The annual Dory Hill Pinball Campout (elevation 9230’) merges an elite tournament with al fresco revelry and reverence for the silver ball.
By: Jeremy Simon
Dave Johnson, a lead volunteer at Colorado’s largest pinball tournament, addressed an eager and shivering crowd in the Dory Hill Campground open-air pavilion at the post-tournament awards. Glancing around, he realized something was missing. “Snow! Snow!… We want Snow!”
Noting the loud downpour a few feet away and the late-summer temperature dropping through the 40s, Johnson backtracked slightly. “No, we don’t want actual snow,” he added as tournament director Snow Galvin stepped up to spirited applause for her efforts in breathing life into perhaps the world’s most improbable pinball tournament.
Actual snow would not be an unusual occurrence at the Dory Hill Pinball Campout. The tournament/retreat, run by Galvin and event director Deanna Scalf, marked its 13th (mostly) annual occurrence on September 8-10 with 140 competitors, who brought along family members and dogs to the bucolic, Aspen-studded campground site 20 miles west of Golden at 9,230 feet in elevation.
The players included cardiologists, clinical therapists, cops, and craftspeople. Representatives of all those professions described the Dory Hill experience with a hushed reverence. Many players hauled up their own pinball machines — 57 this year, weighing 250-350 pounds each — strapped to flatbeds and lashed inside trailers. The event sold out as quickly as tickets for Taylor Swift’s 2023 Denver concerts, though in fairness Taylor moved 150,000 more tickets.
“The one unique thing to say about it,” said Russell Linsky, the cardiologist, “is that if you ask, and people know about it, it’s everyone’s favorite tournament.”
Competitors played at least 27 tournament games across two days. Before and after tournament games, they wandered the campground and sampled pinball games manufactured across seven decades. No quarters necessary, except for the showers — two quarters for three minutes.
At night, the games glowed like beacons on concrete pads and planked porches, decked out in décor that matched the themes of the machines. Even past midnight, players stumbled on tree stumps, tripped over tarp tiedowns, and ambled around campfires to get one more play in on a rarely seen game.
“You can think of it as one of the major competitive events of the year, because it is,” Linsky said.
Lyons Pinball Owner Ryan Wanger chimed in. “Or you get people who are like, ‘I didn’t even realize how competitive it is. I’m just going to get high in the mountains, and look at these sparkly lights inside these well-decorated cabins, and have a great time.’”
Finding pinball in the wild is, well, wild, since just 50 years ago, you couldn’t play publicly in New York City. The game was banned as an illicit “game of chance.” But don’t try telling a true player that pinball looks like luck. They’ll be happy to explain that a good game demands a toolkit full of flipper skills, quick-twitch reactions, nuanced nudging, encyclopedic rule knowledge, and snap physics and geometry assessments—and, maybe, a bit of luck.
Pinball has seen a recent renaissance, with sanctioned tournaments growing fivefold in the last decade. Colorado is at the leading edge. Two of the world’s top three players and four of its top 40 live in the Denver metro area. #1-ranked Escher Lefkoff of Longmont and #3-ranked Zach McCarthy of Conifer missed Dory Hill in 2023, though they both played in 2021. You’ll find a place to play within a few miles of nearly anywhere on the Front Range, especially if you have the Pinball Map app that catalogs 9,000+ public venues for pinball.
Dory Hill participant Emily Unruh had never played pinball, even as a kid, until her husband, Ross, told her one day that a pinball machine was being delivered to their house. “So I was like, ‘I guess I’ll try it,’” she said. “Then, obviously at some point, things metastasize with pinball machines.” As COVID began, they got a second machine. Now, they have “38 or 39 machines,” she said. A month after hosting a large tournament at their house, they brought a rare James Bond-themed game from their collection to Dory Hill.
One distinctive Dory Hill feature is its “Pin Golf” format. The highest score doesn’t matter. Players must achieve a target objective through numerous well-sequenced shots. For example, in Elvira: House of Horrors, players had to start “Junk in the Trunk Multiball,” by hitting each “36-24-36 target,” then shooting the ball up the left ramp, then repeating both tasks.
Here, it’s important to note that while some pinball themes remain rooted in sexist male fantasy, the Colorado and Dory Hill scenes are diverse and welcoming for all genders. Dory Hill’s 2023 event was led by two women, both highly ranked tournament players, and a Denver Belles & Chimes league draws strong participation. Keri Wing, who placed 6th at this year’s Dory Hill, has ranked in the top 35 in the world.
Marshall Weasel first learned of Dory Hill “because everyone has swag. Everyone’s wearing the sweatshirts and the t-shirts when you’re playing people out in the scene. And then I started asking around. I think if you know about it, you know about it.”
Highly competitive pinball tournaments with top-ranked players can generate an intense vibe, but Dory Hill brings out intensity without acrimony. “It’s a laid-back environment, but people give a shit,” said Marshall Weasel. “Sometimes, when you get these types of players together, there’s gonna be a little scuffling. But everyone here is being respectable.”
Reflecting the vibe of community support, a side tournament at this year’s Dory Hill honored fundraiser Dean Grover, a Colorado pinball designer who passed away last year. It raised over $700 for organ transplant research. The tournament was held on a Safecracker pinball machine originally designed by Grover: the machine rewards great play by spitting out a physical token at you that rolls down the game glass for you to keep. When I first experienced this startling feature one Dory Hill evening, and a token rolled down at me — custom-minted for the tournament with Grover’s initials — it felt like the heavens had bestowed upon me a special gift.
“It’s a unique event,” said Safecracker mini-tournament Kevin Ryan about Dory Hill, “and it’s really human.” Ryan was present for Dory Hill’s origins 15 years ago, when a small collective of indie filmmakers — blending hobbies of snowboarding and pinball — went camping, mounted pinball games on two-by-fours, and connected them to a gas generator so they could play in the wild.
Today’s Dory Hill is organized a bit more conventionally, and some long-timers fear that the vibe might be ruined if it grows any more — or if more word gets out about it. “Are you sure you wanna do that?” Wanger chided when I suggested I was writing about Dory Hill. I told him not to worry, as no one would read it anyway.
This trepidation is driven by Dory Hill’s unicorn status in the pinball landscape. While a few events share a few attributes, none come close to Dory Hill’s idiosyncratic setting, which can lead to cliffhanger logistics. “Power’s always a challenge,” said Scalf, the event director. “Snow (Galvin) is a mastermind on these logistics. She knows that if you have a magnet, or iridescent bulbs, it can trip a circuit.”
The power in the pavilion had tripped early on Sunday, forcing more than 30 players to restart tournament matches. But it held firm later that afternoon as the Dory Hill championship came down to a game between Kevin McCarthy, of Conifer, and Wanger. Watching from 15 feet away, I could barely hear the game sounds over the roar of rain blowing in through the sides of the loosely tarped pavilion.
The victory went to McCarthy, and scores of satisfied camper/competitors packed up their tents and games to trek back downhill late Sunday afternoon. McCarthy may have driven a bit faster than most. He was due to direct another major tournament, at his Blizzard Mountain Pinball arcade in Conifer, just two hours later.