“Just an all-out suffer to the top” is how race organizer Joseph Risi describes the kickoff evening race for the US Ski Mountaineering Association National Championships, which took place this month at Ski Santa Fe and Taos Ski Valley for the first time. The first race of a three-day program sees competitors charging from the bottom of the Ski Santa Fe ski basin to the top, climbing 4,500 feet of elevation in four sections.
Adhesive climbing skins give enough friction to the bottom of their skis to run uphill—as much as a person can run with skis slinging in front of their feet. Some sections require stepping out of skis and "bootpacking," hiking up terrain too steep for skins. At Ski Santa Fe, the course ascended amid one of the rock drop-offs in Big Rocks Glade. Then competitors rip the skins off and ski back down. Some ski mountaineering events require technical climbing gear to complete a "via ferrata," an installed set of metal ladderwork to aid in the ascent, and up to six "transitions" switching from skins to boots or skis. And this is fun.
Or, at least it was more fun than standing on the sidelines, says Jessie Young, who won the women's overall competition and will head to Italy later this month to represent the United States in the World Championships. She got into the sport four seasons ago after watching her fiance compete at Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
"It turns out, it's not a very good spectator race and I'm not so much of a good spectator. So I just started to do the races myself, and started pretty recreationally just to kind of finish, and slowly worked my way up," she says.
Young is now the top-ranked female in the US Ski Mountaineering Association national race circuit, and will be making her second trip to the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships. She also competed in 2015—as did her fiance, Max Taam, who's ranked second in the US.
"You know you do a niche sport when you have to explain what it is to everybody," Young says. "But in Europe, it's not a niche as much."
Competitors secured their spots on the US team for the World Championships before the Ski Santa Fe Fireball Rando Race, which was held Feb. 3 and 4, but that doesn't mean anyone tapered off for this local race.
"This is their chance to show their teammates they can perform," he says. "Top racers in the country will show up and show their teammates they're worthy."
In 2022, ski mountaineering is set to make its Olympic debut as an exhibition competition, an entry point toward securing greater status in the sporting community and, ideally, recruiting aspiring athletes who see a future in a sport that can take them to the Olympics.
Today's lighter-weight ski bindings and walk-mode-equipped boots mean uphill traffic has increased, and sales in alpine touring (AT) gear have skyrocketed in recent years. In any given weekend, you'll see people "skinning" up the hill at Ski Santa Fe. A lot of the draw has been the call of the workout—but Young has something else in mind.
"It's more about skiing new places, new peaks," she says. She's got an eye set on the Elk Range near her home in Aspen, but a lap up New Mexico's highest point, Wheeler Peak, is on the list, too.
For Risi, too—who is never without his skis, boots, skins and avalanche beacon, shovel and probe, and therefore the ability to go anywhere there's snow—it's not about the burn.
"I don't play golf, but this is my winter golf," he says. "You can have a conversation for 45 minutes, an hour long, two hours, three hours long, on the skin uphill. You put that in perspective. What do you do on the chairlift? You talk for maybe a minute or two, and then you ski back down."
There's a bond, he says, to a team that travels in the backcountry together. Protocol dictates always taking a partner, and in that spirit, the last event of nationals was a team event at Taos on a course mapped out by Andy Bond, who just co-founded the Taos Avalanche Center for local avalanche forecasts. That course set 26 teams of two up for 8,000 feet of climbing with five bootpacks. It's more terrain than most people cover in a day, and the winner finished in just three hours and 25 minutes.
The Enthusiast is a twice-monthly column dedicated to the people in and stories from our outdoor sports community.