Tom Ross: Remembering the good old days

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— Try to imagine, if you can, more than 100 howling ski bums lined up across the top of Heavenly Daze.

They're preparing for a mad free-for-all downhill race in which no one wins, but someone definitely loses. Incredibly, the Steamboat professional ski patrol is overseeing the preparations.

Stretch your imagination a little further and conjure up the laughable prospect of the city of Steamboat Springs lending one of its backhoes to a wild scheme to wind up the ski season.

The event includes an amateur freestyle aerial contest involving fearless skiers launching from a snow ramp and landing in a muddy pond dug just for the occasion, right in front of Howelsen Hill Lodge.

Does all of this sound preposterous? Try out this next fantasy.

Fast forward the calendar to July 12, and drive down to Bucci Ponds on the Yampa River.

A throng of half-dressed people is dragging homemade water craft down to the river to launch an armada that makes the busiest tubing day of the late 1990s look like a floating Tupperware party. Leading the fleet is a giant Nile River barge commanded by none other than Cleopatra dressed in leopard skins and a golden wig.

All of these things really happened back in Steamboat's wild and woolly days of the 1970s. You gentle readers seemed to dig last week's nostalgia trip enough that I thought I might dredge up some more memories. This week we'll take a thoughtful look at some of Steamboat's crazy local festivals the kind we don't seem to have enough of any longer.

Let's begin with the Ballhooter Classic, which took place every St. Patrick's Day, long before there was ever a "Chute Bump-off."

The pre-race festivities always began with a few green beers, and at the appointed hour, every man and woman who felt courageous enough loaded the old Stagecoach Gondola and headed for the top of Thunderhead.

Ski Patrolman were waiting on Heavenly Daze, where they acted as official starters of the race, and used a nylon rope to hold the throng back at the starting line.

The goal of the Ballhooter was not to win the race, but to avoid being the last skier to reach the deck of the Afterglo Pub.

He who finished last would be required to chug a large pewter chalice filled with noxious green punch.

Given this game plan, the strategy of reason was to ski fast, but under control and to avoid collisions (of which there were many).

My Ballhooter experiences were nothing less than thrilling. If you want to know more, you can ask a certain longtime local who used to be known for skiing with a purple silk bandana on his head.

Now, on to the Spring Splash. Some of the details of this insane freestyle event have escaped me, but there are three things I know for certain.

Make that four.

It did take place on city property and the ski aerialists did land in a hole filled with frigid muddy water.

I did not take part.

And a lad named Billy Ward first thrilled, then chilled the crowd with a monstrous leap into local lore.

Ward was not a freestyle competitor in the traditional sense of the word.

But he had bigger courage glands than most people.

Bad Billy launched off the snow ramp and soared high above the pit, adopting an awkward frog-legged posture in mid-air.

There were unsubstantiated reports that Denver radar at the old Stapleton International Airport picked him up on the screen.

When Bad Billy came back to earth, it was not pretty.

He had out jumped the water landing and landed terra firma with a sickening smack on the wet mud of the opposite bank.

The crowd hushed at the sight of Billy's twisted body embedded in the frozen goo.

Surely he was finished, or worse.

But the next thing anyone knew, he was up on his feet and asking, with a muddy smile, if he was the winner.

Yeah Billy, you won.

Finally, there was the Tugboat River Race, which was never really scheduled, but always took place the first weekend after July 4 that the river was deemed safe.

The Tugboat River Race, like the Ballhooter, wasn't so much a race as it was a happening. It was the kind of happening that once seemed to define the town and the free-spirited fun hogs who inhabited it.

The River Race was a wonderful event while it lasted, and it benefited a local nonprofit. But it just got too big and too wild for its own good.

Everyone realized it didn't show the proper respect for the river and it was called off.

We never lost anyone, but that's an amazement in itself.

What can you say about the good old days before anyone had any real awareness of liability insurance, except that those were the good old days?

Here's to the good old days.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.

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