Words & Photos: Laura Obermeyer
Rail skiing isn’t dead. Nor is the enthusiasm it brings or the community it creates, according to the turnout of the first ever Steel City Showdown, a traditional rail jam style contest held by Tom Wallisch at his home resort of Seven Springs in Pennsylvania. Skiers flocked from around the world to take part in what may be the rebirth of the rail jam, with a cash purse of $20,000 USD and a setup that encouraged both creativity and technicality.
What Seven Springs lacks in vertical, it makes up for in area — and in rail mileage.
Seven Springs is a unique resort. It sits nestled in the Pennsylvania farmland, an equal distance from the nearest major city of Pittsburgh and the border of West Virginia. The closest small town is thirty minutes away, but this seclusion doesn’t deter it from serving as the main ski area for the Mid-Atlantic region. It boasts 700 feet (214 meters) of vertical, serviced by ten chairlifts. What it lacks in height it makes up for in area, sprawling over 465 skiable acres. The base village is not so much a village as a large hotel with countless amenities, giving guests the feeling of being on a cruise ship with a ski area instead of an ocean. The walk from the condos where athletes were staying coursed through a maze of restaurants and bars, shops, saunas, a pool, grand fireplaces, and even a bowling alley. It was nothing like any other resort, but certainly fits the title of resort.
The Pretzel Man himself, Tom Wallisch gives his features a test run. Though his commentating skills are top notch, we missed seeing him ski during the contest.
Tom’s general attention to detail for the event was evident right off the bat. Each condo came stocked with Steel City Showdown shirts and a case of Yuengling beer, and he managed to make things flow as smoothly as possible the entire time. When Tom pulled out a Tupperware container on the start deck and began passing out pretzels adorned with Hershey’s Kisses that his mom had made, it was clear that this was no conventional ski event. He made sure to make it a special and memorable experience for everyone involved.
The energy among the athletes was nothing shy of hype and encouragement for each other, and the nature of it all resembled more of a session than a contest. Everyone was a homie, and everyone was stoked. As some of the high-level contest riders noted, the ability to ski for the sake of having fun with your friends was a beautiful, if not forgotten part of skiing. There were no coaches, no teams, and no regulations determining the approach each rider took. It was freeskiing at its finest, a glimpse at what is seemingly a lost art in some ways.
The gang's all here.
The party kicked off on Thursday, January 9 with various reunions as athletes arrived from around the globe, with an open practice for most of the afternoon and evening. It was the only day of sunshine Pennsylvania had to offer everyone, but those who were there took advantage of it and threw down on the fresh setup.
Tucker Fitzsimons wrangles with the Z.
The features were large and technical, but that didn’t slow anyone down from going ham. Within the setup was a down-flat to stairs, a propane tank to down rail, a down to flat Y, with one side carrying onto another down as a Z, and a double jersey barrier to down rail. The start deck was set up as a quarterpipe, which Cal Carson managed to throw a flair or two on during the earlier days of practice, generating quite a bit of hype from the unsuspecting riders stationed on it for their drops. Some other notable tricks that went down during practice included a lip on blind 2 by Tall T Dan himself on the Z, a disaster over the Z to front 2 by Rory Walsh, and a double nose grab to switch over the stairs by Siver Voll.
Quinn Wolferman hangs on for the ride.
On Friday, amateur athletes battled it out in the qualifiers, with Jackson Karsteter, Zach Masi, and Tucker Fitzsimons taking the top three spots and moving on to the pro category the following day. Fitzsimons, a recent Level 1 SuperUnknown finalist and up-and-coming rail god, proved his spot in the pro leagues as well, not only making it to finals but securing a podium finish and a check.
Tucker throws down during the am jam.
Following the amateur finals, Tom hosted a welcome dinner for the athletes. He spoke about his desire to host an event of this style for a long time, and his stoke for seeing it finally come to fruition. Old and new friendships came together at each table, and shared stories and enthusiasm for the big event to come.
Saturday started off with a thinly overcast sky, keeping hopes high that the weather would cooperate despite the balmy 16°C temperatures. Some of the riders took to the small rope tow park up the hill to have some fun, others put their focus on the course they’d be skiing later that evening. The rain began to pick up around an hour before the pre-final practice runs began. The rain caused the snow to heat up, making it seem as though someone had turned on a series of fog machine to add a degree of dramatization for the cameras. Crowds still gathered on every side of the course they could, and their enthusiasm unhindered by the weather, even as it turned into a driving downpour that soaked every inch of Gore-Tex through to the bone. It was in true East Coast fashion that the riders still put down some wild tricks; and as Alex Hall noted, it added character to the whole thing.
A-Hall, Colby and Tucker took the podium, while Khai Krepela and Siver Voll got nods for creativity and overall performance.
Those who were in the finals were given eight drops, with their top three scores counting toward their final ranking. Tom awarded Khai Krepela for his creativity for a 50/50 to backslide, and Siver for his overall performance throughout the weekend, giving them some much deserved recognition. The final podium ended with Tucker Fitzsimons in third, Colby Stevenson in second, and Alex Hall in first. With the motivation of a large purse and skiing for fun, the Steel City Showdown is hopefully just the start of what is sure to be many more contests of this nature to come.