Vail, Colo., and Buck Hill are sister mountains of sorts: Both ski areas were started with help from 10th Mountain Division members; both regularly crank out Olympic-caliber skiers; and both have dramatic views of...an interstate. Sure, Vail can boast a few thousand more skiable acres-5,249 more, to be exact. But what Buck Hill lacks in mountain real estate, it makes up for in ropetow-assisted repetition. Where else can competitive skiers run 400 gates on a school night?
Lovingly referred to as "The Bump" by the kids who have grown up skiing its corduroy cruisers, gentle glades and egg-carton-uniform bumps, Buck Hill sits off the west side of I-35 in Burnsville, 15 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. Driving south on I-35, one has to know just when to look west out the window to glimpse the 310-vertical-foot, 50-acre mound before the suburban chain restaurants swallow it up. But at night, Buck's skiers enjoy a shimmering view of the sleek Minneapolis skyline-definitely not a perk you'll find in Vail.
The diminutive peak may not have size, but it has stature: In its 49-year history, Buck has produced 10 U.S. Ski Team members, most recently slalom stars Tasha Nelson, Lindsey Kildow and Kristina Koznick. How "The Bump" has produced a platoon of World Cuppers borders on supernatural phenomenon only until you learn the history behind this legendary little hill.
According to President Nancy Stone, 70, it all started back in 1954. Her then-boyfriend, native Minnesotan, skiing fanatic and Dartmouth grad Chuck Stone, then 23, looked Nancy in the eye across a restaurant table one day and said, "Gee, honey, wouldn't it be fun to own a ski area?" Nancy, also a fanatical skier, simply said, "Oh, yeah." Chuck walked to the library, located the highest hill in a 200-mile radius, found the owner, Grace Whittier, and convinced her to sign over the property in a 25-year lease agreement. With $3,700, Chuck, Nancy and a handful of friends-one of them Glen Stanley, Chuck's high-school ski coach and a member of the 10th Mountain Division-took to the hill with chain saws, weed whackers and dynamite. Within a few months they had hacked out several runs, installed a 1,000-foot ropetow powered by a Ford engine, and built a 1,020-square-foot lodge. By December, Buck was in business, charging $2 for a daily lift ticket.
Buck might have gone the way of just another mom-and-pop Midwestern ski area if Stone's daughters, Jessica and Cindy, hadn't attended a Red Lodge, Mont., junior racing camp in 1969. There they met Erich Sailer, a former ski racer and instructor from the Austrian Tyrol who came to the U.S. to teach summer ski clinics. Impressed with Sailer's coaching style, the Stone daughters told their father about the chiseled Austrian. That summer, Sailer flew to Minnesota for an interview and started work in the fall. Thirty-three years later, Sailer still oversees a 100-strong Buck Hill Junior Racing Team, which practices Monday through Thursday, races almost every weekend from Thanksgiving through mid-March, and raises more than $150,000 per year to fund its extensive international training.
Sailer, who was weaned in the Alps, was less than impressed with his first glimpse of Buck. "I was extremely disappointed when I saw it," says the 70-something Sailer (he refuses to divulge his exact age) in his still-thick Germanic accent. "But I put this place on the map. I've put a lot of my life into Buck Hill, and there have been some big rewards."
One of Sailer's most gratifying rewards was coaching 27-year-old Burnsville native Kristina Koznick. The five-time World Cup winner honed her impressive skills at Buck starting at the age of 4, eventually working up to 50 training runs per night. Koznick made the U.S. Olympic team at age 15, which took her away from Sailer and Buck Hill, but she recently bought a house in Eagan, 15 minutes from Buck, and often drops in for special events, sometimes bringing pals likee Picabo Street.
"Buck Hill is like my Cheers," says Koznick. "It's home. It's my family. It reminds me of where I got started. I grew up on a ropetow that's still in existence," she laughs. "I was so small that I had to wait for one of the big guys to come up behind me."
But Olympic success stories are only half of the hill's appeal. The other half is its well-oiled citizen-racing machine. On any given weeknight, as many as 400 adults race on the same 1,110-foot run all night long, in a league called the Ski Challenge.
"It's basically a bowling league on skis," says Ski Challenge founder Patricia Lecy, who sold the Minneapolis-based company in 1997. The 1,300-member league skis at other Twin Cities slopes, but according to Lecy, "Buck has the best setup and design for racing. They put on the race, do timing, provide facilities, and then we just take over the bar when the races are all over."
The facilities are certainly key. Very few 40-acre ski areas boast 13 lifts. All of the citizen races take place on the quad-serviced Milk Run, with a 30-percent grade that starts steep and flattens out at the bottom. Ballroom, served by the high-speed ropetow that Koznick so fondly remembers, is still the primary training hill for the high school and Buck Hill teams. Topped by a massive 30-foot-wide by 15-foot-high ramp that was designed by the president of the Buck Hill Ski Racing Club (also an engineer), Ballroom (also with a 30-percent grade) is wide enough to accommodate four race courses, allowing 250 racers to ski dozens of training runs per night. Doused by guns from Buck's state-of-the-art automated Areco snowmaking system and outfitted with a $100,000 electronic timing system, it's no wonder Milk Run and Ballroom crank out world-class skiers.
IMAGE 3 RIGHT]But the high-caliber race courses wouldn't exist without the Stone family. "Chuck Stone was out there all the time," says Lecy. "He got the right equipment and was totally dedicated to racing." Chuck died in 1994, but Nancy, her three daughters and one son still own 50 percent of the company stock.
If Chuck was the visionary, a woman named Gabe Cyr was the matriarch of ski racing. In 1975, Cyr started working at Buck after she and her husband sold their own ski hill in the town of Pine Bend, Minn. "They called her Mrs. Racing," says Nancy Stone. "She was it. She coordinated everything." On New Year's Day 1999, Cyr, who was 77 years old, was killed in a car accident on the way to a race at Buck Hill.
Even without the daily presence of Chuck, Cyr, Koznick and other employees and skiers who have turned the hill into a Midwestern legend, the half-century Buck Hill tradition of churning out great American racers chugs on. According to Sailer, two more up-and-comers, 14-year-old Sterling Grant and 15-year-old Claire Abbe, are showing Olympic potential. "Erich always calls me and says, 'I've got another one,'" says Koznick. "And I wouldn't put it past anybody. If someone has talent and desire, Buck has the gates, and Erich will show them the path to success."