When Vail Mountain Resort and Beaver Creek Resort hosted the 1999 Alpine World Ski Championships, Arnold Schwarzenegger was just one of the A-listers in attendance, but the undisputed star was Birds of Prey. Laid out by famed Swiss designer Bernhard Russi for the ’99 contest, and completed two years earlier, the steep downhill racecourse has become one of the most beloved annual stops on the men’s World Cup. As the only U.S. venue on the circuit and the site of a U.S. Olympic qualifier for this month’s Winter Games, Birds of Prey has also become an important test for Olympic hopefuls. To celebrate its silver anniversary this year, we spoke with four people who helped shape the run into ski racing’s gold standard.

“When we built Birds of Prey, it was at the height of Austria’s downhill dominance, and it was a little frustrating because it felt like we had built a playground for the Austrians. But once Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller started winning here, it felt like we had built a home course.” —Ron Rupert, manager of competition services at Beaver Creek

“At the time, the Streif [in Hahnenkamm, Austria] was regarded as the most technical course on the World Cup circuit. Birds of Prey was built to compete with that. We started construction in the summer of 1997. I was a member of the trail crew, and I specifically remember running a small bulldozer down the Golden Eagle jump to the Abyss [two iconic course features]. My job was to remove any rock larger than a cantaloupe. It was an incredible challenge to install the snowmaking infrastructure, which involved welding pipe and digging trench on a 45-degree slope.” —Gary Shimanowitz, vice president of mountain operations at Beaver Creek

In 1989, Vail hosted America’s first Alpine World Ski Championships since 1950. A lot had changed by the time Vail, along with Beaver Creek, landed the competition again in 1999.

“We knew that the expectations of the quality of the event and the race venue were changing. We had to step up our game, and one of the most important things we did was build a new downhill course.” —John Garnsey, former Vail Valley Foundation president, Beaver Creek COO, and co-president of Vail Resorts’ Mountain Division

In 2003, Daron Rahlves became the first American to win the event. The next year, he finished second to Bode Miller in the American men’s first one-two podium in downhill.

“It was a showcase of domination on our home turf. That was our focus. I won again [in 2005]. That was my last race down Birds of Prey before I retired—and a perfect ending. The beauty of this race hill is you need to deal with one feature after another. It’s a full-on mental, physical, tactical, skill set, and equipment challenge. You put those together, and you have a good proving ground for Olympic skiers.” —Daron Rahlves, Olympian and two-time Birds of Prey winner

This article was originally published in 5280 February 2022.
Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas writes and edits the Compass, Adventure, and Culture sections of 5280 and writes for 5280.com.