Ski Mountaineering racing takes skiers up and down the mountain
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum
The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.
It’s not hard to imagine that somewhere in the annals of ski history two people looked up toward a snow capped peak and argued about who could ski there and back in the shortest amount of time. And so the sport of ski mountaineering racing or “ski mo” was born.
While most resort skiers are perfectly content to catch the chairlift to their destination, on any given weekend day, a hearty group of spandex-clad competitors are sweating through another climb on a 14-mile uphill/downhill race. They are ski mountaineering racers and their exploits will take your breath away, not to mention theirs.
“I got into ski mountaineering racing about 12 years ago,” explained internationally renowned adventure racer Mike Kloser. “It was at one of the first official ski mo races in the U.S. down in Crested Butte. Back in the day, it wasn’t really the competition we know today because the equipment wasn’t as evolved. Today’s equipment is just unbelievably fast and light.”
Competitors skip the chairlift and head straight up the slopes with climbing skins attached to the bases of their skis that provide for uphill traction. Some sections of the course have been purposely set in steep terrain that forces the racers to remove their skis and boot pack up. Then it’s downhill to the finish line.
A typical ski mountaineering race course will have 3,500 to 5,000 feet of elevation gain/loss over nine to 14 miles. Throughout the course, an athlete will encounter three to seven skin transitions, a possible boot pack and screaming fast descents.
Ideally, racers make it to the finish line between two to four hours. But, while it is a physically demanding race over rugged terrain, competitors are not asked to evaluate risk in terms of backcountry terrain and their progress is tracked through a series of checkpoints throughout the well-marked course.
While extremely popular in Europe, it was not until the spring of 2014 that the International Olympic Committee granted conditional recognition to the International Ski Mountaineering Federation, the international governing body of the sport. This potentially opens the door for ski mountaineering racing to be included as an Olympic medal sport as early as 2022.
The sport’s World Championships have been held biannually since 2002, while the ISMF also sanctions a series of five Ski Mountaineering World Cup competitions in Europe from January through March, with disciplines including individual, vertical and sprint races.
“I think it would be a fantastic Olympic event,” Kloser said. “I wish I was young enough to have aspirations for it, but that’s not happening.”
Actually, an early version of the sport has already enjoyed Olympic inclusion, appearing on the official program for the first Winter Games in 1924 in Chamonix, France, under the moniker of Military Patrol. It was a team sport in which athletes competed in cross-country skiing, ski mountaineering and rifle shooting, with rules similar to those of Modern Biathlon. The event would also hold demonstration sport status at the 1928, 1936 and 1948 Games.
An offshoot of the Military Patrol event was integrated into the training regime for the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale during World War II. In conjunction with the mountain trooper’s D-Series training, a small group of 10th soldiers completed a four-day winter crossing on skis from Leadville to Aspen in the dead of winter, now known as the Trooper Traverse.
In recent years, the American ski mo scene, shepherded by the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association, has transformed into a dynamic landscape, becoming more technical for serious competitors, while also increasingly more accessible for fitness-minded athletes.
The USSMA schedule of events for the 2015-16 season features 26 events, with races spread throughout the Mountain West and the East Coast. Crested Butte will play host to the U.S. National Championships, Feb. 12-14.
In the West, the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup (COSMIC) enters its ninth season with an 11-event series throughout Colorado and New Mexico. Founded in 2007 by Pete Swenson with a race at Sunlight Ski Resort, the series has not only expanded, but attracted a light and fast crowd from trail running, mountain biking, Nordic skiing and of course, backcountry skiing backgrounds.
Swenson, from Breckenridge, is arguably the most accomplished ski mountaineering racer in U.S. history, while no one in this country has played a bigger role in promoting and growing competitive ski mountaineering. A three-time national champion, he currently serves as chairman of the USSMA board.
“Pete Swenson was really the one that spearheaded racing in the U.S.,” Kloser said. “He had been doing it overseas in Europe, along with a small group of other Americans, but he was the one that really brought the sport to America.
The Vail Valley first experienced a taste of ski mountaineering racing in 2012 as the inaugural Teva Winter Mountain Games brought the sport to Vail Mountain as part of the three-event Ultimate Mountain Challenge. The mass-start race took 130 competitors up the front side of Vail Mountain and into the Back Bowls before finishing at Golden Peak.