The Debutant

The tip of one of my skis is wedged in the snowbank to my left. The other one is several feet below me. I’m still clipped into them, but my legs are spread wide, my hands punched into the snow in front of me. As I thrash around to regain a standing position, I apologize to oncoming racers, while frustratingly mumbling under my breath. I skin a few more feet up the hill, before pulling off to the side to let a couple of them pass. They do so gliding by gracefully and voicing their encouragements. This is my third ski-mountaineering race ever and I’m doing a spectacular job at messing up just about every part of the process.

I got my introduction to the racing side of the sport at Copper Mountain in Colorado as part of the SnowSports Industries America Snow Show (SIA) trade show ski demo in January. Most racers wore dress-up costumes, the course was pretty casual, and I had one too many margaritas the night before to really take the event seriously–a perfect initiation. Then a couple weekends ago I raced in Santa Fe, New Mexico on a more technical course. Costumes were traded for skin suits and it was a head down, all out, lung-and-quad-searing affair the whole way. Despite some fumbling around on transitions and downhills, I still got it done without too many issues. Now, however, in Taos, there is no faking of my ability or compensating for lack of technique by breathing a little harder. Every flaw in my skiing, particularly under pressure of the ticking clock, comes out in a comical display of amateurism. My style could be best equated to a bodybuilder trying to rock climb for the first time–promising on paper, but a disaster in practice.

The uphill track is mostly tight, tree skinning up steep, bumpy slopes. This leaves no room for imperfections on turns, requiring precise wielding of the planks, a technique called the kick-turn. After several hundred of these, my already poor form further deteriorates, as I snag more brush and stab my skis more frequently into the snow banks. At the top of the climb, we are rewarded with 20 seconds of blissful downhill on a blue, groomed run. Unfortunately, the red pin flags marking the way lead us back into the forest for some steep, black, mogul runs. I let out a bunch of expletives, narrowly avoid impact with a tree, and cartwheel my way down to the bottom.

At the transition for the second climb, I notice my skins aren’t sticking to the bottom of my skis too well anymore. Skins are essentially a piece of carpet with glue on one side applied to the bottom of the ski and the other furry side contacting the snow, enabling uphill travel. When they work, they are great, but a number of factors such as snow conditions, temperature, and poor technique can lead to them not sticking to the skis which is obviously quite problematic.

About halfway up the climb, they give out on me completely and I’m forced to switch to my second set. I also make an attitude adjustment not to be frustrated and instead be accepting of the situation, trying to enjoy the remaining miles without any thoughts of racing. I’m relieved to reach the bootpack section, where racers attach their skis to their packs before kicking steps up a steep slope, pulling hand over hand on a rope to aid forward progress.

This is short lived, however, and leads to another technical downhill, where I lose a pole basket. This seemingly trivial issue is actually quite annoying, since with every stride the shaft punches into the snow to the handle further debilitating me on the uphill.

The final climb ascends the 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, which I hike almost the entire way with my skis strapped to my pack as both sets of skins are now done.

It’s quite chilly and windy on the ridge, but my attention is focused on the terrain to my left, steep couloirs which appear to be the only way off the top. A fall would definitely have quite severe consequences and my skiing ability leads me to believe that I might get to experience some of them.

The first part of the descent isn’t too bad, though, but as I have come to expect with this race, the little red pin flags lead me off the pleasant looking slope ahead, into a steeper, tighter chute, with protruding rocks which necessitates your actually knowing how to ski to get down. But, since my know-how is limited, I slide sideways down the bumps, somehow avoid the rocks, and finally regain the groomer that leads to the finish.

While the race was well above my pay grade in terms of technical ability, I had a great time thrashing my way around the course. Being a beginner keeps me engaged, forces me to relinquish any kind of ego in competition, and opens the door to a wide realm of new possibilities for progression. Ultimately, I go to the mountains to be challenged and hopefully share the experience with good people. With both of those boxes checked, I looked forward to giving skimo racing another go in the near future.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • For those who have raced ski mountaineering before, do you remember what your first season of racing was like? How comical were you in your technique and how much was your honed endurance engine limited by your technical inabilities?
  • Do you see any parallels between early career aspects of trail racing and ski-mountaineering racing?

Joe Grant - Debutant

Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 13 comments

  1. Tuck

    I did the Mad River Vlley SkiMo race in Vermont a few years ago. 12 miles. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Much harder than a 50-mile mountain bike race I did (also in Vermont).

    Skimo’s not a walk in the park, by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not sure if they’re still doing that same course, but it started at one bar, and finished at another, so it was an excellent one.

  2. Christian Johnson

    While I do the occasional race, I would hardly call myself a skimo racer. My first few races were completed on gear that I wouldn’t even consider touring on these days but I still slogged through because I was too stubborn to quit. So, I acquired the appropriate gear and then discovered that while the ascents were easier I now had to learn how to get those skinny skis back down the mountain in challenging terrain. And that is what skimo and to a larger extent touring is all about, a constant refinement of technique and fitness. Think you finally have good technique? Push the fitness envelope and the technique falls apart and so the constant battle ensues, at least for me. The benefits of racing translate to more efficient and longer backcountry tours for me and that is what I truly enjoy.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Nick, that error was mine as editor, not Joe’s. I intended to add the state name to Joe’s mention of Santa Fe, but did so in error last night at about midnight after about 12 hours of DIY home renovation. Brain fried, my apologies, it’s corrected. (Now, back to the reno. ;)

  3. doug k

    “how much was your honed endurance engine limited by your technical inabilities?”

    in the same year that I first qualified for and went to world age-group triathlon championships, I was second to last in a x-country ski race. The 80-year-old man was behind me, but several women in their 70s were ahead of me.. I was 46.
    Suspect skimo and x-c ski are 100% technique, and 100% fitness – can’t race without both strong technique and strong fitness. I still thrash around the snowy woods for fun, but racing seems asinine for me..

  4. COSMIC Joe

    Thanks for coming out Joe! I swear the parallels and challenges that ski mountaineering racing forces out of you transitions to the trails this summer.

    Great seeing you and wish you all the best in the future races ahead.

    Awesome write-up and commentary!

    1. Joe Grant

      Thanks, man. For sure! It’s part of the reason racing is appealing as it really keeps me on my toes, more so than touring (although I love that too). Thanks for putting together some really interesting courses. Excited for Power of Four this weekend!

  5. roman

    Sounds like a spectacular race! Thanks for sharing.
    I don’t do skimo races but your story really sounds intriguing and challenging.
    I’m not so much familiar with the light weight skimo skins but I wonder if they were of bad quality or you attached them in a hurry, paying the price later on?
    I know the problem with frozen skins not sticking anymore after several ascents. What helped me was putting them in my jacket while descending, keeping them warm.
    Now I have ‘vacuum base’ skins (every company seems to have their own name for that), however, they are glueless and whenever snow or ice comes between them you can just brush it off and they’ll stick again. They work really good for me…

    1. Jason

      Skimo skins use a very soft (and light backing), and lack tail clips. Weight, glide and transition speed are paramount. Any misplaced weight can cause the skins to slowly peel away, allowing sugary snow to get into the glue. Once you reach that point, you switch out for a new skin and hope that the snow melts on the old skins inside your suit so you still have a backup. The descents alone rarely provide enough time to get them sticking again. For longer races 2-3 pairs of skins is not uncommon. Someday we may have lightweight fully-reliable skins, but for now we just deal with it.

      1. roman

        Ok, but that sounds kinda complicated and not even weight saving. I guess two skins weigh more than one, more durable skin, with the only advantage of saving weight directly at the foot. On the other hand, you lose time when they come off and you need to switch.
        There are skimo skins with the afore mentioned technologie who don’t seem to be much havier (weight 60 mm 160 cm: 205 g/pair). Maybe thats a good alternative.

  6. Tim B

    Glad to see someone else had issues at that Taos race. I went 3x sets of skins and also survived by hiking up Katchina. I didn’t expect the temps to warm up so quickly, so skins got saturated and couldn’t dry quickly enough on the downhills. For us back of the packers, the skin track was pretty destroyed, so I was hanging by a thread. Ridiculously awesome course regardless!

  7. Walt B

    You asked if others had similar first year experiences…the answer is a simple “Hell Yes”. I find skimo interesting as there is a lot more technical aspects to the big weekend races then one may think, and on top of that the fields are smaller yet concentrated with amazing athletes. When a newbie enters the race, I have to compare it to cycling….in cycling you have cat 5 (lowest) to cat 1/pro (highest). As you get better and learn you can “cat up”. In skimo the fields are not big enough for that it seems, sot its like a cat 5 racer shows up to a pro/1/2 crit and gets blown out the back. Serious kick in the nuts….the full spandex suit covered nuts, that is.

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