Battle on the Beast of the East | Helly Hansen Big Mountain Battle Comes to Killington

Photo by Hugh Johnson, Smugglers' Notch Resort.

In 2008, the folks at Helly Hansen tried something new. They sponsored a race in Aspen called the Battle of the Bowls, which was part adventure race and part scavenger hunt. The event was successful enough to spawn a series of races at mountains across the country.

Now known as the Helly Hansen Big Mountain Battle, the series is held mostly at western resorts. Vermont has been the only eastern state to claim host, first at Smugglers’ Notch, and this year, at Killington.

In the battle, two-person teams find designated locations across the mountain using hiking, timing, and orienteering skills, all while skiing or riding. Teams are provided with a map, a card with five checkpoints, and a GPS system to track individuals’ movements, ensuring they stay within 100 meters of their teammates.

Amy Picotte of Underhill raced all three years the event was at Smuggs, first with a friend and then twice with her son. “We love the Big Mountain Battle,” she said. “It’s like a huge scavenger hunt on the mountain with endurance, strength, strategy and the love of skiing.

Photo by Hugh Johnson, Smugglers' Notch Resort.

Although anyone can enter the race, Marc Campbell, national organizer of the event, said locals are more likely to do so since they are more familiar with their home mountain.

“It’s a ‘locals’ event,” he said, “but it’s also great for visitors, to give them the full mountain experience.” A few years ago, Campbell said, a couple entered the competition at Sun Peaks, despite having had only two on-snow days at the resort. By entering the competition, they ended up seeing more of the mountain in three hours than they had the previous two days. Marshall Rutman of Helly Hansen said some participants plan their vacations to certain ski areas so they can compete. “You need some knowledge of the mountain,” he said, “but you also need strategy. What we’ve found is it’s not the fastest skiers or boarders who win, but those with the best strategy.”

The competitive field tends to be very diverse—there have been racers as young as 9 and several in their 60s. Couples often compete together, but there are also teams made of parents and children.

Racers are divided into three categories: an advanced course; an intermediate course that is shorter and has no hiking; and an intermediate course, for those with at least one team member 12 or younger. The winning team on the advanced course from each event wins a $2,000 coupon for Helly Hansen clothing and a trip to the final round of the series, which takes place at Aspen.

Michael Wagener and his friend Keith Christian won the event two years in a row at Taos, winning a trip to Aspen each time. Wagener had never been to Aspen before.

“We didn’t know the mountain,” he said, “and I wrecked hard twice, once into a tree, but we still did well in the brutally hard, three-plus hour event, finishing fifth overall. It’s the closest I’ve come to being a rock star.”

Smugglers’ Notch Snow Sport University director, Harley Johnson, and her husband, Hugh, better known as the Smuggs Snow Reporter, took part in the race when it was held at Smuggs. Johnson agreed with Rutman’s assessment that strategy trumps speed at the event. She believes she and Hugh beat out some skiers and riders who were in better shape than they were. “You have to be fit,” she said, “but you also have to use your head, strategize, and know how to read a trail map.”

Campbell said season-pass holders have told him that Big Mountain Battle is their favorite mountain event. “It adds a whole new element to the mountain,” he said. “We take locals to places they typically don’t go.”

Although there have been winners on both skis and boards, Rutman believes those on two planks have an advantage because some sections of the course may be flat and skating is faster than running.

This year, the Big Mountain Battle will be held at nine locations: Aspen, Fernie, Keystone, Kicking Horse, Park City, Squaw Valley, Stevens Pass, and Taos, as well as right here at Killington.

Moving the event’s sole eastern location from Smugglers’ Notch to Killington was not a reflection of any problems at Smuggs, Rutman said. “We had three years at Smuggs, and it was a good run,” he said. More than 200 skiers and riders participated over those three years. “We’ll try it at Killington,” he said, “and see what kind of participation level we get.”

Rutman said, ideally, organizers would like to spread out geographically and add a location in Quebec. He believes some resorts may be nervous about holding the event because it takes place while other guests are skiing and riding, and because it has “battle” in the name. However, the fact that the Big Mountain Battle took place at Smuggs and will be taking place in Park City, shows it is compatible with a family mountain. Participants are not allowed to speed or ski recklessly, something that can be verified by the GPS units they carry. To minimize the event’s impact on other guests, the markers are not in wide-open areas, but tucked away off piste. “No mountain has ever run the event and then decided not to have it for a second or third year,” Rutman said.

The Big Mountain Battle at Killington will take place on March 17 and cover all six Killington mountains. “It’s a unique event that utilizes the whole mountain, and all ages and disciplines can participate,” said Matt Porter, events and sponsorship manager for Killington Resort.

Braving for Battle?
March 17, 2012
Killington Mountain Resort
Cost: $90 per team, but that includes $45 worth of Helly Hansen clothing.

Phyl Newbeck

Phyl Newbeck lives in Jericho with two spoiled orange cats. She is a skier, skater, cyclist, kayaker, and lover of virtually any sport which does not involve motors. She is the author of “Virginia Hasn’t Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving.”