Imagine a ski race where you have to charge up the hill, not just down. You might climb thousands of vertical feet over the course of many hours, sometimes tethered to a partner for safety. It’s a long sweaty slog, yet wildly fun and rewarding. Sound crazy? Maybe a little. Welcome to skimo: a crazy hybrid of skiing and mountaineering.
Skimo, or randonee racing as it’s known in Europe, is big across the pond but has been slow to catch on in North America—until lately. According to the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup, which hosts 14 events in the state annually, registration in COSMIC races is now increasing 30 percent a year. “It appeals to endurance athletes—anyone from ultra runners to cyclists who are looking for a sport to cross-train,” says Doug Stenclik, a COSMIC representative.
Not all races require you to be an uber-athlete. Skimo contests run the gamut, from hour-long burns to overnight epics. The course might be inbounds or venture far into the backcountry. Either way, it’s a guaranteed grunt, with plenty of skinning and often bootpacking thrown in for good measure. Backcountry gear is essential. Burly terrain is par for the course.
Nick Francis, president of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association, says incorporating big mountain terrain is a key component of the sport. “Most of us for whom ski mountaineering is our focus ski some big terrain and love the feeling of truly being immersed in the mountains, and that is something we are striving to bring into the races.”
Jonathan Lantz, president of La Sportiva , which makes some of the best skimo gear available, says, “It’s picking up because the gear has gotten better—lighter and more functional. It makes it easier to run uphill when you have lighter gear.”
At a recent COSMIC event at Copper Mountain, Lantz and his coworkers put the latest La Sportiva gear to the test. To the casual observer, their tiny boards seem like the ski equivalent of chopsticks. Yet the lightweight skis are prime for motoring uphill and still can handle the rigors of high-speed descents. The Copper event is a lighthearted affair that starts with a climb, then requires racers to navigate trees, a slalom course, and half pipe, before removing skis to hoof it down a final steep hill to the finish. Lantz—dressed in a fan-powered inflated clown suit—earned a five-second bonus for being in costume and finished fifth, despite doing a tumbling double somersault in the trees.
Taking about an hour, the Copper event is tame by skimo standards. Those who thrive on red-lining are welcome to tackle COSMIC’s Audi Power of Four, a grueling affair that includes scaling and skiing down all four Aspen ski resorts—Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, and Aspen Mountain—racking up 12,000 feet of climbing over 25 miles.
The Power of Four is arguably the toughest skimo event in North America, yet the Grand Traverse is also in the running. Starting at midnight, the race requires athletes to carry all of their survival supplies for a 40-mile trek from Crested Butte to Aspen, with 7,800 feet of climbing. Typical finish times range from eight to 16 hours. Those willing to take on the challenge face variable snow conditions, avalanche hazards, and the possibility of having to bunk down for the night.
Aspiring skimo racers need not be deterred by the hardcore nature of some events. The COSMIC series also includes races that appeal to newcomers. “The idea is to make it approachable to people who want to get into the sport,” says Stenclik.
If you want to dabble in skimo to see if it suits you, the Dynafit Rise & Shine Rando Series at Arapahoe Basin is a good place to start, with demo gear available. You can show up for the Tuesday morning start at 7 am, finish in about an hour, and still make it to your desk in Denver on time. A-Basin also plans to host some afternoon events later in the season.
“No matter which event, or what gear you are on, you are welcome and will have a great time,” says Francis.
If you rather watch a skimo race than participate, head to Aspen for the Power of Four. Check out this spectating guide for tips on staking out a prime viewing spot.