For the 10th year in a row Sunlight Mountain will host the Heathen Challenge on Saturday and Sunday, but this year the ski mountaineering event will be more important than just a local race. This year, the top finalists will win a qualifying entry into the national race for the chance to compete in Europe for the United States National Ski Mountaineering Team.
The Heathen Challenge started 10 years ago under the vision of Pete Swenson, who ran the Cosmic Ski series. Swenson was able to use the Sunlight trails as a course, creating the first competitive ski mountaineering race in Colorado – and possibly nationwide.
Swenson previously competed in ski mountaineering events in Europe, where the sport has been popular for about 50 years, and has now traveled to the United States, where it has exploded in popularity.
âThis sport is a no-brainer for anyone who enjoys skiing and hiking, all of it together,â said Doug Stenclik, owner of Cripple Creek Backcountry in Carbondale. âAll it takes is for someone to talk to you about it and show you how it works and still be able to do it in a safe environment.
âThe race course takes all of that away, though. He shows you where to go, takes you on a really cool tour and there are a lot of people to do it with. But the sport has really reached that critical mass point where almost everyone knows someone who is riding, so it is much easier to expose yourself to the sport. “
With the 2017 edition of the Heathens holding such power as a qualifying event for the national race, Stenclik – the race director – and Sunlight Mountain expect around 150-200 competitors this year, not just locals but also athletes from all over the country. .
âIt has always been one of the busiest races, but because it’s a qualifier we’re starting to see it attracting more elite athletes from across the country in a lot of different sports,â said Stenclik. .
Ski mountaineering in one form or another has grown in popularity here in the Roaring Fork Valley in recent years, with a growing group of people making night in the sun for a good aerobic session before going back down.
The sport itself involves skiing up and down mountains, usually on groomed slopes, with transitions between the two to allow for changes in speed settings. For most uphill sections, riders tie skins to the bottom of their skis to provide better traction before removing 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 were developed from the movement of troops across the Alps during the World Wars. Originally, ski mountaineering was recognized by the Winter Olympics after World War I as an expedition sport, and in the years to come the sport hopes to become an Olympic sport again.
The skis used are short and narrow compared to what most people use for downhill or off-piste skiing. The running minimums for the sport are 160 centimeters in length for men, 150 centimeters in length for women and 65 millimeters in width under the foot for all competitors.
At Sunlight this year, the trail will be mostly in the backcountry around the mountain, using the resort’s forest service permit to go further outside of the resort itself.
Stenclik said the route will first ascend Williams Peak before descending the Babbish Head Wall, a ridge that connects Williams Peak to Sunlight Mountain. From there the route will then ascend the rear ridge of Sunlight Mountain, opposite where the ski lifts go up, before ending at Sunlight Lodge.
In total, the course is 11 miles of terrain and has a climb of 5,500 feet, according to Stenclik.
The Heathen Challenge kicks off at 5:30 p.m. today with the sprint race, before ending at 8:30 a.m. Sunday with the individual race featured.