Tuesday, January 31, 2012

North American Ski Mountaineering Championships

Announcement: Don't forget about the Wasatch Citizens Skimo Race this Thurs night at Brighton.  See citizenseris.wasatchpowderkeg.com and subscribe to get the updates.

Last weekend another high profile ski mountaineering event was held.  The venue this time was Crested Butte, CO.  And, by inviting the Canadian National Team, it was billed as the North American Championships.  Just to make the competition stiffer, Scarpa, one of the events sponsors, brought over the biggest Italian names, who also happen to be some of the best in the world.  

The weekend was split into two days with a sprint race on Saturday and the traditional individual race on Sunday.  A sprint race consists of a very short (200-250ft) climb followed by a short descent and another climb before ripping skins to descend to the finish.  The total time is around 5 minutes and technical proficiency is rewarded.  A mistake is death and a finish well outside the top rankings.  

For the the individual race, the planned course was an attempt to add some European flair with a low 5th class climb up the Guide's Ridge on Mt. Crested Butte.  Never having had such a technical section in a race in North America before, a via ferrata and an ascender (3 pts of contact) were required gear and more than one racer was quite anxious about the climb.  Alternatively, for those with climbing experience or accustomed to exposure, this was a welcome variable.  

Similar to a stage race in cycling, the times for the two day event were added together to declare a NA champion.  Awards were also given to the winners of each event.  

Day I: The Sprint Event

Team Wasatch Skimo again had a strong contingent at the race with 6 present (plus adopted member Luke Nelson...hell, might as well adopt Micah Thatcher too, son of Bryce Thatcher and Rexburg resident).  We made the drive from Gunnison that morning in the dark as the thermometer in the car kept dropping until it read -18 when we pulled into the resort.  Minus 18???

Layering up, we tried to stay warm as we skinned up to Uly's Cabin, where the short sprint course had been pinned the day before.  A mix of puffies and spandex was dashing about, stretching, and looking jittery.  The format called for racers to start every 30 seconds and once the order was posted, everyone was curious who they would be chasing and who would be doing the chasing.  

Initially, I was skeptical of sprint races since I felt they lacked the aesthetic appeal and suffering of the long race.  But, once the women started, it was fantastic to watch them bury themselves for two minutes, try and ski, climb again, and then hang on to the finish.  30 seconds of separation was short enough to watch some women get swallowed up as others tore through the field.  

My start location?  9th position, behind brother Jason and in front of Team Crested Butte speedster, Brian Wickenhauser.  Better not screw up.   

I had a mostly clean race and was able to pass Jason as he stepped out of his bindings.  Wick had some issues too so I was happy not to get passed as well.  Many people had skin failures with the extremely cold weather.  My strategy to bring a second set for the second climb paid off handsomely with a 4th place finish amongst the North Americans (the two Italian professionals and a Slovakian will be factored out of everything in an attempt to make my placing sound more impressive).  

Here are the results (top 10):

1. Manfred Reichegger IT
2. Reiner Thoni CAN
3. Lorenzo Holzknecht IT
4. Andrew McNabb CAN
5. Jan Koles SLOVAKIA
6. Travis Scheefer USA
7. Andrew Dorais USA
8. Marshall Thompson USA
9. Jared Inouye USA
10. Jon Brown USA

Day II: The Individual Race

Sunday, we made the drive and only saw minus 8. Balmy.  We warmed up slowly as a group and eventually found our way out of our big jackets and into the starting corral.  Bracing for the standard drag race up the first climb, I felt this course actually warranted a fast start.  With everyone converging on the Guide's Ridge, position would be key.  
Guide's Ridge, part of the course at the NA Skimo Championships (photo from the awesome site, gooneyriders.typepad.com)
The first few hundred feet passed smoothly, and I settled in around 10th.  The Italians were blasting off the front and impressively dropping Reiner, Luke, and co.  After following low angle cat tracks, we dodged into the woods and followed an unsettled low angle skin track and dozens and made dozens of kick turns as we approached the ridge.  Some were unaccustomed to more technical skinning and I managed to move up a place or two.  

Guide's Ridge (photo from gooneyriders.typepad.com)
At the base of the ridge, out came the via ferrata and ascender, skis went on the pack, and we all donned the required jacket.  I wore a CAMP Anorak and was able to put it on without taking off my pack.  That combined with being more comfortable with rope work than those around me allowed me to get the jump and pass a couple more.  The rule stated that 2 points of contact must be made at all times so passing was difficult but not impossible.  I soon caught Jon Brown and fell into a methodical rhythm, trying to decide if I should pass or not  Once it became clear that the course marshals would allow only one at a time through the crux sections, I asked for the pass and Jon graciously stepped aside.  By that time, Andrew McNabb of Canada and Jared Inouye, my arch nemesis and mentor had caught back up (miraculously and questionably passing multiple racers in the process) and were in hot pursuit.  We scrambled through a couple semi technical sections and then suddenly found ourselves on the summit.  Not looking once at the view, I began a jogging descent through the rotten snow toward the transition zone on the peak's shoulder.  Jared came flying by, sprinting out of control, but was slower getting into his skis as I had taken mine off my pack and readied myself while descending.  

Jason summiting Mount Crested Butte via the Guide's Ridge (photo from gooneyriders.typepad.com)
With the technical climb behind us, the field was splintered into the front group, our chase group, and then a larger main field.  I dropped into the first descent just behind Marshall Thompson and tried to rally to the start of our final two ~1000 ft laps.  Marshall pulled out of the transition as I arrived.  I  left, followed by Jared and Andrew, and it soon became of game of not blowing up in the rarified Colorado air.  My inevitable explosion came 500 vertical later.  Making my first of 4 huge mistakes, I stepped off the track to take in some calories and allowed Jared by.  Asking what I was doing as he passed, my response was, "bonking".  Lame.  

He laughed and then set an easy pace to the transition zone.  I was lucky to arrive as unscathed as I did since my skin was failing and a more aggressive pace would have likely caused it to blow.  I was surprised to find most of the field converging at this point as they were just coming down from the climb of the Guide's Ridge. Apparently there had been a huge cluster with large delays on the fixed lines. 

Making the same descent as before, I arrived as Jared pulled out of the transition.  However, with the infusion of new racers on their first lap, four or five people snuck in between us.  This typically wouldn't be a big deal when there is ample room to pass but with steep switch backs through relatively unconsolidated snow, the skin track was only viable option.  Mistake number two came when I lost my competitve spirit and sat behind a slower skier allowing Jared to escape and McNabb to stay close.  Another friend who was just behind me was livid. 

I finally, managed to pass just before the final transition.  All that was left was a relatively easy descent before a short skate to the finish.  All I needed was a clean conservative run to secure my place (currently 9th overall, 7th North American, 5th American).  Then what ensued was a total junk show. 

I wrecked when at the last minute the course marshal directed me into a hard left hand turn onto a single track through tight trees.  Partway through said single track, my pole (borrowed from Jared) became entangled on some invisible shrubery and it popped off the handle.  I was able to come to a stop 10-15 meters later and contemplated going back to retrieve it. Flashing through my mind was the very real possiblity of a large Canadian by the name of McNabb barrelling through the woods and pulverizing both of us.  In that instant, I left the pole and tried to extricate myself from the woods and get back on course. Mistake number three.  Just as I dropped on to a steep open face of mild bumps, McNabb came tearing by.  I gave chase with one pole and was able to squeeze by on an open groomer.  Giving pause while trying to determine the route, he passed me again and my fate was sealed as I couldn't keep up on 200 meter uphill skate to the finish line.  

Tired of duck walking, I stopped and skinned up which allowed me to stride into the finish some minutes after both McNabb and Jared.  This ultimately turned out to be mistake number four (I could have taken my skis off and run but thought that was against the rules) since I was penalized 1:00 for leaving equipment on the course.  That penalty caused me to drop one more place as Travis Scheefer fnished 51 seconds behind, but in the final standings is 9 seconds ahead.   I was unaware of the ISMF rule and penalty and an unyielding Canadian with slavish adherence to rules decided to make an example of me, even though various other rules were broken by dozens of other racers. 

Regardless, I thought the 2 day event was fantastic and actually played into our (Team Wasatch Skimo) strengths with the long technical climb.  The Wasatch had a wonderful representation with Jason taking home 5th overall in the individual and 3rd in the combined overall (North Americans), Jared was 7th in the individual and 5th in the combined (NAs), I was 9th (really 10th with the penalty) in the individual and 7th (8th) in the combined (NAs).  We also had a strong showing from Tom Goth who was 15th and 12th.  Chad Brackelsberg also raced hard but was handicapped by heavy non-race skis.  (Actually, we also took 2nd out of the NAs with adopted member Luke, and Gemma was 4th out of the women)  The competition was world class up front and Crested Butte is the land of my dreams.  I especially enjoyed hanging out with folks from SLC, CB, Breck, Jackson, Canada, and all around the West.  But, that perfect race eludes me.  Luckily, there are a few more chances this year to get it right. 

Results from the individual race:


  1. Awesome story Andy and nice job! I always like to joke that skimo racing would be like doing a bike race and having to change multiple flat tires... I guess that is what makes it so fun and challenging!

  2. Thanks Travis! Nice job as well and good analogy...not that I know anything about bike racing. I wrecked too often so I got rid of all my bikes.