Whirlwind ski event features some of the biggest and meanest moguls in the west
By Kurt Gensheimer
I never realized how bad of a bump skier I was until I attempted the Gunbarrel 25 at Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe on March 31, 2018. The event, founded in 2004 by ski legend Glen Plake, and now run by his dad Jim, is a phenomenon. For participants, the event is a complete whirlwind. The goal is to ski 25 laps of the 1,600 vertical foot Gunbarrel run within six hours time, laden with some of the biggest and meanest moguls in the West. Several folks crazy enough to sign up for the Gunbarrel will not only achieve 25 laps, but will keep going until the clock stops.
Plake wanted to model the Gunbarrel as a gravity-fed, snow version of a motorcycle enduro; a difficult event that has all participants running for hours in a circle, and nobody knows who’s in the lead. The Gunbarrel rewards perseverance and mental toughness. Skiing bumps as big and unforgiving as Gunbarrel even one time is a feat, but 25 or more? It takes some serious huevos and commitment. And maybe a little brain damage.
To be honest, I didn’t have much interest in skiing Gunbarrel at least 25 times. I was more interested in skiing with Max Fish and his parents Ben and Amy who run the Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association (TAMBA) and are fixtures in the South Lake Tahoe community. Max is eight years old and watching him rip is like watching a small adult who’s been skiing for 30 years. The videos Amy takes of Max dropping little cliffs three times his size is one of my favorite things on social media. His skill and technique goes way beyond any other eight-year-old I’ve ever seen, and I wanted to experience this curious event following Max, especially considering how important this event is to him.
“The Gunbarrel is Max’s identity,” said Ben. “He stares out his school’s window all day, gazing at Gunbarrel, looking forward to this event every year.”
But that plan of skiing with Max vanished almost as soon as it began. Riding up the chairlift, through the sea of mega sugar mounds peppered with manzanita, rocks, an exposed steel irrigation pipe and some dirt and grass for good measure, I watched the first few dozen contestants drop in with a collective thrash of metal edges sliding on a firm crust. Numerous yard sales went down in the first hundred meters, unleashed skis careening free while bodies slid face forward down the mountain. My judgement was immediately put into question. What had I just signed up for? This was going to be 40,000 vertical feet of survival skiing.
We unloaded the lift and Max took off. He dropped in and wasted no time dicing the bumps, some as tall as him, while I was busy being a complete flailure – where flailing meets failure. The 1,600 vertical foot drop on Gunbarrel is known for its man-eating bumps. After hitting the deck twice on the first lap, by the time I reached the lift for my second run, my legs were screaming with lactic acid and my shoulder was a little tweaked from slugging a bump. I sat down on the lift next to Ben and took stock of the situation.
“I don’t know what that just was, but it sure wasn’t fun or graceful,” I said. “Not sure if I can take 24 more of those.”
“Conditions are great right now,” said Ben with a smile. “Last year the entire run was an ice sheet half the day. Today there’s only ice at the top and it will be gone in an hour.”
Perspective is everything, I guess. Thankfully, the second run was noticeably more tolerable than the first, and the third even more tolerable than that. By the four run I had scanned the hill enough to get a pretty good line top to bottom, staying in contact with Ben and Amy. The snow started softening up and the screaming in my legs dulled to a mere holler. Things were looking up.
When Amy, Ben and I reached the bottom of our sixth lap, Max came zooming up into line right next to us and sat down on the chairlift. In six laps, little Max Fish had lapped us. I was astonished and inspired by the mental toughness and physical perseverance of this little man.
We got off the lift and I was committed to keeping up with Max to see how he got down the mountain so fast. I was barely maintaining Max’s pace when I presently found myself on the ground minus a ski. I looked over at a black object laying next to my ski; the toe plate binding had completely ripped out of my old rock skis. I gathered up the yard sale and saw the holes in the ski were completely stripped. My Gunbarrel experience was ending at seven laps, a reality that I was actually quite content with. The Universe was trying to tell me, “hey buddy, here’s a convenient excuse to walk away now before things get ugly.”
I took the advice the Universe had on offer, but first I had to negotiate more than half the remaining descent on one ski while trying not to get run over the hundreds of other participants careening down the mountain. I eventually reached the bottom with little more than a bruised ego and retrieved my ski. Ben, Amy and Max continued to burn laps while I bid adieu and raced back home to Verdi to catch a much more relaxing and satisfying endeavor; an evening mountain bike ride.
Later that day I got a text from Ben. Max skied 38 laps for a total of 60,800 vertical feet of bumps, while Amy and Ben finished with a respectable 30 laps and 48,000 vertical. And might I add Amy and Ben were on snowboards. After I got Ben’s text I thanked the Universe. I would have been completely incapacitated or possibly even hospitalized had I tried to keep up with the Fish family.
So who is the Gunbarrel for? A confounding question for sure. I feel like it’s one of those events you complete just to say you did it. But for those true bump enthusiasts and masochists, it’s an event you just might end up coming back to every year, assuming there’s enough snow. Would I do the Gunbarrel again? Maybe if I was a better skier, or if Mother Nature dumped two feet of freshies the night before.