It’s the granddaddy of ski races.
The Fisk Trophy Race, held annually on the The Face, a steep, highway-wide run at Suicide Six in Pomfret, Vt., is the oldest ongoing ski race in the country. The giant trophy dating back to 1937 resides in the base lodge of the tiny ski area and reads like a “Who’s Who” of American ski racing: the names countless Olympians, ski racing pioneers and college greats are wrapped around its base.
The Feb. 21, 2016, rendition of the race offered up a field as competitive as any in the East this season. Michael Ankeny interrupted his World Cup training to fly in for the race; Robby Kelley — also a World Cup racer and member of Redneck Racing — was looking to defend his title from 2015; and top skiers from the college circuit were there in force. All were looking forward to the fun of racing at a small, intimate ski area that offered a supreme challenge, but they could not possibly have anticipated what awaited them that morning.
There have often been challenges in hosting the race for the local Woodstock Ski Runners club, but none so formidable as those conspiring to put a halt to the streak this time around. But as Chuck Vanderstreet, manager of Suicide Six, proclaimed, “This race has been going on a long time, and tradition will not be broken on my watch. This is our [79th] anniversary, we just had to make it happen.”
To say that racing conditions in the East have been challenging this year would be a colossal understatement. Strips of machine-made snow provide a vivid contrast to the green grass and weeds that appear in the adjacent fields. With the temperatures taking weekly 50-degree swings, ski areas have been struggling against the constant cycles of freezing and thawing.
Like all the other Eastern areas, Suicide Six has waged a remarkably successful battle in providing good skiing conditions, but even the week before the Fisk Trophy, the snow guns were deployed once again to provide adequate cover for the race.
It was a major effort, and as of the day before the race, the area was ready for the onslaught of some of the best racers in the East.
Until 8 p.m. the night before the race.
“We got a call from the Vermont safety inspectors,” says mountain manager Gerren Goodwin. “There was an accident in West Virginia involving a lift like ours, and they ordered us to close until our lift could be inspected for similar flaws. I guess they really didn’t care that we had a race scheduled for the next day.”
A flurry of phone calls ensued. “I got the message at 8:15,” says race director, Gary Fletcher. “I spoke with Chuck and the referee and TD for the race. I thought about calling the local snowmobile club. They’d have loved going up and down the mountain towing racers, but it was too late. So we came up with another plan.”
Before daybreak the following morning, the ski patrol collected all their evacuation ropes, tied loops at 15-foot intervals, and affixed two ropes to the two state-of-the-art Piston Bully grooming machines and a vintage 1974 Tucker snowcat to haul racers to the top of the mountain.
“We could tow about 20 at a time,” says Goodwin, the pilot of one of the groomers, “and it didn’t take too much longer than riding the chair.” The Tucker soon succumbed to the effort, but the Piston Bullys seamlessly picked up the slack.
Naturally, all the racers were eager to give this new form of uphill transportation a try. Without reservation, they grabbed the ropes, sometimes two at each loop, and with hoots and hollers ascended the Easy Mile trail to the summit, where the ski patrol greeted them with freshly made grilled pancakes and sausage — another Fisk Trophy tradition.
And, oh yes, there was a ski race, which featured an awe-inspiring display of ski racing. Michael Ankeny will have his name engraved on the Fisk Trophy, but Robby Kelley, who wound up second, was not disappointed.
“It was like a World Cup,” says Kelley. “All the racers collected at the top of the hill, where you could see the entire race, and were yelling and cheering as we all went down. It was tough, but the salted snow held up well. You just had to ski the groove.” Third place went to Middlebury College skier Colin Hayes.
“I’ve been racing here since I was 15, and it has to be one of my favorite races,” says Kelley. “I’m so glad they got the race off, and I appreciate how huge an effort they made. They worked hard for this one.”
Vanderstreet, who joined Goodwin in the cab for a few laps during the race, says he appreciated the compliment. “I think they had more fun going uphill than skiing downhill,” he says with a laugh. “They were doing 360s and pushing each other. It was worth all the effort to see the smiling faces. They’re not going to forget this one.”