Nearly a decade before Aaron Blunck would become America’s best hope to win an Olympic gold medal in the half-pipe, the Crested Butte freeskiing prodigy caught a ride north for early-season training in Summit County.
Blunck was in seventh grade then. Now 21 and the reigning X Games and world champion, he’s made the same trip to Summit County every year since—including this November in preparation for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. “Once Copper and Breck open, I always spend at least two weeks there, then once the pipe opens, I’m there until the end of December,” says Blunck, who stays at a condo rented by the US Ski Team or pays local friends to crash with them.
He is hardly alone. For two months, even though you might not know it if you don’t venture up to watch, Summit County becomes the epicenter of global snowsports talent. In fact, almost every Alpine racer, freeskier, and snowboarder you will see on NBC during the Olympics spent much of the early Northern Hemisphere season training in Summit County—from Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin to Chloe Kim and Shaun White, as well as more than a dozen European national teams.
This is due to a handful of factors, primarily Summit’s high elevation and reliably cold temperatures, which have helped its resorts build a reputation for producing world-class training and competition venues before any of their competitors. Copper Mountain is home to the US Speed Center—a two-mile-long, 2,300-vertical-foot Alpine track under the Super Bee lift that simulates World Cup downhill and super-G conditions, allowing racers to reach speeds of up to 80 mph. Thanks to snowmaking, the track opens in early November and hosts everyone from the powerhouse Americans and Austrians to tiny squads from Monaco and Ireland.
Copper also traditionally opens North America’s first full-size half-pipe around Thanksgiving, providing a premier training ground leading up to the US Grand Prix it hosts in early December. This year, the Grand Prix serves as the season’s first Olympic qualifier for American skiers and snowboarders who specialize in half-pipe or big air—a new Olympic discipline that involves throwing spectacular tricks over a giant jump. Both the pipe and jump are visible from the Center Village base area, which makes spectating easy—even if there’s not a competition happening.
To ensure a top-notch product, the US Ski Team sends noted pipe cutter Jake Ingle to assist Copper’s in-house guru, Mark Pevny, leading up to the Grand Prix. That means two-thirds of the 2018 Olympic pipe-building team also builds Copper’s pipe. What’s more, Ingle and Pevny used Copper’s new, state-of-the-art Zaugg 22 Plus pipe cutter, which carves a smoother transition below the walls and passed its first test—with rave reviews—at USA Snowboard and Freeski Association nationals last spring.
Although national teams typically reserve the pipe each morning, it opens to the public afterward.
“It’s amazing that Timmy from Texas can come here on vacation and, right after the Olympic athletes are done training in the pipe, he can go ride the exact same pipe,” says Noah Schwander, Copper’s terrain park and progression manager. “You can’t really say that about any other Olympic sport.”
Although Breckenridge opens its half-pipe shortly after Copper, the resort usually offers the earliest jump line in America—Upper Park Lane—which attracts local and international slopestyle specialists. Bigger jumps in Freeway Terrain Park follow Park Lane’s in advance of the Dew Tour, another Olympic qualifier, set for December 14–17. To help athletes train, Vail Resorts provides season passes to the US and Canadian national teams. (Keystone, in its A-51 terrain park, and Loveland, on a custom Alpine track, also host elite competitors for early season training but do not stage competitions.)
“The sport is being pushed every day when we’re all together,” Blunck says of Summit’s talent convergence. “And it’s really cool to watch, because one day you’re doing this trick, and the next day you’re learning another trick because you get inspired by somebody else. It’s a crazy scene.”
One that, if you watch closely, could predict what will happen in Korea on the world’s biggest stage come February.