Wax Man Cometh

As it happens, the common belief that the Inuit have over a hundred words for snow has no more validity than that email you just got celebrating your win in a Kenyan lottery. They've got no more terms in the lexicon than anyone else.

That doesn't mean that there aren't endless types of snow. Icy snow, dry snow, wet snow. Cold snow, warm snow. Big crystal snow, small crystal snow, in-between crystal snow. The stuff comes in all shapes and sizes, and each can change how a pair of skis will run down a cross course. Each fraction of a second is huge, especially on a run like the one at Buttermilk, long and filled with technical features.

To maximize speed, athletes need not only to work on their form on top of their skis, but make sure the setup underneath them is fast as well. Enter the wax man, responsible for wringing every ounce of speed from a pair of skis that the racer might not be able to on his own.

"This race is so dictated by the first hundred yards. If you're out in front, you have a huge advantage," says Eric Holmer, who handles the planks of Errol Kerr.

It's a process that begins long before guys arrive in Aspen. "I got all of Errol's skis in September and I could just start cycling layers of wax in all fall," Holmer says. "I've had four months with the skis and know them inside and out."

From there, it's a question of matching the best skis -- the "race rockets" if you will -- with the best potions for the circumstances. Wax men are jittery before race day, since any change in the weather can undo the previous day's strategy and force some adjustments on the fly. With wet conditions expected for Sunday's race, they'll be breaking out plenty of waxes infused with moisture repelling fluorocarbons, powders, sprays, and overlays that can prevent sticking and keep skis fast. Tiny bricks and little jars that can cost over $100 a pop.

"We're going to be using a lot of wax. Expensive wax," Holmer laughs. "Nobody holds anything back."

Because the stakes are so high, trade secrets are well protected. Wax techs will commonly throw off peers by placing dummy products on their table. Those techs who do well -- Curtis Bacca, who has won medals with the Crist brothers, Daron Rahlves, Nate Holland, and Lindsey Jacobellis among others, has achieved seemingly mythical status in the industry -- are in high demand.

There's no perfect formula for success, but that won't keep guys from trying to find it. Says Holmer with a smile, "There's a lot of science and there's a lot of art, and there's a lot of voodoo, and there's a lot of b.s. to ski teching."