Photo credit: Mason Schultz

With the finishing touches nearly complete, the 13th annual Rail Jam – a skiing and snowboarding exhibition unique to Western – is less than 34 hours away (but who’s counting!). With the aid of several dozen student volunteers braving the elements to touch-up the Facilities Department’s snow-moving operations on Taylor Lawn, the stage has been set for this year’s entrants to show off their riding skills in front of an anticipated crowd of more than 600 Mountaineers and community members.

The event will officially kick off on Taylor Lawn at 6 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 11, with participants competing across four major categories: women’s snowboarding, men’s snowboarding, women’s skiing, and men’s skiing. The different classes of riders will alternate throughout the evening, giving the competitors ample time to display their skills for a panel of experienced riders serving as judges and doling out awards with associated prizes. 

The experience and talent levels of the riders always vary widely. Spectators can expect to see anything from a bunny hop to a 360 backflip, and everything in between. “Not everyone signs up for the same reason, and that’s the whole point of [Rail Jam]. We don’t want just the crazy good people to come out…we want everyone to feel welcome. We want people just to know [that] this a Western thing. We’re all Mountaineers, we’re all here to laugh and watch people ski and snowboard,” says Western student and event organizer Jordyn Jimenez. 

Photo credit: Mason Schultz

As of Tuesday evening, 25 competitors had paid the $15 entry fee and registered, with late entrants anticipated and welcomed in the final few days. Walkups may be allowed if space constraints allow, but registrations are certainly preferred, and can be done HERE. The practice period for contestants will begin at 5 p.m.

Lead organizers for this year’s event are Jimenez, a junior dual majoring in Environment and Sustainability and Energy Management, and Thomas Mcgregor, a junior studying Business with emphases in Marketing and Sales. Jimenez and Mcgregor poured hundreds of cumulative hours of volunteer work into the event’s organization: coordinating sponsors, drafting a bill to SGA to obtain funding, marketing the event, and coordinating the finer programming details. 

When Jimenez and Mcgregor were seniors in high school, they both attended the 11th annual Rail Jam while rooming together for the Borick Scholarship Weekend program. The two had no prior relationship, but were quickly bonded over their shared love for a uniquely Western happening. 

“It was probably the coolest thing we’d ever seen. Just a bunch of college [students] shredding rails and having fun, and you wouldn’t even expect it to be a college [event]…this event put[s] a whole perspective on the type of people out here, and the type of dedication it takes just to be in the cold and [participating] in the winter sports…Rail Jam was a huge draw-in,” says Jimenez.

Photo credit: Mason Schultz

Ben Walters and Sam von Mettenheim, both seniors at Western, were in charge of coordinating the event at that time. Walters and Von Mettenheim were eager to find worthy successors to the Rail Jam throne. “Thomas and I were like ‘this is our time step in, this can be our event. This can be our thing,’” says Jimenez.

In 2019, Rail Jam transitioned from being held outside of the University Center to taking place on Taylor Lawn, granting organizers considerably more space to play with. With the location switch came a rise in the event’s profile, and an increase from a few hundred spectators to roughly 500 when Jimenez and Mcgregor first witnessed it. 

The 2021 iteration of Rail Jam, Jimenez and Mcgregor’s first at the reins, was originally intended to be held in-person on the Taylor Lawn, but was forced to pivot to an online format due to increasing Covid-19 concerns. More than 20 competitors compiled short videos of their best riding and tricks online over the span of two days. Then, an online awards show was held, recognizing specialized awards that included Best Trick, Best Fail, and Best Edit.

Flashing forward to this year: While the bulk of the registered competitors for 2022 are Western students, Jimenez notes that a pair of students from Colorado Mesa are slated to participate, along with a high school rider. “We’ve got two people from Mesa reaching out, like…’would you allow us to come out there and compete?’ [And I’m like] yeah! If you want to leave Mesa and come to Western, that sounds sick!” says Jimenez with a laugh.

The riding event this year will feature a “playing card” layout, with a “drop-in” slope leading to two initial, upslope rails, a singular middle rail, and then two additional rails downhill, along with a bonus “J”-shaped feature for ambitious riders located off to the side. On the other end of the lawn, a stage will feature a DJ performing throughout the evening to complement the rider’s exhibition. “We really just want it to shock the freshman, [and] to shock the people that haven’t seen [Rail Jam]. Because when we [first] came, it changed how we saw Western,” says Jimenez. 

The course on Taylor Lawn

Christopher Whitted, the owner of the local music and events venue I Bar Ranch and a longtime supporter of Rail Jam, offered to take a more prominent role in the 2022 festivities. Whitted recently started up a new music and sound production venture, Souled Out Sound, which became an instrumental Rail Jam collaborator this year with their offer to produce the event’s music and sound offerings. 

Other Rail Jam sponsors include local outdoor retailers Gene Taylors and Treads ‘N’ Threads, who will be providing merchandise as prizes. Also in the mix is Romp Skis, a Crested Butte-based custom ski design company, which will craft a free pair of custom-fit skis for one lucky participant and raffle winner. 

The City of Gunnison got in on the action with an offering of Gunni Greenbacks (essentially gift certificates redeemable at many local businesses), and the rails themselves were sourced at no cost from the Cranor Hill Ski Area, operated by the city. The work of finding sponsors is just one of the many tasks that is months in the making. Just as soon as one edition of Rail Jam ends, the next one begins in the minds of its organizers. 

Photo credit: Mason Schultz

“Once we wake up [the next day], our minds are just like ‘that was crazy, what can we do next year? Thomas and I always just stay in touch…always looking for sponsorships. In 2019, we had Red Bull come out and they did an [event] truck and a DJ-announcer thing,” says Jimenez. This year, efforts to serve beer at the event were met with a series of financial and contractual disputes with Sodexo, Western’s food service provider. 

Ultimately, the main event will not feature food or beverage services, with Jimenez noting that the brisk Gunnison temperatures have a tendency to render cold beverages less appealing (and potentially frozen anyway). That said, an afterparty will be held at PowerStop beginning at 10 p.m. for students seeking out food and drink options. 

With Rail Jam slated to make its triumphant return to Western’s campus, Jimenez and Mcregor are aiming to host the biggest and best Rail Jam in campus history. With Covid-19 putting a damper on many other aspects of campus life and culture in the last two years, an event of this magnitude (which is also able to be held outdoors, reducing the risk of Covid-19 transmission) is sorely needed in Jimenez’s eyes to rekindle excitement and social life on campus. If you are unable to social distance properly, please wear your mask!

The drop-in in front of Taylor Hall

While the runup to the event has undoubtedly been stressful on both Jimenez and Mcgregor, Jimenez says he enjoys having that responsibility on his shoulders. Until very recently, the lack of snow in and around Gunnison was an ever-present cause for alarm lurking in the minds of Jimenez and Mcgregor. Even now, it’s still a source of some stress. 

In the interest of growing the Rail Jam legacy and event further, Jimenez and Mcgregor are putting a particular emphasis on photography and videography efforts this year to help facilitate improved marketing campaigns for future Rail Jams. To that end, they have hired multiple Western students to capture the evening’s happenings in vivid detail. 

Once the event commences after months of hard work and countless email exchanges, Jimenez says he is most excited to see the freshmen and sophomores get their first chance to compete, and for the Western community at-large to come together to witness the rich riding talent and tradition present in the valley.

Part of that tradition includes riders sporting costumes for their runs, a practice that Jimenez has tried to encourage as much as possible. “If you can look silly and do something disgusting, that’s even [better], it’ll probably get a 10 out of 10!” says Jimenez with a grin.

Photo credit: Mason Schultz