MCCALL, Idaho — Backcountry skiing is an integral part of Idaho’s winter recreation scene.
Ski mountaineering is a new sport trying to create a foothold in the state. But essentially, they’re the same activity with different tools.
“It’s basically backcountry skiing, just with more speed,” said Nick Francis, the outgoing president of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association.
The USSMA made its Idaho debut this month at Brundage Mountain Resort. The top performers in the Dec. 16 vertical race (1,700 feet of climbing in nearly 1.5 miles) and the Dec. 17 individual race (about 13 miles and 5,800 feet of elevation change during five ascents and five descents) qualified to represent the U.S. at the world championships in Italy.
Sprinkled among the elite athletes were a handful of Idahoans eager to learn more about the sport.
“This is my first time, so I guess this was getting into ski mountaineering,” said Dessie Weigel, a 22-year-old Whitman College student from Boise. “I got my heart rate into the red zone 5 minutes in, (I) felt like I was going to throw up about 8 minutes in and then by 10 minutes I was just tasting blood, and that pretty much sustained me for the 45 minutes.”
By staging the Northwest Passage Ski Mountaineering Race at Brundage, the USSMA hopes to find more adventurous athletes like Weigel. Ski mountaineering has grown from “a handful to several hundred” racers in Utah and Colorado over the past five years, Francis said. Most Western states were represented in the Brundage races, and the Northeast has a strong pocket of racers, too.
“We’ve been trying to get into Idaho for a long time,” said Francis, who is based in Salt Lake City and also races. “There’s a lot of racers in Utah and Montana and Wyoming, and a lot of us ski here, so it just make sense to have a race here. We would love to see more Idaho racers, and a big part of that is just getting races here. It’s much easier to get involved in the sport when there’s a local race scene.”
Ski mountaineering involves skiing up and down mountains, usually on groomed runs, with transitions in between to change gear setups. For most uphill sections, racers attach skins to the bottom of their skis to provide better traction. They remove the skins for the downhill portions. For some steep sections, racers put their skis on their backs and hike in their boots.
The sport and its equipment developed from troop movements through the Alps during the world wars, Francis said.
“We call them skins because historically they were animal skins,” he said. “It’s just a thick, rubber membrane with fibers that are directional so they glide going forward and catch and hold when you step onto them and step up.”
The skis are short and narrow compared to what most people use for downhill or backcountry travel. The racing minimums are 160 centimeters in length for men, 150 centimeters in length for women and 65 millimeters wide under foot, so that’s what all the elite racers use to minimize weight. Racing in traditional backcountry skis would be like running in hiking boots, Francis said.
Brundage ski instructor Kori Richards usually skis on a setup that is 105 millimeters under foot, which works better in powder. She raced Dec. 17 on borrowed “skinny” skis. She entered because several friends were visiting to compete, including Janelle Smiley of Jackson, Wyoming — the winner of the women’s vertical and individual races.
“We came out the day before and took some runs, and they are hilarious,” Richards said of mountaineering skis. “They ski all right on the groomers, but as soon as you get off-piste … you just have to forget all the ski instructor technique.”
Richards, who moved to McCall from Jackson to take part in a University of Idaho master’s program, trained for the race by skinning around the Brundage property before the lifts opened to the public.
Brundage has skiers in the parking lot every morning when there’s enough snow to ski but not enough for the resort to open. The uphill skiers keep coming during the season, skinning up early in the morning before the lifts start running.
“It seems like a really healthy sport,” Richards said. “You get the aerobic workout, but then it’s gentle on your body on the way down where something like hiking isn’t. It is fun. You get exercise, and then you get the reward of skiing.”
Weigel, who has competed in Nordic skiing and is on the Whitman club cycling team, goes backcountry skiing in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon. She has developed an appreciation for the climb.
“When I started backcountry skiing, I thought that skinning was that miserable part you have to do in order to ski some fun powder,” she said. “And the first time I did it I was like, ‘Wow, I love skinning.’ I was smiling the whole way up my first time backcountry skiing, and I realized I wanted to go out and do it again as much for the skinning as for the skiing.”
John Gaston, a 29-year-old from Aspen, Colorado, switched from downhill skiing to ski mountaineering about five years ago, just as the sport began its rise in Colorado. He wasn’t into cross-country skiing or endurance sports before that.
He was surprised by how quickly he became hooked. He won Friday’s vertical race in 23 minutes, 32.92 seconds to earn his third straight trip to worlds.
“(Ski mountaineering) has been around Europe for a long time, and Americans are catching on,” he said. “It’s just a fun way to get out in the mountains in the winter, another mode of transport. And for those who maybe aren’t as patient — standing in lift lines gets old after a while — this is a pretty fun alternative.”