I’ve long been intrigued by Buck Hill.
Just minutes south of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, adjacent to busy Interstate 35, Buck Hill has 309 feet of vertical and an enormous reputation in the world of alpine ski racing.
While Buck Hill is currently best known for launching Lindsey Vonn, she is just one of thousands of local ski racers who’ve gone on to success at all levels of the sport.
In 1969, Erich Sailer, an Austrian ski coach who emigrated to North America in 1954, became the Buck Hill ski racing coach. At 90 years old, he is still training some of the best junior racers in the country.
According to his U.S. Ski Hall of Fame biography, Sailer has “coached and encouraged possibly 25,000 young ski racers during his career and sent countless numbers to the U.S. Ski Team.”
In addition to a remarkably successful youth USSA ski team, Buck Hill is also the home nine adult racing leagues, the training site for 20 area high school teams and a vibrant center for developmental skiing and snowboarding programs.
As co-owner Don McClure puts it, “Buck Hill is the slalom factory of the world.”
Turn, And Turn Again
I have a friend who grew up skiing and racing in the Twin Cities. She can make quick turns like none other and is an outstanding slalom skier. Once, when riding a lift at our children’s ski race, I asked Stephanie about skiing in Minnesota.
“The hill’s are so short, there’s nothing to do but turn,” she explained. “You’re trying to make as many turns as you can on each run.”
When we visited Buck Hill in late February, we saw a lot of turning.
We saw an 88 year-old ski racer working in the gates, along with his teammates and coaches.
We saw itty-bitty skiers making their first turns off of the magic carpet and we spent a lot of time making turns with our niece, as she showed us her favorite runs.
Buck Hill packs 15 runs, 11 lifts and a multi-lane tubing hill onto 60 acres on the front side of a hill topped by a water tank and backed by suburban residential development.
Much of the snow is manmade, and when we were there it was immaculately groomed.
The primary terrain park and half-pipe are massive, perfect for repetitive practice and high-level skills production.
The adjacent racing hill has permanent start houses and is always busy. In fact, there’s a waiting list for teams who wish to train at Buck Hill.
Moving across the mountain, you find Milk Run, Buck Hill’s longest, steepest pitch off of the central quad chair.
Just to skier’s left is the beginner area, served by four lifts, including 2 magic carpets and a rope tow for quick laps in the smaller terrain park.
Part of Local Culture
Our 12-year-old niece spent the first two-thirds of her life in Colorado and never took to skiing.
When she moved to Minnesota, she started skiing at Buck Hill with her elementary school’s after-school program.
Buck Hill is only 10 minutes from her house, and because it’s open into the night, every night, she has plenty of options for skiing. It’s easy for her to get a ride, meet friends and have fun.
Thanks to the popular tubing hill and fire pit, she can also have fun with non-skiing friends.
Like my niece, many of them are introduced to Buck Hill through school, while many others come to Buck Hill as second and third-generation regulars.
Owner Don McClure is a long-time Buck Hill skier.
At 15, McClure joined the Buck Hill Junior Ski Patrol. The only skier in a family of champion speed skaters, McClure stuck around, moving up in Buck Hill’s professional ranks and buying ownership shares as they became available.
Last fall, McClure, together with David and Corrine (Chip) Solner, purchased Buck Hill from long-time owners Chuck and Nancy Stone.
Solner, who is originally from Wisconsin, was on the US Ski Jumping team from 1981-1985. An architect, he has two children, one of whom is a competitive snowboarder.
Traveling to various competitions and training facilities, Solner realized that Buck Hill could establish itself as a year-round alpine and freestyle training facility.
The first step in converting to year-round operations is installation of a dry snowflex slope on Buck Hill this summer.
The dry slope will allow year-round alpine race training for some of the area’s most diehard skiers.
Future plans include development of a more extensive alpine training facility and an indoor freestyle training facility à la Colorado’s Woodward Copper and Woodward Tahoe in California.
Additionally, Solner explains that they plan to replace base area buildings that have been outgrown. This will expand and improve the guest experience. They’d also like to develop a lodging base for ski camps and future competitions.
The Return of World Class Racing?
In 1973, a professional ski race was held at Buck Hill with the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival. That year, triple Olympic gold medalist Jean-Claude Killy won the giant slalom and Spider Sabich won the slalom.
While a professional meet was held again in 1974 (with Hugo Nindl of Austria winning both events), the trend in ski racing, at that time, was away from commercial events and toward larger, mostly European FIS sanctioned races.
In December 2015, Lindsey Vonn won a night-time World Cup Giant Slalom race on an artificially lit course in Åre, Sweden.
Hearkening back to her training days at Buck Hill, Vonn remarked, “When I was a kid I always trained under the lights after school. So I really like racing under the lights. It’s really fun.”
In and amongst the plans for enhanced year-round operations and training, McClure and the Solners have another dream: bringing Buck Hill up to FIS standards and hosting a sanctioned urban race.
As David Solner explains, “It would make the connection back to our roots.”
More Midwestern Skiing:
- Why I Love to Ski Blackjack, Michigan. An Interview with the Wisconsin Skier, March 13, 2013.
- Why My Family Loves to Ski Granite Peak, Wisconsin, March 28, 2012.
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