When it comes to Aspen snow sports competitions nowadays, events like the X Games and Alpine World Cup races get all the attention. But there was a time when the Silverboom, Aspen’s oldest cross-country ski race, enjoyed a similar level of recognition.
Though participation has dwindled from the event’s heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, it remains a cherished tradition among a contingent of locals. “It’s been the mainstay of the Nordic community for 50 years,” says Toby Morse, who organized the race for about a decade, from the early 1980s to the early ’90s.
Cross-country skiing and racing were on an upswing when Aspenite Jim Ward launched the Silverboom as a point-to-point contest from Snowmass to Buttermilk in December 1970. The previous winter, the avid cross-country and backcountry skier had skied the Gold Dust Classic in Frisco; he also ran Aspen’s first cross-country ski shop and figured it made sense to put on a similar event.
All these years later, Ward still sounds taken aback that nearly 200 people signed up for that first race—mostly recreational skiers from around the Roaring Fork Valley but also about a dozen members of the US Ski Team and several international racers.
What was the attraction?
“I can only say that it was an up-and-coming sport; cross-country skiing was coming alive,” Ward says.
Recruiting a handful of local volunteers to help run the event, Ward groomed the course with a single snowmobile—and even got in trouble with the US Ski Team coach for improperly setting the tracks, he recalls with a chuckle.
The Silverboom’s course has changed over the years, as has the time of year it’s held (currently run out of the Snowmass Cross Country Center, it’s now a season finale rather than a season opener). But the race was always a community affair. Whole families would compete, Santa Claus showed up to lead the half-kilometer kids’ “Miniboom,” and locals fondly remember “Wille Chili,” made by the wife of longtime race organizer Raoul Wille for the post-race party.
The Silverboom continued to regularly draw nearly a couple hundred competitors through the ’80s, a golden era for Nordic skiing. American Bill Koch was winning medals in international competition, and skate-skiing brought a new level of excitement to the sport. Regionally, citizens’ races were hugely popular—and frequent—and top-tier athletes still came to Aspen to race.
“It was a matter of local pride to win the Silverboom,” says Morse, who also coached Nordic skiing and ran the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.
Current AVSC Nordic Director August Teague started competing in the Silverboom as a child. The race was “certainly one of the first opportunities for Nordic skiing competition that a lot of youth in the 1970s and ’80s had,” he says. Teague went on to race in college, run college Nordic programs, and coach for the Australian ski team.
Another native Aspen cross-country skier, Ruth Baxter Wade, was so inspired by racing the Silverboom alongside US Ski Team members that she pursued the sport and ended up on the team herself for eight years.
Today’s event is quite different. In the last couple of decades, participation has waned to about 20 to 25 racers, according to Snowmass Cross Country Center Manager Mark Kincheloe, who currently organizes the Silverboom as part of the six-event Aspen Cup Nordic Series. Says Teague, competitive skiers’ schedules are usually packed with training and sanctioned events elsewhere, and, note Kincheloe and others, many locals are just too busy.
But numbers aren’t what matter most, say members of the relatively small, tight-knit local Nordic community. “It’s a little bit the glue that holds us together,” says Bob Wade, co-owner with his wife, Ruth, of the Ute Mountaineer, which promotes the race. “There’s a lot of really passionate skiers in the valley, and they’ve all participated in the Silverboom.”
Meanwhile, recreational cross-country skiing seems to be experiencing a resurgence, both locally and nationally. “Like anything, it ebbs and flows,” says Teague. “Now, with [US Ski Team members and Olympic gold medalists] Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall, we’re seeing another boom, not with racing but certainly with participation, compared to even a few years ago.”
“Not anybody can drop into an 18-foot half-pipe,” notes Teague. “Not anybody can hike and ski Highland Bowl. But anybody can strap on cross-country skis and have fresh air and the wind and sun on their face.”
50th Annual Silverboom Race & BBQ, 5K/15K skate
1K Kiddie Boom follows main event
March 1, 2020, 10 a.m., Snowmass Cross Country Center