The Lizard returns to Mount Ashland

Winter returned to Southern Oregon this week, delivering a foot of fresh snow at Crater Lake Wednesday morning and a dusting on the hills around Medford, but a sure sign of spring will appear Saturday on Mount Ashland in the form of a large green lizard.

The big snow sculpture materializes at the base of the Windsor chairlift every year in mid-March for the Screamin' Tele Lizard, a race that's more about having fun than winning.

Every year's race has a theme, and many of the skiers make elaborate costumes to get in the spirit. For the 2009 "Star Wars" race, there were storm troopers in white masks, two Princess Leias, and even a Luke Skywalker who skied the course brandishing his light saber.

"People really get into the costumes," says Zac Kauffman of Phoenix, who has helped organize every year's race since it started back in the late 1990s.

This year's them is "Lord of the Lizard," a takeoff on "Lord of the Rings," so it's anybody's guess what kinds of costumes will be on display Saturday.

Kauffman says he'll keep organizing the race "as long as people keep coming out."

Since the primary emphasis is on having a good time, you don't have to be an expert tele skier to enter, Kauffman says.

"Every year we have people who have never put on tele skis before," Kauffman says. "All it takes to be a tele skier for this event is to get the equipment."

Modern tele gear, with its rigid plastic boots, beefy bindings and shaped skis, makes it easy for alpine skiers to make the transition to free-heel turns, Kauffman says.

"The equipment has come so far now that even a person who's an alpine skier can make turns and enjoy the event," he says.

Skiers navigate a traditional slalom course down the Winter run. Many have little or no race experience, so the race crew has to throw down dye to show people where to go between the red and blue gates.

"They're not racers," Kauffman says.

There's also a sidehill turn-around on the course — a "tele twist" — where skiers have to shuffle a few feet uphill — which is relatively easy in tele bindings but a real challenge in traditional alpine gear.

The costume awards are one of the highlights of the day. A panel of judges chooses the top five finalists, but in the freewheeling spirit of the event, the crowd can overrule the judges if they feel like a good costume wasn't included among the finalists.

The crowd's applause determines the winners. Last year's best costume was an elaborate papier-mache lizard head worn atop a painted oversuit.

"Usually it's pretty obvious what raises the roof," Kauffman says.

For the past nine years, any money left over after expenses has gone to Special Olympics.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 541-776-4492, or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.

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