I had three reasons for going over to Aspen last Friday during the XGames. One was to meet up with skiing friends who have known each other since childhood and tell the most amazing tales on chairlift rides. Like the time one of them had a tarantula the size of a grapefruit in his swim trunks.
Another reason was to ski the buttah at Buttahmilk.
And the third was to see how Telluride boy Gus Kenworthy fared as the rare (maybe the only?) triple-threat skier at the Games. He was entered in all three comps – slopestyle, superpipe and big air.
Michael and Larry grew up surfing together in Laguna Beach, Calif., in the 1950s and 60s. Larry’s clifftop house had an honest-to-god pipe organ. One day, while tripping on acid, budding musician Michael sat down at the keyboard and channeled J.S. Bach. “You didn’t really hear the lowest notes out of the 16-foot-tall pipe,” Larry said. “You just felt this vibration in your chest, in the walls.”
Their big reminiscence of the day, though, was a recounting of their winter, as twenty-somethings, gold mining in the jungle of Costa Rica, five miles from the beach up an uninhabited river.
“You should have seen our medicine kit,” Michael said. Besides the Panama Red, “We had anti-venom for all the five-minute snakes, the fer-de-lance, the green tree vipers.” If you got bitten by one of them, you were face down, dead, in five minutes.
“We found out later that the there were more poisonous snakes in that part of Costa Rica than anywhere else in the world. The U.S. military caught and milked snakes there to produce anti-venom for the soldiers in Viet Nam.”
The gold mining involved sucking the gravel from a pool at the base of a waterfall. It took weeks to get all their gear up there from the beach: their wetsuits, their suction dredge, the compressor to supply air to the one doing the underwater vacuuming, the fuel, the beans and rice they would live on for five months.
I asked if there were surfable waves off this remote river mouth, and they said, oh my, yes. But to paddle out would have been suicide. Larry described a photo he had of a transparent green wave face, with three 10-foot tiger sharks silhouetted inside.
Legend has it a Tico Indian had found a 16-ounce gold nugget under a rock in a nearby tributary. He traded it for whiskey and a week with a prostitute. Michael and Larry filled a couple of small glass vials with gold flakes. “But gold was $24 an ounce then. We didn’t even break even on the cost of the adventure.”
For the cost of a lift ticket at Buttermilk, you get whisked by high-speed quad chair to some of the finest carving terrain anywhere. Most Aspenites shun the place, because it is the “learner’s mountain,” with none of the steeps, or the cachet, of nearby Ajax or Highlands. But Buttermilk is chockablock with beautiful, natural folds against which a swooping skier may lean, and the cat drivers there take great pride in smoothing the alabaster shapes.
At the bottom of each run, we’d stop for a while and watch the circus. ESPN and Red Bull, and America’s Navy: A Global Force for Good, had erected temporary four- and five-story scaffold buildings, zip-line cable cameras and giant video screens all around the venues. Crowd control was big. We were frisked, for weapons and booze, before getting on the bus out at the intercept parking lot. The Department of Homeland Security set up shop across the street. One time, with my ski tips just under the storm fencing as I squinted to find Kenworthy in a crowd, a guard asked me to “move along. Mustn’t stop here.”
“Nothing to see here,” I said silently to myself, quoting Leslie Nielson’s clueless cop in Naked Gun.
We didn’t see, thank god, the snowmobile freestyle event. That happened the evening before, and resulted in one rider needing heart surgery in Grand Junction after his 450-pound flipping machine landed on top of him.
We did see the snowboard street final, a strange new event in which tiny boarders, like Gulliver in Brobdingnag, skittered across super-sized urban handrails.
And we did see some of the qualifying for the men’s slopestyle – the skiers spinning off the four sequential jumps, looking like (Michael’s phrase) “popcorn popping.” Kenworthy appeared smooth and relaxed over the ramps, but he did put a hand down on the final landing. The announcers said, “The judges are looking for perfection,” and Gus didn’t make the finals.
In the big air preliminaries the next day, he landed “the first switch triple rodeo in the history of the XGames.” (Don’t ask me what that is; it could be a tall tale.) But in the final he definitely ran up against a 20-year-old dreadlocked Swede and a 17-year-old peach-fuzz Swiss, who threw triples like they were stepping off a curb.
I’d guess 17 was about the average age of the baggy-pants crowd thronging the base. Kenworthy, at 21, was the second oldest man in the comp.