Ski mountaineering and Ultimate Direction have become synonymous. We are the only U.S. brand used by skimo athletes around the world including Europe where the sport has its strongest footing. We have just launched our next skimo vest called the “Skimo 20″; it’s a one-size-fits-all, 20 liter adjustable vest, made for people who ski at the resort for fitness before work or people who find adventure in the backcountry on the weekend. Food and hydration pockets are up front and attaching skis to the vest when boot-packing is now more simple than ever.
If you’re a trail runner with access to ski areas or mountains and you haven’t tried skimo yet, Richard Kresser, race director for the UD-supported Snow Goat Skimo series makes a strong case for why runners should use the sport as a way to gain an edge in general competition, focus and fitness during the darker days of winter.
Skimo racing in general is sort of like crossing backcountry ski touring with a trail running half marathon, except with a lot more adrenaline and just enough scary stuff to keep it exciting.
Skimo offers a great “step up” from trail running in that a skimo race involves some additional challenges ingrained in the sport. There is the premise that you need to know how to descend on skis or a snowboard and it involves multiple modes of travel: ascending with skis (or a splitboard) and skins, the possibility of bootpacking up, and descending. It should be noted that splitboarding is not allowed in all skimo events, but may be a great option for some, at least recreationally.
Trail runners made up over half of the participants at the Snow Goat series last year. Some might be more focused on trail running than skiing and this is their offseason sport. Others might be the other way around and trail run in the offseason of summer months between ski seasons, but most skimo racers use trail running in some sort as training.
Skimo can of course be enjoyed outside the realm of racing but as trail runners we understand the benefits and controlled environment of organized events and enjoy the community experience. For skimo especially, an event can in fact be a very safe and comfortable setting for those new to the sport.
In terms of physical benefits specifically for trail runners, skimo as a cross-training activity is unrivaled. The intense climbing that skimo demands paired with minimal impact grants the potential for large volume and quicker recovery. Since skiing downhill is so much quicker than running downhill, a skimo racer spends well over 90% of the race traveling uphill. Having a good set of lungs and legs is the first step to being a successful uphill skimo racer. There is more to the uphill than in trail running however, as there can definitely be some tricky skinning on steeper sections, but the base of that fitness is the same as trail running. Therefore, the physical and cardiovascular fitness gains earned in skimo and trail running possess direct carry over and are applicable both ways.
On the mental side, as a full time ski patroller, I stumbled onto a realization that taking four months off from running in the winter helped tremendously with my running motivation. November was my month off to rest and recuperate from the summer adventures, and then December through March I primarily skied. This break from long distance trail running helped my body recover running specific areas and also my mind change things up. Taking an offseason from your main sport is vital for longevity, both physically and mentally. Racing experience itself is another element that can have two-way benefits between skimo and trail running.
A trail runner who races knows how to move efficiently and strategize racing. They know how to dig deep at the end of a 3000’ straight uphill climb. The mental preparation aspects of a skimo race mirror a trail runner quite specifically.
As with any mountain sport, the gear can be quite expensive. However, the lightest, most cutting edge hardware and outerwear is not necessary to experience skimo. Especially for those just starting out. Upgrades can be made later on, when you have a better idea of what is comfortable and most suitable for your style. Sponsors often come out to the races and let you demo boots, skis, and bindings for the race, all for free, to try out some models before you buy. Demoing, renting, or borrowing is not only economical, but can also assist in determining what size and type of gear you should invest in.
Gear costs vary greatly, as does gear weight, and the two certainly have an inverse relationship. There are some racers who are the gram counting Lycra wearing diehards, just as much as there are the people not caring about weight and just there to have a good time. The aforementioned Heavy Mettle division within Snow Goat events was created for the “good time” crowd, who utilize splitboards, frame style bindings, tele, or other gear. (Not to say that there cannot be serious athletes within this division who simply compete with heavier gear).
One thing to think about when purchasing a ski setup is what you intend to use it for. If you solely want to race on this setup, opt for super lightweight. Or if you want to also do some bigger backcountry adventures on it too, maybe a heavier, durable, and more fun to ski setup would be appropriate. How good of a downhill skier are you? A better skier could probably go with lighter weight gear that is not as easy to ski downhill.
Regarding outerwear, comfort is king. Since races are usually two to four hours and you are moving constantly, you don’t usually need to wear as much clothing as downhill skiing. Athletic outerwear and softshell thin pants usually work well.
A few emergency shell layers need to be carried just in case you get injured or weather takes a turn. Helmets are required in races, and climbing helmets are often used instead of skiing helmets for their superior breathability. A pack is a crucial piece of gear, used to carry layers/outerwear, safety gear, nutrition/hydration, etc., and skis when necessary. Packs like the new Ultimate Direction Skimo 20 are great for skimo racing.
Other pieces of gear that may or may not be required in skimo races (or appropriate for backcountry) are an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. Of course, always possess the knowledge to use all the gear you are carrying, whether in a race or recreational setting.
All geared up and nowhere to go? For practice, get in some training at a local ski resort. This also lends itself to safety, as you get comfortable on skis and with the gear used in skimo. Most resorts have an uphill travel policy on their website. Some allow it during certain hours and/or conditions, and others all the time. Resorts are also a preferable choice as you learn the gravity assisted portion of skimo. Groomed runs tend to be more forgiving and consistent as you get down the basics, and a lesson may be a worthwhile consideration. If you are anywhere near Washington, of course check out the Snow Goat Skimo series.
Besides this series in the Pacific Northwest, there is the COSMIC series in Colorado, the Utah Skimo series, and there’s the NE Rando Races in New England. Volunteering at an event can be a great way to get an idea of what skimo racing and the culture is like. If straight to the backcountry is more your style, check out REI’s Powder Project app for potential routes near your area. Are your favorite running trails covered in snow? If they are skiable, experience them from a whole new perspective. Be aware of avalanche prone areas, and the whole new set of other safety concerns associated with the sport, especially the cold. Take into account winter’s shorter days. The many risks that skimo presents can surpass those of even running in the mountains, so do not take them lightly.
While it is fun trying something new don’t underestimate learning the new skills needed for skimo. If you are a downhill skier, practice skinning up some harder terrain and how to transition to and from skins. If you aren’t a skier at all, definitely take the time to learn downhill skiing first. Don’t overstep the basics.
So, if you’re ready to experience the mountains year round and in a magnificent setting, utilize these recommendations and take up skimo. And don’t be surprised if you see benefits in your trail running in some form.
For more information and inspiration check out snowgoatskimo.com.