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Know the West

The last shovel racers

After four decades, a ski resort drops a beloved tradition.

 

On a chilly February morning, Justin, Nadia, Paloma and Severino Gonzales mount their snow shovel blades and take turns hurtling down Exhibition Run at northeast New Mexico’s Angel Fire Ski Resort. One by one they push off from the top of the run, handles between their legs, arms tense at their sides.

A good run lasts all of 15 seconds, ending when the racer collides spectacularly with a protective wall of inner tubes. The siblings have participated in the World Championship Shovel Races for years. The resort has announced that it’s canceling the annual event, however, so this will be their last shovel race.

The Gonzales siblings, who started shovel racing as kids, describe their sport as “extreme sledding.” It’s always been as accessible as sledding: The original shovel racers were ’70s Angel Fire lift operators, who used their tools to slide down at day’s end. Soon it became a contest, where people devised modified luge-like “shovels” that reached almost 80 mph. At its peak, “It was like IndyCar,” Justin told me. That “Wild West” version of the sport even got a spot in the 1997 X Games and a short Warren Miller film. In 2005, however, the resort briefly canceled it, spooked by the risks involved — participants crashing and flipping vessels that could weigh up to 500 pounds. But it’s been back in a safer form since 2010, restricted to plain old snow shovels.

It’s always been as accessible as sledding: The original shovel racers were ’70s Angel Fire lift operators, who used their tools to slide down at day’s end. 

Now, after four decades, the tradition is ending. In an official statement, the resort said it will no longer host the races, citing dwindling interest and the fact that the championship costs half of its winter event budget. It would rather spend more on “family-friendly” offerings like its Winter Carnival, a resort representative said. Shovel racing has always been a proudly local event — over 95% of participants live near Angel Fire. All kinds of people with varying physical abilities, ranging in age from 6 to 80, participate.

The Gonzaleses, like many other Moreno Valley residents, hate seeing their beloved annual tradition disappear. They grew up alongside the sport and the valley, and all but one of the siblings were part of the first graduating classes at Moreno Valley High School in the early 2000s. Back then, Angel Fire was considered a promising market for second-home owners who wanted a more affordable ski-resort alternative to Aspen or nearby Taos and Santa Fe. But that didn’t pan out, and the village never grew past a thousand residents.

The Gonzaleses’ father, who worked as a ski instructor, participated in the first shovel races in the 1970s. Following family tradition, the siblings have spent their adult years dominating the World Championships. They may be scattered across the West — from Albuquerque to Dillon, Colorado, and Kings Beach, California — but shovel racing brings them back home every winter. Now, with the race in its final year, what’s dying isn’t just a novelty sport; it’s one of the last remaining traditions that bring the community together.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/climate-desk-winter-traditions-are-feeling-the-heat-of-climate-change]

And it’s not just the Gonzales family that makes the annual trek home: “It’s a tradition of the Valley, which doesn’t really have too many traditions,” Justin said. “Especially one that they can call their own, and something that’s so unique.” As Angel Fire becomes better known for mountain biking than snow sports — given today’s unpredictable winters — shovel racing remains a major draw for locals who may not even ski regularly. No expensive equipment or years of experience needed.

“It’s kind of like golf clubs. I have different shovels for different occasions.” 

For the Gonzaleses, it’s also an obsession. Justin — the family’s shovel tech and racing perfectionist — has honed his wax technique and wears a speed suit and special pointed Adidas shoes similar to luge racers’ gear.  Every year, he chooses a new shovel at the local hardware store. “There is a little bit of a calling,” he said.  He paints elaborate images on them — dragons, butterflies, Zia symbols. The humble snow shovel becomes a work of art that later hangs on Justin’s wall, and another tool in an ever-growing collection. “It’s kind of like golf clubs,” he told me. “I have different shovels for different occasions.” 

The siblings spend just one day practicing on the course before getting two runs to record their official fastest times the next day. Nadia, who hopes to talk some Colorado ski hills into hosting, believes shovel racing will only get more competitive and popular if other mountain towns embrace it. Wherever it goes, Angel Fire’s shovel racers would happily travel to participate.

“I’m really surprised other mountains haven’t done something like this. It doesn’t take a lot of work to pull off, and it could become something really cool,” Paloma told me. “That’s what the shovel races did for Angel Fire for so long, was put it on the map as a really weird and interesting place.” 

Erin Berger is a freelance writer and former Outside editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is learning to ski, slowly but surely.

Minesh Bacrania, previously an experimental nuclear physicist, is an editorial and documentary portrait photographer based in New Mexico.

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