The start gun went off at 7:30 a.m., launching a pack of 130 racers poling and striding in sync and moving uphill toward mountain peaks far beyond. It was Day Two of the Winter Teva Mountain Games, a weekend sports festival in Vail, Colo.
The Eddie Bauer Ski Mountaineering Race was arguably the most grueling of the dozen events at the Games. In five hours or so we would ski many miles and up and down thousands of feet under our own power.
The course was made to simulate a long, hard day exploring the mountains. Ski mountaineering racing, “SkiMo” for short, is a European sport making inroads at resorts across America. A flagged course, checkpoints, mandatory avalanche gear, and hours of time on the move going uphill are common elements of the game.
The Eddie Bauer race was my baptism into the world of SkiMo, and the long course proved a doozey for my low-altitude lungs and legs.
The race started to fanfare, including an announcer, in the Vail village area.
But soon we’d leave that all behind, our effort after an hour of motion bringing us from the valley floor to nearly 11,000 feet.
At the top of the resort, racers removed the climbing skins from their ski bases and pointed tips downhill. A flagged backcountry run delivered powder snow and a course that ducked into an alpine forest for a long descent off the backside of Vail.
In addition to climbing skins, which are traction strips that attach to ski bases for uphill movement, the gear used in SkiMo is highly specialized and outside the norm. I demo’d equipment from La Sportiva, a company that focuses on ultralight ski gear for the sport.
My skis, the company’s RST model, were agile and incredibly light. La Sportiva’s bindings, the RT model, are minimalist clamps that mate to a ski boot but perhaps most resemble an animal snare, exposed springs, levers, teeth and all. In these bindings you can stride uphill in a free-heel mode.
They switch for descents with the flick of a ski pole, a heel-locking mode allowing parallel turns and mimicking what you’re used to with alpine gear. I switched modes and took climbing skins off and on three times.
Initially, I pushed hard to keep up with the fit field of racers. But soon the pack dispersed, the leaders disappearing in a cloud of snow ahead.
The race course took me up and down Vail’s mountains twice, into a rocky chute, through powder, down a mogul field, and, finally, finishing on an icy groomed run with slalom gates.
I skidded to a stop at 5 hours, 41 seconds, breathing hard but smiling even through all the pain. I was 13th place out of 31 in my division, not a bad debut. SkiMo may be hard. But I am hooked, big time, to this thrilling new Euro mountain sport.
On the Net: gearjunkie.com.