Well, that was worthwhile.
It’s not like I’m realizing anything ground-breaking here—in fact, mountain and ultrarunners crossing over to skimo in the winter months is treading perilously close to the tipping point of being cliche—but holy shit, what an absolutely fantastic sport! If you like moving quickly and efficiently* in the mountains, this style and format of activity is the only one that makes sense in the winter. *(I prefer the “efficiently” adverb, because I believe it is one’s mindset and intent—not absolute velocity—that positively or negatively shapes the experience.)
Of course, the Euros have known this for a long time; they have a deep, intense pool of athletes over there who have been going at this for decades. Backcountry skiing or alpine touring in general is certainly nothing new here in the States, but it is definitely a growing sector, and with big advances in lightweight gear, runners (and others) with a bent for the mountains are increasingly being attracted to the sport’s extreme light-n-fast sector—skimo racing. So it shouldn’t come as much surprise that Ultimate Direction is making the logical cross-over, too. Garment-like hydration vests/packs with front carrying capacity have become the norm in running; why not apply the same design principles to skimo-specific packs? I’ve certainly been enjoying testing the new products.
Last winter was my first season back on skis after a smattering of resort outings in college more than 10 years ago. So I wasn’t a complete neophyte, but pretty close. I spent last winter discovering the fitness-building merits of the activity, but I didn’t yet have the confidence or skills to competently jump into an actual skimo/rando* race. A hernia surgery enforced a slow start to the season for me this year, but this past weekend I finally did my first race, partnering with Joe Grant for the Power of Four in Aspen. *(I’ll just stick with the term “skimo” despite some Euro-phobes resenting it…let us not forget, “rando” is actually the diminutive of an unmistakably French word.)
In the weeks leading up to this race, Joe and I—apprehensive at our undeniably meager downhilling abilities—asked around about the difficulty of the course. Like anything involving skill, this is sort of a pointless query. The answer is so subjective. Most people mentioned the high, steep Highlands Bowl and the narrow, tree-filled Congo Trail as being the skiing cruxes—pictures of Highlands sure looked intimidating. Skiers far, far more experienced and skilled than myself referred to the course as “serious skiing” and “the real deal”. Unfortunately, a rockslide on I-70 thwarted our plans to head up the week before for a recce of the route; we were stuck with onsighting it. Eh, I suppose that’s more sporting anyhow.
Further concern was registered when Joe returned from a weekend of skimo races down in northern New Mexico (Santa Fe and Taos) and came away with wide-eyed tales of frustrating, technical skinning and no-fall-zone descending. Joe certainly has a flair for the dramatic, but there was no denying his tangibly chastened attitude towards skimo racing afterwards.
Adding to our plummeting expectations was lingering fatigue Joe had from the Moab Red Hot 55K a couple weeks prior. Maybe as an act of solidarity (read: self-handicapping), I did an up-tempo 30-miler of my own the Thursday before the Saturday morning race, PRing a local hillclimb testpiece in the process. I guess at least I knew I was fit, albeit with comically sore, tired legs. To Aspen we went.
The one thing I was confident about in Aspen—cement-filled pegs notwithstanding—was my ability to walk up hills all day with skis strapped to my feet. I’ve done a heckuva lot of that lately, so I was hoping the 25mi and 12k’ vert stats of the course would play in my/our favor (the races Joe did in New Mexico were much shorter and quicker). Joe and I resolved to just survive, be steady, and—most importantly—never get frustrated with ourselves or each other if/when the going got tough.
This became clear on the first 3000’ grunt up the Snowmass ski area. After things settled in, only a half-dozen teams were strung out in front of Joe and I, with many familiar figures from mountain running racing—Mike Foote, Rob Krar, Paul Hamilton—figuring in the mix. Sweet, this is a blast! I love working hard uphill! I’m never the fastest on the first hill—this is an element of my physiology that used to puzzle me, but now I just accept—yet it still became evident that Joe hadn’t been lying when he said he was tired. No worries, it was early in a long day.
The first descent—traversing along a ridgeline to the top of the adjacent Buttermilk ski area—was a blast. After some quick sluicing through the trees, we powerslid down a steep, night-icy, somewhat exposed ridge. I was following Joe down but could tell he was struggling through here as he wasn’t dropping me. Joe always drops me on downhills. Nevertheless, we made it down, slapped skins back on, and continued the rolling traverse.
I was maddeningly inefficient through here. Several teams had caught and passed us once the terrain had gone from up to predominantly down, but my pure gumbie-action on some of the more techy bits of skinning caused the standout lead women’s duo of Stevie Kremer and Lindsey Plant to pass us now. Not long, though, and we were at the top of Buttermilk and ripping down perfect corduroy at 50mph. A couple hundred yards of flat skating dumped us onto a dry bike path and we were running—literally running, in ski boots, with skis strapped to our backs via the simple but effective loop and bungee-hook—for a kilometer or so over to the base of the Aspen Highlands ski area.
I couldn’t have been enjoying myself more. The sheer variety of the movement was exhilarating and highlighted just how potent hyper-light skimo gear is when paired with fitness and competent athleticism. I really enjoy useful tools—gear that matches the task perfectly—and even more so when the context is efficient, self-propelled movement in the mountains. I couldn’t stop smiling. This sport is so rad.
Despite glancing at my altimeter and seeing that we were all the way down at 8000’, it didn’t quite register that we were at the foot of a monster 4400’ climb. If it had, I would’ve filled my water flask here. Oh well.
The climb started pretty rough. Very steep skinning on groomers. I would’ve been fine with the steepness if I could’ve landed on the best technique for keeping my skins from slipping. I resorted to dorky, inefficient herringboning through the most aggressive grades. By time I hit the next flat(ter) stretch, I realized I’d inadvertently gapped Joe. No matter, we had our agreement—no frustration, no pressure—so I was content to dial it back and enjoy the more casual pace. I will say this, it’s a lot easier to to slurp down a gel—with poles in your gloved hands—when you’re not redlining.
The climb was long and the day heated up an unseasonable amount as the rising sun baked the ridge, but Joe was a trooper and kept slogging despite obviously unresponsive legs. Eventually we hit the bootpack climbing to the summit of 12,381’ Highland Peak and here I enjoyed chatting amiably with my buddy Jason, whose partner was also struggling a bit on the climb. Most notably, we shared uncontrollable stoke for the magnificent views of Pyramid and the Maroon Bells just off to our right. Hot damn, what a place!
All the way up the arcing ridge I could see the notorious face that I would have to ski down next, and, to my surprise, it didn’t look too bad. Maybe my positive mental attitude was just through the roof. Thankfully, it really wasn’t that bad. Joe seemed to wake up a bit on the summit and summarily dropped me through the bowl, but I was just psyched to be turning and sliding my way down the face on perfect chalky snow conditions. This was fun!
After regrouping at the bottom, we surfed through a few short mogul-y bits and then it was a short skin-traverse/climb on a cat track over to a sorely-needed aid station at the top of the Congo Trail. Joe and I both stopped here for a couple minutes, chugging water and Coke, and this is where things really seemed to turn around for Joe energy-wise.
The Congo was definitely tight and unpredictable but nothing like the steep, tree-filled death-chute I’d built up in my mind. In fact, it was a lot like the terrain that I ski the most in training. Doesn’t mean I can rip it fast, though. Thanks for waiting, Joe.
Next up was something I can really sink my teeth into: the big, final climb of a long race. We had 3000’ of vert up the Midnight Mine road to reach the top of Aspen Mt and I was psyched to get after it. Again, I don’t know what it is about my physiology and preparation, but this is something I invariably excel at in racing—I’m never the fastest up the first hill, but it seems I can pretty much maintain that initial intensity on subsequent climbs and finally catch up to others who are fading.
I put in a steady but not all-out effort up this hill—I was trying to keep Joe roughly in sight behind me—and was heartened to see that Joe was clearly giving it his all, putting his head down and eventually shuffling his way past most of the teams that I picked off. Joe and I both knew he’d be much faster than me on the final, mogul-y drop into downtown Aspen, so there was no frustration either way. We just have opposite strengths. Plus, I was having way too much fun for negative emotions.
Thanks to my bumbling survival skiing, a few teams passed us back on the descent, but the course went from blacks to blue corduroy in just enough time that we were just barely able to hold off Jason and his partner Mikey (they’re much better skiers) and comfortably break 6hr (5:56) for 12th place team.
I came away with a few overriding thoughts:
1) Taking on new challenges, stepping outside your comfort zone, embracing a beginner’s mind: it’s cliche, but all of this is so enriching and rewarding. I got into skiing and biking at least five years later than I should have.
2) I’ve known this for a while, but it’s always good to be served such a tangible reminder: any stripped-down, self-propelled movement in the mountains is good by me. Running and scrambling will always dominate that arena because it is so undeniably pure and unfettered—a pair of shoes, a pair of shorts and GO!—but any activity that allows me to apply that same light-n-fast style and ethic qualifies as a worthy endeavor to me. Hone the skills, minimize the material distractions, take joy in the unencumbered movement.
3) This course was top-notch. A very logical, terrain-defined traverse; huge climbs; big mountains; point-to-point; challenging but manageable skiing difficulty; a few hours of supreme effort. I’ve experienced very few run race courses that offer the same ingredients and variety.
4) I can’t wait for next year!