Janelle Smiley - True SkiMo

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

True Ski Mountaineering Comes to the US!


By Janelle Smiley


Last year I was fortunate to race in the World Championships in Europe, the birthplace of ski mountaineering. The elevation of the mountains there are about 3000 feet lower than ours but they are no less rugged. If anything they are more rugged considering they have glaciers and sheer rock walls. The main difference between racing here and racing in Europe is that the World Championship Race there included true mountaineering sections along rock ridges.

I got my first taste of alpine climbing in the North Cascades, WA, 6 years ago. Since then I have spent my fair share of time in the alpine environment.  Never has alpine climbing had anything to do with racing, except for the occasional lightning storm I had to flee from. I have always found alpine climbing to be about the journey, the challenge, and the unknown. While racing, those aspects are still there, but have to be in a controlled environment to allow for safety with high traffic and speed. My experience in Europe showed me that it can be done, and here in the states we just took it to the next level.

In 2012, the inaugural North American Championship was held in my hometown of Crested Butte, Colorado. The big talk before the race was the scary ridge, called Guides Ridge, that terminates at the summit of Mount Crested Butte. The ski patrol and CB Mountain Guides spent several days fixing ropes along the course to ensure the racers safety. Regardless, the racers were stressed about it before the race.   

I was looking forward to this section of the race with shear drop offs and high consequence moves. For this race, we would not simply be able to put our heads down and motor up a mountain. It was now necessary to use caution and skill together, while going as fast as possible.

The gun when off and we all charged up 1500 vertical feet of groomers to the base of the ridge.  When I clipped into the first fixed line I was behind three other women and numerous men. Due to my previous experience in this environment I was comfortable enough to move without hesitation.  Thankfully it was logistically easy to pass when we came to an anchor.

This comfort allowed me to pass the top three women on the ridge and be the first to reach the summit. I knew the extremely talented racer Sari Anderson, was not far behind. I ran off the summit trying to avoid the snow postholes left by the racers in front of me to the point where I could put my skis back on. On the second climb I saw Sari charging fast. I knew I couldn’t go any faster uphill, so I focused on clean transitions and the downhill skiing, I went faster than what was comfortable. It was actually fun in a painful way, that and the RSR’s skis track better at high speeds anyway.

The third climb I did not see her as I looked behind me, I was relieved since I was not wanting to have to duke it out on the final skate ski to the finish. Crossing the finish line was a true thrill. I was exhausted, excited and relieved.

This race had it all: skiing, racing, alpine climbing, perfection. I wish all the races could be this dynamic. This race was a monumental step in the fast growing sport of ski mountaineering in the US.  

Well done to the race directors, Bryan Wickenhauser and Pete Swenson, additional thanks to the CB ski patrol, CB Mountain Guides, and CBMR, can’t wait to see the course next year.

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