Hollywood’s Stanley Kramer would have loved the Epic Race, one of the zaniest, most tantalizing ski and snowboard competitions a PR team ever hatched. Initially, all Vail Resorts’ marketing gurus wanted to do was find a unique way to trumpet the value of the Epic Pass, which, according to the company, was purchased by skiers and snowboarders from eighty countries and all fifty states this winter. At a series of brainstorming sessions last October, the ploy took shape: whichever ten pass holders skied all of its twenty-six resorts the fastest would earn an Epic Pass for life. They expected perhaps thirty to fifty contenders to sign up, figuring the race—call it a snowbound version of Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World—would generate a bit of buzz for maybe a month, after which everyone would move on.
Not only did 300 contestants register for the race, according to VR’s director of mountain communications, Russ Pecoraro, but on December 19, the eve of the final day of the race, 132 of them had arrived en masse at a small French ski area called Brides-les-Bains (BLB), essentially tied. By then, the roughly twenty-five VR Epic Race staffers were scrambling for a way to prevent a Black Friday–like stampede at BLB’s opening-day rope drop. Up until this point, participants had been required to upload two photos and a fifteen-second video shot at each resort. On the morning of December 20, VR e-mailed participants clues to stickers that had been hidden around the resort, and added an amendment to the rules that the stickers had to be found before the final photo/video upload could commence.
So in the end, the twenty-eight-day competition boiled down to a frenzied scavenger hunt. “We were basically counting time in seconds,” says Greg Hydle of Golden, who, like many participants in the race, was traveling with two friends and essentially racing as a team. His final e-mailed submission arrived in VR’s inbox that morning at precisely 10:17:46—good enough for a spot in the top ten and a lifetime Epic Pass. His friend Devin Rhinehart’s submission cleared four seconds later, also earning a lifetime pass. The third member of their trio (“Team Fun”) followed thirty-four seconds after that. By then it was too late.
But not completely. A less-publicized stipulation in the Epic Race fine print states that anyone who skis or rides all twenty-six Epic Pass resorts this season still wins a free pass—this one good just for next season, not for life. But at what price? Hydle, who makes bamboo laptop cases, and fellow winner Joe Jensen, an IT project manager from Denver, say they invested between $5,000 and $10,000 in the competition. But they estimate their lifetime passes will save them roughly $30,000 to $40,000 in the long run.
For the rest of us, is the cost of skiing across two continents and an ocean really worth a $689 season pass?
Both Hydle and Jensen say they’d do it again for the adventure alone.
From gambling in Reno to snowblading in Michigan to sleeping in cars and partying through Europe, their memories will likely outlast their ski legs, they say. Jensen, 38, had actually never skied until he signed up for the race. He survived testicular cancer in 2011 and ran for president (as a write-in candidate) in 2012. While skiing in St. Anton, Austria, during the race, he suffered a severe high-ankle sprain that left him unable to walk. He still had eleven resorts to go. “I just cranked my boot so tight that my foot went numb,” he says.
Will the Epic Race become an annual spectacle? “We’ll see,” Pecoraro says. “At the end of the day, it was a promotion, and we’re still evaluating whether it did what we were hoping it would do. But it blew our expectations out of the [frozen] water.”