Considering the fine state of the art, it is hard to believe that the primeval Hot Dog dawn came to competitive skiing less than four years ago. It was back on March 10, 1971 when 120 madcaps assembled atop the bumps high on Aspen's Bell Mountain for the purpose of staging a series of howling show-off trips down the slope. The 5,000 spectators who turned out were treated to some fine foolishness, including one dervish who produced a chain of approximately 750 perfect, tiny turns in a single 3,000-foot run, and a whooping ski patrolman who shot the entire mogul field pulling a bucking rescue toboggan, his partner riding a cowboy saddle lashed amidships. It was a freaky, exuberant day, filled with somersaults and wipe-outs.
Things have changed mightily since then. In fact, there are those who insist that the unbuttoned events that took place on Bell Mountain that day have now been formalized to the point where they are a legitimate sport. These same people, who happen to be those who stage the meets, stuffily contend that the term Hot Dog is lacking in dignity and should be replaced by Freestylist.
Two weeks ago the first official competition of the 1974-75 season occurred right next door to Bell Mountain at Aspen Highlands. It was called the U.S. Freestyle Open, and from the start it was clear that there has been an injection of real-world methodology into the lunar landscape of Hot Dog skiing. The meet was conducted by a group with a suitable corporate label: Professional Freestyle Associates (PFA). Another indication of the sport's new maturity is that the PFA is only one of three groups bickering and backbiting over jurisdiction.
There were 60 competitors at the Open, 15 of them women. The standard freestyle competition now is composed of three events: aerials (involving flying stunts off jumps installed on the mountainside), ballet (dancing on skis to music) and the bump-run (the event that most nearly resembles the oldtime crazy mogul runs at Bell Mountain). All judgments and scoring are subjective, and as in gymnastics and figure skating, the fairness of Hot Dog verdicts is frequently in dispute. Says vivacious Ginny Molter, a top woman competitor, "You just have to be real philosophical and realize that the judging might not really prove anything for sure."
Fair enough. The players keep changing the script anyway. Bob Salerno, last year's top U.S. Hot Dogger, speaks solemnly about the evolving state of the art: "Man, I mean, you know, you get to working on one trick and, say, like you trip, and you go into something else you never did before. Well, then you got a new trick that doesn't even, like, have a name yet."
The confusion of the average onlooker is not greatly clarified by the fact that most Hot Dog tricks do have names. There are the Royal Helicopter, the Back Moebius, the Outrigger and the 720. Also the 360 with Mule Kick and Thumpers, Daffies, Leg-Breakers and Quadruple Whanger-Dangers, which might include four tricks in fast sequence, such as a Twister followed by a Spread followed by a Daffy followed by a Tip-Drop. All of this is done while falling out of the sky. A skier may meld as many as 18 tricks in a single ballet routine, which usually lasts about 60 seconds over some 100 yards of gentle slope.
It would be tough enough to score such esoteric stuff if one were all alone on the hill with a computer. But Hot Dogging has an extra added distraction: the mountainside is filled with the constant blast of rock music exploding out of speakers. The M.C. of the meet was Bud Palmer, onetime basketball star and official greeter for New York City, who punctuated his trick-by-trick report with Yeeows! and Wheeows! and augmented it with what now goes on record as the longest mountaintop commercial in the avaricious history of ski merchandising.
"There he is," shrieked Palmer, "...poised at the top! His bindings are by Look Nevada...the skis are by Olin...the goggles by Smith and boots by...Yeeow! A Double Royal Helicopter off the jump.... That won't hurt him with the judges, folks.... The boots are by Scott and he's dressed by Bogner!...Here he comes...Yeeow! Wow!... Look at the Back Moebius! Don't forget, folks, there are Midas Muffler dealers coast-to-coast and they're mighty delighted to be bringing this competition to you...$25,000 in prizes.... Yeeow! Wheeow!"
Midas Mufflers? The $25,000 prize money for men was indeed put up by the Midas International Corp., and the hillsides around Aspen were alive with scarves—er, mufflers—and ski caps in the grand old company colors, black and gold. Ralph Weiger, Midas president, surveyed the spectators and performers, each a living billboard for his products, and sighed, "My God, what a merchandising coup!" The money for the women—$15,000 for this competition and a total of $90,000 for six contests this season—comes from the Colgate-Palmolive Co. as part of "our continuing commitment to the emerging aspirations of women and our desire to help them achieve equality in all forms of life."
Although sponsors had hoped that 30,000 spectators would show up for the three-day meet, there were never more than 300 or so on the hill. Still, the skill and courage demanded by freestyle skiing are hard to ignore, and once the kinks of growing up are ironed out, a bright and exciting sport may yet be born. Last week's winners—Rick Wood and Ellen Post in the aerials, Scott Brooksbank and Marion Post in the ballet, Jack Taylor and Karen Huntoon in the bump-run and Bob Salerno and Genia Fuller in the combined—did not become overnight household words because of their victories. Yet the day might come when they will—particularly if someone finds a way to put the mustard back on the hot dogs, the original Bell Mountain brand.