What Ever Happened to the 24 Hours of Aspen Ski Race?
90 Laps, 300,000 vertical feet, 24 grueling hours of bombing Ajax. Here’s a look back at The 24 Hours of Aspen, skiing’s maddest race.
Words by David Stillman Meyer
In the gray morning light of 2001, Ian McLendon hockey stopped at the base of Aspen Mountain, completing his 74th lap. A volunteer pit crew popped him out of his bindings and he sprinted toward the gondola. 20 hours into the race, he was in a sort of focused delirium. “The constant roar of wind starts to get to you,” McLendon recalls, “And the whipping of your ski suit. It’s like the wind is trying to pry it off your body.” Although his team was the only one thus far who hadn’t crashed, there was a problem. His boot warmers had given out and frostbite was about to set in.
A doctor had been waiting for him and followed him into the gondola—at least, he tried to. Ian had neither the time nor the energy for a nosy medic. “I don’t know who you are!” Ian yelled, “Get the hell away from me,” and then shoved him away from his cab. Alas, the doctor caught up to him at the top, examined his feet and as they say in the French Alps, les jeux sont faits. The game was up.
For us mere mortals, one lap down Ajax is kind of tiring. When Swiss team member Reto Cahenzli won the inaugural race in 1988, as he stood soaked in Champagne, basking in the warm midday son, he said to the ESPN camera, only half kidding, “I could go another 24 hours!” Anda Rojs Smalls (’96, ’97, ’98) recalls that in the winners’ circle your body is, “a twitching mass of muscles and brain that can’t shut off.” The traditional plunge into the old Aspen Lodge hot tub helped.
The race was the brainchild of local snowcat operator and ranch hand, Ed McCaffrey. In 1987 he set the world record for vertical feet in 24 hours. He also had a father with Multiple Sclerosis and decided a 24 hour ski-a-thon would be a great way to raise money for the cure, and break his own record while he was at it.
And so in November of 1988, at high noon, with a great base of snow, five teams of two from Japan, Switzerland, West Germany, France and the U.S. set forth on what would become one of the most legendary events in skiing history, recurring annually for 16 years and drawing the greatest ski racers in the world.
“It was one of the most difficult and daunting races I have ever done,” Chris Davenport relays over the phone. “Winning the 24 Hours is right up there with anything I have ever competed in.”
“In some ways, it’s very easy,” Davenport explains about the race itself. “I mean it’s basically a straight shot down minus the big turn at Kleenex corner, but then of course to make it through the night, you really have to dig deep.” The course starts at the gondola, heads down Dipsy, then Tortilla Flats, then into Spar, hard left around Kleenex Corner and then down Little Nell. In other words it was one long 100mph-tuck with one huge left turn.
The gondola rides were strictly for the essentials: heat, calories, water, caffeine and a personal masseuse, who one assumes averted their eyes when the racers needed to crack the cab door and relieve themselves. The night was long and full of terrors. Clear goggle lens’s helped with the artificially lit course, but visibility was never great, especially when the occasional lamp would short out and plunge the course into sudden darkness. Foxes would run out onto the course. A windstorm might kick up and the racers would have to huddle in the Sundeck and wait it out.
There was the cold to manage. “It was very hard to keep our faces covered. Even the smallest bit of exposed skin would get frostbitten,” Smalls remembers. And then there were the wrecks. Davenport remembers one in particular when he came in too hot to the gondola and slammed into the wall, flew up and over and landed on the gondola staircase. A crowd of a hundred or so people, no doubt sporting heavy 1am liquor jackets, cheered him up and on.
By 2004, the X Games and the World Cup were sucking up the spotlight (and sponsorship money) and the infamous race came to an end. Could it ever come back? Davenport thinks yes. “I believe it will rise again. With all the modern technology we have now, it would really be a game changer.” Consider Team Aztech already signed up to volunteer.
To learn more about the 24 Hours of Aspen, watch the video below.