US Ski Mountaineering Association, local ski mountaineers plan full winter program despite COVID-19 uncertainty

Summit County’s Grace Staberg climbs during the women’s ski mountaineering sprint quarter-final at the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games in January 2020.
Courtesy of Olympic Information Services

FRISCO – While US Ski & Snowboard Pro and Rookie Team athletes are currently training at the Saas-Fee Stomping Grounds in Switzerland, local US ski mountaineers are planning their winter season under some uncertainty.

On Thursday afternoon, Grace Staberg of Silverthorne — a 2020 U.S. Youth Olympian and 2019 U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association National Youth Team member — received another denial for her visa application to live and training in France this winter. Staberg would like to continue living and training in France with ski mountaineering star Laetitia Roux after doing so last winter before the novel coronavirus pandemic curtailed his stay in Europe.

But with the pandemic lingering as fall turns into winter, Staberg is considering other visa application options, potentially including applying to stay with Roux in another European country, such as Switzerland, India. Italy and Austria. Even then, traveling to Switzerland, for example, would require at least a 10-day quarantine.

Wherever she may go, Staberg hopes to leave the United States just after Thanksgiving in order to be ready for the inaugural International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Cup, which is currently scheduled for December 19-20 in Italy.

The World Cup events are not the only major international competitions scheduled for this year. The 2020-2021 season is expected to feature the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships, which take place every two years. The event is scheduled to start on February 26, 2021 in La Massana, Andorra.

For an athlete like Staberg, COVID-19 makes the logistics of her anticipated season much harder to determine. Although she would like to leave for Europe after Thanksgiving, the two American qualifiers for the World Championships in Andorra will be held at home. Given the visa issues, Staberg said going to Europe to train and compete before returning for a U.S. qualifying competition and then heading back to Europe could be tricky.

US Ski Mountaineering Association president and Summit County member Ram Mikulas said qualifying events for the association’s world championships are currently scheduled for Eldora Mountain in the Netherlands in early December and for the Sunlight Mountain ski resort in Glenwood Springs in early January. At these events, Mikulas said the current plan is to require riders to wear face coverings while in the start/finish area and in transition areas. Competitions are also subject to change due to public health guidelines and ski resort rules.

“I would love to race at the World Championships, but I think the first question is whether it will happen or not,” Staberg said. “Right now, I plan to move forward with World Cups and World Championships. But if I get a visa, I don’t know if I would be comfortable going home and being stuck again, like last year when I got back.

On Friday, Mikulas said only one International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Cup, scheduled for France, has been canceled while all the others are currently scheduled to take place. Even if the events do eventually happen, he said travel restrictions for American ski mountaineers like Staberg are likely to be more difficult to manage compared to European athletes seeking to enter other European countries.

“Really, it remains to be seen whether our athletes will be able to pull through this,” Mikulas said. “…It’s sort of a case-by-case depending on where the race is, in what country.”

As they plan for the season amid the pandemic, Mikulas said the US Ski Mountaineering Association has a medical director communicating regularly with the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee as well as other national governing bodies to draft a plan. precautions against COVID-19.

“The goal is to hold all the races we have held in the past, but in a safer environment,” Mikulas said. “…There is still some uncertainty as to exactly when the races can take place – we may have to move a race to a weekday. But the interest is there.”

Mikulas said the International Ski Mountaineering Federation hopes the sport will be included in the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy and that this season is important for ski mountaineering in the United States. He added that “things look positive” as the federation works closely with the Italian Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee.

“Italy is one of the strongest countries (ski mountaineering) and it is ultimately the nation that has a lot to say about whether or not a new sport comes to the Olympics,” Mikulas said. “A lot of that is down to the resources they’ve put in, and they also have a good chance of winning medals, which encourages them to get there.”