A Day in the Challenge of a Lifetime

Skiing—and surviving—an alpine marathon that makes bombing down Beaver Creek Mountain feel more like climbing Everest.

By Devon O'Neil Photography by Jack Affleck February 9, 2018 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2018 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

On paper, Beaver Creek’s Talons Challenge sounds reasonable enough. Ski 14 black-diamond and double-black runs totaling 26,226 vertical feet in a day, collect some swag, high-five a few fellow punishment gluttons at the bar, head home. That’s the image I had in mind when I signed up for my first attempt last February.

As a regular who skis double blacks often, I felt no pressure to arrive for first chair—or 200th chair, for that matter. In fact, when I finally boarded the Larkspur Express for my first run at 10:30 a.m., I still felt like I was there too early. I’m on the hill six days a week all winter. How hard can it be to ski a dozen-and-one runs in five and a half hours?

After my third run, all off of Larkspur, I rode the lift with a guy in his 20s who looked like he knew what he was doing. I glanced at his plastic punch card, which every Talons Challenger uses to track his or her progress, and saw he already had seven punches in it.

“How’s it going?” I asked. “You’ve made quite a bit of headway already.”

“Yeah, we got an early start this year,” he said. “Last year, we didn’t start until 10:30, and we were racing to finish.”

That made my heart beat faster. Had I underestimated this? Did I just doom myself? If I couldn’t even finish the event, how was I supposed to write about it? I got off the lift and skied the next run with a sense of urgency I hadn’t felt all winter. That feeling of foreboding would stay with me for the rest of the day.

The Talons Challenge is not a competition, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s a test of a skier’s fitness and skill and, in the case of many, determination to push past personal barriers. Not everyone is good enough to log a day’s worth of black and double-black vertical that’s just 2,800 feet shy of the elevation of Mt Everest. But if you can ride a chairlift, you can enter the Talons Challenge.

Even still, I was alarmed to learn the event had sold out its 1,250 spots when I arrived in Beaver Creek Village last February 25. Such is its cult-classic draw. This year will be the 15th edition and 9th as a fundraiser for SOS Outreach, a national youth-development nonprofit that was founded in Eagle County 25 years ago and now offers programs in nine states and at 22 resorts.

The event means many things to many people, some of whom have no hope of finishing; they just do it to be part of it. During my early runs, while chatting up participants on the lift, I met a 77-year-old woman, a group of local moms who were skiing in tutus, and a 9-year-old boy who told me this was his third Talons Challenge as if it were no big deal. When I heard that, I thought to myself, I cannot go home and face my wife if I don't finish this.

At age 37, I was neither young nor old among the field. What I was was underdressed for the 13-degree temps and brisk wind. Luckily, it only took a few turns down each run to warm my legs and core. The conditions weren't ideal—all of Colorado had been mired in a warm spell for weeks, so when the cold front whipped through, it froze all the slush in place. However, the front also brought flakes, and Beaver Creek had received nine inches over the previous two days, more than any resort in the state. It wasn't enough to negate to coral reef lurking below, but it was a lot friendlier than it would've been if we'd only gotten a dusting.

The scene ranged from marginally dangerous—picture a prison break at the top of every run—to comical. During one of my rides up Grouse Mountain Express, I watched a guy in a Captain America onesie lose control, spin 180 degrees,  and continue down the mogul field backward. It did not end well for him. I felt bad about laughing. Sure enough, karma boomeranged me in the butt on my way down, and I too lost control and spun around to ski backward on that very same run. It did not end well for me either.

I shared that with Captain America two runs later on the lift. Turns out this superhero, a 39-year-old pacemaker salesman named Blair Partin, and two friends had flown in from Alabama the night before specifically to subject themselves to this. It was their first day on skis all winter. I instantly gained tremendous respect for these guys and decided they epitomized the indomitable spirit of the Challenge even more than that 9-year-old kid.

As we rode up the mountain, the trio—Partin was joined by David Cain and Aaron Semiklose—explained that they scheduled an annual trip to Beaver Creek with their wives and children and happened upon the Challenge a year ago. They signed up on a whim and made it through 12 of the 14 runs before accepting defeat. "We didn't know what we were getting into," Cain said with a chuckle. "Our screwup was leaving all the double blacks till the end. That's what happens when you let a guy from Alabama plan it."

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Margarie and Bill Olsen, the oldest competitors in 2017’s Talons Challenge, with their “badges of courage” (a.k.a. punch cards verifying runs completed)

Image: Jack Affleck

The sting of not finishing stuck with them for months, so they planned their 2017 trip around the event. Late one night in advance of their departure, Partin was shipping for ski apparel and came across the Captain America one-piece. He didn't tell his friends, and they didn't see the outfit until he stepped out wearing it this morning. None of them had trained at all for the Challenge; they doubted it would have helped if they had. As Cain, a lawyer from Mobile, put it, "No matter how many times you jog four miles at sea level, it's not going to prepare your legs for this event."

As we raised our chair's safety bar, I complimented their will, slid down the safety ramp, and continued on my way. It was easy to get sloppy—or as Cain put it, "soggy"—as the day wore on and my legs turned into pudding, fighting to remain upright through the icy troughs in the moguls. The number of times I stopped during each run gradually climbed from a few to a dozen. At the bottom of Peregrine, a particularly grueling bump run on Grouse Mountain, I wondered how many turns I had just made. Two hundred? Five hundred? It felt like a million. 

After each run, the SOS volunteers in the lift line punched my card indicating I was one step closer to finishing. It felt good to hear the punch, like I just did something worth recording. I couldn't help but ponder how I might feel when I finished. If I finished. 

Being a backcountry skier, I didn't relish sharing the mountain with a crowd all day, but on my final run, nearing 3 o'clock, I found myself alone on Golden Eagle, which doubles as the Birds of Prey World Cup downhill track. I stopped, not to catch my breath, but to savor the moment, waiting for the crowds to return and give me a reason to continue. No one showed. I looked below me, out at the Vail Valley blanketed in fresh snow.

Upon reaching the finish area, I headed to the Talons Restaurant bar where, of course, I bumped into the ’Bama Boys celebrating their achievement. They guffawed about Partin sliding down much of a bump run on his back. His buddies laughed even harder when Partin described how his cape had snagged his pole on a different run, initiating a yard sale. “I was cussin’ that outfit by 2 o’clock,” he said. Cain added: “The fact that we got off the mountain without a broken neck for Captain America is a miracle.”

The event so decimated their quads that they would take the next 24 hours off, barely able to sit on the toilet. But the sense of accomplishment was unto itself. “This is something I haven’t had in a long time,” Partin said. “The coolest thing was three dads all bound together and said, hey, we’re gonna finish this dang thing. That way, one, our kids won’t think we’re a bunch of sissies. And two, we said we were going to come back and do it, and we did it.”

As for me, I walked gingerly to the shuttle bus and headed home. My knees throbbed all evening, and by my next day in the backcountry, the pain of the Talons Challenge was forgotten. And I still carry that magic moment I had on Golden Eagle with me to this day.

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Rush hour at the top of Grouse Mountain as Talons Challengers jockey for open snow lanes

Image: Jack Affleck

Want to take the Challenge?

Whether you’re doing it for fun or to prove to yourself that you can, certain elements remain the same. You will get tired. You will get hungry and thirsty. And you won’t know what conditions await until you show up that morning. But you can take steps to mitigate those factors, starting with how you train and dress. If you can ski long bump runs for a couple of weeks before the event, you will hurt a lot less after the Challenge. Bring more layers than you think you need, and stash anything you don’t want in a pack at Talons Restaurant. Start early; the stress of worrying whether you’ll have enough time to finish isn’t worth an extra hour of sleep, I learned.

The best order to tackle the runs is debatable, but I started with the Larkspur trio since they’re not as long as the Grouse Mountain runs, and my legs needed time to warm up. Then I headed to Grouse, which might not have been the best idea, if you consider that skiing the hardest runs when your legs are tired makes you more prone to injury. I skied from left to right under Grouse, starting with Bald Eagle and finishing with Screech Owl. I finished on the Birds of Prey lift. Swallow your pride when it comes to form, and no matter what order you choose, savor your beer at the end—you earned it.

Register in advance at; $35 entry fee includes swag, lunch, and a beer in a commemorative cup. Or if the event hasn’t sold out, sign up the day before from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. in Beaver Creek Village.

What: Talons Challenge

Where: Beaver Creek Mountain

When: Feb 23, 2019

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