Jon Morgan, Ben Bardsley and Ben Tibbetts recently set the fastest time and result that a British team has ever achieved in a ski mountaineering race. They finished first in their age category and third overall in the Patrouille des Glaciers, the final and one of the most popular races of the ski mountaineering season. Here Ben Tibbetts explains what SkiMo is, why the British are not traditionally very good at it, and tells the story.
Ski mountaineering (SkiMo) has been very slow to take off in Britain, both as a hobby and as a competitive sport. It combines aspects of mountaineering with ski touring and requires a fairly broad skill set. Most SkiMo races consist of going up on a ski touring as fast as possible, often with a bag of lane shoes, then descending over variable off-piste terrain until the next transition, then back up the hill and so immediately, along a circular route.
Many elite races involve relatively steep skiing, and a few involve alpine ridge races. Racing skis are short (often 164cm for men, 157cm for women), narrow (60-64mm) and very light (690-800g per ski), which makes them somewhat difficult in difficult conditions. difficult snow conditions compared to conventional touring skis.
In the Alpine countries, many races attract massive participation. Most races will have multiple categories. Entry level participation on a heavy touring kit is encouraged and provides an exciting day around a safe and secure course that one might not think of or dare to do on one’s own.
The British are not traditionally very good at SkiMo
In addition to the ability to ski off-piste, the skills required to play the sport at a high level, not to mention competition, include avalanche awareness, navigation, glacier travel and winter climbing techniques.
The investment of time to become proficient and safe is important. This means that most Britons who enter the sport do so in their mid-twenties, while many French, Swiss and Italian children will ski SkiMo as early as their late teens. At the highest level, we understand that the Euros have a considerable margin on our humble efforts!
2014 Patrouille des Glaciers Race
The PDG is a high mountain course organized by the Swiss army. You run in teams of three skiers. The complete route stretches from Zermatt to Verbier, with 4000m of elevation gain over 53 km. I was racing in a team with Jon Morgan and Ben Bardsley – two of the most experienced British athletes, having each competed in over 100 SkiMo races in Europe.
The PDG now attracts so many competitors that it takes place over two separate days (Z1 and Z2), and a shorter route from Arolla which is half its length each day (A1 and A2). Our departure was the first day from Zermatt – Z1.
To complicate matters further, there are slippery start times – starting at 9 p.m. for those who want the maximum amount of time to follow the course without missing a time checkpoint, until 1 a.m. if you hope to be faster. We chose the last start on Wednesday (Thursday morning at 1 a.m.) in order to finish part of the race in the light.
The first part of the race took us about an hour, slowly ascending to Stafel on snowy paths. You start out in sneakers with your skis and boots on your backpack. We were in dense fog up to about 2500m. At Stafel, everyone ditched their sneakers and put on ski boots and skis.
Shortly after, we reached SchÃ¶nbie and entered glacial terrain – teams were forced to put a full 30m rope there, then begin a long ascent from Stockli Glacier to the foot of TÃªte Blanche. at 3650 m. A gentle breeze made her very cold and we all found it difficult to hold a feeling in our hands.
At TÃªte Blanche the skins came off, the rope remained in place and we sped at full speed towards the Bertol pass. Jon is the most experienced skier, so he took the middle of the rope. This means you have no control over whether your friends are pulling you forward or back!
Just below the pass there was a short track before the long ski to Arolla which marked the halfway point. There was a lot of fresh snow lightly covering some rock piles on this descent. It was still total darkness. Even with powerful headlamps, we couldn’t see much except a lot of shadows in front of us. We all hit a lot of rocks – sparks for all to see.
Halfway – Arolla
In Arolla, we were offered hot tea and dried fruits, but we didn’t waste much time and quickly started down the icy track to the foot of the Riedmatten pass, 1000m higher. Jon took the rope, so BB had excess power, so Jon and I tied ourselves to him with two rubber bands in series to equalize us! Even the best teams in the world use bungee towing systems. This is great for morale as well as for ironing out small differences.
Another 1,400 people joined the course in Arolla, which means double the number of people on the course. Just before going up the steep slope to the pass, it was so crowded that the military organizers stopped everyone to let the path clear. We had to wait about 10 minutes which was pretty scary and frustrating, although it probably happened to everyone.
Almost a meter of snow fell high up the day before the race, so it’s hard to imagine how much work went into controlling avalanches with explosives and so on. It must not be a joke for the race organizers to decide whether or not to let 5000 competitors run in little more than Lycra through the mountains under their responsibility!
A low moment
After the Col de Riedmatten, we bypassed the Lac des Dix until the second aid station at La Barma. I arrived dizzy and dehydrated, so I filled my bladder with a quart of sweet tea before leaving. I had a weak moment so I towed Jon on the bungee a bit while BB took the weight of the rope we used earlier.
At times in these longer races it seems impossible to keep working hard. Usually the body can handle it, and it’s just a mental game. Working as a team helps everyone get through their dark times.
To finish beautifully
During the last big climb to the Rosablanche plateau, we emerged in the sun. After a skinning section, there was another long bag of boots, and it started to get quite hot, even at 8 am. We rushed urgently on the last descent and climbed the Col de la Chaux and the slopes of the resort of Verbier. The last descent was quick and smooth, but the finish was around 1500m, which finished me off!
Neither of us had a clue how we were doing throughout the race as there are thousands of people on the course. We only knew we had passed most of the “500” numbers that had started with us and as it was the last tee time, that was a good thing. We were surprised and delighted with our result: 8:39 am. More and more Brits are getting into SkiMo – it was great to see around 20 teams competing at all levels at CEO this year.
Tips for entering SkiMo
Di Gilbert has been organizing a series of races in Scotland for two years. To verify www.skimoscotland.co.uk for more information on this, or contact me at [email protected] for more information on ski mountaineering and racing in Europe.
About Ben Tibbetts
Ben Tibbetts is an adventure photographer and aspiring IFMGA Alpine Guide working primarily in Greenland, Great Britain and the Alps. Having skied from a young age, he has been based in the Alps on and off for the past seven years.
The team was supported by Rab. The British ski mountaineering team is supported by the BMC.