Ski Mountaineering racing (also called skimo or randonee racing) is a relatively young sport that’s exploding in popularity with endurance athletes. Born of extreme skiing and climbing in the French and Swiss Alps, skimo racing involves high levels of fitness, lightweight gear and competition. The basic premise of the sport is to ski up and down a resort or backcountry course as fast a possible — think trail running, but with ultralight ski gear (our specially designed La Sportiva race boots, climbing skins, and skis weighed less than half of a typical downhill or touring skiing set), winter conditions, and powder turns on the downhill. After spending most of this winter chasing deep powder in Utah’s Wasatch Range, we decided to put our months of dawn patrol and long ski weekends of training to the test in one of the sport’s most prestigious North American races, the Power of 4 in Aspen, CO.
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The course for the Power of 4 stretches across the Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, and Aspen resorts, spanning a full marathon distance of backcountry travel with a climb and ski descent at each resort, culminating in a 3,200-foot mad-dash descent to the finish line in Aspen Village. To complicate matters, each racer is mandated stay close to his teammate on every climb and descent; many teams opted to connect themselves via a bungee towing system on the steeper uphill sections for this purpose.
Race day was a far cry from our leisurely backcountry ski tours on home turf, and it was definitely a rude awakening. We joined up with our friends over at Gear Junkie as a team for the supposedly amateur-friendly “recreation division”. Beginning in the Aspen Highlands ski resort village, the first leg climbed more than 4,200 feet over five and a half miles. We summitted the 12,382 foot Highland Peak during a gale-force storm — 70 mph winds turned many racers back and posed a serious safety issue — and skied back to the base in driving wind and snow. Despite exhaustion setting in, we geared back up for another climb up the back side of Aspen on an old mining road, quickly dubbed the “pain parade”. This deceptively long climb pitted racers against not only the elements, but their own minds: participants littered the side of the course, nursing cramped muscles and high levels of frustration. We fell victim more than once, too, thanks to our bone-weary tiredness. The final descent was the ultimate test of our aching quads and hamstrings, winding down Aspen Mountain on every black diamond run the course director could string together.
A climb up the back side of an old mining road was quickly dubbed the “pain parade”. Participants littered the side of the course, nursing cramped muscles and frustration.
This year the winning men’s team was Max Taam and John Gaston with a time of 5 hours and 20 minutes. Sari Anderson and Stevie Kremer won the women’s division, defeating the course in 6 hours and 20 minutes. Both teams were faster on the full 26-mile course than our team was on the 16-mile half course, but crossing the finish line after those 16 miles and 8,000 vertical feet of backcountry travel was sweeter than any other ski run this season.