Backcountry skiing competition is garnering regional and international status with a world-caliber qualifying event in McCall, Idaho, next month and a shot at Olympic sanctioning in the future.
The Northwest Passage Ski Mountaineering Race, Dec. 16-17 at Brundage Mountain, will attract some of the top backcountry skiers in the nation, organizers say.
World-class standouts in skimo include mountain endurance athlete Kilian Jornet, 28, who dropped jaws in 2014 by setting a speed record on North America’s highest peak. After being on the mountain some time to acclimate, Jornet climbed and descended 20,322-foot Denali in Alaska in 11 hours, 48 minutes from base camp at 6,600 feet.
Eric Carter of British Columbia, a likely entrant and contender at Brundage, having logged parking lot to parking lot climbs of the Grand Teton in less than three hours.
The two-day Northwest Passage event will feature an endurance race along with uphill climbs and downhill sprints that tests both ability and stamina. Separate divisions are set for elite competitors and recreational racers.
Dec. 16 will feature the 520 meter ‘Vertical Race’ starting at 4 p.m. at the base of Brundage Mountain’s 45th Parallel ski run.
“This is an ideal race for less-experienced mountaineers to participate in, as it takes place within the boundaries of the ski area where risks are minimized,” said April Whitney, event spokeswoman.
On Dec. 17, elite racers will start at 7:30 a.m. in the Individual Race, which includes six climbs covering a total of 6,400 feet of vertical over a 12.9-mile course.
Recreational racers will tackle a 7.3-mile route with four climbs and 3,860 feet of elevation gain.
Both groups will leave the ski area and venture into backcountry terrain, which features sweeping views of Idaho’s Salmon river mountains, Seven Devils mountains and Oregon’s Wallowas.
The Northwest Passage race is organized by the McCall Winter Sports Club and the United States Ski Mountaineering Association, the country’s governing body for the sport. The event is a qualifier for the USSMA 2017 Ski Mountaineering World Championship to be held in Transcavallo, Italy.
A second qualifying event known as the Heathen Challenge will be held Jan. 14-15 at Sunlight Mountain in Colorado.
Races for ski mountaineering – also known as skimo – are also staged each year in the Alps, Pyrenees, North America, South America, Russia, Scandinavia, China, Korea and Japan. Circuits are organized by the International Ski Mountaineering Federation along with a World Cup circuit with Continental and World Championships taking place on alternate years.
In August, USSMA officials were informed that ski mountaineering had been officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee, a step toward introducing ski mountaineering as an Olympic sport.
International regulations require competitors to wear helmets and carry packs with basic harsh-weather protective clothing headlamp and an avalanche beacon. Elite racers must wear suits with an internal zippered pocket to hold the avalanche beacon.
Ski mountaineering competition is evolving with lighter and lighter skis and gear.
Boots are made to be comfortable for descents as well as for ascents regardless for whether the competitor is skinning up the hill on skis, running or kicking steps on foot.
Light bindings quickly switch between uphill and downhill modes.
Some races require athletes to have technical equipment such as an ice ax, harness, rope and crampons.