The use of repurposed features started a decade ago by late alpine coach Greg Needell; AVSC continues the tradition.
Dozens of Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club athletes train on a slender white swath set amid emerald green hills. For a month now, they have been running gates and dialing in their jumps into airbags using artificial snow made last fall for X Games Aspen 2022.
Dubbed “The Buttermilk Glacier,” the simple training facility opened about a decade ago, thanks to the efforts of the late Greg Needell. The former AVSC alpine director said he would look daily at the strips of remaining snow in the spring. He could not help noticing the snow stretched down the face of Buttermilk Mountain long after the lifts had closed.
Needell wondered why the snow, created by 1.5 million gallons of water, wasn’t being repurposed.
Long story short: The coach was able to spearhead a cooperative effort between AVSC and Aspen Skiing Co. After the spring closure of the Buttermilk lifts, snowcats sculpted the deep snow of the X Games courses and pipes into a multipurpose training surface.
Utilizing a great resource
Just after 7 a.m. on the first Saturday of June, AVSC’s alpine program director Johno McBride shuttled 11 kids and three coaches up the front face of Buttermilk. The group was greeted with stubbies and three practice courses set and waiting for them in the training arena.
Weekend days see as many as 26 FIS and age class ski racers before the gates give way to airbags, jumps and a bump line.
The coach said that the 2004 Army truck McBride piloted is favored as the most practical transportation option for shuttling kids up the short but rugged road.
Since Greg Needell first convinced the powers-that-be of the glacier’s potential, its operation has been constantly refined.
For example, after the mountain closes, leftover snow from the slope-style features and big air jumps is now pushed into the half-pipe framed by 22-foot snow walls. This procedure allows the snow to cure better and spend part of the day shaded from the sun.
More than in recent years, this season has seen rapid evaporation of precious mountain snowpack by relentless winds carrying red dust from the desert that hastens melting. This spring in western Colorado, most rivers peaked in late May, a week or two earlier than average.
The facility, which is free to full-time AVSC team members, opened on May 7. However, the early June snow was starting to show some wear on the glacier after a month of use and moody May days. AVSC makes daily evaluations of conditions, and the staff keeps the venue open for training as long as possible into the summer. Last year, training ran through June 20th.
‘Hot, tiring, fun and worth it.’
On this sunny Saturday, coaches Eric Colon, Jack Kirby and Brad Bridges were busy slipping and salting the track while coaching kids, including Caleah Lutz-Sladdin, a rising Aspen Middle School seventh-grader.
Caleah has been training in advance of her first-ever trip to Mt. Hood, coming up later in June.
Lutz-Sladdin joined an on-snow group Saturday morning that included athletes from U10s to FIS level.
“It’s hot, tiring, fun and worth it,” she said after training. “It’s good for my skiing because I get used to waking up early and get used to different kinds of snow conditions.”
Aspen Skiing Co.’s contribution to a great local opportunity
Despite Aspen’s recent warm spell, the snowpack on the glacier has remained surprisingly sturdy.’
“Once the snow is pushed out after the events and the season ends, we can have a 15-to-20-foot base for local athletes to train on,” said Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications for Aspen Skiing Co.
“And we are really happy to be able to repurpose big events that take place on a national and international stage for our local competitors to train on without having to travel and incur that expense,” he said.
Needel’s legacy lives on
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that none of the athletes assembled on June 4 knew Greg Needell, nor did they realize the coach had helped make this economical off-season local training venue possible.
Johno McBride worked with Needell while the two men were coaching for the national team. Later, while working for Team Summit, Needell died June 7, 2016, of a medical emergency at Mammoth Mountain.
According to Ski Racing archives, Needell “helped lead the U.S. Ski Team men to 43 wins, 105 podiums and 264 top 10 finishes.” He skied for St. Lawrence University and would go on to coach at Mission Ridge, WA, AVSC, Mammoth and Summit, among other assignments.
On that recent Saturday morning, athletes hoped to make around 12 training runs on the glacier.
“It’s a good use for the millions of gallons of water used for the X Games,” said McBride, who lives on a family ranch that depends on the scarce water resource.
Athlete Lutz-Sladdin said she benefitted from time with the mixed age groups on the glacier, citing, “training with people who are better than me that I can learn from.”
The glacier is also well-used by athletes from the club’s freestyle program. Skiers and snowboarders who practice on the park features, mogul line, jumps, and use the small and large airbags.
Eric Knight, director of freestyle for AVSC, said the glacier has attracted “7-year-olds to U.S. Ski Team athlete training.” AVSC has acquired its own snowcat, which it uses to buff out the venue.
Ski Co’s Hanle said, “It has been a great partnership with AVSC and one we look to continue to build.”
Little did Greg Needell know that the Buttermilk Glacier would become as much a part of the local summer physical landscape as the tent that hosts Aspen’s renowned classical music concerts. However, Needell’s legacy continues with AVSC utilizing the snow that was produced last fall for X Games Aspen 2022