Anguished faces peered from a milk-and-biscuit-crumb-covered table, sweat dripped off flushed noses and perspiration mixed with the dingy bouquet of sweat and habañeros in the pungent dungeon of Cuckoo's Chicken House and Waterin' Hole on College Drive in Durango.Eli Stein, 20, pleaded with his mother, Benet, who stood nearby.
"I can't do it," he said. "I can't feel my face."
"You can do it, Eli."
Benet Stein used to cheer her son on in youth football and baseball. Now she's happy to support him in "any kind of competitive or athletic endeavor."
Eli tried to quit after three Kicker-style wings but managed to put down three more after his mother's helpful urging.
This year's "Quest for Wings," part of Snowdown 2009, was not for the timid.
For this competition, Cuckoo's added more spice to the usual "Kicker" option, and, as the night wore on, the wings were served up straight out of the fryer - 350 degrees.
At the start, contestants got one minute to finish each wing and then one minute to rest. After that, the delays grew increasingly shorter. Twenty-five started - 23 men and two women - three were left at the end.
At the final table was last year's third-place finisher, David Fountain, cheered on by his proud sister Sarah Jacobs; Dove Creek miner Ron Ernest, in town for Snowdown and joined by 10 family members; and the eventual champ, Jarod Key, a junior cellular and molecular biology major at Fort Lewis College, also joined by a proud cadre of earnest supporters. Fountain reprised third place and newcomer Ernest took an honorable second. After his record-setting finish in the 20-second round, Key was stoic.
"It's more the stomach than the heat," he said, describing how he felt after the contest.
This would be understandable, knowing that Key came to the event after downing a 12-inch sub at Subway for lunch.
Ernest knew by his opponent's expression at the final table that he couldn't take Key. He conceded. Key took down the final victory wing - a leg - and raised his hands in triumph.
In the end, a new record was set at 22 wings, and servers were left stunned with the brash newcomer's poise.
"Even without the heat, that's a lot of food," said server Sam Safronoff.
Cuckoo's caps the popular contest at 25 entrants. The restaurant allows entrants their choice of a glass of milk or soda and a biscuit or a slice of bread.
In spite of his stoicism, orange milk must have been the sweetest thing Key had tasted in a while.
Later, at the La Plata County Open Space Conservancy wine tasting and art exhibit, it was a wine-and-cheese sort of night.
Local artist Sharon Abshagen was auctioning off two pieces: "October Snow" and "A Good Year for Snow," the latter a re-creation of a barn near Durango-La Plata County Regional Airport she spotted on a drive.
"It's an important part of what an artist does - record local history," Abshagen said.
Wine vendor and regional sales director with Synergy Fine Wines, Paul Tocco, was helpful in selecting a Torre Mugar cabernet and a selection from the cellars of Marques de Gelida of the Cava district of southern Spain.
"The whole thing with wine tasting is trying to break down the stodgy, high-minded attitude."
He offered some helpful advice.
"When you go to a wine tasting, you've got to go for something different."
The event featured an array of imported cheese platters, honey chicken sauté, broasted shallot with garlic and raspberry chipotle and vanilla praline with sun-dried tomatoes.
But for the donors, it wasn't about the spread.
"In my case, this was a way to preserve years of family history and to preserve one of the most beautiful valleys," said local rancher and donor Lawrence Bartel, who offered land in Thompson Park, (commonly known as Cherry Creek) near Mancos Hill, to the conservation group as part of a conservation-easement donation.
Later at Colorado Pongas Beer Pong Tournament, 64 two-man teams paid $30 each to vie for one of Snowdown's newest honors.
Harried Pongas manager, Jeremy Russo, was seen darting around the bar, giving encouragement to participants, one of whom was wearing a custom "If-you-Sphinx-you're-gonna-win,-you're-in-Da'-Nile" T-shirt.