While most people are perfectly content with catching first chair by 10 a.m. on a given day, a certain group of spandex-clad, pencil-thin skiers like nothing more than sweating through the fourth climb of a 20-mile uphill/downhill race. They're ski-mountaineering racers and their feats of endurance can be exhausting to watch.
The outsider’s perception of ski mountaineering, or “skimo,” racing as an agro-fit, Euro endeavor isn’t entirely off base. However, it’s only part of the story. In recent years, the United States skimo scene has transformed into a dynamic sporting landscape. It’s becoming more technical for serious competitors yet increasingly more accessible for fitness-minded athletes who want more than a typical resort day.
“We now have courses where people need to wear a harness or use via ferrata setups. There are more technical skin tracks where you have no option but to do kick turns,” says Pete Swenson, Director of the United States Ski Mountaineering Association (USSMA) and creator of the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup (COSMIC) series.
Swenson was the winner of the US Ski Mountaineering Championship in 2010 and has competed in races in Europe for years. His experience has motivated him to bring high-level competition to the United States. “I would go to races in Europe and then come back stateside to races that just weren’t technical enough.”
Though he pays the bills as a Dynafit and ABS rep, Swenson has his heart set on expanding USSMA and COSMIC, and establishing a point system that can translate to races across the country. He hopes his vision will lead to a more consistent ranking system and a more cohesive sport.
Part of that cohesiveness is attracting a wider demographic of skiers to compete, learn, and participate in the sport.
“Most of these races have a recreational-course component to them now,” says Swenson, “Maybe you only want to skin 2,500 vertical feet rather than 5,000. I see it as the next progression after sidecountry skiing. If a person is curious about getting out there more, this is a good place to start.”
The new ranking system makes it even easier for first-timers to understand. It rates races on difficulty: Category 1 races are recreational races typically held within the boundaries of a resort, while longer, more demanding, and adventurous races are considered Category 4.
Swenson looks forward to more participation in ski mountaineering this season, due to the multifaceted design of the races and the ever-growing interest in touring. He’s especially excited for the mid-week racing at Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Aspen, and Crested Butte for what he is calls “after work fun runs.”
“It’s definitely more of an endurance sport than a technical mountaineering objective,” says Chris Thompson, the Points and Ranking Administrator for the USSMA and COSMIC, of the typical race experience. For all but the top athletes, skimo racing requires little more than AT equipment and some hard-working lungs.
Click here for more great imagery of ski-mountaineering racing from Crested Butte-based photographer Kevin Krill.
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For more information on the USSMA, click here.
For more information on the COSMIC series, click here.