February 16, 2014

Alpental, WA - My First Ever Skimo Race

The after party and the fresh snow goodness
The Sport

Ski Mountaineer racing, or Skimo for short, is by no means a new sport having even been a part of an Olympic Games way back in 1948. The European Skimo circuit is thriving and has produced a cross over athlete who's taken the trail and ultra running world by storm over the last few years, that person of course being Kilian Jornet, a multi time World Ski Mountaineering Champion.

Skimo racing in North America has been slower to catch on, and as observed by Kilian himself via an early season tour of some US ski resorts, not widely understood or accepted. It was completely shocking to him that the majority of US ski resorts had strict rules in place that prevent skiing up the mountain, whereas in Europe this is apparently the standard with resorts having a set 'skin track' area (you use climbing skins on your skis to ascend the mountain).

It would appear that the North American Skimo scene is ripe for a bit of a boon in the next few years as the reverse scenario to Europe seems to be occurring, that being trail and ultra running stand outs now converting to Ski Mountaineering and Skimo racing during the winter months. Names worth mentioning in this regard include recent UROY winner Rob Krar, Colorado based Skyrunning Champion Stevie Kremer, Canadian speedster Adam Campbell, and as of this past weekend Oregonian Max King. I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the few North American, ski mountaineering to ultra running crossover athletes Luke Nelson, as he was the US National Champion in 2012.

With many of these known trail and ultra runners coming into the sport, with strong established racing and endurance backgrounds, it seems only a matter of time before at least some of them dedicate themselves towards figuring out the intricacies of the sport of ski mountaineering. The presence of these athletes alone however is granting Skimo racing a social media presence in front of an active audience that it seemingly has failed to connect with to date. It'll be interesting if the North American version of the sport can experience a long overdue growth cycle and if in fact the current push to attempt to bring Skimo back into the Olympics (currently a push is on for 2018) can ever materialize.

Skimo is similar to trail running in that you basically race up and down a mountain as fast as you can. Skimo is very different from trail racing in terms of how that's accomplished and the skill sets necessary to do so at an effective race pace. To be an elite level racer you must possess equal parts of aerobic capacity, a finesse at technical ski climbing, and a confidence that borders on reckless abandon at the high speed descents. I possess two of these three skill sets, having been an endurance sports athlete since 2004, and having established a firm grip on reckless abandon style skiing via many years as a ski bum in Banff, AB in the late 90's and then Whistler, BC in the early 2000's. Of all these skill sets I would say that the downhill skiing is certainly the hardest to develop from scratch and as such the sport certainly favors those with at least some background in skiing specific sports, whether that be nordic or alpine.

As a gear intensive sport Skimo is certainly not a cheap endeavor. A top of the line race kit will cost you north of $3000, and that's just for the skis, boots, bindings, skins and poles. Tack on a racing pack, mandatory helmet, spandex racing suit or whatever works for you to not line up in your birthday suit, goggles, gloves etc, and you'll be toeing the fine line of what you want, what you need, and what you can actually afford.

This being my first season of looking at the sport of skimo, and a kind of reentry into skiing in general after an absence of six years, I already owned much of the 'this'll work if it has to' style gear. My goal was to get into the sport on the cheap this year while acquiring gear that would ideally allow me to get a feel for it all without going broke. I lucked out in early October with a pair of 'last pair in stock' sale skis at M.E.C. for just $150. They were a few levels below a racing ski but light enough to race on. I used some wedding present R.E.I. gift certificates for my touring poles and I found a pair of bindings on Craigslist, again just below race caliber gear. Lastly I invested in a year old pair of boots for a great deal from a friend for $400. The boots new would be nearly $1000, and yet again the gear was a few levels below top of the line racing gear, in which the boots alone can crawl north of $2000 for brand new off the shelf. I passed on the $300+ spandex racing suit in favor quiver I already possessed in the form of some Salomon tights, a lightweight breathable pant, a merino wool top, and my Salomon S-Lab Light Jacket. Salomon also set me up with some ski goggles and when all was said and done I had found my way into the sport for JUST $775.

The Race

I'm 4th from the left

The race was at Alpental, WA, which is located at Snowqualmie Pass, about an hour out of Seattle. The race course consisted of two climbs and two descents with vertical numbers of approximately 4200ft / 1300m over a distance of about 8m/13km. Alpental has apparently always attracted quite a few recreational skies to the race and as such the race director announced that they were the largest skimo race by attendance in the US. I have not confirmed this information but with nearly 150 people around it certainly made for a great atmosphere.

Three of the four guys I've been ski touring with, and learning the sport from this winter were also in attendance, and all of them were podium threats. They have generously offered up racing tips and advice over the last four months and as such when the gun went off I knew we supposedly had to sprint out on our skis for position before the race fell into a single pace line. This effectively felt like running a 100m sprint race before then settling in for back to back 10k race pace efforts that were somehow split up by a bobsled ride down a mountain, to create a visual if you will.

White helmet, green pack

The race was all of sixty seconds old and I already had that nice metallic taste in my mouth that you can experience at near maximal efforts, BUT I found myself settled nicely into 8th place, with a pretty stellar field of experienced guys ahead of me. The pace settled and I felt good as our group started to pull away from the field within the first five minutes of the race. As the terrain steepened it necessitated switchback style climbing. The guys would say to me after the race this this Alpental course was one of the more technical courses on the circuit. I was nailing my kick-turns, which made me happy since I didn't even know what a kick-turn was just a few months prior (picture taking a tight singletrack turn with two extended planks on your feet, your lower leg turns into the turn leaving you V legged, you then have to kick your heal into your upper slope ski to force it to pivot up towards your toe and hence to swing the ski up and over the snowpack above you so that you can get both feet around) but I was starting to slip and loose traction on the climbing between the corners. The terrain was effectively just a smidgen steeper than I was comfortable with and balanced on, and after multiple small slip steps backwards the worst case scenario unfolded. I slid back with both skis, toppled to one side and ejected from a ski. I looked up as the lead pack left me in their snow dust. I fumbled about before realizing I needed to get both skis off. I clicked out and then boot packed my way up to a flat spot to place my skis back on. Lost spots = three as I had recovered just as the next group of skiers caught up to me, so I was now in 11th. This scenario unfortunately unfolded a second time just a bit further along and I was in 15th before I knew what had happened. My lack of experience was glaringly evident.

I was now behind guys that were moving slower in general, but who weren't making any mistakes as they went. I kept looking uphill for when an opportunity might present itself to pass some people and it appeared we were coming upon a wide ski run where the terrain flattened out a bit. I put in a push as soon as the trail opened up and I immediately passed and gapped three guys while pushing hard over this wide flat section of the course. I was back in 12th. We skied past a chairlift, back into the forest, took a hard turn to the right and started in on some switchbacks again. I stared up at the next group of guys who were four corners ahead of and went to work on closing the gap. Thankfully with the fresh snow falling, and now being further up the mountain, the icy conditions of the lower part of the hill were behind us. I was no longer struggling with traction and as we approached our first bootpacking section (skis off your feet, onto your backpack, as you climb what are effectively stairs in the snow that are cut out from ski boots, IE very steep terrain) As we removed our skis for the bootpack I caught up to the guys who'd passed me after my first mishap lower down the mountain.

I knew by general time in my head that we must be on the upper reaches of the first ascent and just a few minutes later I was able to peer up into the now blowing snow above and see where our transition area to the descent would occur. I could see two people pulling their skins, two more just arriving, and there were two guys immediately in front of me. Sixth place was effectively within site. We all pushed the pace up to the transition area and I was completely stoked over my transition as I out transitioned one of the guys who'd arrived ahead of me and I departed down the slope immediately behind the other racer I'd arrive with. I was now in 11th and I was now in my element.

I made short work of the descent, successfully toeing the line between recklessly in control and yard saleing. I scooped up 10th in our first rutted out bowl, 9th as I kept my speed through the following steep section, 8th as we found ourselves on the bottom half of the descent as the snow became icier again, and 7th on the final approach into the start/finish gate. Game on!

The Bell Lap

I had a great transition back into my climbing skins but made a critical error. I had been advised that a single set of climbing skins would not last a full race. Meaning that eventually the glue that adheres the skin to the ski would fail due to the careless way in which you have to rip and store your skins while racing, getting them covered in snow and effectively causing the skin to freeze up. I KNEW I should reach into my back pocket of my pack and switch into my backup skins. I got caught up in the moment of the guys I'd just passed coming in behind me and I threw my slightly compromised initial set of skins right back on the skis. I raced out of there with but one guy getting ahead of me and as the now 7th and 8th place racers we created a gap over the guys behind us.

This side of the course was much different in that the climbing was not only steep but much of it was done through fresh snow, meaning there was a 'loosness' to things if you will. The guy ahead of me faltered and I for once made up a spot due to someone else's struggle. This was not to last long however as I could now see the back 1/4 of my right skin wasn't even attached to my ski anymore, it was dangling off to the side and with each step up I was loosing additional tack between my skins and my skis. I slipped backwards, I fell over, and I went about my Bambi snow show as I clicked my skis off. I then bootpacked in knee deep snow up to a flat spot, and made the hard but necessary call to do a full skin switch. I attempted to zone out and focus on the task at hand, but my peripheral would not grant me this luxury. 8th - 9th - 10th - 11th all went gliding by and in that span I managed to get rattled and loose focus. I simply could not get my one ski boot to click into my bindings. Every time I stepped on the ski it shifted in the snow, click - miss - shit, click - miss - shit, click - miss - shit "C'MON GARY!" on my sixth attempt I got my ski back on. There was no one in sight above me, and no one in site below me, and we were all of about fifteen minutes from being done.

With the new skin on I found the necessary traction and fell into a nice rhythm, clicking out kick-turns and gaining elevation towards our final transition. As the upper part of the mountain presented itself I could see one skier up ahead of me. I pushed towards the turnaround, transitioned faster than him, and found myself in 10th. Nothing but downhill ahead. I had no idea of where any of those who passed me on the climb might now be but I leaned into the descent with fleeting hopes of finding one or more of them.

Half way down as my quads were screaming at me I hooked a ski. Instinctively I raised my leg to sweep my ski back around to center before it could catch on the snow below and send me for a tailspin. I chuckled to myself. This sport is awesome I thought. Just a few minutes later I flew through the final turn of the race and a ski patroller directed me down the last straight stretch to the bottom. I could just make out a racer half way down so I straighlined it in the hopes of catching him, I made up all but three seconds on the guy, but it turned out he was in the short distance event. Oh well, 10th place in 1h44m and my head is reeling from all that I learned on the day and all that there is still to learn. I can't wait to do it all over again!

Huge congrats to Nick Elson for placing 2nd, Eric Carter for 3rd, and Stano Faban for 5th. Stano was just bettered by a few seconds by some guy named Max King (a life long skier, 2h14m marathoner, World Mountain Running Champion, famous ultra runner and now first time Skimo racer as well). It's an exciting time for Skimo in North America, here's hoping for plenty of growth within the sport in the coming years.

Fuel: 200ml water mixed with one Hammer gel and a half dozen scoops of snow.


If you find yourself free and with nothing better to do this Tuesday night, Feb 18th, you should swing on by the Salomon West Vancouver store and check out some films and slides while I wax poetic about ultra running. Link here


Ray said...

Thanks - I enjoyed that. I spent a bunch of today learning about touring and skins and now Skimo racing. I don't know how to "try" this sport out but I'll keep an eye out for rentals or cheap equipment. Cheers.

garobbins said...

Hey Ray, nice hearing from you. Where are you located? Some US resorts currently have some mid-week races that they're promoting.

Assuming you aren't local to one of those areas checking out some rentals and eventually a gear swap for deals seems to be the best idea.

All the best,