Roughed up, bruised, and battered at Sun Valley's Scorpion Nationals
Published in POWDER Magazine, Volume 44, Issue 4 | December 2015
Last day of the season, last run of the day. Nothing to lose. The lifts are shut down and a band plays on for hundreds of costumed revelers at the base of Sun Valley, Idaho. Meanwhile, high up on the mountain, just beyond the resort boundary, 10 brave souls click into the most absurd skis you’ve never heard of, brace their edges in sloppy late-afternoon corn—or dirt, depending on the season—and prepare to race to the bottom. The first one to slam the beer waiting on the bar at Apple’s wins.
The precursor to snowblades, scorpion skis are the antithesis of any tool built for downhill racing. Developed in the 1970s to ski powder, these reverse-camber skinny sticks were designed with a long tip and no tail. As in, the ski ends about an inch or two after the heelpiece on the binding. How the hell do you turn on these things? You lean back, pivot, and pray. Except for when you’re tearing down a mountain, through the trees, at 45 mph, pointing it through patches of snow and dirt, givin’er with everything you’ve got, and when the opportunity arises, sabotaging the skier next to you. In that case, don’t turn.
It was winter, 2008. Carl Rixon, Jr., 33, a second-generation Sun Valley local, was shooting the shit late night at Apple’s with Brett Jacobson, his buddy from his old ski racing days, and a few other guys. They all worked at Sturtevants, a ski shop next door to the bar, where they discovered a forgotten stash of scorpion skis in the crawl space under the tuning room. The booze mixed with testosterone, which boosted their egos, and you know what happens then—they nearly fell off their bar stools laughing at the thought of a Chinese downhill on scorpion skis. There’s even an out-of-bounds run called Scorpion that would be perfect for such an event. Genius! The next morning, Rixon claims the idea was forgotten. But when the last day of the 2008 season arrived, the boys’ egos returned.
“We called it the Fucking Scorpion Nationals,” says Rixon, “because we knew it would be one of those events.”
Everyone starts at the same time. And that’s the only rule. The scorpion skis are mounted with rental bindings from the ’70s, which have a DIN of approximately 5. The course—located about a third of the way up the mountain, just beyond the resort boundary, and visible from the base area—is a strip of white in the trees, except in dry years, when the sun melts the snow down to patches in the dirt.
“People get pretty roughed up, bruised, and battered,” says Bryce Newcomb, a former Scorpion Nationals champion. “A lot of blood.”
After racers make it through the trees—hopefully without a mouthful of rocks—they catch the cat track, go into a tuck over the bridge, and careen into the main base area. The goal is to pick up speed before you hit the pavement in order to skid as far across the patio as possible. Once, Newcomb took out a tent. Rixon took out a spectator. After the skid, the skiers click out of the scorpions and sprint around the corner to the bar.
One year of the Scorpion Nationals was written into history as the Olympic year. It was, in fact, the same year as the Vancouver Olympics. The sky was overcast and dark. The mountain had the least amount of snow in years. The racers wore pink T-shirts with fighting scorpions. At the starting line, the officiate lit a bare fireworks mortar. The sparks hit the sky and the skiers took off.
Rixon got to the bar first, chugged his victory beer, and celebrated his win with Jacobson, the racers, and the crowd. That’s when they saw the smoke in the air, near the starting line. Rixon grabbed a shovel and ran back up the mountain in his flip-flops and board shorts. Jacobson looked up in awe until Don Wiseman, the former executive director of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, who was also Rixon and Jacobson’s boss (both are race coaches), gave the quote that’s since become famous in Sun Valley:
“Congratulations, Jacobson. The fire department is here.”