The Hoodoo Mountains of Eastern Alaska have been good to Anchorage middle-school teacher and Arctic Man Eric Heil. Once he owned a piece of them.
Not in the literal sense, but in the visceral sense. The Tit, a 5,800-peak rising east of the Glenn Highway in a remote part of the 49th state far from anywhere, was his.
In full-on speed-skiing gear – rubber suit, leg fairings, aerodynamic helmet – he pushed 90 mph on the 2,000-foot near vertical drop off the top into the gully below to hook up with a speeding snowmachine dragging a tow line in a race officially known for years as the Arctic Man Ski & Sno-go Classic until it came to be known simply as Arctic Man.
The original theme said it all: “Go fast or go home.”
A race like no other in North America, the 33-year-old Arctic Man pairs speed-crazed downhill skiers with speed-crazed snowmachine jockeys on a gravity-powered downhill plunge that links to horsepower-driven uphill charge that ends – if no one crashes – with a slingshot launch of the skier off a second summit and on to another downhill,
The finish line below is 5.5 miles from the summit of the Tit. The trip from top to bottom takes about four minutes at an average speed of around 80 mph.
Almost since it began, the race has drawn a small army of fans, spectators, party-goers and racers to a remote parking lot along the Richardson Highway some 230 miles northeast of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and 165 miles southeast of Fairbanks, the state’s second largest city.
Sometimes described as a “sledhead Woodstock,” Arctic Man spawns a temporary city of motorhomes, trailers and tents housing 10,000 to 12,000 people at a nothing spot near one of Alaska’s many Summit Lakes in an area home to maybe 50 year-round residents.
For a few days, however, in those years when snowstorm-free weather allows all who wish to reach the site, Arctic Man becomes home to the state’s fourth largest city. The event is expecting the usual crowd April 9 through 13 this year.
But the race once the event’s centerpiece is fading and looks to be on the verge of death in a world where both skiing and snowboarding have been shifting from going fast to going big.
“Last year it looked like it could be the last one,” Heil said in a telephone interview Thursday. “What I’m not seeing are any college kids coming up. It’s just the dinosaurs continuing to race.”
Heil, a former downhill racer for the University of Alaska Anchorage, turns 54 this summer. He did his first Arctic Man in 1990 at the age of 26. Speed skiing was than a rising sport.
It peaked with a 1992 appearance in the Olympics, and almost immediately crashed.
“The Olympic event, hosted at Les Arcs in France, was a success, pushing the record to 142 mph,” Simon Usborne wrote in the Financial Times. “There were hopes of a permanent place, but when a Swiss competitor died outside of competition in a collision with a piste-making machine, the International Olympic Committee took fright.”
Speed skiing would never make it back to the Olympics.
Following the Olympic lead, Arctic Man eventually banned speed gear – the so-called catsuits; the oversize, near-shoulder-wide, aerodynamically contoured speed-helmets; and the leg fairings that helped turned tightly tucked skiers into human rockets.
But the race went on and Heil, who loved life as a human missile, kept competing even as the ski sporst around him were changing.
Big air slowly but steadily took over the slopes. Pretty soon it seemed everyone wanted to fly, and “slope style” events lit up with skiers and snowboarders flipping, spinning and twisting in step with the latest rage.
Ski areas, at about the same time, started trying to slow the speed merchants of old for reasons of legal liability and high insurances costs.
“There is little doubt that ski resorts are far more safety conscious than in the past,” the New York Times reported in 1995 in a story about changing views of risks on the slopes. “Even the personal injury lawyers acknowledge change. Most ski resorts now stress safety because their insurance premiums have soared and their deductibles are high, a ski resort official said; some deductibles are in the $100,000 plus area. That means the ski resort pays a steep price for accidents before its insurance kicks in. So it is to their advantage to reduce ski accidents.”
Given that many of those accidents involved out-of-control skiers, the resorts especially cracked down on speeding, and those capable of safely skiing at speed got caught in the crossfire. For a time, Heil said, he enjoyed the luxury of being allowed to make early morning runs on the slopes of the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood before the area opened to the public. But in recent years, he said, the ski resort just east of Anchorage brought even that to an end.
Sanctioned Alyeska downhill ski races which once nurtured the likes of 1994 Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe faded away, too, and along with them the pool of Arctic Man-capable Alaska skiers. The situation was much the same across the continent.
“The venues for downhill have just been eliminated,” Heil said.
The few Outside skiers trained to compete at downhill speeds found the costs of coming to Alaska for Arctic Man financially difficult. European skiers found the costs prohibitive. The non-Alaskans who did make it north soon found out that the very best of Arctic Man snowmachine racers had long relationships with established Arctic Man skiers, too.
With Alaska skiers in short supply and Outside skiers coming north unable to find Arctic Man-fast snowmachine drivers, Heil said, the future of the race was soon in jeopardy.
A five-time Arctic Man-winner along with sled-jockey partner Len Story, Heil said, he watched the race shrink from a peak of 60 teams with 50 having a shot of winning to a dozen last year with less than a half-dozen truly competitive
Despite their advanced ages, Heil and Story were in the latter group. They finished fifth in 2017 and posted the third fastest speed – 86.9 mph – on the race-course radar gun.
At that point, they were traveling 2.5 mph faster than race winners Marco Sullivan and Tyler Akelstad, racers almost young enough to be their children. The Arctic Man, like all races, belongs not to the swift at the start but to those who endureth fastest to the end.
Sullivan, the reigning downhill star on the U.S. Ski Team until his retirement in 2016, and Akelstead, part of the winning duo in the 2016 Iron Dog, were not the fastest at the midpoint on the course, but they were fastest when it mattered at the end.
Whether one or the other will be back this year to join a shrunken field in what could be the last Arctic Man, at least in the form for which it became famous, is unclear.
“If you haven’t seen Arctic Man, the ski and snowboard part of it, you might want to come this year because it may not be here in future years,” race founder and organizer Howie Thies told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, his hometown newspaper, earlier this week.
“Arctic Man and its name aren’t going away, the ski and snowboard part is going away for a year. We’re going to do a re-evaluation and look at it logistically to see if it’s the way we want to continue.”
There are, however, those skeptical the old race format will ever return. Anchorage television station KTVA does not expect the race to be back. It reported the mid-April classic is dead.
The first skier to break five minutes on the Arctic Man course, Heil also suspects this will be the last race, likely putting to an end his dream of breaking four minutes on the course.
Others have done it, but Heil has only come close. Racing with Dave Branholm filling in for Story in 2014, Heil came within 1.24 seconds of the mark. With age chasing him now, and the race as he first knew it already vastly different from the speedsuit days, he’s been forced to accept that his dream will likely die unfulfilled.
“It’s a mixed bag of emotions,” he said. “We’ve always been motivated for faster. It’s been a big motivator for me.”
He admits that he’ll miss getting together with old competitors in the Hoodoos for a week in April with the Alaska days growing longer and the weather warming in a place that won’t see spring until toward the end of May.
Arctic Man, he said, had become something of an annual reunion of the faithful.
“That’s kind of what’s left,” he said, “the diehards. We love that week. It’s a great time.
“(But) in some ways, it has sort of run it’s course.”
There is a sense of emptiness in Heil’s voice when he talks about the race ceasing to exist “but,” he said, “I can’t say it’s grief at all.
“Thank God, I can finally quit.”
Thies, meanwhile, says Iron Man will soldier on as a new event in the future.
“This year’s main race is called the Arctic Man Extreme,” the Arctic Man website says. “Two snowmachines will travel up the mountain course side by side from the finish line to the First Aid area at the top.”
The hope is that the pool of Alaska sledheads willing to put up a couple hundred dollars for the chance to win up to five or 10 times that will be a lot bigger than the pull of skier-snowmachine teams willing to gamble upwards of $500 to enter.