Earlier this month, I took part in the Sunlight Heathen Challenge ski mountaineering race, a roughly 11 mile randonee course that boasts some 5000 feet of climbing and descending between Sunlight Ski Area and nearby backcountry slopes. The course offers aspen grove single track, challenging backcountry descent through dense aspen and willows, loose steep bootpack sections and a screaming descent down Sunlight’s infamous Heathen ski run, one of the steepest in the country with top angle of 52 degrees. The race is, by all accounts, a full value experience.
But this year, attendance was pale. For it’s eighth consecutive run, 84 total racers signed up (versus 144 last year), only nine of which were women. I admit, I’m part of the problem. I opted to help set and clean course rather than racing. I did this for two reasons: the help was needed (COSMIC races depend on volunteers to put up and take down courses, which, as I discovered requires far more work than you’d expect), but most of all, I’m intimidated by ski mountaineering races. And for that second point, I don’t think I’m alone.
So in an effort to encourage the legions of skiers hopping on the uphill ski train to consider a recreational race effort, I’m going to break down some of my own insecurities. (Sidenote: despite that I did successfully complete the Grand Traverse last year, I’m still intimidated by ski mountaineering races. This season that will change, or at least I’ll get really fit trying.)
Ski Mountaineering Racing is, well, really f-ing hard
Tasting blood. Blowing up. Careening down variable snow on 65 mm sticks. Feeling like your heart will actually explode in your chest. Puking on your boots. Wearing spandex. To the layperson, one or more of the above does not sound fun. But here are two things to consider: masochism loves company, and racing doesn’t have to be a one way ticket to the pain cave of death. Train so you know your body and your limits. And come race day, relish in the fact that actually everyone around you probably also wants to die and is asking themselves why they signed up for this crap. That’s part of the fun.
Everyone will be faster than me
Let’s face it, unless you’re one of pros who is 100% committed to the hours of training, the money into gear etc, you’re probably not going to be at the head of the pack. I used to get down about this repeatedly when I first started racing in a local series in Wyoming. “Someone will always be faster than you,” a friend counseled. “Just get over it and ride your bike.” So too can the same be said about ski racing. Sure, it’s so fun to make somebody eat your dust. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it unless everyone is eating your dust. Commit to performing well for yourself and let the rest follow, even if that means coming in last. At least you got a good workout.
Everyone has cooler/lighter/faster gear
Cooler, lighter and (allegedly) faster gear does not directly correlate to cooler, lighter, faster skiers. While it’s tempting to mope when you pull your kit out of the car in the parking lot before the race and notice the guy next to you is sporting a full carbon set up that cost three times as much as yours, gear comparisons are just a great way to mess up your mental game. Harking back to the bike races, I found great inspiration from one particular racer. The gal who consistently won the open division of the local series cleaned up shop on steel hardtail while the rest of us bumped around on full squish carbon or aluminum rigs. Having the best tools and knowing how to use them are two very different things.
That sh*t is expensive
True story. Race gear is pricy and can be tough to justify if you use it only a couple of times a season. But you don’t necessarily have to have it. If you tour in a light ski boot like the Scarpa F1 or Dynafit TLT, you’re halfway there. Of course, you could race in a Maestrale or Hoji and get thighs like Thor but if you decide you want to really be competitive, those 1000g or less boots will become your friend.
As for the skis, having a pair of skinnys is advantageous (and fun!), though not totally necessary. A friend who is a monster uphill athlete but not a super strong downhill skier (and also is intimidated by skimo racing despite being one of the country’s fastest mountain runners) says she would only race on her 90mm underfoot touring skis so she’d be less likely to lose time on descents. And a lot of rec divisions in skimo races even let you use a splitboard.
And spandex, have you tried it? Doug and I once ran into a solo backcountry skier on Mount Baker who was fully kitted in race gear. Turns out he wasn’t even into racing. When we asked about his skin suit he shrugged and replied, “once you go spandex, you can’t go back.” Of course your regular breathable touring gear will suffice until you decide you actually love racing and spring for the full kit.
But really, where are the ladies at?
As racers crossed the finished and gathered in a corral at the Sunlight race, I noticed clouds of sweaty men high fiving and recapping their sufferfests. Imbedded in the mix, I occasionally spotted a single woman racer, sometimes with a guy on her arm, sometimes totally alone.
Where are the groups of women relaying their post-race stoke? I asked myself (again, fully admitting I didn’t race…). If you’re a woman reading this and you want to race: just do it. And if you’re a guy who knows a gal that wants to race, share this article with her! Women are common mainstays Europe ski mountaineering races and there’s no why we shouldn’t be stoking each other up before, during and after races in the U.S. too.
The kids will be faster than me
You’re probably right. Youth ski mountaineering programs are growing in the U.S. and those kids are crushers ready to knock the wind right out of you. No excuse.
Editor’s note: Ski mountaineering racing made its debut in the Youth Winter Olympics in Lausanne this winter. The U.S. had four youth competitors, including Colorado’s George Beck, Jeremiah Valle and Grace Staberg, and Utah’s Samantha Paisley. The International Ski Mountaineering Federation has been pushing for skimo to be included future big Olympic games but has had no luck for 2022. Fingers crossed for 2026.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.