Competitive ski mountaineering is gaining popularity

CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN – With light snowfall and temperatures in the mid-20s, I shivered as I waited in line one March morning last winter at the base of Crystal Mountain Resort. But I wasn’t in line for the first chair on the Chinook Express chairlift with big powder skis strapped to my feet and thick Gore-Tex keeping me dry. I wore skintight spandex and was perched on impossibly skinny skis that I affectionately nicknamed “the toothpicks.” Instead of waiting to ride the chairlift, my quads were rolled up to spring into action once the race director gave the go-ahead for my wave of riders to take off uphill.

While this late winter Sunday was a perfect day to cruise around the resort, I and about 50 other people signed up to participate in the last SnowGoat skimo race of the season. We climbed from the bottom to the top of Crystal, including a steep section where we strapped our skis to our backpacks and climbed like mountaineers. On a ridge, we ripped off our climbing skins, stuffed them into the pockets of our racing suits, and descended as fast as we could without wiping out our light gear. Then we did it all again – for a total gain of 5,400 vertical feet.

Skimo, short for ski mountaineering, is an organized and competitive version of cross-country skiing or ski touring, the sport of human-powered travel through mountains on skis fitted with climbing skins. In short, it’s a race to see who can climb and descend the fastest. In 2026, the skimo will make its Olympic debut at the Winter Games in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. You can taste the Cascades earlier than that.

Ski mountaineering – climbing mountains and skiing down them – has a long history in the Cascades, as does ski racing, from downhill races on Mount Rainier in the 1930s to ski jumping competitions dating back to the 1910s. But the modern competitive iteration of the winter sport is still nascent in the Pacific Northwest, at least compared to its wild popularity in the European Alps, where spectators cheer at the finish line during World Cup races. The sport also has a strong presence in the Rockies, where a racing circuit keeps skimo athletes busy throughout the winter.

Momentum is slowly building, however, as the enthusiastic race director behind SnowGoat creates an annual series and local athletes begin to compete on bigger stages, while local backcountry skiers and splitboarders increasingly appreciate the opportunity to push themselves in a controlled frame like a ski. area that presents less of a safety hazard than backcountry terrain.