The Audi Power of Four ski mountaineering race never lacked talent or competitiveness. But this year’s event will have a lot of extra firepower since it is a United States Ski Mountaineering Association national championship for the first time.
“It’s definitely a testament to how far the race has come and where the race can go in the future,” said Daragh Kneeshaw of Aspen Skiing Co., who helps organize the race. “On our own we’ve really seen incredible growth over the past nine years and I think we’ve finally reached a point where it’s time to play in the big leagues with some of the biggest European races and attract a international platoon. I think hosting this year’s national championships will put us on the map in a big way.
The Power of Four begins at 6 a.m. Saturday at Snowmass Base Village. The race will take athletes from Snowmass to Buttermilk via Highlands, including a hike in the bowl if weather permits, before a final ascent and descent of Aspen Mountain, with the finish line near the base of the Silver Queen Gondola. Skiers will need to travel approximately 24 miles and climb over 10,000 vertical feet.
“There has been interest in this being a national championship race for a few years, and this year it has worked pretty well,” said USSMA President Ram Mikulas. “The Aspen Power of Four is one of the largest ski mountaineering races in the United States and one of the most demanding races. It’s an iconic race that a lot of people aspire to and there’s a lot of publicity around it.
The Power of Four first received official sanction from USSMA last winter. This year’s race will consist of two parts, the first being the four mountain event on Saturday which will be for the national team championship. On Sunday at 7 a.m. there will be a race from Aspen Mountain base to the FIS chairlift with the winners crowned National Vertical Challenge Champions.
The national individual and sprint champions were crowned Jan. 5-6 at the 2019 Heathen Challenge at Sunlight Mountain Resort, near Glenwood Springs. Cam Smith of Gunnison won the men’s sprint and Sierra Anderson of Breckenridge the women’s race. John Gaston and Jessie Young, both from Aspen, won the individual national titles at Sunlight.
Young’s husband Gaston and Max Taam have long dominated the Power of Four skimo race. They set the course record (4 hours, 37 minutes, 36 seconds) in their victory last winter alone. Lindsay Plant and Nikki LaRochelle won the women’s race in 2018.
“Having the title of national champion definitely doesn’t hurt. It’s kind of an added bonus if you win, ”Gaston said. “Max and I are mostly thrilled because it’s ultimately a little kick in the butt to get our other quick guys to the race who previously had always ignored him.”
Gaston and Taam, both long-time members of the USSMA national team, are more hopeful that Power of Four’s national championship status will bring more competition. Many members of the national team, many of whom have never competed in this race, are expected to compete for the national titles this weekend.
Many of these same athletes will compete next weekend at the World Championships in Switzerland.
“I know a number of USSMA national team athletes are considering participating,” said Mikulas. “So I think in general more people and more competitive teams are looking to win this title.”
In addition to the Power of Four, there is a recreational option, dubbed the Power of Two, which starts at 8 a.m. from the base in Aspen Highlands. The shortest run only includes Highlands and Aspen Mountain. There will be an awards ceremony and post-race party at Ajax base after the races.
A winter storm is expected to hit the area with possible significant snow totals this weekend, which could impact the race schedule and the specific course it uses.
Over 250 athletes are registered, making it the biggest race in the event’s nine-year history.
“We couldn’t have done this race without the tireless work of so many different teams behind the scenes,” said Kneeshaw, not wanting to forget the volunteers. “From event operations to ski patrol to Aspen Expeditions, everyone is working together to make this thing happen and we couldn’t do it without them. “