John Gaston of the US ski mountaineering team leads the best performance ever at the world championships

ASPEN – John Gaston was an avid ski enthusiast with a penchant for Aspen Highlands Bowl trekking when Vail’s uber-athlete Mike Kloser changed the direction of his life.

“People were talking about this Kloser guy. He would come here and destroy everyone in Aspen every year. Everything that has happened to me since started with my desire to beat a dude from Vail who would come to our territory, our precious possession, our crown jewel and beat us all. It was unacceptable, ”says Gaston, 30.

After manic training all winter 2009, Gaston finally beat the Kloser with Iron Thighs and Iron Thighs in the 2010 Highlands Inferno, a grueling uphill and downhill race that measures an athlete’s ability to both suffer uphill and tear through Colorado’s steepest terrain.

“I remember this kid who could go up pretty fast but he went down like crazy. Fortunately I had a little more balance and was able to gain the upper hand a few times, but it was short lived, ”says Kloser. “I certainly don’t see myself ever getting the better of John again.”

Since tasting victory over the legendary Kloser, Gaston has become America’s best ski mountaineering racer. Earlier this month at the Pierra Menta Ski Mountaineering World Championship in France, the Aspen athlete finished 13th in the overall individual race, the best result ever for an American in championships dominated by the Europe.

With Jessie Young of Aspen and Janelle Smiley of Crested Butte finishing fourth in the women’s race – a best ever for a North American women’s team, fueling a sixth place finish for the US ski mountaineering team of 25 athletes – America is suddenly a contender against European programs that have spent decades honing athletes in uphill and downhill ski mountaineering.

While many American races revolve around endurance, with runners scaling groomed slopes at high speed, European races are true tests of mountaineering, with athletes donning crampons to traverse windy peaks before skiing downhill. exposed lines.

“It can be anything from deep, blowing powder to the gnarliest things you’ve ever seen. Imagine the ice of the East Coast atop the scree of the Rockies. This stuff is so foreign to American runners, ”Gaston said. “The Americans are very angry there. It’s really easy to get upset because the courses are very difficult, with so many technical aspects.

The four-day Pierra Menta is considered the Tour de France of ski mountaineering. The villagers, including the children released from the schools which close the week of the race, begin to load the ski lifts of the Arêches-Beaufort ski area before dawn to occupy positions of privileged spectators. Helicopters deliver firewood to keep everyone warm. As the runners reach the summit of the Grand Mont after six hours of climbing, more than 4,000 spectators applaud.

“It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” Gaston said, days after returning to Aspen. “Ski mountaineering races are so deeply rooted in European culture. And it’s the biggest event of the year. It’s just a deeply rooted part of their livelihood.

It’s hard for Americans to compete with athletes who have been training for skimo races since childhood and are now part of a military program that pays them to travel the world and race. 32-year-old Pierra Menta’s field of competitors is so vast and rich in talent that Americans not only need technical skiing and endurance skills, but also a focus that never slackens. If you miss a turn or transition in an American race, you risk losing a spot in the results. In Europe, a split second error can cost you 20 positions, says Gaston.

“You fight for every inch, all the time, nonstop. You have to be so on top of your game and just be at this level of racing and having to compete with such deep fields… it forces all these runners to improve their game. and their focus week after week, year after year. Those who make it to the top are just amazing, “says Gaston.” Any weakness you have or any lack of confidence in you is really exposed, very quickly. ”

European skimo racing combines the endurance of cross-country skiing with the technicality of mountain freeskiing and the unwavering courage of mountaineering. Athletes should be able to sprint uphill for hours, navigate high mountain terrain, and then quickly hurtle down steep lines into the backcountry in featherweight skis and boots designed more for the top than for the the bottom.

In the United States, the sport has only recently blossomed as a way for trail runners and road cyclists to stay in shape during the winter. Today, a thriving racing scene centers around Colorado resorts, with policies of gradual rise of resorts allowing more people to explore uphill skiing and the COSMIC racing series rising from a few contests in 2007. to nearly one per weekend all winter long, with most races attracting more than a hundred runners. And climbing gear has evolved, with lightweight, technical bindings and boots allowing skiers to load both up and down.

Colorado has fielded the majority of American riders at the Pierra Menta World Championships, including Gaston’s longtime partner Max Taam, who introduced Gaston and his twin brother Pete to ski mountaineering six years ago. Colorado is the perfect breeding ground for the future of skimo, says Gaston. It is full of little kids who have downhill skills and can easily be trained in endurance. The state’s resorts embrace the climb and they open early in the season with good snow, allowing for longer training seasons and more COSMIC races.

“As a result, more people in Colorado are investing in it and going down the rabbit hole,” says Gaston, who held court last week outside the Strafe Outerwear store in the village of Aspen Highlands, a hardware company ski he founded with his brother.

Today, Gaston, future dad, is one of America’s best hopes for overthrowing European domination in ski mountaineering races. He is joined by a long list of newcomers, including 15-year-old Quinn Simmons of Durango, whose bronze Pierra Menta in the cadet sprint marked the first time an American of any age has won a medal at the World Championships. Gaston says it’s time for America’s top athletes to immerse themselves in European racing in order to take the American team to the next level.

“Where he’s at the top of the United States he needs people to push him and he should just maybe spend some time over there in Europe and get more of those races under his belt and learn more there- down is the next step in its development, ”said Ram Mikulas, president of the Summit County-based US Ski Mountaineering Association.

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