photograph by Kelly Donaldson

Steve Martell takes the criteria for Sapphire Valley’s annual Outhouse Races seriously: Five feet tall to the peak of the roof. One doorway. A place to sit, with a hole in it. A roll of toilet paper. And above all else, the outhouse must rest on a pair of regular snow skis. Martell should be a stickler for the rules. He is the Master Outhouse Craftsman.

“Where did you hear that?” Martell chuckles at the mentioning of his “title,” listed on the resort’s website — evidently a coworker’s jest.

Despite the competitive spirit of this 40-yard ride to the finish, humor is unavoidable here. The classic outhouse, that somehow equally stiff and lanky structure, identifiable by a crescent moon cutout, is inevitably a comic signpost.

But it would be inaccurate to say that folly drives the Sapphire Valley Outhouse Races. Like the legitimate nostalgia underlying Billy Edd Wheeler’s famous song “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back,” these races are the product of genuine devotion — and passion for preserving a down-home experience.

“We’re not a ski resort like Sugar or Cataloochee,” says Martell, whose actual title is director of amenities. “We’re small and intimate — a place where parents never lose track of their kids.”

About 40 percent of Sapphire Valley’s business comes from the presence of skiers age 12 and younger. It’s a love for these kids that had Martell and fellow staff members brainstorming ways to fund ski scholarships. Back in 2006, they stumbled upon outhouse racing — then put a North Carolina twist on it.

Typical outhouse races, including the World Championship Outhouse Races in Virginia City, Nevada, race on flat surfaces. But in Sapphire Valley, things are a bit more challenging. The races take place on a slope (albeit the bunny slope), and the result is mostly swerving, tipping, and face-planting.

“You can’t really steer them,” Martell says. Your pushers must start you off correctly. It’s when one partner gives it that extra “HUUGHH” that the outhouse heads for a collision with the lane barrier, he says.

The group lining the racing lane enthusiastically cheers while pushers sprint to get their outhouses back on track with the focus and determination of a pit crew. Though the crowd is typically made up of many out-of-staters, most are North Carolinians. And you can tell, Martell says.

“I think they view it as a NASCAR race.”

The children are particularly engaged, their enjoyment affirming that the ski scholarships are worth a few face-plants.

When yet another outhouse topples into the snow, all traces of competition dissolve into laughter, proving once and for all that these outhouses, like their ancestors, just aren’t built for speed.

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Rachael Duane is the editorial assistant at Our State.