By Chadd CripÃ©, Idaho statesman
MCCALL, Idaho – Ski touring is an integral part of Idaho’s winter recreational scene. Ski mountaineering is a new sport trying to gain a foothold in the state. But essentially, it’s the same activity with different tools.
âIt’s basically ski touring, just with more speed,â said Nick Francis, past president of the US Ski Mountaineering Association.
USSMA made its Idaho debut last weekend at Brundage Mountain Resort. The top performers in Friday’s vertical race (1,700 feet of climb over nearly 1.5 miles) and Saturday’s individual race (around 13 miles and 5,800 feet of vertical drop over five climbs and five descents) qualified to represent the United States at the world championships in Italy.
Among the elite athletes, there were a handful of Idahoans eager to learn more about the sport.
âThis is my first time, so I guess it was to get into ski mountaineering,â said Dessie Weigel, a 22-year-old student at Whitman College in Boise. “I had my heartbeat in the red zone 5 minutes later, (I) felt like I was going to throw up about 8 minutes, then at 10 minutes I was just tasting blood, and it got me. roughly sustained for 45 minutes. “
By hosting the Northwest Passage ski mountaineering race at Brundage, the USSMA hopes to find more adventurous athletes like Weigel. Ski mountaineering has grown from “a handful to several hundred” runners in Utah and Colorado over the past five years, Francis said. Most of the western states were represented in the Brundage races, and the Northeast also has a large pocket of runners.
âWe’ve been trying to get into Idaho for a long time,â said Francis, who is based in Salt Lake City and also competes in the races. âThere are a lot of runners in Utah, Montana and Wyoming, and a lot of us ski here, so it makes sense to have a race here. We would love to see more runners from Idaho, and a big part of that is just having races here. It’s a lot easier to get involved in the sport when there is a local running scene.
McCall’s rookie runner Matt Ganz said, “This kind of ski culture has been around for as long as people have been skiing here.”
Ski mountaineering involves ascending and descending mountains, usually on groomed trails, with transitions in between to change equipment settings. For most uphill sections, riders tie skins to the bottom of their skis to provide better traction. They remove the skins for the downhill portions. For some steep sections, runners put their skis on their backs and hike in their boots.
The sport and its equipment developed from troop movements across the Alps during the World Wars, Francis said.
âWe call them skins because historically they were animal skins,â he said. “It’s just a thick rubber membrane with fibers that are directional so that they slide forward and hook and hold when you step on it and climb up.”
The skis are short and narrow compared to what most people use for downhill or off-piste travel. The running minima are 160 centimeters in length for men, 150 centimeters in length for women and 65 millimeters in width underfoot, so that’s what all elite runners use to keep weight down. Running with traditional touring skis would be like running with hiking boots, Francis said.
Brundage ski instructor Kori Richards typically skis 105 millimeters underfoot, which works best in powder. She raced on borrowed skinny skis on Saturday. She entered because several friends were visiting to compete, including Janelle Smiley of Jackson, the winner of the women’s vertical and individual races.
âWe went out the night before and did a few runs, and they’re hilarious,â Richards said of mountaineering skis. âThey ski well on the snow groomers, but as soon as you get off-pisteâ¦ you just have to forget all the technique of the ski instructor.
Richards, who moved to McCall from Jackson to participate in a master’s program at the University of Idaho, trained for the race by scouring the Brundage property before the ski lifts opened to the public.
Brundage has skiers in the parking lot every morning when there is enough snow to ski but not enough for the resort to open. Uphill skiers keep coming during the season, barking early in the morning before the lifts start to operate.
âIt seems like a really healthy sport,â said Richards. âYou get the aerobic training, but then it’s gentle on your body going down where something like hiking isn’t. It’s funny. You exercise and then you get the reward of skiing.
McCall’s Ben Hipple portrays Brundage and Little Ski Hill several times a year.
âIt’s really peaceful and you can see a really beautiful sunrise,â he said. ” It’s more fun. You see a lot more landscapes. And the powder is better.
Weigel, who has competed in Nordic skiing competitions and is part of the Whitman Club cycling team, is ski touring in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. She developed an appreciation for the climb.
âWhen I first started ski touring I thought skinning was that miserable part you have to do to ski fun powder,â she said. “And the first time I did that, I was like, ‘Wow, I love skinning.’ I smiled the whole time my first time off-piste skiing, and realized that I wanted to go back and do it again for both skinning and skiing.
John Gaston, 29, from Aspen, switched from alpine skiing to ski touring about five years ago, just as the sport was starting to take off in Colorado. Before that, he was not fond of cross-country skiing or endurance sports.
He was surprised at how quickly he got hooked. He won Friday’s vertical race in 23 minutes 32.92 seconds to win his third consecutive trip to the world championships.
“(Ski mountaineering) has been around in Europe for a long time, and the Americans are getting on with it,” he said. âIt’s just a fun way to get out in the mountains in winter, another mode of transportation. And for those who might not be that patient – standing in elevator lines gets old after a while – it’s a pretty fun alternative.