Ski joring: 'Drink a little whiskey and be ready to eat it hard'

HAILEY, Idaho (KBOI) - In central Idaho, when the sun is at just the right angle, and the snow cradles the sagebrush, and the color of the sky puts bluebirds to shame, the people of Hailey knows it's time.

"It's time to ski jor," Tyler Peterson says with grin.

In other words, it's time to race, in a modified skiing competition with Scandinavian origins called ski joring. They've been ski joring in Europe since the 1800's, but in the United States it's still a sport under everyone's radar.

Watching the competitors race along the 850-foot-long track on Hailey's outskirts, you might wonder how the competitors train for something so bizarre.

"You don't," says Ketchum's Biche Rudigoz with no trace of irony.

In ski joring, a skier grabs a rope that's attached to the saddle of the towing horse. He or she--and there are more female competitors than you might imagine-then skis in a slalom pattern around markers set in the snow and over moguls that are built at the edges.

And they average between 35 and 40 miles an hour.

But that's not all. Each competitor must also ski to the middle and grab bright orange rings that hang from a post. The rings are key. Miss or drop one and the judges will add time to your score.

Asked to describe the feeling of being out there on the course at break-neck speed and trying to spear rings at the same time, Chase Gouley has a quick answer: "I've got butterflies in my stomach."

Most of the skiers here are veterans of the slopes, but even the best of them have had a face-plant or two.

Hailey's Julie Youngblood points to a scrape on her chin and admits she was a bit over-confident.

"Yesterday, I ate it in the straw bale, so today I remained in one piece with both skis on," she says with a rueful smile.

Youngblood is a rarity in this crowd because she both rides the tow horses and skis as a competitor. Her example sets her apart, although not as much as the green dragon suit she wears to tickle the kids who stand at the perimeter fence.

One of them, Otto Olson, is just 8 and already a rabid ski joring fan.

When asked what he likes the most, the freckle-faced kid grins and says, "The jumps."

But then he quickly adds, "And the guy who crashed over there."

Olson, like so many in the crowd, enjoys the thrills of ski joring, but also the spills. Surprisingly, there aren't many.

Spokane ski jorer Cody Smith knows the real attraction for his sport is the element of danger.

"It's kinda like the NASCAR crashing that everyone likes to see," he says.

Smith is a standout during both days of the two-day event. He managed a time on the first day of just 17 seconds. It would be the time to beat all weekend and no one did, including Julie Youngblood.

"I kinda botched it. I missed some of my rings because we were going a little fast," she says, echoing the frustrations of many of the skiers.

Still, they are all devoted to a sport that continues to grow with new ski joring chapters popping up in the eastern U.S.

"You gotta have a little bit of crazy in ya, I think," says Cody Smith as he reflects on his performance.

"You go from zero to 35-40 miles an hour and you're flying through gates and the horse is shooting snow in your face," he says.

And then it's over in a flash. Most runs this day on the course in Hailey lasted no more than 20 seconds.

Smith says you lose perspective with so much going on, seemingly all at once.

"Boom. It's done. Gone. You're thinking, like, that was awesome. Let's do it again," he says.

So to survive in this crazy sport, it helps to walk on the wild side. And to follow a few simple rules.

"Pray," according to Julie Youngblood.

"Drink a little whiskey. And be ready to probably eat it pretty hard."

And then with a wink, Youngblood skis away to take another stab at being a lord of the rings.