At 13,141 feet, California’s Mt. Baxter isn’t that impressive a peak on paper. (For comparison, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, sits just down the John Muir Trail from Baxter’s post in Kings Canyon National Park.)
But with no real marked trail, and a series of chossy shale chimney chutes marking the only visible route up, Baxter presented plenty of challenge, and its high point was a suitable White Whale on the longest day of a week-long backpacking trip.
After a challenging-but-stable push up to one of the area’s countless clear blue alpine lakes, we eyed a route that looked the least steep and unstable, set a firm turnaround time of 1:45 pm, and started scrambling up.
From the get-go, the rocks were dislodging under our feet with alarming frequency, though the worst scenario was usually just a frustrating struggle to gain solid footing and momentum. A couple of large rocks dislodged in my hands and, luckily, stopped before crushing both legs; but we were careful to avoid climbing directly in the line of kicked-off debris, and I was surrounded by three MDs. I figured we were being as safe as possible.
Tony and Max got sketched out about 200 feet from the top, when a particularly loose chimney of rock and gravel required a few off-balance, insecure moves in a row. Teddy and I – fortunately or not – had already scampered scared through this, and figured we would give it ten more minutes.
That was when even the biggest rocks started moving under our feet. Realizing we were essentially standing on an active rock slide, we simultaneously said “nope,” snapped a quick couple of pictures on the most secure footing we could find, and slowly retreated back down to the lake.
In ultra parlance, “DNF” is sometimes jokingly referred to as “did nothing fatal.” I’ve always thought that was dramatic (albeit poignant) since the support system at most races is so stellar and the number of places where you can fall to your death are more limited.
But that phrased definitely resonated with me after this. I hate quitting, and hate compromising on a goal. That’s prerequisite to running 50 miles in a row, finishing your degree, or chasing a career goal. But in the mountains, that’s only an admirable outlook to the extent that you come back under your own power, able to do it again. There aren’t as many checkpoints and supervisors to keep you from teetering over the edge in the high alpine.
People talk about “conquering” mountains, which makes me wince. If you behave right, the mountain might let you up, and even then it might not. And on this particular day, with this particular mountain – this mere “thirteener” – I was 100% okay with that.
We gathered Stew back at Baxter Lake, hiked the six miles back to camp at Rae Lakes, and slept outside next to an empty whiskey bottle. It might have been my best day yet.
I was treated to an awe-inspiring weekend in the San Juans by the great folks at Smartwool, where I got to cover the Hardrock 100, of which they’re the title sponsor.
Hardrock was the second 100-miler to be on my radar (after Western States), since Trail Runner ran an inspiring, terrifying, and all-around-great 2011 story on Diana Finkel’s near-outright win and subsequent trip to the hospital with rhabdo in 2010; it remains a crazy amalgamation of world-class athletes and high-profile events with old-school, self-sufficient, small-town charm. It is the perfect ultramarathon.
I spent the weekend at the Speedgoat races (vertical mile, 50K, Quadbanger) at Snowbird ski area in Utah. This proved a chance to learn how to use my new camera on the fly. Here are some of my favorite shots from this very cool event:
I’ll be at Hardrock next weekend and will hopefully hone the anti-blurriness spell in time to catch our own John Horns moving through the aid station.
Main Street, Hayward, Wisconsin – It was after one but before two; the first Wave 9 finishers were spilling down the ramp over highway 63 and onto the finishing straight up Main Street, and half a dozen of us were camped just outside the beer tent adjacent to Riverbrook bike shop.
“Hey man, where the hell’s my dog?”
Barely older than a puppy, Tala had been mostly content to wander the sidewalks without a leash, always finding her way back. Despite more than one person asking if she were a stray, she was exceptionally well-trained. Sort of.
“Holy shit!” was all I could manage to stammer as I pointed behind Dusty toward the street. Tala had slipped through a gate and was on the course, running against the grain of skiers flying down the makeshift ramp.
Dusty ran up to the fence with a certain spring and commitment I’d seen before, when the cops bust a party. “Goddamn it, Tala, get over here!”
Oooohhhh. The crowd at once flinched and applauded as Tala paused just out of the way of the skiers, turned to face the makeshift audience, and squatted, taking a big heaping dump atop the fresh snow.
The United States Ski Association (USSA) Junior National Cross-Country Ski Championship was a chance to Dusty to strut his stuff on a national stage. Twice, it had proven a missed opportunity. The third time, he stopped asking for the chance and simply took it.
Begging forgiveness, the adage holds, is easier than asking permission. Had he ever once begged forgiveness, this would easily describe Dusty’s world outlook. But the truth is, he never felt he was doing anything wrong in making his own way. He grabbed life by the balls because it made the most sense. If anyone owed an apology, it was all the people who made rules to needlessly stymie the progress and stifle the enthusiasm of he and others like him.
So it was natural that he would clash with USSA, the national governing body of Nordic skiing. It was a bureaucracy making rules about a sport that should be simple, where everyone races and the fastest one wins. That it could be so complicated to show up to race in the first place would spur Dusty, along with Ed Kohler, to call USSA’s bluff and show it was possible to ski without any of the bullshit.
But just to be fair, he gave USSA’s method two separate chances first.
The first was in 1991, when Junior Nationals was held in Anchorage, Alaska. In order to qualify, skiers needed to race a minimum number of USSA-sanctioned events. Based on a points system and a qualifying race, USSA accepted 40 boys and 40 girls from ten separate regions across the country.
Dusty and Kohler qualified, easily. But qualified racers still had to pay their own way. Neither Kohler nor Dusty came from wealthy households, and while neither was in danger of going hungry, a no-expenses-paid trip to Alaska was not in the cards after the expenses required to qualify – including equipment and travel to races during the season – were factored in.
In 1992, the duo qualified again, this time along with Scott Jurek. Junior Nationals that year was held in Rumford, Maine, and the meet’s location within the Continental United States allowed the trio to scrape together the means to travel there and compete with the Midwest region’s delegation.
Rumford is a paper mill town of roughly 5,000 people in the western reaches of Maine in the foothills of the White Mountains. The small town, according to Kohler, was hugely supportive of Nordic skiing but had also had a lean winter, requiring race organizers to shovel snow into place in order to create a completely skiable race course.
When the Midwest delegation arrived there, Dusty made sure everyone knew who he was – right away – by walking over to the hotel treadmill adjacent to the lobby as his coaches were checking in. Cranking the treadmill up to full speed, Dusty hammered along at top end for a minute until fatigue set in and one misstep sent him flying off the back of the machine.
“It was totally contrary to what everyone would do since they were serious and they were there to race, so he made a big impression there,” Kohler says.
Dusty would be a thorn in the veritable side of coaches and officials from his and other delegations all week. He so grated on the adults that when he later approached a group of them and said “I think my ankle is broken,” they figured he was crying “wolf” and ignored him.
The injury in question had Dusty hobbling around before competition even started. The day before the first race, he was out on a practice loop on what Kohler described as “slushy, sloppy spring snow” when he crossed his skis on a turn and crashed, hard, turning a boot in the process. He got up and tried to walk. He couldn’t.
For his many skirmishes with the ground at Chester Bowl, Dusty knew something was awry. But repeated attempts to convince a coach to drive him to the hospital fell on deaf ears. One coach in particular, whom Kohler identifies only as Mark, would barely give Dusty the time of day.
It was two full days before an adult, concerned that Dusty was still limping (and not using the situation to his advantage or making a joke out of it) said “someone should take Dusty to get x-rayed.”
That someone was none other than Mark, who tersely drove Dusty to the hospital and then back to his hotel, whereupon the latter announced, opening the door on crutches to roommates Kohler and Jurek: “Yep, it’s fuckin’ broken!”
To the chagrin of everyone, especially Dusty, he was now forced to sit in a hotel room for the remainder of the meet, with no outlet for his energy. So he got creative.
The hotel the teams were staying at was shaped like a giant “C,” and had outdoor walkways on the upper floors. Dusty would crutch his way outside and, spying another team in the courtyard or on the walkway across from him, would start hucking snowballs with terrifying precision and feracity. The other teams would attempt to return fire – usually poorly.
“Look at you, throwing like a cripple!” Dusty shouted, still hanging on to his own crutches, “just punishing” the other teams while he taunted them, as Kohler puts it.
Soon, the wounded Dusty found another passion project. A couple of days after Dusty’s x-ray, Mark, the coach who had been notoriously curt with Dusty after his fall, was walking and talking into a walkie-talkie when he slipped on some ice, fell to the ground and cracked a rib.
Dusty spent the rest of the week trying to make Mark laugh before traveling home.
With two missed chances in the books, Dusty spent the 1993 season ruing Anchorage and Maine and chomping at the bit to return to Junior Nationals. The meet happened to be at Giant’s Ridge, in his backyard in Minnesota’s Iron Range, that year.
He and Kohler wanted badly to ski on the highest stage in their home state, but their perpetual concern was finances. Travel was less of a problem this year, but the expense of traveling to (end entering) the required minimum number of meets, and getting a qualifier to meet the entry standard, was adding up over the years.
So it was by sheer luck that Kohler happened to be flipping through the USSA rulebook early in the season when he noticed something missing. “It never mentioned a qualifying race being required for entry to Junior Nationals,” he says. “It only said you have to pay $35 or something.”
He promptly phoned USSA to inquire about the loophole. He pressed the woman on the phone, who eventually – reluctantly – said “yes, technically you can do that.”
She apparently then looked into it, as she shortly thereafter called Kohler back to clarify a few things.
“She said ‘you won’t get any support’,” he recalls. “She meant coaching, waxing, that sort of thing.”
“And I said ‘sounds great!’” he continues. “We travel to Giant’s Ridge every weekend already. So I talked to Dusty about it, and we talked to my brother [who was also competing], and the three of us said ‘yeah, let’s do it!’”
First, they had to settle on a team name, as the moniker “Midwest” was no longer available. They quickly arrived at “The Best.”
The name was chosen not out of pomposity, but rather for its potential place on a catchy t-shirt. The boys arrived at Giant’s Ridge wearing those t-shirts, which were emblazoned with the slogan “When you’re The Best, you’re The Best.”
For this and their lack of a delegation, Dusty and Kohler were slightly out of place from the moment they arrived. Making the situation more awkward was the fact that one of the coaches for the Midwest team was one of the coaches for Kohler’s team at St. Paul Central.
“It was awkward for him, anyway,” Kohler says. “We just thought it was funny.”
For one thing, they were without a place to stay. As host delegation, the Midwest team was entitled to stay in the dorm-style accommodations of the Giant’s Ridge “Olympic Training Center,” whose amenities included a wax room. Dusty and Kohler tried to wax their skis there but were turned away.
“They wouldn’t let us into that building, even to socialize,” Kohler says. “They didn’t know how to handle it. But it didn’t bother us too much.”
Instead, “The Best” was busy making friends with other delegations at the Eveleth Super 8, where Dusty’s dad, then a sales rep for Yellow Pages, had brokered a swap of phone books in exchange for a room for his son and his friend.
Meanwhile, Dusty and Kohler had to sort out their representation. They weren’t allowed to have coaches per their absence from an official team, but were required to have a presence at coaches’ meetings. So they attended these nighttime meetings, eating nachos and drinking soda while the coaches went through their orders of business. “The Best” sat in the back and kept their mouths shut. Usually.
“The night before one of the races, the groomer was talking about his plans to groom the course around midnight,” Kohler says. “He said he could go back around, after he put in corduroy for the skate, and put in classic tracks on the downhills.”
Kohler further explains that, at least for elite skiers, remaining in tracks on a downhill can be annoying when they become glazed over, and make passing other skiers more difficult. Or, as Dusty put it:
“I think skiers of this level are perfectly capable of skiing downhills,” he chimed in from the back. Perhaps realizing his objection didn’t have its usual knife twist, he added: “Why don’t we just let the groomer get some sleep?”
“Yeah, we pissed some people off,” Kohler says. “But we sure backed it up.”
The next day, sans classic tracks on the downhills, Kohler won the classic race convincingly. The day following, Dusty won the skate. Eyeing the final event – a team relay – the Midwest delegation begrudgingly approached “The Best” to join their team.
They added the Midwest’s best skier, who led things off in the three-man, classic-classic-skate relay (whether skate or classic constitutes two of three legs alternates from year to year). Kohler put them solidly in the lead, and with Dusty skating as anchor, “The Best/Now With Midwest” was so far ahead he flopped to the ground short of the finish line and crawled his way in on his hands and knees.
The following year, two new rules were implemented:
“Something about flagrant displays at the finish, and that you couldn’t go without being on a team any more,” Kohler says. “So I guess we left an impression.”
At the base of Chester Bowl sits a 3-kilometer Nordic ski loop. Like most of Chester Bowl’s amenities, the Nordic track is…homely. And like much of Minnesota’s snow, it is usually covered with a sheet of ice.
“It’s pretty rough,” Dusty says. “If you could make it around Chester Bowl, especially before they widened the loop, you could probably ski anything.”
By the time he was nearing sixth grade, Dusty was starting to grow bored with the 175 vertical feet Chester’s alpine hill offered; his creative endeavors had expanded to include gunning down the hill in Nordic equipment.
The equipment was not fancy, and its origins are unclear. “I was using trackless, no-wax skis and 3-milimeter bindings,” he says. “Not racing equipment.”
Meanwhile, Dusty had accrued a hefty aerobic base swimming for the YMCA. But his mom got in a fight with the swimming coach, and Dusty was left looking for another outlet. Given how much time he spent at Chester and his talent for moving about with long boards attached to his feet, Nordic skiing presented the perfect way to satiate Dusty’s boundless energy. His parents called George Hovland, a local skier to whom they had been referred by a mutual friend, Chuck Curtis.
“They called and said ‘our son would like to cross-country ski,’ and we went up to Chester Park which is where I lived and I got him on skis and showed him the basic classic technique,” Hovland says. “There was no skating at the time but he picked up on it rapidly.”
From what Hovland knew of the Olsons, he sensed he had a gifted athlete on his hands. “I heard from [Kurtis] that Dusty’s father had decided to run Grandma’s Marathon the day before the race one year, and he finished with absolutely no training,” he says. “At this point I thought either this guy is nuts, or he’s an incredible natural athlete.”
One night early in their lessons, the direct descendant of this “incredible natural athlete” skied smack into a streetlight next to the Chester Bowl chalet. For the thousandth time, Dusty peeled himself off Chester’s snow and kept going.
“I skied there every day I possibly could,” Dusty says. He gradually learned to skate ski, even on his trackless, no-wax skis with the 3mm bindings, and in his first Nordic combined race he finished well ahead of everyone his age.
This caught the attention of Dave Israel, a top amateur skier during the 1980s who was in grad school in Duluth at the time. Israel had led the University of Minnesota Duluth to a team NSAC title with a second place individual finish in college and had tried out for the US Ski Team but, lacking what he called “the natural talent to be a competitive international racer,” he soon turned his focus to a family and career in academics.
“Dusty was probably about 9 or 10 years old and was skiing and running on skis past most of the skiers in the race on some very slow, fiscal, no-wax skis,” Israel, now a Biology professor at Lake Superior College, says of the race. “I remember his dad introducing us after the race and I complemented him on his fitness and encouraged him to continue racing.”
Dusty’s father asked Israel if he would coach Dusty; Israel agreed.
“After that, Dusty just started appearing at our apartment,” Israel says.
The first several lessons consisted of five minutes of skiing followed by an extensive snowball fight. “I was entirely too serious, and he was a goofy, seemingly hyperactive kid, but probably normal for a boy his age,” Israel says. “Being a young newlywed graduate student, I really didn’t know anything about working with kids.”
Israel adapted quickly enough, though, concocting a regimen where Dusty would ski-jour – or be dragged – behind his oversized springer spaniel, Jo-Jo; meanwhile, Israel would ski alongside on the multi-use snowmobile trails.
“It was fun enough for him, it tired out his hyperactive dog, and I got my workouts in,” Israel says.
But Israel’s role in Dusty’s life soon evolved from occasional coach to friend and mentor. Ultimately, the Israel household would provide a solid foundation in rocky times.
“A short time later [Dusty’s] parents went through a divorce, and with all the turmoil that surrounds that he spent quite a bit of time with us,” Israel says. “His mom would let us borrow her old station wagon to go grouse hunting and we had some good adventures getting it stuck and unstuck on the rutted four-wheel drive roads north and west of Duluth.”
In a precursor to Dusty’s future endeavors on the water, he and Israel even went whitewater kayaking a few times. “He eventually carried [it] to much higher levels than I was willing to go,” Israel says.
Dusty came to spend more and more time at the Israel’s home over the ensuing years, sometimes staying with them for weeks or months at a time. As with almost any setting, Dusty transitioned in seamlessly, as though he were part of the family all along.
“I remember him joking around with our four-year-old daughter, prodding her to see how many laps she could run around the house while he consumed his stack of a dozen pancakes after a long run,” Israel says.
The coaching was paying off, meanwhile. Dusty rose through the age-group ranks, obtaining a sponsorship from the local ski shop, Ski Hut, by age 12. When high school rolled around, Dusty had all but outgrown the program at Duluth East.
“He wasn’t thrilled with the coaching he was getting [at East],” says Rick Callies, who coached the Nordic ski team at St. Paul Central High School. One of Callies’ athletes, Ed Kohler, was also an elite skier and had become friends with Dusty through traveling and competing with him on the US Ski Association (USSA) circuit on weekends in places like Ironwood, Michigan, and Giant’s Ridge.
“Dusty was kind of the outcast at his high school program,” Kohler elaborates. “He was more motivated and adventurous and East was a little too stuffy for his liking.”
One year, several parents from the “stuffy” East Nordic program organized an elaborate end-of-season banquet, complete with an expensive catered dinner; the food went all but untouched by the team when Dusty showed up late with a dozen or so pizzas he had ordered and the pies proved a more popular dinner option among his teammates. Angry at his irreverence, the parents who had organized the banquet kicked him out. It is hard to imagine Dusty took it too hard – the banquet wasn’t his style, outside the chance to wreak havoc.
Soon Dusty, who was traveling to the Twin Cities regularly to visit his father, would often use the trips to join up with Kohler and train under Callies.
“I never coached Dusty directly, but he started joining in on stuff we did,” Callies clarifies. Those endeavors included the Central team’s infamous 90k day on the outskirts of Hayward, Wisconsin. At times they were joined by Scott Jurek who, like Dusty, occasionally eschewed the training at his own Proctor High School to train under Callies’ guidance. Whereas Kohler and Dusty could normally shake Jurek easily, his resilience on the 90k day offered the first hints that he would excel at ultra-endurance events.
But Dusty was still beating Jurek then. Callies notes that not only was Dusty a huge athletic talent – he matched it with an unparalleled work ethic and drive to improve as an athlete. That rare and valuable pairing made Dusty a good fit among Central’s skiers, with whom he soon assimilated.
“At Central, we pretty much out-trained everybody and Dusty just took to that mode,” Callies says. “From an early age he was doing stuff that most of us would have considered outrageous.”
It was Dusty’s defining paradox: how could such a legendary slacker, who seems to value enjoying the moment above all else, summon such a legendary work ethic on skis – or in any other endurance-related pursuit, for that matter? He trained his ass off, but he was still the Dustball. “He could go fast, but he kind of reminded you of Beavis and Butthead,” Callies continues.
Maybe he wasn’t a slacker at all. Dusty is laid back, to be certain, but often has a project to which he fully devotes his time and energy, explains his sister, Tonya. The fact that he has fun in the meantime is a testament to his work-life balance, which he works just as fastidiously to maintain.
“He was like me,” Callies says. “[Skiing] was the first thing I remembered being successful at, and he was successful at it so he channeled his energy into it. You finally find something you’re good at and can succeed at, and can get some recognition for, so you get dedicated to it.”
“I’m guessing he’s a lot like a lot of us in that that was an outlet,” Callies continues. “He had a rough childhood and he wasn’t a scholar.”
Tonya says that Dusty has always been willing to work hard at something where he recognized he could succeed. She also says he has historically done better with athletics because it was an area where he was supported and had access to resources. One area where he may have succeeded but lacked that support, she explains, was in academics.
It was due partially to his being diagnosed as learning disabled early in his childhood, Tonya says. That “disability” has since been recognized as dyslexia, a condition to which learners can adapt with the right resources.
“Partially due to family stuff and partially due to resources, he just never was one to think if he worked hard in school he could accomplish what he wanted to. He’s one of the most creative and intelligent people I know,” Tonya says, noting that Dusty taught himself graphic design at one point. “Some of the most successful executives in the world are dyslexic. But academics weren’t presented as an option to him, so he never had the chance.”
“But he never pursued going to college as hard as he did his athletics, partially because he grew up being told he could be an Olympic athlete,” she continues. “That wasn’t unrealistic except for finances and social support playing into that equation ultimately weren’t enough, especially in a sport like Nordic skiing where you need the means to pursue it.”
Callies puts it more bluntly. “You have to be wealthy now to be successful as a skier in the US,” he says. “Athletically he was as good as anyone I ever saw. Had he had the money to play the game, he would have been on the US ski team. He’s gifted – a better pure athlete than Jurek – but he had his circumstances and he didn’t want to play that game.”
“He never doped either, which is funny because I don’t think he’s exactly anti-drug,” Callies continues. “But he never gave into it because it was another one of those things, and that wasn’t what he was there for.”
For Dusty, it was about skiing as fast as he could. It was as pure an endeavor as he could imagine. And for all the times the game held him back – disqualifying him from the state meet because of bad grades, or cornering him in a high school program that wasn’t working for him – Dusty just wanted to test his mettle against the best skiers his age in the US. No bullshit – just skiing.
He would get his chance, along with Kohler. But first, they would have to beat “the game” one more epic time.
Minnesota has no mountains, and no ocean on its border. But Minnesotans are dedicated to their outdoor recreation – give them big hills or a sizeable lake, and they will make the most of it. For those growing up here, honing a craft like skiing or climbing can be repetitive, limited to well-preserved but smaller spots that are few and far between in a mostly flat state. Those who eventually migrate to the mountains will never take the seemingly infinite space for granted; but for those outdoors-lovers who stay tied to the state through a job, family, or sheer want, things could certainly be worse.
Nestled on the hillside overlooking Duluth, 117-acre Chester Bowl ski area perfectly encapsulates this mentality. Adjacent to college campuses to its northeast and northwest, and to a city of 86,000 to its south, its 175 vertical feet1 of alpine ski slope aren’t exactly crammed into the larger Chester Park area it calls home, but they’re close. Chester Bowl is a very small ski hill. And it was a perfect playground for a pre-teen Dusty Olson, whose parents had him on skis from an early age.
“Chester was maybe two miles from my house, so I would ride my bike there or get dropped off by my parents,” Dusty recalls. “Then one of the ski jumping coaches would usually give me a ride home. We could store our gear in the chalet or the garage behind the chalet. It was a pretty unique place to grow up.”
Soon, the pre-teen Dusty was also hanging out at Chester during the summer, traipsing around the hiking trails during the park’s summer day camp, providing “day care,” as Dusty describes it, for wealthy kids from Hillside – “even though I was from the East End.”
“He never did work here, but he was always around, volunteering to help with stuff,” says Thom Storm, the program director at Chester Bowl. As Dusty grew older he would come running through en route to logging a dozen or more miles on the trails surrounding the city, training for the ski season or his next footrace.
Storm would also gift Olson with one of his many nicknames – “The Swedish Cowboy,” where Swedish denotes the heritage of the name Olson and “Cowboy” was the first thing Storm thought of when he heard the name “Dusty.”
Yet for all its summer intrigue for an active, outdoors-obsessed Dusty, winter was the real time to play at Chester. Before long, Dusty proved himself not only a talented downhill skier but one who was either oblivious to or didn’t care about the risks of pushing the envelope of his own abilities. “We would build our own jumps in the middle of the hill and fly off those things,” he says. “Then you’d have [Todd] Gremmels doing backflips off these jumps in front of a bunch of eight-year-old kids, getting us all fired up.”
Gremmels was a 20-something ski instructor at Chester who would come to mentor Dusty as a downhiller – and later crew for him at the Edmund Fitzgerald 100k. He recalls Dusty as a “wild child.” “He had long hair, like Wolf Boy. He reminded me a lot of myself when I was younger,” Gremmels says. “We had the rope tow and we jumped off big jumps. He was just this long-haired, crazy downhill skier.”
“I’d probably be a lot more appropriate if I hadn’t met [Gremmels] when I was 12,” Dusty deadpans.
Gremmels was immediately impressed with Dusty’s fearlessness on the slope. “Downhilling, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the most extreme things you can do, and Dusty was never afraid of any of it,” he says. “He just threw him body into anything. Pure abandon…he would see adults doing something and would want to do it himself.”
Sure enough, Olson was spurred by Gremmels to attempt a backflip one day off their homemade jump. “He never had any experience on a trampoline or anything, so I tried to discourage him,” Gremmels says. “Of course, that didn’t work, so he went and did it anyway.”
Olson landed hard – on his head – then “bounced,” in Gremmels’ words, and righted himself, ready to try again. Soon, he was landing hard on purpose, setting his ski bindings so his tips would dig into the ground as he wheeled around, playing Superman as he flew toward a face-first meeting with the snow. A couple incidents led to cracked ribs and a tweaked ankle, but these wouldn’t deter Dusty.
“He’s an irreverent soul,” Gremmels says. “Just a constant ‘screw you, you tell me I can’t do this? Well I’m gonna go out and do it’.”
But when it came to defying gravity at Chester Bowl, Dusty had barely gotten off the ground.
Given its size, you could reasonably bet Chester Bowl is not a place that regularly produces Olympians.
You would be wrong. For several decades in the 20th century, the hill was a hotspot not only a sanctuary for alpine skiers but a national hub of the less-popular but higher-flying sport of ski jumping.
Ski jumping propels participants down a gigantic ramp and through the air; the jump terminates just a few feet above the ground and sends bodies down the remainder of the hill level to, but floating above, the surface below. Given a big enough ramp, world-class jumpers might be launched over 100 meters through the air, reaching speeds over 70 miles per hour.
One such ramp called Chester Bowl home. In 1924, the Duluth Ski Club built “Big Chester” – a ski jump rising 115 feet off the ground that was the largest in the world at the time – on Chester’s grounds. Smaller slides were added and by the 1970s, Chester was home to five ski jumps and provided the training grounds for several Olympic ski jumpers, including Adrian Watt, Jim Denney, and Greg Swor.
Ski jumping is a highly specialized sport that requires specific equipment – including ski bindings that detach at the heel, opposite the bindings of downhill skis – and careful training.
Or, in Dusty’s case, it required whatever skis he already owned, and whatever experience he had garnered on the improvised levitation catalysts he and his friends built on the alpine hill. As far as he was concerned, in fact, the carefully-engineered ski jumps were safer than whatever he was normally launching off of.
His sister explains that Dusty is nothing if not a tester of limits. Sitting with her on the dock at a cabin, they would dangle their feet in the water, seeing whose feet could collect more leeches. “It would totally freak him out,” Tonya recalls, “but he’d always try to get more than me.” At pancake breakfasts, he would eat to the point of vomiting or inducing a day of gastrointestinal misery, all to outdo his sister. Plus, he notes, if he could make himself throw up he wouldn’t have to go to school that day.
And at Chester Bowl, the grade school-aged Dusty quickly outgrew the hill’s vertical offerings and found new ways to entertain himself, skiing down the hill in only his boots, going down on one ski, and – when he was still short enough – skiing between Tonya’s legs.
“He was never satisfied with simply jumping off a jump,” Tonya says. “He would find ways to make the jump bigger or harder, or make the process of going off the jump harder.” This included going off the jump backwards, launching off it on one ski, or pulling his hat over his eyes as a blindfold. And when he outgrew those homemade ramps altogether, he moved on to the “real” jumps.
Chester hosted ski jumping meets each Tuesday and most kids on the hill would come for the free cup of soda and to compete for the traveling trophy that was taller than nine-year-old Dusty. It didn’t take the Swedish Cowboy long to give it a try on his own, launching up to 100 feet off “Little Chester,” the 30-meter jump, in his downhill skis – heels attached and all. By age 12, he had upgraded to the 55-meter Big Chester.
In Dusty’s backyard, nothing would prove his match – not even the renowned Glen Plake.
When Plake swung through Duluth as part of a promotional tour near the turn of the decade, he sat firmly atop the world of extreme skiing. The oft-mohawked freestyler was sponsored by K2 and made frequent appearances on posters and in ski videos; in 1989’s “License to Thrill,” Plake is shown glamorously bombing down sunbathed mountains and glaciers in California and British Columbia, plowing through fresh powder and occasionally falling spectacularly, to the music of Nasty Rox, Inc.
Plake’s tour had officially taken him to nearby Spirit Mountain, but when he heard about Chester Bowl’s selection of ski jumps, he made an unscheduled stop at the smaller neighboring hill to launch off Little Chester. It was over Christmas break, and Plake had a captive audience of young skiers, including Dusty, who by now was in high school.
“[Plake] had this little pickup truck with a trailer behind it,” Storm recalls. “And his wife was there, dressed to the nines with a full-length white fur coat. He was a big deal.”
Dusty was characteristically irreverent. “He was going off Little Chester, so I was giving him shit, like ‘why don’t you go off Big Chester with me?’”
Plake declined to take on Chester’s largest jump. Dusty proceeded without him – again with his downhill skis.
“So that went down as the time Plake chickened out on Big Chester and Dusty went anyway,” says Gremmels.
And so it was that, around age 14, Dusty had seemingly done everything there was to do at his local hill, then invented some new things and done all of them, too. But somewhere between doing backflips on the alpine hill and jumping off Big Chester, George Hovland had seen Dusty and put him on a pair of Nordic skis. Dusty’s days on the snow – at Chester and elsewhere – were just getting started.