It’s been five years since Ben Skelly last hoisted the trophy over his head, but in Jackson Hole, there’s no expiration date on his particular brand of glory.
“People still come up and call me champ,” says the Massachusetts native, who moved to the Wyoming ski town in 2009, where he tends bar at Teton Village’s Mangy Moose when he’s not on the slopes. But it wasn’t a skiing feat that earned him such adulation.
The event in question, instead, takes place at ground level, thousands of vertical feet removed from the summit. It’s called Gelände Quaffing, and it’s Jackson Hole’s indigenous drinking game—a bar trick that, over the past 30-plus years, has blossomed into a beer-drenched international spectacle.
The story of Gelände Quaffing begins with the Jackson Hole Air Force (JHAF), a gang of rule-breaking adrenaline junkies that banded together in the mid-1980s. What the Z-Boys were to skating or the Momentum Generation was to surfing, those enlisted in this underground fraternity were to skiing.
“Jackson skiers have always had this ‘get after it as hard you can’ reputation from a national standpoint,” says filmmaker Jon Klaczkiewicz, whose 2009 documentary, Swift. Silent. Deep, chronicles the story of the JHAF and its influential founding members, Howie Henderson and Benny Wilson.
It was, in fact, Klaczkiewicz’s film that helped Gelände Quaffing, long part of JHAF lore, expand beyond its tight-lipped ranks and into the mainstream. As chronicled in the documentary, during the nascent Air Force days, members would hang out at Bear Claw Café, a bar and restaurant, then-owned by the late Henderson, at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. As a form of entertainment, staff would slick down the bar top with a wet rag and slide mugs of beer down to guests, Wild West saloon style.
In or around 1986, a beer delivered in this manner accidentally flew off the end of the bar, destined for the floor—until a drinker with quick reflexes plucked it out of midair, punctuating the save by pounding down what was left in the stein.
Gelände Quaffing—which takes the first part of its name from the German geländesprung, a term for a jumping over an obstacle on skis—took on its current form largely thanks to Klaczkiewicz, who, in January, 2008, set up the first unofficial Gelände Quaffing station at Jackson’s annual ski industry trade show.
Partly as a promotional effort for his film, the director built custom tables for the stunt, topping them with sheeted melamine to ensure frictionless slides. Attendees took to it quickly, and within a month, on February 24, 2008, the inaugural Gelände Quaffing World Championships drew a raucous crowd to a snow-covered clearing outside the Village Café, the former site of Henderson’s Bear Claw.
Klaczkiewicz formalized the game into a March Madness-style bracketed tournament, pitting four-person teams against each other in head-to-head battles that saw participants flinging rapid-fire beers to one another in frenetic, timed rounds. A scoring rubric was established (one point for a mug catch; two points if you grab the handle), as well as the four-round format, which incorporates mandatory stunts (a 360-degree spin before receiving; an under-the-leg catch) and an open-ended “freestyle” period rewarding creativity.
“The first event Jon [Klaczkiewicz] put on—it was a total jaw dropper,” says Tigger Knecht, a resident Jackson Hole skier who took over as the commissioner of the Championships in 2009 for several years. “Everyone in town has a pretty go-to knack for drinking. This showed who’s who—who can really put it down. It went from beyond comical to really impressive.”
For its first few years, the Gelände Quaffing World Championships was a local affair, consisting of teams sponsored by area businesses, like Storm Show Studios (perennial contenders who won the 2019 title earlier this month) and TGT Stickers, whose all-female squad, decked out in custom Evil Knievel suits, took the trophy in 2011.
Eager to prove their mettle, transplants like Skelly and his friend Mike MacDonald, who at the time managed a local hostel, cobbled together a team, honing their craft with a front-yard training table they built by gluing Plexiglass to a discarded door. To outsiders, it might seem silly to adhere to a structured regimen for what is essentially stylized binge drinking—but those who have gone all the way know it’s imperative. “It’s not just something the average drinker can show up and do,” says Skelly, who has won two Quaffing titles with his team, Skid Luxury. “It takes practice to get good and fast—and to know when to burp. We used to work a lot on burp management.”
Skid Luxury were also among the first to blow out the anything-goes freestyle round, where choreographed tricks can earn anywhere from one to five points at the judges’ discretion. Signatures ranged from the tame (a closed-eyes, no-look Quaff) to the incendiary (a beer garnished with a lit bottle rocket, which would blast off post-drink). MacDonald’s all-time favorite was “The Launch,” which consisted of rocketing a mug off a snowboard propped onto the edge of the table, where it soared into the crowd like Eddie the Eagle, only to be caught, and drained, at the absolute last second by a deep-afield cohort.
The World Championships, held in spring toward the end of the ski season, began to draw international attention as competitors from New Zealand and Australia flew over to participate, as well as interlopers from surrounding ski states who sought to take the title from Wyoming.
In 2015, the Colorado-based Quaffstafari edged out Storm Show, the first-ever victory by a non-Jackson team. “We won by one catch—it was incredibly dramatic,” says Jade Lascelles, who coached the Quaffstafari team in each of the three years it participated. “We could not have written a better ending. We took the trophy, and people were pissed.”
Quaffstafari made a lasting impression in the freestyle round. They gulped down a live goldfish with a beer in a nod to the collegiate fad of the late 1930s. One Quaffstafarian downed a beer while hanging by his legs from a horizontal bar held by his teammates. One even recreated the “Strikeout” from the movie Beerfest, simultaneously crushing a beer, shooting whiskey and taking a rip off a plastic bong they then tossed into the crowd. “That was a big hit,” recalls Lascelles.
Most seem to agree that freestyle, which has grown more ambitious and outlandish each season, is at the heart of this competition. The most original ideas arise “when you’re 10 beers deep and you come up with something wacky,” says Skelly, who co-organized the 2019 World Championships, hosted outside the Mangy Moose.
His former teammate, MacDonald, who’s since relocated to Montana, is more content sealing the file on the Quaffing part of his life. “Other than just messing around up here once in awhile with a table and some mugs, I’m not involved anymore,” he says. “That’s either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.”