Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Skiing Powder at the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Race

This post is from Kim Havell, Backcountry.com sponsored athlete.

7am and -5 degrees make for an interesting combination when you are wearing a lycra/spandex suit on the mountain- Luckily I was not.

This past Saturday morning, I warmed up next to some pro ski randonee racers attempting to qualify for the US National Team in Snowmass, CO. This was my first COSMIC (Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup) race and I felt quite unprepared as I squinted in the darkness of early morning and took in my fellow competitors, in their skin tight race suits, who were literally running up hill on mini race skis to get warmed up for the start. I did a bit of stretching, tried to feel good about my cumbersome powder ski/fritschi binding set up, and focused on figuring out the best layer combination so that it wouldn’t cost me valuable time to change later on. When you have not done one of these events, it is really hard to know what combination of gear, food, water, and transition systems to have in place. Pacing yourself when you don’t know the route is another major challenge to this race.

A girlfriend of mine, Karen Kingsley, from Ophir, CO, won the series last year. I called her on Friday morning just before I left Telluride for the Snowmass Winter Wild race for a few pointers. Much of the beta was Greek to me but she did caution me on the downhills, where you can lose sight of the markers if you go too fast. That was a disappointment, as the descent sections were the aspects of the race that I was hoping to cruise, especially due to my fat ski situation, and boy was I surprised.

The race started in darkness and the sun rose slowly with us through the first big climb. We gained about 3-4,000 vertical in the first 45 minutes or so, to reach the first transition point. I elected to keep on my skins for the short downhill stretch of powder skiing, and then began the next ascent of about 2,000 vertical to the summit of the ridge. Though I had studied the trail map and topo maps provided on the website, it was still surprisingly difficult to gauge what to do at each transition point. You are not always around other people so it takes a bit of guess work to make the right choices e.g. remove your skins or ski downhill with them on.

The wind was whipping, and it was freezing cold on the ridge line. My mouth and chin were numb. I had chosen warmer gloves to wear and so had to remove them to take off my skins. Thus, some freezing digits as well. Karen had advised me to stuff the skins in my jacket to save time but since I was racing on powder skis, my skins were far too big to put inside my coat and I had to take off my pack to get situated. The next downhill, during which I was looking forward to making up more time, was not a fast endeavor. There was lots of good snow to ski but the flags were covered by the tracks from previous racers. I had to continually stop to search for the right tracks and route to follow. Thus, one of the the biggest descent sections did not allow for the gain in time for which I was hoping.

The final climb and ski traverse were great fun, as it was quite satisfying to be nearing the end of the vertical gains. The climb took us up to the far boundary of Snowmass and into the backcountry. The skiing out the backside was excellent and I got about 15-20 powder turns (which was a nice surprise) in the process. Most of the earlier racers avoided the deep snow due to their lighter gear. Luckily, I got to enjoy the fruits of my labor a bit more, and to revel in the weight of my powder skis with some blower powders shots in that section of descent on the course.

The final stretch to the finish was exhilarating, but also a disappointment in terms of speed. Being a rule follower, generally speaking, I ended up skiing out a bump run to the final finish gate, as per the instructions at the race meeting the previous evening, instead of bombing down the race hill on the groomed slope. I lost valuable minutes as all the other racers opted out of the new variation and glided into the finish. Lots to learn with a new experience!

The race was a great mental and physical adventure with exciting elements, beautiful backcountry scenery, and remarkable strategy processes. It is a great experience for anyone who enjoys touring, aerobic exercise, and taking on new challenges. There are 4 more races to come in the series- try one near you!!

Check out www.cosmicski.com to find out more about ski mountaineering races in Colorado.

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