I reach into the back of the closet and pull out the plastic tub full of costumes. It’s at the bottom, under a heap of furry capes from Ullr Fest, Mardi Gras beads, remnants of past Halloweens and bits and pieces from failed attempts at pond skimming. I know it’s there, rumpled black and white.
Once I retrieve it, I pull the costume over my ski gear and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror — black flippers, yellow beak, red bowtie.
I’m a penguin.
It’s a not-so-secret identity that I have been assuming every March for the past five years in honor of Vail’s Ride of the Penguins, a day when I join a flock of friends in celebration of the brief reprieve between Presidents Day weekend and the coming spring break crowds.
Roots of the ride
Ride of the Penguins was born one fateful day when co-conspirators Jody Petit and Aaron Beard were riding a chairlift at Vail.
“We said, how great would it be to ride up a chairlift as a guest and see penguins doing spins in the park?” Petit said.
The original plan was to make a movie of penguin-suited skiers and snowboarders romping around the mountain and through the terrain parks, an attempt to bring the fun back to Vail’s increasingly stuffy reputation, Petit said. I didn’t witness the first gathering, and the video hasn’t recently surfaced, but the concept of flightless birds flocking down Born Free and soaring over the Lodgepole gap caught on, so six years later, here we are.
“Who wouldn’t want to ski in a penguin suit?” said Alex Maffuccio, of Eagle-Vail, as she sipped a cocktail at the home-base bar, El Sabor, in Lionshead. Maffuccio joined the waddle for the first time this season, along with her roommate, Trapper Payne.
“It’s a bunch of down-to-earth, really nice people,” Payne said of his fellow penguins.
Petit said there are a few loosely enforced rules to participating.
“If you have a penguin suit and you move away, you should leave it for the next person or wear it wherever you are,” he said, citing a few wayward penguins that were planning to surf in their costumes in San Diego in solidarity.
The size of the colony fluctuates from year to year, as newbies arrive in the Vail Valley, old friends depart and penguin wannabes from around the country — and multiple foreign countries — plan their vacations around the event. Ryan “Beaner” Blanchett, a friend from Petit’s hometown of Detroit, said after seeing photos of the ride on Facebook year after year, he finally planned his annual ski trip to Vail to coincide with it.
“It’s exactly what I thought it would be,” he said. “A bunch of penguins skiing and snowboarding — it’s like Halloween for grown-ups. I’m excited to see us all go down the mountain and see the reactions on people’s faces.”
The cause is just because
A group of around 60 penguins — and various other characters who have shown up over the years, such as sharks, flamingos, Teletubbies and Sea World-style penguin wranglers, complete with buckets of fish — is pretty hard to miss on the mountain. Penguins have handed out stickers and candy, posed for photos, scooted around the Lionshead skating rink with a gaggle of children and occasionally ridden in support of various charities.
But there’s really only one answer to the most commonly asked question: Why are you doing this?
“It’s just a fun day,” Petit said. “Not for any reason, not because we have to, just straight-up fun. It’s that one day people look forward to, a nice break to hit the reset button.”