The Lowdown on the Longest Running Winter Adventure Race in America

Navigation is this winter adventure race starts before the sun even rises.
Navigation is this winter adventure race starts before the sun even rises. Courtesy of GMARA
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Put on by Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association (GMARA) and sponsored by the Outdoor Gear Exchange, the 10-hour Frigid Infliction adventure race at Bolton Valley is the longest running winter adventure race in the United States. It will have you snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, navigating, post-holing, and testing your skills on a Tyrolean traverse with the best of them.

But this race is about more than competing in snow and freezing temps for the better part of a day. It has a unique sense of community surrounding, from the close friends who founded it and still organize it, to the race participants who compete year after year. It may be called the Frigid Infliction, but you’re guaranteed to come away with a case of the warm and fuzzies.

Working together to get to the next checkpoint.
Working together to get to the next checkpoint. Courtesy of GMARA

“We have the same racers coming back for every race, winter and summer, said Chris Yager, founder and president of GMARA as well as race director and course designer. “Everyone becomes friends and shares in these one-of-a-kind experiences together. We even had two couples get engaged on the course.”

The whole idea for this race started after Chris participated in an 8-hour adventure race in Canada with a group of friends. They had three teams, all of which finished in the top-half of the race. Needless to say, they were all hooked and wanted to do it again. This is when Chris and one of his race partners, Tim Curtin, along with some other local adventure junkies, began working together to organize GMARA, and their first summer adventure race, the Bitter Pill, back in 2002. Soon others, including GMARA's Executive Director, Shawn Freebern, began helping, and they have added the Frigid Infliction, now in its eleventh year.

“At this point, all of our families are involved in the races,” said Yager. “My wife volunteers, the kids can get out and scout around in the woods. My 10-year-old son just completed his first Bitter Pill this past summer. He finished the 12-hour race in 11:55. I thought he would want to stop, but he pushed through and made it to the end.”

Teams are made up of two to three people in this winter adventure race.
Teams are made up of two to three people in this winter adventure race. Courtesy of GMARA

While there is a strong sense of community, there should be no doubt that this is a serious race. It’s a regional qualifier for the USARA National Championships, and many national teams come year after year.

“There is literally no other race in North America like the Frigid Infliction,” said Mason Holland whose nationally-competitive team, NH Trail Vets, is a five-year veteran of the race. “We love it because the deep winter conditions of the Green Mountains in February, and GMARA's veteran race organizing efforts always deliver a great day of racing. With the race being relatively short (for an adventure race!) and the disciplines involved, most anyone with basic outdoor winter skills/gear can have a rewarding race.”

Both Chris and Shawn both agree that while the course is guaranteed to be challenging enough for those looking to qualify for the National Championships, it is also sure to be welcoming to those interested in making their first foray into adventure racing. Last year a third of the participants were first-timers.

Ah, yeah, there's bacon at the rest points. Don't let the smell slow you down.
Ah, yeah, there's bacon at the rest points. Don't let the smell slow you down. Courtesy of GMARA

“When you are a first-time racer you are racing just to finish,” said Shawn, who designs the racecourse. “Enjoy the fact that you get to go to places you wouldn’t go. See places you haven’t seen. Just have an adventure.”

It is with this mentality that he sets up the course checkpoints, looking for those unique, off-the-beaten path locations that you would never be seen otherwise. Experienced adventure racer or not, who doesn’t like to come across these unknown spots? It’s half the reason for getting outdoors in the first place.

“I’ll be hiking through the woods and will come upon this really cool view that’s not usually seen. There are no actual trails to it so people don’t even know it exists,” said Shawn. “I think, ‘I need to share this with people. Why not hang a flag here?’ And, suddenly it’s part of the race. The best part, is at the end of the race when people come back for the after party and you hear them talking about the amazing view they found, and it’s exactly the one you wanted everyone to see.”

Teams are made up of two to three people who work together to navigate flag to flag around the snowy terrain of Bolton Valley Ski Resort. Teams have no idea of the course until they are given a map when the race clock starts. Everyone faces a variety of physical challenges along the way.

“One year Bolton was whomped with a couple feet of powder during the two days before the race,” said Mason. “At one point, racers had to travel through 3-plus feet of snow on the post-holing leg, with no skis or snowshoes. There was just no way to move with any speed whatsoever, and we were comically floundering around in the deep stuff. We resorted to a spread-eagle, crawl-type mode of locomotion, trying to stay on top as much as possible. It was ridiculous.”

A snowshoer traipsing through the winter woods of Bolton Valley
A snowshoer traipsing through the winter woods of Bolton Valley Wesley Carr

But as all past participants know, the physical and mental challenges that come with navigating around an unknown course, and wading through snow drifts, is well worth the effort. The after party that GMARA puts on for racers is pretty great. In addition to the huge meal catered by The Ponds at Bolton Valley , finishers enjoy massages, and win prizes.

This year’s race is Saturday, March 5 and you can still register. If you’re feeling like you need to touch up on a few basic skills before heading out into the backcountry for hours on end, check out these local clinics to bring your game back up to speed.

Petra Cliffs offers a wide variety of indoor and outdoor climbing clinics to take your skills to the next level. They’ll help you feel comfortable around rope set ups and gear, making it easier to get across a Tyrolean traverse.

Friends celebrating a fun day in the backcountry together...the prize is nice too!
Friends celebrating a fun day in the backcountry together...the prize is nice too! Courtesy of GMARA

Smugglers Notch offers daily cross-country ski lessons at their Nordic Ski and Snowshoe Adventure Center. You can also get rentals and ramp up your skills by taking a few laps at the Catamount Family Outdoor Center .

Craftsbury Outdoor Center has an orienteering course to dial navigation skills before heading out into the backcountry with a compass and map.

If you need more direction, look into working with a local guide, like Adventure Spirit Guides in Burlington, to learn backcountry navigation skills.

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