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Believing in Buck Hill

Features
By Rob Story
posted: 12/15/2004

Like a Mixer, Only Colder
As at any gathering of competitive males, the starting gate of the Buck Hill slalom course resounds with rude, fast-flying heckles. After one oversized Joe Six-Pack peels down to his shellacked-on skinsuit, his buddy cracks, "Jeez, man, I can tell what religion you are!"

"I know," responds the human sausage casing. "I need a ballet guy's cup..."

"What?"

"In ballet, the guys wear big cups. That's why they bulge. Not every ballet dancer brings a huge package, ya' know."

"Whatever, man. But just once I'd like to see a skinsuit-free Friday."

Nearby, another skinsuited racer nods at a comrade's narrow-waisted Völkls and asks, "'Ow they runnin'?"

"Pretty good," comes the reply, "but I was on my hip last run. So I'll try to keep 'em on the wheels this time."

The human sausage casing blasts out of the starting gate and into the hazy Minneapolis light. He carves round, smooth turns, completing the bulk of his arc before the gate, then coming around and setting up for the next one. His hips are almost directly over his boots; his torso is relaxed but erect, his gaze directed three gates ahead. He makes an explosive, quick transition from turning ski to turning ski. And the lap is over.

Here in Minnesota, a top-to-bottom run takes maybe 26 seconds. Buck Hill has never been described as a "big mountain"-jargon, machismo, and textbook technique aside. Nor is it anyone's idea of a pretentious "destination resort." Up on the Milk Run lift-at five crawling minutes, the longest ride at Buck-a pre-teen boy on skis shouts a greeting to a lady sitting a few chairs behind him: "Hi, Mrs. Nelson!"

"Hi, Jeffery," the woman calls back. "Would you like a donut?"

"Krispy Kremes?"

"Yes, Jeffery."

A Protuberance is Born
You wouldn't look up at Jeffery and imagine Olympic gold. Or look up at Buck (say, from the T.J. Maxx parking lot in the Minneapolis 'burb of Burnsville) and figure its 50 acres make for a mecca of American ski racing. It's a 310-vertical-foot hillock-the highest point in seven counties!-right up against busy Interstate 35. The Twin Cities' sprawl enveloped it long ago. When the sun sets on Buck Hill, it paints suburban McMansions and a Home Depot in a gauzy orange light.

Yet the Bump, as locals call it, is a huge player in competitive skiing: It has sent hundreds to the Junior Nationals. Overall, it has produced 12 U.S. Ski Team members. Two of its homegrown racers-Tasha Nelson and Kristina Koznick, one of the world's top female slalom skiers-competed for the U.S. at the 2002 Winter Olympics. And with a start shack that launches more than 100,000 skinsuits a year, NASTAR participation at Buck ranks second only to Vail-the busiest resort in the country, which happens to have 5,239 more acres and 3,140 more vertical feet.

The first ski area here was founded in the '30s by a name any dirtbag ski bum should know: Pabst-the "P" in PBR beer. Frederick Pabst intended to start a nationwide chain of ski areas, but a few snowless winters killed his plan (just as PBR kills sound judgment and ambition). Another family tried again in the '40s, calling it Gokey Hill. That enterprise died, too, perhaps because skiers couldn't fathom what a Gokey was.

In 1954, a Dartmouth grad named Chuck Stone leased the property, cleared some runs with chainsaws and dynamite, erected a rope-tow, and called it Buck Hill. He invested heavily in his mountain, hiring the finest race coach he could find-Austrian Erich Sailer, who's now in his 36th year at Buck. He built a snowmaking system in 1961, well before most skiers knew about artificial snow. He installed lights, keeping Buck open to nighttime beer-league racing. Stone died in 1994, but his family still owns the area, and invests as much as Buck's founding father. The most recent flourish: a Daktronics scoreboard-the kind found in pro football stadiums, which uses the same light technology that illuminates Las Vegas to flh racers' bib numbers, names, scores, and handicaps immediately after they cross the finish line.

Speed-The Cure for Boredom
Nothing can prepare a first-time Buck visitor for the noise of its racing program. Though I-35 traffic almost drowns out all ambient sound, it can't overcome the pummeling of bamboo. A steady ka-chunk, ka-chunk echoes across the slopes as racers bash gates with padded forearms. This thwapping is augmented by the boisterous slashing of edges against groomed hardpack. Most of the skiers are carving textbook race turns-they ski on the metal, not the P-tex. It's as if Minnesota's rabid affection for hockey ensures that everyone knows how to bury an edge: Sink it like a skate blade into ice.

On Sundays, the busiest race day, 480 participants don bibs and trip starting wands: 140 in the morning session, 200 in the afternoon, and another 140 after dark. Here in the Midwest, the challenge isn't topography, it's your opponents-so the best way to use this little mound is to race it. "Every time we open another league, it fills completely," says general manager Don McClure. "And each league has 150 people. The skiers are so hooked on racing they're asking for more clinics and spending their vacations at summer race camps on glaciers."

During the week, most of the competitions occur at night, when the windchill can plunge to 40 below. Even then, racers strip down to skinsuits to save a fraction of a second of speed. Says race director Tammy Coyne, "Racing here is like a fever. It's in their blood. You wouldn't believe the cash they drop on wax and tunes." Coyne works 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day from December to March, keeping the tightly scheduled race program running smoothly.

No one has channeled Buck's ski-racing jones into international success better than Kristina Koznick: five-time national slalom champ, two-time U.S. Olympian, 2002 U.S. Ski Racer of the Year, and now-step aside-a Buck Hill ambassador. She, more than anyone, proves that great athletes can emerge from unlikely places-like Kelly Slater progressing from the small, mushy waves of his native Florida to become the globe's finest competitive surfer. Koz, who began racing at Buck at age seven, is but one of many locals who turned childhood afternoons at Buck into results. The cafeteria wall sags with photos of them-eight-by-tens of every racer who qualified for the Junior National Championships representing Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota.

Homogenous, My Ass
Buck Hill's SportsBucket bar is served by the same I-35 off-ramp as T.G.I . Friday's. Several patrons wear ties, violating all ski-lodge bar protocol. There's more adipose tissue than at Western resorts, which explains the flyers for Big & Tall stores in the lobby of my hotel. Buck's customers apparently enjoy-as detailed in the film Fargo-the many fine buffets of the Minneapolis area.

The stereo plays inoffensive classic rock. When I walk in, seeking liquid sympathy, the speakers ooze Steely Dan's "Do It Again." Which is fitting, since a 310-vertical-foot peak is all about doing it again. And again. And again.

Though Buck Hill is best known for breeding racers, it also generates impressive freeskiers, who were forced to make a lot out of a little: Josh Loubek, a freeskiing star of the '90s, and current cliff-hucking luminary Jamie Pierre. A trip through the halfpipe and down to the base lodge on a Friday evening proves Buck Hill draws a funky, diverse crowd-a mix of old-school race academy and new school skatepark, an urban gathering place. Along with the expected Scandinavian complexions are Native Americans, Asians, Latinos. You wouldn't say there are more dreadlocks here than at Western ski towns, but you don't see white Trustafarians-just more African Americans with dreads.

Happy in the Here and Now
The more time I spend here, the more I'm convinced that Buck is the dopey Lab who's just happy to be alive, even if he's chasing his tail. There's no mention of sister resorts or trips out West, no acknowledging ski mountains with 10 times as much vertical.

Perhaps Minnesotans lack a snobbery gene-they seem willing to try experiences snootier people would dismiss out of hand, and, like their Scandinavian ancestors, they're known for open mindedness. Case in point: When I pick up the Minneapolis Star Tribune, weirdo actor-director Crispin Glover is quoted as saying the Twin Cities are "a great area because people read and think. It's a more progressive area than, say, the East Coast." Could you say the same thing about Boise?

These inquiring Midwestern minds were given Buck Hill, and damn if they didn't find ways to maximize its potential. I'll admit it: While this jaded Rockies skier is perfectly happy to fly home to the lofty peaks of Colorado after five days in Burnsville, he can't help but admire the hell out of the kids in race school, the beer leaguers, the wax nerds. I'll bet they're up on Buck's summit right now, chasing the thrill of victory and ribbing those who finish a few fractions of a second behind. That's how it goes at Buck Hill: Carve or be carved.chasing his tail. There's no mention of sister resorts or trips out West, no acknowledging ski mountains with 10 times as much vertical.

Perhaps Minnesotans lack a snobbery gene-they seem willing to try experiences snootier people would dismiss out of hand, and, like their Scandinavian ancestors, they're known for open mindedness. Case in point: When I pick up the Minneapolis Star Tribune, weirdo actor-director Crispin Glover is quoted as saying the Twin Cities are "a great area because people read and think. It's a more progressive area than, say, the East Coast." Could you say the same thing about Boise?

These inquiring Midwestern minds were given Buck Hill, and damn if they didn't find ways to maximize its potential. I'll admit it: While this jaded Rockies skier is perfectly happy to fly home to the lofty peaks of Colorado after five days in Burnsville, he can't help but admire the hell out of the kids in race school, the beer leaguers, the wax nerds. I'll bet they're up on Buck's summit right now, chasing the thrill of victory and ribbing those who finish a few fractions of a second behind. That's how it goes at Buck Hill: Carve or be carved.

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