"I'm not looking forward to this," said British ski racer Malcolm Erskine, standing atop Aspen Mountain just before noon on Dec. 11, 1995. "I never look forward to this—it's nothing but pain and misery and the worst backache you can ever imagine. I just wish I weren't so addicted to it."
With the demeanor of a man heading to the gallows, Erskine walked over to the start area to join his teammate, fellow British racer and three-time Olympian Martin Bell. "Let's hope we don't push each other out of the gondola in the middle of the night," quipped Bell. Erskine shot him a sarcastic grin. The pair clicked into their skis, snapped on their helmets and, buoyed by the crowd, pushed off to begin the Land Rover 24 Hours of Aspen—the longest, most illogical ski race in the world.
Each year, the 24 Hours of Aspen transforms a sport based on speed and individual performance into one based on endurance and intense teamwork. The contest rules are exceedingly simple (and, as more than one competitor has noted, insane): Two-person teams must ski, together, down Aspen's World Cup-style downhill course as many times as possible in one 24-hour span. They can rest only during the 14-minute gondola ride from the bottom to the top. The team completing the most runs wins. Wins what? Nothing but the race's attendant glory. All proceeds from the 24 Hours go to charity.
The 24 Hours, it should come as no surprise, was the brainchild of a person well acquainted with pain. Twelve years ago, an Aspen ski bum named Ed McCaffrey crashed while competing in a recreational downhill race, shredding his left knee so badly that surgeons considered amputating his lower leg. During McCaffrey's three-month hospital stay, he thought constantly about skiing, about suffering, about the limits of human endurance and about his father, John, who has multiple sclerosis.
When Ed left the hospital, he combined these seemingly disparate notions and came up with a plan for the first 24 Hours ski race. Three years later, in December 1987, the race was held. McCaffrey and his partner topped four other teams, established a world record for most vertical feet skied in one day and raised $10,000 for the Jimmy Heuga Center, which aids people with MS in Vail, Colo.
The competition caused a sensation. The next year eight teams from around the globe entered the Aspen event, and a Swiss pair won the race and set another record. "You push yourself so far out there that you reach this trancelike state of blissful exhaustion," says McCaffrey, 38, attempting to explain the race's popularity. "It's truly amazing—it keeps people coming back every winter."
This year's 24 Hours will be held on Dec. 14 and 15 and is expected to draw nine men's teams and one women's team. It is now viewed as skiing's version of the Iron-man: Winners are regarded as the world's strongest and least sensible skiers.
Such a designation is bound to attract some odd personalities, as last December's race did. The field for the 1995 event included 20 racers from seven countries (eight men's teams, two women's), virtually all of them 24 Hours veterans.
Five teams were considered favorites. There were the Germans: Martin Fiala, 27, and his partner Michael Veith, 38 (the event's oldest competitor), both built like tanks and hoping to muscle their way through the race. There were the Americans: defending champions Nate Bryan, 25, and Tyler Williams, 25, both built more like twigs and relying on style and finesse. There were the Swiss: Andre Kindschi and Roger Sieber, a pair of 23-year-olds who work as lumberjacks in the off-season and whose irresistible cuteness garnered them a Beatlesque following of cheering women. There were the Austrians: earringed and ponytailed bad boys Axel Naglich and Chris Reindl, both 27, who prepared for the race, according to Naglich, by "staying up late—every weekend." Finally there were the Brits: Erskine, 31, and Bell, 30, who with their Abbott-and-Costello routine about their lack of fitness evidently hoped to kvetch themselves to victory.
The women's competition was between two U.S. teams: the gregarious Harvey twins, Katie and Megan, 26, and the intense Aspenites, reigning champs Kate McBride, 29, and Gella Sutro, 30.