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Steamboat Springs Saddle bronc rider Jake Griffin was back in town Monday for the 40th anniversary of the Cowboy Downhill ski race at the Steamboat Ski Area and his neck was feeling much better this year, thank you.
He took part in last year’s madcap dash down the ski slopes not realizing he had a broken neck.
At the National Western Stock Show rodeo “in Denver last year my horse hit the chute, and I got hung up in the stirrup. My head hit the ground hard,” Griffin said. "I knew my neck was sore, but I didn’t know it was broken.”
If there is a generalization I feel safe making about rodeo cowboys, it is that they are almost universally polite to strangers and seemingly impervious to pain.
Griffin, of Riverton, Wyo., was observing his 15th anniversary of taking part in the Cowboy Downhill Monday, his neck fully healed.
“It would be just too hard to miss this,” he said. “It’s my only vacation of the year.”
The Cowboy Downhill lures some of the best rodeo athletes in the world to come to Steamboat straight from the National Western Stock Show to take a break from the road and blow off a little steam with their compatriots.
They compete in a dual slalom on a gentle slope at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area that is made a little more wicked by a four-foot ledge in the middle of the course. Along the way, they pause briefly to rope a cowgirl wearing a long duster and to toss a saddle on a horse.
It was obvious to Griffin’s fellow cowboys at the 2013 Cowboy Downhill that he was stiff from his mishap in the rodeo arena, and Griffin recalled they took delight in poking a finger at the back of his neck.
“I finally got an X-ray, and they fused by C-6, C-7 and T-1 vertebrae,” he said.
Somebody other than a cowboy might have looked for another career at that point.
Monday also marked a reunion for Steamboat’s own Director of Skiing Billy Kidd and six-time All-Around World Rodeo Champion Larry Mahan who partnered up back in 1974 to pull off the original Cowboy Downhill event.
Mayhan, 70, stood on the race course after it was all over Monday and marveled at the way resort development had changed the base of the ski area. He expressed admiration for Steamboat’s success in retaining its Western feel.
“Steamboat’s ability to keep its Western culture and ranching tradition in the midst of all this is incredible,” Mahan said. “There’s not another place like it in the world.”
Mahan said the first Cowboy Downhill fell into place after an acquaintance of his met Kidd on an airplane, and they fell easily into conversation. The upshot was that the friend wrangled an invitation from Kidd to give Mahan a personal ski lesson in Steamboat.
“Billy took me up the mountain in powder on the first day,” Mahan recalled. “I can’t remember if my skis were 205 centimeters or 210 centimeters, but I guess people skied on long skis back then. I think Billy was worried I was going to take his place at Steamboat.”
“Are you going to accept his version of things?” Kidd interjected wryly. “He can’t remember what happened, and I can’t remember what happened.”
That may be true, but Mahan survived the ski lessons, returned to Denver and claims to have persuaded a Chevrolet dealer to lend him three cars so he could return to the slopes of Mount Werner with 15 of his rodeo cowboy friends. They all competed in the first Cowboy Downhill, and they might have even had a party afterwards. But who remembers that?
The next year, in 1975, Mahan said he received an offer from Frontier Airlines to fly the first 25 cowboys who showed up at Stapleton Airport to Hayden for free.
“We left straight from a bar to the airport,” to catch a flight the following morning, Mahan said.
Four decades later, Steamboat's Cowboy Downhill is still going strong, and one of the largest crowds the event has seen was gathered on the deck at Bear River Monday to witness the carnage from a safe distance.
And the younger generation of cowboys was digging the Steamboat scene.
“It’s been great to have a couple of days to just hang out here,” Bryan Shanklin, a bull rider from Rock Springs, Texas, said. “It’s a privilege to be here.”
Chandler Bownds, a handsome young bull rider from Lubbock, Texas, was itching to get on the race course. After learning to snowboard at Ski Apache, N.M., Bownds said he improved his technique at Snowbird and Park City, Utah.
With a new generation of rodeo cowboys forming an attachment to Steamboat, who knows? Maybe the Cowboy Downhill will stick around for another 40 years? It would be nice if more cowgirls took part in the future.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1