The history of snow sports is one of tragedy, folly and regret. But some things hurt more than others.
I’m not talking about that Yugoslavian dude who characterized the opening “agony of defeat” sequence on ABC’s Wide World of Sports in the 1970s. Or the Marine Corps jet pilot who slashed a gondola line with his wing tip in Italy and turned 20 jolly skiers into a gravity-assisted mess of blood and bones in the cold snow. Or Bode Miller talking himself up at the Winter Olympics before choking like a kitten tangling with a nuclear hair ball. And I’m definitely not talking about Taos opening up its slopes to snowboarders last year.
No, I’m talking about the Angel Fire ski resort killing its shovel racing event in 2005 after 30 fun-filled years of mayhem and drunken horror. I’m not one to reduce issues to the juvenile, but—seriously—what boners.
And all because of “liability.”
When a legal adult cannot take a sharp-edged tool with a long, hardwood handle, sit on it and hurl down a mountainside at speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour, we can be certain that America is not what it used to be.
Our legal system may be able to rightfully claim credit for significant advances in civil rights and the occasional turn of actual justice, but the whole idea of the United States as the land of the free and the home of the brave died with the first frivolous lawsuit. The notion of liability has been whittling our fighting spirit into gooey unpalatable slop ever since.
It’s true the British coined the term “nanny state,” but they are an island of people whom God has punished by making them pasty, politically inept and confused by snow sports. No, the US is the true nanny state—we carry riders on our homeowners insurance in case our friends sue us for slipping on our doorsteps. We suspend Cub Scouts from school for packing their knife/fork/spoon sets into the classroom. We ban gel insoles from being worn on airplane flights. If we could bolt training wheels to young pedestrians, we would do it. In fact, failure to do so would be punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.
But to create an environment in which it’s financially untenable for ski resorts to allow us to race our buddies down steep, icy hills while sitting on shovels is just inexcusable.
Fortunately, there’s one American attribute that lawyers can never take from us: the instinctual knowledge that if you can’t do something stupid and dangerous in public, you can always sneak off into the woods and do it far away from boring safety nazis and emergency rescue services.
At this point, you may be asking yourself if racing shovels is really a good idea. A snow shovel is a handy tool, no doubt. But its blade is supposed to go down into the snow rather than downhill handle first, right? Well, that’s the kind of attitude that’s rotting this nation. Shovel racing is the working-class sport of our forefathers. Rocky Mountain coal miners in 19th century Colorado used to descend from a hard day at the mines by hopping on their shovels and letting precipitous drops do the work for them, ice glistening in the dim glow of their mining lanterns all the while.
Modern shovel racing was popularized after lift operators at Angel Fire Resort discovered what their coal-mining forebears had: a fast way down the mountain. Lifties, of course, are notorious stoners, so naturally the shovel racers competed in the Winter X Games as part of an assault on the Winter Olympics. Shovel racing was never invited back. Depending on whom you talk to, it’s because the sport was either too extreme or too boring.
John Schrader, aka, Shovelmeister—shovel racing’s most notorious record holder, advocate and speed aficionado—once reminded NPR’s Scott Simon that America’s first mass-media encounter with shovel racing was in the opening sequence of Jimmy Stewart’s 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life. Anyone who thinks there’s something more American than coal mining and Jimmy Stewart should just admit that they’re working with the Taliban right now.
Here’s the kicker. A quality snow shovel, say an Ames Co. Steel Scoop, is going to come in at approximately $42. Compare that with a snowboard or a set of skis or even a child’s toboggan. Some may argue that a large rubber inner tube is even cheaper and can double as a lazy-river navigating tool in the summer months. True enough, but you can’t shovel your walk or build an igloo with an inner tube, and no self-respecting coal miner would be caught using one to finish off a wintry shift.
Don’t be tempted by a cheaper plastic or aluminum shovel. You’ll want the steel, not only for its keister-coddling strength, but also because the classic speed-increasing waxes—like ski wax, car wax or pork fat—adhere better. Don’t try to stand on the shovel, it’s not a magic carpet. And don’t try to straddle it like Harry Potter does with his magic sex broom; instead, point the handle downhill with the shovel head’s flattest surface on the snow. Sit down in the scoop of the shovel with one leg on either side of the handle and your heels dug in to keep you from sliding. Fight the instinct to grab the handle as some kind of steering lever or phallic security splinter. Lay backward as though you are reclining on a luge. Take a deep breath. Point your feet down the hill. Go.
At this point, you might suddenly recall that people routinely achieve highway speeds while sitting on shovels. If you see that you are heading for trees, cliffs, traffic-filled roads, angry pit bulls or someone who’s going to give you a talking to, use your hands as outriggers for gentle steering inputs. If you oversteer and end up sliding headfirst, chances are the shovel blade will dig in and flip you over backward and the hardwood handle will smack you on the head. Then your friends will laugh at you, as will the spirits of coal miners past. In fact, America will laugh at you.
That’s OK, though. You can laugh too. It’s just riding a shovel down a hill.
And doing it faster than your friends.