Throughout the winter I found myself wondering how far I could push myself. Could I go farther, steeper, increase the exposure, and at the end of the day still make it back to the truck for a beer? After taking over the reigns of the COSMIC series from endurance athlete and founder Pete Swenson, driving 18,000 miles in my truck to organize, and set the multitude of ski mountaineering races around the west, come April I was ready to throw in the towel and focus on my personal skiing goals. But just as I was hanging up the skinny skis I got the call from Dynafit’s communication manager Eric “Hende” Henderson. My Skimo Tour de West wasn’t over just yet. I would go farther.
Big Sky Montana’s marketing representatives and ski patrols had been brewing a nasty concoction of skiing, skinning, and real mountaineering in the Treasure State. “A race to celebrate the grandeur of Lone Mountain with an event that encompasses skier ability and endurance,” explained Co-Race Director Noah Ronczkowski. The other Co-Race Director Casey Heerdt stated, “The race would cover sixteen miles and feature over 9,000 vertical feet of climbing over variable terrain and conditions including the rare inbounds alpine exposure.”
This plan has been stirring in the brains of Noah and Casey, both ski patrolmen, Denali climbing guides, and ski mountaineering partners, for the last five or so years, I was told. The race was to be an experimental/invite-only affair to bring to reality what they envisioned to possibly be one of the hardest ski mountaineering races in the US. This would be the winter equivalent of the fall Run the Rut trail running race that has emerged as the SkyRunner World Series Final. A race weekend that many have said is the most bad-ass trail race in the U.S. Heck even Killian Jornet showed up and was super impressed!
Having never been to Big Sky before I simply figured they’d positioned their smoke and mirror show directly at the sun to really lure me in. Sure I would drive over 16 hours in horrible whiteout Star Wars like snow conditions to Big Sky Country on a Thursday. On the way meeting up with Dynafit athlete Marshall Thomson, of Crested Butte, in Rock Springs to share the ride north through Wyoming whilst donating hard earned cash to the Wyoming State Patrol (don’t speed going through Pinedale!), eating my six month supply of teriyaki beef jerky, and stopping for “dinner” aka a sole beer in West Yellowstone at 11pm in the only bar in town that of course was over taken by mohawk and tattooed laden slednecks busy guzzling the night away.
We emerged in a state were seemingly winter didn’t get the message that her time was up. Mid-teen degree temperatures and nice blankets of glisse beckoned our bloodshot eyes. It was quite a change to the Bermuda type climate that Colorado had been experiencing for all too long this winter.
Up and at ’em to the Lone Peak Cafe in search of nourishment and caffeine. Surrounded by ski patrol and lift service staff we stood in line for our extra tall coffees and enormous burritos. $3.95 was the total for curbing our cravings, a small sum. We both agreed we must have been mistaken for employees, not exactly typical considering our euro inspired color choice in ski wear. We took in the ridiculous view of Lone Peak. As the caffeine trickled through our veins we tried to imagine what these boys had planned twenty-four hours from now.
Just as the Cholula hot sauce finally made its way to its resting point deep within my stomach we were whisked into the daily ski patrol meeting. Surrounded by 150+ patrolmen and women out of their 300 total this was certainly a crew! We were informed Big Sky is host to the largest full time and part-time combined ski patrols in the country.
Introductions were brief as we went through weather ops, avalanche mitigation for the day, end of season maintenance, and the following day’s ski mountaineering race. On to which Marshall and I were filled in on some specifics of the route plan and the Google Earth map that was sketched up.
We acquired two lift tickets for the day (purely to preserve our legs and lungs for tomorrow 😉 ), grabbed our bigger skis, and hopped on the POMA with the rest of the ski patrol as they fanned across 5,500 plus acres of the privately run resort encompassing Lone Peak and the surrounding area. It was then I learned that when a resort such as this massive one with the most skiable acres in the United States, is privately owned they really mean it; down to whatever rule or lack of rules they want to create, thus meaning they don’t have to deal with any permitting, or governing body (US Forest Service, BLM, ETC.) telling them what they can and can’t do. If they want to create a trail or run a race it’s their call, plus they can do it in whatever fashion they want.
This is not typical for most resorts in the US. The loopholes, gifts of beer, and down right begging is usually the norm and some of the tactics I’ve learned you have to jump through to make a ski mountaineering race possible at a ski area. But when an entire, I mean everyone at the 7 am meeting, patrol is enthusiastic and on board, amazing things happen. Big Sky for one is not typical; there is no alpine racing culture or races period and if you encounter more then one other person on a slope that is considered crowded.
As we loaded the single span tram up to the top of Lone Peak the two awestruck tourists surrounded by patrol saw the Google map file come to life. As the tram passed over the tiny chute of Dobe’s, named after famed patrolman Mike Donovan in which is only an arms width wide three hundred foot fifty plus degree chute, we were instructed that our party of three would be the only skiers to ski the main chute and to descend up and eventually down Dobe’s this morning after which they would close the run to the public to preserve the snow. I certainly thought they were joking. Nope, they would close the slope to the paying public for the day and the subsequent morning to only allow those who suffer to eat the cake.
Throughout the day we worked on setting up transition zones and putting in several skin tracks. Noah and Casey touched base with us several times during our free ski day and told us where to boot pack and where they would like to have people skin. These guys love their boot packs! My partner, one of the top US Ski mountaineering racers, put a few skin tracks in places we both agreed could use one to ease the pain of sixteen miles of skiing, after which he later admitted even as a racer he set the skin with track too much of a high angle and the wind was so intense that booting up was the better choice.
We shared the stoke of a place that for one day the entire focus would be on a technical ski mountaineering: five major descents, two mandatory fixed rope climbing sections, miles of boot packs, several forty-five plus degree couloirs, and every single type of snow condition known to man or elite athlete. We ripped our skins after setting one last skin track on the 270 degree dome of Lone Mountain and descended down into the Mountain Village to crack one recovery beer and prepare for the pre-race meeting.
As we shuffled through the typical ski resort labyrinth we finally stumbled onto the race meeting in an obscure conference room. There we encountered the two Mikes. Mike Foote & Mike Wolfe of the infamous Run the Rut Trail running race, two of the top trail running athletes in the world who also happen to be from Montana. They both admitted that the planning and organization for this race was well beyond what a running race requires but that they had both been invited to suffer as well as sending out the invite to several of their friends to join together in this “experiment.” Casey and Noah went through the course for the lucky souls that were invited: a select few top ski mountaineering athletes, ultra runners, local mountaineers, and willing patrolmen and women.
Twenty six in total were to race the next day.
High winds and colder temperatures woke us on the Saturday morning of the race. With an atypical start time of 8am we were all pleased to not have to wake at the normal 4am for a pre-dawn race. Ahhh the benefits of setting your own rules!
While half of the lab rats donned speed suits the other half dressed in light ski touring wear. They all looked ready yet apprehensive of what was to come. This was coupled by the fact that the race would not start by a typical starting gun but by a 30lbs avalanche charge fired several miles away. Once we got word the fuse was lit you could see legs begin to shake and racers doing a quick once over on their equipment.
Startled and shook, the test dummies took charge on their initial ascent to the top of Lone Mountain. Patrol rushed to the lifts to meet them at several checkpoints. It was during the first ascent wherein the wind picked up and all lifts were on hold or would be down for hours — meaning an entire Saturday morning one of America’s largest resorts would be solely committed to ski mountaineering. Rare indeed.
Hoots and hollers echoed through the basin as I peered through my binoculars as skiers howled down the main chute off of Lone Mountain in what I confirmed was some of the best skiing several of us had in weeks if not months.
As the entire mountain was on wind hold and lifts continued to be closed I sprinted and skinned around the resort for photo opportunities whilst checking in with patrol. Many stood in sheer disbelief at the speed athletes were charging around on the mountain. Checkpoints marked with Pomoca & Dynafit flags were manned by the lovely ladies from the non-profit Adventure Scientists for Conservation serving up Probars, Coke, and salted potatoes.
At almost four hours word throughout the mountain was that Tom Goth of Salt Lake City & LaSportiva was screaming down the final descent with Marshall Thomson closing the gap. Tom just made it under the gun at 3:54.37 and Marshall was breathing down his neck finished at 3:55.03 with Ben Parsons of Ridge Mountain Academy coming in third at a respectable 4:01.26. On the women’s side Michela Adrian slid in at 5:07.07 followed by Janelle Smiley, of Jackson Hole, 5:19.02 and Sarah Cookler tucked in at 5:33.49 respectively.
As competitors skied through the finish line faces of pain and pure joy shined throughout. Tales of some of the hardest yet best skiing were shared. Many were in total disbelief in what they had just accomplished throughout the morning. Mike Foote came in the top 10 and admitted with a big ole smile on his face, “That was some fun sufferin.” Yes, there may be longer distance ski mountaineering races in this country but there are very few that require solid skiing skills and a honed set of ski mountaineering skills.
The exposure on ridge lines and skin tracks took aback many racers, the ski descents were intimidating and TGR worthy on several levels, and every single aspect of Lone Mountain presented itself with a different set of snow conditions in a race definitely run a little bit cowboy style. Plus don’t forget the over 9,000 vertical feet of climbing. All in all, for good reason it was called the Shedhorn Skimo Race because you surely would have lost your antlers after this suffer fest.
Not to be outdone by just some bluegrass band at the awards ceremonies, Big Sky put on a good ole fashion whiskey tasting featuring solely Montana spirits from Headframe Spirits, Roughstock, Willie’s, Bozeman Spirits and WildRye and dubstep electronic music with DJ 5STAR and go-go dancers.
Yes, there were go-go dancers, skimo racers, and dubstep in Montana. That is not a typo.
Be sure to keep your eyes open when this registration goes live this fall because Big Sky is certainly on the ski mountaineering map for offering up amazing terrain, ridiculously welcoming attitudes, and some of the meanest hangovers north of 45 degrees latitude. I know I’ll be headed back to kick Killian’s butt!
In addition a big congratulations has to go out to the long effort of patrolmen Casey Heerdt and Noah Ronczkowski for pulling off a great event on an extremely impressive scale. Cheers to you both!
Joseph Risi was raised on pasta and meatballs in the “backwoods” of Long Island before seeking higher education in the mountains of Vermont. Always looking for adventure, building treehouses, working too many odd jobs around the world he now lives in the Aspen area of Colorado.