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Denizens of the Ditch

Reading Time: 9 minutes

One of the longest running banked slaloms is distinguished by a rugged, unpredictable course and its fearless riders.

The emcee booth couldn’t have been in a better spot on the Dick’s Ditch course at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. It was right in the thick of the action, perched near one of the massive sculpted turns. From this vantage point, emcee Jeff Moran had a perfect view of the competitors weaving through the banked slalom course. This made it easier for Moran to heckle the participants on the loudspeaker while Elliot Alston, a.k.a. DJ ERA, played everything from heavy metal to hip-hop. The two men brought the party.

Dick’s Ditch isn’t your normal banked slalom, after all. It has personality. Imagine a bobsled track plopped in a narrow ditch. Start at the steep Amphitheater Bowl, now add some man-made turns, a wiggle or two, a couple massive jumps, and you’ve got a Dick’s Ditch course. Well, kind of; the design is always dictated by the year’s snow conditions, which have historically varied from powder to absolute crud. But that’s the beauty of it, you never know what you’re getting yourself into.

It began with an avalanche

Emceeing was a first for Moran. Over the past 18 years, he’s been more acquainted with the start gate and the burn of navigating an ass-kicking course. When he was the head snowboard coach and director of the Freeride Program for the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club, he encouraged his snowboarders to race too. But competing was merely half the experience. Sure, vying for a spot on the podium was motivation, but for him, Dick’s Ditch is also about commiserating with competitors at the bottom of the course.

That’s because simply making it to the finish line alive and uninjured is a huge accomplishment. The course is notorious for getting extremely rutted, which only heightens the potential of being launched into the sidelines. A few times, course designers (JHMR’s Park and Pipe crew) have been extra cruel, placing the finish line at the lip of a jump. In addition to burning lungs and screaming legs, participants had to absolutely pin it over that jump to make it through the finish line.

The race’s origins are just as extreme as its finish line. It began with an avalanche. In 1966, ski patroller and race namesake Dick Porter was running a route in the ditch when he was caught by a slide and completely buried for roughly 90 minutes. Rescuers dug him out and whisked him down to the Alpenhof Lodge at the base of the resort. To mitigate his ensuing hypothermia, they placed Porter in a hotel room bathtub. Porter, now 81, hasn’t skied that route since, but you might see him near the finish line. He even wears the same goggles from that day. In 2017, he gleefully handed out the grand prize: the coveted Dick’s Ditch belt buckle. Those buckles mirror the event: they’re unique. Fit for a rodeo king or queen, the intricately carved silver buckle is accented with gold and rubies. For locals, there’s an ingrained sense of pride that comes with showing it off around town.

Snowboarding. 18-19 JHSM. Riders Halina Boyd, Kelly Halpin, and Nikki Lee after their runs through Dick's Ditch. Photo: Ryan Dee.
Halina Boyd, Kelly Halpin and Nikki Lee sharing some stoke. Photo: Ryan Dee

From groms to pros

What began as a tribute to Porter in 1999 has indeed evolved. Organizers initially modeled it after Mt. Baker’s Banked Slalom, considered the pinnacle of banked slaloms. But JHMR, where snowboarders are a small but mighty minority, decided to do things differently. They welcomed skiers to boost participation. This duality allows people across disciplines to come together.

“It creates a community vibe — everyone is out there: young and old,” Moran said. “Plus, anyone can do it. You can go fast or slow, but the beauty of the event is you’re all riding the same course and having the same experience.” With 18 different categories, there’s a class for everyone: amateurs, masters, and pros. Groms can even compete at the age of 12, which has allowed for entire families to compete together.

With that inclusion, the course started to change. Gradually, it became less of a banked slalom and more of a ski/snowboard cross style of racing. This was most evident in the inclusion of big jumps. Those features stood out to big mountain snowboarder Halina Boyd.

Beyond the event, Boyd’s snowboarding has taken her everywhere. She has carved a first descent on Wyoming’s Gannett Peak and explored remote zones in China’s Altai Mountains. Considering that a bulk of her life is spent in airport terminals, she’s thankful to have a challenging event in her backyard. Comparing it to Mount Baker’s slalom, which she competed in two years ago, she found Dick’s Ditch significantly more challenging.

Mount Baker’s Slalom

In Washington, it’s about precision. Minute factors, like the wax you use, can shave seconds off your time. But, “with Dick’s you’ve just got to give it your all,” she said. It embodies Wyoming’s “Wild West” identity. Conquering such a rugged course requires a tactful blend of speed and strategy. Some years, because the conditions are so variable, it’s simply about surviving. The wiggles are a testament to this, they’re notorious for eating racers alive. One year the race started with one. Boyd remembers that it was so rutted out that speed no longer mattered. Those who stood on the podium at the end of the day did so by simply staying on their feet.

But if there is anything more daunting than the wiggle, it’s the jumps. In 2013, Boyd tentatively eyed the road gap jumps. They were serious business. Maneuvering around them was the safer option, but Boyd’s time was sure to suffer. She realized that if she hit them right, it would be the quickest way to the finish line. Approaching the first road gap, she charged and hit it head-on. Not only did she land it and the subsequent gaps, but she also landed into first place for the women’s professional division.

“I hadn’t won a major event in my career yet, so it felt really good to go out and pursue a goal,” Boyd said. “To also race with some of my peers was pretty cool because we were able to do it together and be supportive of each other.”

Snowboarding. 18-19 JHSM. Rider Kayson Jones about to drop in after rider Lucy Schultz. Photo: Ryan Dee.
Kayson Jones in the gate after Lucy Schultz. Photo: Ryan Dee

While winning was sweet, the camaraderie she experienced was more indelible. That first year she competed alongside a solid group of women that all raced together in the pro division. Mother nature was gracious on practice day, and they arrived at a course blanketed in forgiving powder. Pinning through the practice lap, they kept going. Soon they were racing down to the Thunder lift looking for more stashes of untracked snow. “It was this incredible bonding moment, where we all came together,” Boyd said. Today, those women are some of her closest friends.

A Unique Breed

The community that’s created is what makes Dick’s so special, and something that’s harder to find at bigger events. At the end of the day, Dick’s is a competition first and foremost, but the racers aren’t afraid to have fun.

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There isn’t a particular trope that fits a Dick’s Ditch racer. “As snowboarding becomes older, Dick’s Ditch is a reflection of the generations that now exist within that sport,” Moran said. Snowboarding icon Julie Zell, 50, competed in the past two races. Last year, one young competitor could be seen cheering her on from the finish line: her 12-year-old son Ronin. “It felt special to be out competing again—especially with Ronin,” Zell said. A series of head injuries, had kept her away from any amount of aggressive riding. Two years ago was the first time she had whipped through a start gate in about 15 years.

At one point in her career, she spent four seasons racing giant slalom on both the World Cup and International Snowboard Federation circuits. But her skills extended past the race gate. She also broke boundaries in the freeride realm. A pioneering big mountain rider, Zell stunned the male-dominated snowboarding world, capturing first descents on steep Alaskan lines in the Chugach mountains.

Snowboarding. 18-19 JHSM. A Dick's Ditch competitor catches some air mid run amid a blizzard. Photo: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Photo: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

Nearly 30 years later, it was a style of riding she had the chance to relive at this year’s Beartooth Basin freeriding event. “I never thought in a million years that I would do another freeride competition,” she said. A VIP wildcard entry pushed her to compete. She left Beartooth with a first place win.

Like riding on the edge of disaster on every single turn.

If You’re Not First, You’re Last

Back in the 2018 ditch, Moran said he saw a whole variety of characters whiz by his emcee table. In addition to locals, potent riders like Chase Josey were on the roster. Josey, an Olympian and member of the U.S. Snowboard team, made the trek from Hailey, Idaho, to compete in the men’s professional division. It came down to six-tenths of a second, in which Josey emerged victorious over second place winner and teammate Pat Holland. One of the event’s most decorated champions, Rob Kingwill, placed third. “Every year I walk in with a target on my head,” Kingwill said with a laugh.

Running late for inspection day last year, Kingwill rushed into registration and left his board outside Jackson Hole Sports. After finishing the paperwork, Kingwill grabbed his gear and jumped on the gondola. As he reached to tighten his ankle straps at the top, he discovered they were gone. Someone had swiped them. He believes it was a ploy to keep him from examining the course. To spite the culprit, Kingwill previewed the course with just his toe straps anyway—something he recommends to no one.

Snowboarding. 18-19 JHSM. Gold medal winner Halina Boyd stands upon the top of the Dick's Ditch podium. Photo: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Halina Boyd was a repeat gold winner in the ditch. Photo: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

The professional division at Dick’s is also unique that a snowboarding legend like Kingwill, who’s 43, can go head-to-head with a 23-year-old Olympian like Josey. Age is just a number on race day, because everyone is on the same playing field. The former U.S. Open Halfpipe Champ, 2x Banked Pro Masters Champ, and owner of the apparel company Avalon 7 has been a Dick’s Ditch staple since practically its inception. He’s lost count of how many times he’s won, but his guess is seven. Over the years there’s been no shortage of antics.

“One year Travis Rice and I made a gentlemen’s agreement where we had to spin over every single jump,” Kingwill said. His most memorable race was in 2015. Kingwill was fresh off of a win in the pro masters division at Baker and felt the pressure. Sure enough, the course was as brutal as it could be. There was a gap jump that sent a huge portion of the racers over the handlebars. Whiteout conditions made it difficult to see. Carnage ensued. Kingwill knew that the toughest element was waiting for him on the upper portion of the ditch: a tight, unforgiving wiggle.

A Rowdy Race

“To ride it at full speed and try to race it was like riding on the edge of disaster on every single turn,” he said. “It was a battle because everything was on the line—and that’s what makes Dick’s Ditch so fun. It can be real rowdy some years.” Fully pinned on one of those turns he almost lost it. Somehow, he got his feet back underneath him. Not only did he survive, he managed to claim victory as well. These are the Dick’s Ditch moments of glory that have come to define the event.

Snowboarding. 18-19 JHSM. The competitors of Dick's Ditch. Photo: Ryan Dee.
Riders assess the competition. Photo: Ryan Dee

Glory or not, Kingwill loves how the race unifies people. “It feels like the community built [the course], that’s what’s cool about banked slaloms,” because the more you ride the better it gets. That’s why the resort opened the course up to the public a week prior to the event last year, Jess McMillan, JHMR’s event coordinator, explained. You can’t create those massive banked turns with a machine, it comes from the riders themselves.

JHMR has big plans for the future, starting with returning the course to its roots with a more traditional banked slalom design, but with added flair. “[Baker] has this super cool toilet bowl feature, and I would love if we could do something like that,” McMillan said.

Meanwhile, the talent pool has increased as the event has grown. The goal, Kingwill said, is to eventually be on par with Baker’s, which gets about 400 competitors each year. Right now Dick’s hosts about 130, but the sky’s the limit for expansion. Building up the event could lead to something even more exciting: a banked slalom world tour. Kingwill has only heard rumors of the idea, but should that ever come to fruition Jackson would no doubt be high on the venue list.

“For now it’s good to see everyone come out and get nervous for a minute,” Kingwill said, and that’s one quality that will never change about Dick’s Ditch.

Katie Lozancich is a writer, photographer and artist living in Jackson Hole.

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