins.

“(A color is) just a big tempo change, and it’s pretty simple,” he said. “You have two doors and can kind of get into the flow of things. A bobby pin is a combination of less than one color and you don’t really cross it.

Niedermeier said the number of crashes at Howelsen is what makes it fun, though.

Sailors’ senior Audra Gowdy had the second-fastest time after the first run of the girls’ race on Thursday, but erred in her second and earned a DNF.

Senior Ellie Blair was the top finisher among female sailors, taking fifth place. Her senior teammate Caroline Baur took ninth place.

Blair said Howelsen is always tough, and having even a fraction more confidence and familiarity on the track helps the home team. She said she felt confident on Thursday, which was obviously reflected in her results.

“You really have to stay on your toes,” Blair said. “It kind of comes to you. You have to be ready for Howelsen.

Baur said there was no time to relax on the course.

“Coming out after the steep (section) was pretty tough,” she said. “It was quite twisty so you really had to be there, but when you get to the bottom it was fun.”

Often the end of the course features a color and the last third is started with a hairpin. The suits give skiers plenty of speed in the flat section before the finish line.

“Going down the last 10 gates of Howelsen is always the best part of the course,” Blair said. “You can hear everyone cheering you on and you’re going fast. You let it go to the bottom.


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