Shredding the competition
Tolson earns alpine skiing All-State honors
PINEDALE – Heavy snow fell as Pinedale High School sophomore James Tolson lined up at the starting gate for the first giant slalom race at the 2023 State Alpine Ski Meet hosted by Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Teton Village on Friday, March 3.
Thick snowflakes reduced visibility. The sets of poles marking the turns at the bottom of the giant slalom course were difficult to make out.
Tolson knew where to go. He and his teammates had inspected the giant slalom course that morning, studying the placement of each gate, analyzing every hairpin turn and mapping out the best “line,” or path, to follow to the bottom.
“There are a lot of places you can go in a single course, but the fastest way is the best way,” said Tolson.
Tolson stepped up to the starting line.
“I thought about my line and visualized myself skiing the course,” he said.
The countdown commenced and Tolson burst from the starting gate, his shoulders pointed downhill for optimal speed.
Tolson attacked the first set of poles on the course, flawlessly tucking into the turn. He paid close attention to the edge angle of his skis.
“The edge angle needs to be high so you are on the edges of your skis and the ski cuts through the snow,” Tolson explained. “If you’re at a shallow-edge angle, the skis could shatter and you’ll slide down the hill as you’re trying to transition across the face of the hill.”
One minute, 3.54 seconds later, Tolson whipped across the finish line, placing eighth on his first giant slalom run.
Tolson and his teammates repeated the cycle for the second giant slalom race that afternoon – a warmup run, the course inspection and then the race.
Tolson finished the first day at State in 10th place in giant slalom with a combined time of 2:12.97 after both runs.
The snow continued to fly on Saturday as Tolson prepared for the slalom races. Slalom consists of a single pole marking each turn on the course rather than the double-pole and flag setup used in giant slalom.
“Slalom is a lot harder than giant slalom,” said Tolson. “Giant slalom comes naturally to me, because it’s more like normal skiing. In slalom, there are more turns – faster turns.”
Tolson sped down the slope, executing each tight turn in a single, polished motion.
“On Saturday, I skied both runs really clean,” Tolson remarked. “On the first run, I slowed down before the flat and lost a bunch of speed and was in 11th place. In the second run, I went as fast as I could, and brought my place up to ninth.”
Tolson earned ninth place overall in slalom with a cumulative time of 1:38.77.
Tolson’s top 10 performances at State helped propel the Wrangler boys’ alpine ski squad to second place as a team, beating Natrona County High School, Kelly Walsh High School, Laramie and Cody.
“It was pretty cool getting a trophy and standing on the podium with the whole team,” Tolson said.
Over the course of a successful season, Tolson captured multiple finishes in the top 10 in addition to his achievements at State, earning the required points to snag 2023 All-State honors.
An early start
Tolson strapped on his first pair of alpine skis shortly after he learned to walk.
“I’ve been downhill skiing since I was 3 or 4,” he said.
Tolson grew up in Jackson before his family moved to Sublette County. He spent countless hours with his parents and siblings at Teton Village and Snow King Mountain Resort.
“My dad taught me how to ski,” said Tolson. “He has skied for about as long as he’s been alive. He started when he was 3 or 4 with his parents. He would take me down some runs that I probably shouldn’t have skied in terms of difficulty and skill level at the time. That was fun.”
Tolson quickly developed a passion for speed and catching air on his skis.
“I like finding rocks and other natural features on the ski hill and jumping off of them,” Tolson said.
Downhill skiing remained a hobby until Tolson joined the Pinedale Wranglers’ varsity alpine ski team in 2022. As a freshman at State, Tolson placed 19th in giant slalom and 16th in slalom.
A whirlwind season
The Wranglers practice their shredding techniques at White Pine Ski Resort. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when White Pine is closed and the ski lifts are not operating, Tolson and his teammates hike up the slopes at least eight times per day to ski back down for feedback from coaches on everything from posture to edge angle, Tolson explained.
The day before a race is spent preparing skis, including waxing. A layer of wax can make a difference in a race where every second counts.
“If there is a long, flat part on the course, wax can definitely help you carry more speed,” Tolson said.
Choosing the right pair of skis can also affect a race.
“To get the turn radius that they want, people like stiffer skis and some people like floppy skis,” Tolson said. “It’s all about personal preference.”
Tolson’s skis are a “mix between super-floppy and really stiff” for optimal carving on each turn.
Tolson first broke into the top 10 at the Laramie Invitational at Snowy Range Ski Area on Jan. 6-7.
“At Laramie, I took sixth place in slalom on the first day, but then crashed the second day in giant slalom, which was not much fun,” said Tolson. “Slalom on the first day was pretty exciting, though.”
Tolson clocked both slalom runs in at a blistering pace of 42.96 seconds and 42.52 seconds, respectively.
Tolson picked up ninth place in slalom and eighth place in giant slalom at the Britt Farr Invitational at Hogadon Basin Ski Area on Casper Mountain on Feb. 10-11.
Plentiful snowfall allowed Tolson to compete at the Pinedale Invitational for the first time on Feb. 17-18. The meet was canceled last year due to a lack of snow.
“We’ve gotten a lot of snow this year, which is nice,” Tolson said. “Last year, we were hitting rocks like crazy.”
Tolson bagged ninth place in giant slalom on the first day of the Pinedale Invite with a cumulative time of 1:35.39. On Saturday, he snapped up 11th place in slalom on Sunny’s Run, clocking both runs in at 1:00.80.
Tolson plans to continue competing on the Pinedale alpine ski team.
“My goal is to get top five in a race,” he said. “My best is sixth place, so I’m pretty close.”
Tolson thanked his coaches and parents for their support throughout the season.