For years I’ve been hearing about Petr Kakes, the legendary speed skier who runs the Warming Hut and the ski shop at Ski Bowl.
I’ve run into him on Mount Hood now and then, but never had the opportunity to sit down and hear his full story before, just bits and pieces: Communist-era defector, Olympic speed skier, Arctic Man champion. You can tell by the glint in his eyes that Petr’s got the sort of perspective on life that makes for good stories, so when I ran into him the other day at the Snowvana preseason party in Portland, I had to hear more. Fortunately, he was available.
We found a relatively quiet spot up on the concourse of the Memorial Coliseum, and Petr told me all about his experiences escaping the Iron Curtain, setting himself up as an entrepreneur in the Mount Hood pioneer days, competing in the Olympics, and racing with the likes of Daron Rahlves, Marco Sullivan and Todd Palin (yep, that Todd Palin) in the Arctic Man Classic in Alaska. Petr Kakes is a three-time Arctic Man champ, and I highly recommend reading more to hear his description of how that race works—and what it takes to win it three times.
Shred Hood: Tell me a bit about yourself. I know you grew up ski racing in what was then Czechoslovakia. How did you end up on Mount Hood?
Petr Kakes: Well, in about 1980 I decided that the future for me as a ski racer and a citizen of socialist Czechoslovakia was looking pretty bleak, and I decided to defect. I went to Munich and I lived in Germany for six years. I thought my career as an athlete was over, but then some school friends threw a bunch of money in a hat, and they told me, ‘We’re going to buy you a pair of race skis so you can start racing again.” So I did. It was my second career start, out of Munich, and in 1986 I migrated to the U.S. to compete on the U.S. Pro Tour. Then my friend Kevin Clarke and I started a company called Hurricane Racing providing service for the pro racers. We set up a mobile shop and traveled with the pro tour, did service for Atomic, Salomon and so forth. By then I was getting onto 29 years of living out of a suitcase, and I came to Mount Hood in the summertime. All the pro racers were coming to Mount Hood in the summer, and I saw the opportunity here. There was a lot of room for entrepreneurs like me to start in Government Camp, and I was fortunate enough to hook up with Kirk Hanna. So I’ve been at Ski Bowl since then.
You run the ski school at Ski Bowl, and the shop as well, right?
I opened the shop at Ski Bowl to provide services that weren’t there before, and once that was running I took on the ski school. The year after that I took on the Warming Hut.
Love the Warming Hut. Huge fan. I had my daughter in there at age 5, eating Twizzlers and drinking mango juice, warming up in front of that huge fireplace.
I just dropped trees, cut them, split them and stored them under the Warming Hut. 10 cords.
That will keep you in shape.
It is hard work. So think about that when you throw four logs in there please, okay? Cut it down to two. (Laughs). So yeah, it’s been a good ride. Some seasons are more challenging than others, but it has worked out for me, my timing has been good. In 1991-92 we were having a bad season on Mount Hood and it didn’t look we were going to get any snow here. So I went to Europe to train for the Olympics, and my business did not suffer too badly while I was gone. And I got the opportunity to compete in the Olympics.
How many times did you get to compete?
Just one time, because speed skiing was a one-time exhibition in 1992.
Speed skiing is insane.
Actually it is not. Because slopes they use for speed skiing even are free of any obstacles. You have nothing to hit. What is the worst thing in slalom or the downhill? You hook a tip and you start rotating, and you fall into the nets, right? We don’t have that in speed skiing. The worst injuries you see in speed skiing are burns. Well, burns heal a lot faster than an ACL or a shoulder. They may not heal mentally as fast, but physically they do heal.
You remember falling at that speed then.
I never did fall while speed skiing or downhill racing (knocks on wood). Never.
Knock on wood.
And I can still say that after 23 years of Arctic Man also, which I think is a lot more challenging than speed skiing.
What is the fastest you’ve gone while speed skiing?
I track my speed with the Ski Tracks app sometimes, and 50 is really fast for me. 60 is scary. More than double that? No way.
That’s 1.45 seconds to cross a football field. And they’re doing it now in 1.28.
I saw some guy broke the record last year.
At 154 miles an hour.
Incredible. Tell me about Arctic Man.
In 1994 I got an offer to come and compete in an event with snowmobiles and skiers in Alaska. That was just two years after the Olympics, and my first reaction was no. But I thought about it for a couple of weeks and changed my mind. And I have been coming up for it ever since. Because I have have made so many friends up there, met so many beautiful people. I have been going up in the summer time too. I cannot live a year without being in Alaska.
Where do you go in Alaska?
We go to a place called Summit Lake. It is about three and a half hours southeast of Fairbanks. An events promoter named John Howard invented the race 31 years ago, just out of fun. They were a bunch of guys out on the snow, and they made a bet on who was going to be faster down. And he won. Over time they expanded the event, and now it consists of three stages. In the first stage the skier starts from point A, one and three quarter miles through a canyon, not really technical but pretty good speed, down a one-track, where you meet the snowmobile partner at speed, about 40-45 miles an hour based on the conditions. You match the speed with the snow machine. They hand you a rope or something to hold onto. In my case I use a pole, an 18-foot aluminum pole with a handle on the end. It just follows behind the machine and I pick it up at speed and grab it.
And then he pulls you uphill.
He pulls you another two and a half miles up the mountain.
And you’re back there breathing fumes?
Well mostly you’re breathing the snow that’s getting shot at you from the snow machine (laughs). I started cheating a few years ago and wearing a face guard shaped in a cone, to disperse the snow away from my face so I can see better. But at the same time the cone makes it more challenging to grab the device. Because you’re sliding, you grab the pole, you come back to the handle of the pole and you’ve got this cone in front of your face, so you have to go around the cone. Plus it slides side-to-side when he goes over a bump. But anyhow, they pull you up to the top, and 90 miles an hour is the release speed, to release from the snow machine. Sometimes when the conditions are right you can go faster. In one of the attempts to stage the race last year they were getting us up to 100 miles an hour. Then for the last section you come down over a blind drop-off jump, into a canyon with walls on both sides.
The snowmobile pulls off to the side, and you go flying down?
Another three quarters of a mile down, and we were hitting it with the wind at over 100 miles an hour last year. And the average was 89 miles an hour for the entire five-mile course.
It hurts. Your leg hurts, your body hurts. And in this case my brain hurts, my conscience hurts. Because I shouldn’t have raced in those conditions last year. I did, I survived, but it wasn’t too smart. Marco Sullivan, just freshly retired from the World Cup, was scheduled to start behind me, and he had already refused to race when I started. I guess not everybody older is smarter. Because he’s 20 years young then me. But he was smart enough to back out. Not me.
Your partner on these races was Todd Palin for a while, right?
All the snowmobilers up there race the Iron Dog, which is a 2,000-mile snowmobile race from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks. And they do it in five days. There is no designated course, they just go any way they can. They are nuts. And we are bigger nuts, because these are the people who are pulling us. So Todd Palin is really good in that race. Actually he got hurt last year. He hit a stump at 94 miles an hour and destroyed the machine and destroyed his upper body. But Todd is a tough man. When I talked to him the first time after his injury he told me duct tape has been his friend all his life. I told him Todd, don’t do it with duct tape this time.
Don’t wrap your chest with duct tape.
(Laughs.) He’s a very funny man, Todd. But Arctic Man is probably getting over my head, because at 57 I should probably stop doing stupid stuff like that (laughs).
But you won it.
I won it three times, yes. But I’m far away now from being that competitive. And 10 years ago I fell off a roof and broke my hip, so I have metal rods in my femur. And I’m still doing stuff like this. It’s crazy.
I can tell you like it though. Your eyes light up when you talk about it.
I do like it. And what I like even more is that I got hold of a couple of younger competitors from my home country, including the guy who after 21 years broke my Czech record in speed skiing. He was apologizing to me and thinking I was going to be mad because he broke my record, and I bought him a beer and explained to him that when I was 10 years old his father was on the Czech A team, and he was teaching me how to downhill. So the record stayed in the family. He came up with me last year. Unfortunately he didn’t finish; the conditions were really bad and his driver ripped the device out of his hand on the pull. However, he was two seconds faster on the first section than Marco Sullivan, who was the best glider in the world on the World Cup. So I’m excited to get him back there, and to bring a replacement for me. So I can finally pass the torch, still coming up there to serve as an advisor and a coach.
There you go.
Pass my experience on to somebody else. In addition to Radek, I also brought a competitor from Mount Hood, Kerry Smith. She won the women’s competition in her first attempt, at age 19. The second time she tore all her ligaments in two knees in training before the competition. But she has completely recuperated, and she is doing trips to Norway and Iceland, climbing glaciers and skiing them. At 19 she won; at 20 she ripped her knees. And her way of getting strong again is she flew to the Himalayas and just hiked the Himalayas. She will be back.
And so will you.
So will I.
Last modified: October 28, 2016