Euro World Cup Ski Mountaineering Race – WildSnow EU Trip Report


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

I’m standing in front of Hotel Olimpia, Bormio Italy. It’s 6:00 in the morning. They’ve turned the lights off on the night skiing slope across the street, and the blaring night life of an Italian ski town has died to nothing. Last evening the hotel restaurant made me a thermos of thick muddy Italian coffee, I’m gulping the tasty fluid to stay warm in the humid chill as I wait for my ride.

Adriano Trabucchi of Ski Trab is picking me up to attend a World Cup ski mountaineering race, the XXIV Valtellina Orobie. I’m here to check out Trab, and since racing culture is much of their ethos, attending an event will be a perfect way to see where their gear designs come from. The race is located in mountains above Albrosaggia, Italy about an hour drive from Bormio.

Backcountry Skiing

Every sanctioned ski mountaineering race has to have a boot climbing section. Some even require crampons and clipping a fixed line. In this photo, Valtellina Orobie racers boot to the race highpoint on Pizzo Merregio.

Adriano takes care of the driving in good euro style, flicking the wheel of his Trab badged van as we race through the Albrosaggia valley, then grind up 50 nausea inducing switchbacks and about 1,000 meters vertical to the race start. That’s when I realize this is different. No ski lifts, no cable car. Just a small group of farm houses with a bunch of alps rising above. Yep, this ski mountaineering race is set in the backcountry. Part of the course is accessible by snowmobile and they use the sleds as much as possible, but it’s obvious many of the course workers are doing their job using a good deal of human power. As are the spectators.

You want to watch parts of this race other than the start/finish at the bottom? Put your skins on and start walking. So we did, along with probably about 1,000 other people. I’ve never seen so many Scarpa F1s in my life! Almost all the racers were in that boot, but so were the spectators, who for the most part also ran skinny race skis. I felt like a fool with my big Dynafit Manaslu planks, which were easily the longest and fattest thing on the hill that day. But like I always say you gotta run what you brung — besides, for once in my life I had the fattest skis on the mountain — bummer no one noticed.

We climb about 900 meters vert to the first race highpoint, where we wait for the race leaders to make their first turnaround. Being the innocent American I’d had no idea we’d be doing so much human powered spectating, so other than my tiny thermos of coffee I’ve got nothing to drink. More, it’s stormy and cold and I sweated up pretty good during the climb, now I’m freezing in every stitch of clothing from my backpack. Where is that gasthaus!? Am I spoiled, or what? Oh well, I’ll tough it out.

We then head along a ridge to the top of the race, on 2,350 meter Pizzo Merregio (spelling). The racers are booting this one, then skiing down the other side though a steep field of cut up crud.

These things are incredibly fun to watch. Just checking out the 15 second transitions from uphill to downhill mode is fascinating. Beyond that, when you watch how these guys handle the downhills you are stunned by their skill. Why? Because these downhills are not a prepped race course, they’re just backcountry slopes cut up by a bunch of ski tracks. Crusty, with variable snow conditions and today’s poor visibility on top of everything.

One section of downhill is particularly nasty. I get a taste of that after the top racers had passed our view point. Adriano said “ok, we go down now, we’ll follow the course but watch out for racers.” I’m thinking, are you kidding? We’re going to ski down the course? Sure enough, down we go along with hundreds of other spectators. Since I’m moving at the sane pace for a tired cold stiff-legged spectator, I keep one eye over a shoulder and when a racer comes screaming behind I scramble to the side of the course. To do otherwise would be death or at least injury from a collision.

One section heads through open timber. A number of short brutal pitches here approach 40 degrees steep, with bushes and rocks that have the snow carved out from their downside to create vertical drops of around 4 feet. Sort of nightmare moguls, if you will. And they race down this stuff? (For those of you who ski Aspen Mountain, sections of this resembled the entry area for S1 Gully, only with more trees, unpadded of course.)

If anything, seeing this sick downhill made me realize the gulf that exists between rando racing in North America and that of Europe. Due to legal reasons and our coddled culture, a course like Valtellina could not exist on our continent — though I wish it could. Thus, it seems to me that for Americans to do very well on the EU race circuit they probably need to live over there and race, as race “experience” in North America is really not much in the way of experience. That said, I do respect what our athletes do given these problems, so good for them!

Backcountry Skiing

The race finish area.

Down at the race finish, I hung around just to people watch and wait for Adriano to get done with his business networking and sponsorship contacts. The racers are forced to re-skin a 5th and final time just 45 vertical meters below the finish arch, so they complete the race uphilling on skins instead of doing a screaming downhill. Makes for a much more organized and photo friendly ending, but the racers must hate digging out their wet skins for that last tiny sprint.

At the finish I noticed a racer badged as competing for the USA. Turned out to be Nina Silitch, a gal from Maine who lives in Chamonix and races under the US flag. Her blog is here, if you want to ask for clarification on how all that works. Nina hung in there and completed the race, so congratulations to her from WildSnow!

Backcountry Skiing

The race organizer's sled fleet. This event was created entirely with human and sled power, no ski lifts in sight.

Backcountry Skiing

The afterparty was held in a huge tent with stage at one end and bar at the other. Every table came complete with a nice bottle of wine. With a meal ticket you could go through a chow line and get a heaping plate of Italian carbs. I'm pretty sure one of the items was a huge wad of polenta, a sort of Italian version of grits. Ok, adventures in eating. Interesting stuff, but not that appetizing when mass produced and lukewarm.

Backcountry Skiing

Winners on the podium. Check out all the Trab skis!

Back to the subject of Trab skis. It is impressive how their brand dominates the race scene. According to Adriano, about 2 out of 3 athletes on the podium are sponsored by Trab. More, while watching the race I was amazed at how many participants were on Trab. If I didn’t know better, I’d think Trab was handing out free skis at the race registration.

Why do Trab skis dominate? A big part of this is that ski mountaineering racing is huge in Italy, Trab is Italian, and nationalistic preferences are always a factor. But beyond that, Trab really does make beautiful skis. Their race models combine light weight and downhill performance in an uncanny way you have to experience to believe. If nothing else, demo a pair of race Trabs some day just to experience what fanatical engineering can achieve in a small package.

In my experience, the Trab touring skis also yield a nice combo of performance and light weight — especially for variable conditions. Trab gets this level of quality by trickling down their race innovations to their touring skis. I saw how they do these during my factory visit the day after the race. Stay tuned for a blog about that. In all, another amazing day for the Wildsnow EU tour 2009!

Race results.

Comments

28 Responses to “Euro World Cup Ski Mountaineering Race – WildSnow EU Trip Report”

  1. Tyler February 10th, 2009 11:40 am

    Lou,

    I enjoyed this piece. I chuckled listening to your thoughts about arriving at the race location only to find that you’ll be skinning 1000 meters up. I guess your Trab friend forgot to mention that? What? Where are we going?

    Did you notice what kind of pre-race snow stability/avalanche evaluation or precautions were taken? Last year we saw footage of that race that had a portion of the course slide and caught several folks. Just curious.

    Enjoyed it!

    -tyler

  2. Tucker February 10th, 2009 12:16 pm

    All Dynafit bindings, I presume?

    Lou, do you have any tutorials on your site about alpine touring technique? Not how to use your dynafits (watched that one, very helpful), but more when should you take skins on/off, especially in up/down terrain.

    I did a ridge traverse over the weekend, and what was giving me trouble was determining how much of a downhill was worth taking the skins off for, and then how to ski w/ the skins on. (Even tried telly turns in the dynafits.)

  3. Lou February 10th, 2009 12:24 pm

    I saw a pair of Fritschis, but everything else was Dynafit compatible stuff, and the race was of course 100% “tech” compatible. Lots of ATK bindings.

  4. Randonnee February 10th, 2009 1:16 pm

    Inspiring stuff. Lou. It is so interesting to watch all of the technique, the athletes, and the whole scene. The guy at the transition who left his wrist straps on then just stuck two skins together lengthwise before stowing them looked particularly fast on the transition.

    Watching that video makes me want to get on my TLT4 TF boots and Chogori/ Speed and go for a long fast tour with 3 or 4 summits! I have used the BD kicker skins (I use full-length skins for the steeper stuff) for low angle skinning and that light rig seems to me effortless to push along with no skin on the tip and tail. That skinny light stuff is enjoyable for touring if one is comfortable with the downhill performance.

  5. Wick February 10th, 2009 2:01 pm

    Love it Lou! For clarification Nina is from the SugarLoaf (Maine) area and a full blooded American, living with her family in France (Lucky!). She was part of the 2008 US Rando team that competed at the World Champs last year. Thanks for the coverage. It would be pretty sweet to race a technical course like that, here in the US…dam lawyers!

  6. Lou February 10th, 2009 2:06 pm

    Ok, I’ll correct. She sounded French when I spoke with her so I couldn’t help but assume….perhaps a French Canadian accent? I’ll send an email and ask or perhaps she’ll chime in here.

  7. Nina February 10th, 2009 3:02 pm

    Hi Lou-
    Great to run into you at the race as I was rushing to catch my ride with the Swiss team. Hope we run into your here in Chamonix. My racing partner-Lyndsay Meyer and I just finished a 2 day stage race last weekend- the TSF Millet- a really euro style technical ski mountaineering race. We are looking forward to the upcoming French Classic_The Pierra Menta where a few American teams from the US will join us- You should check it out if you are over here.

  8. Tucker February 10th, 2009 3:33 pm

    LOL! Small world. Good luck Nina.

  9. Tom February 10th, 2009 6:03 pm

    Great post, I am getting inspired, I think ;-) Been a tele skier for 25 years but I picked up a pair of those Dynafit TLT bindings and was shocked at the weight, esp. compared to my O1s. I picked up a pair of the Trab Duo Rando Light last year and love them, dropped from my 8.8lb Atomic Kailas to these at 5lbs, what a difference. Now I just need to learn how to parallel turn, it just seems so strange to not move your feet, I guess going over to the dark side isn’t going to be easy, LOL, or cheap!

  10. brian February 10th, 2009 10:33 pm

    Great stuff, Lou. Yeah, I’m a huge Trab fan with 3 pairs in my quiver now. I have done all my powder days this season in my F1′s and Free Randos. Great training. I cut a pair of BD Glidelites with race bungies and transition fast. My partners hate that! The rest of the time I’m training on my Trab race skis. Nothing like them. The downside is the price tag, of course. Hard to stomach for most. At Sunlight last weekend I checked out some Hagan race skis which are as light and half the price as the Trabs. The scene needs something like that to up the interest in the gear and the sport. Time will tell.

  11. Michael Silitch February 11th, 2009 8:23 am

    The light weight ski mo set up really helps you fly up the mountain. Skiing up hill with a lightweight set up compared to an average touring rig is like riding a tour de france race bike up a mountain pass instead of an old clunker.

    Now ,there are a bunch of skis that descend well and weigh between 700-1000g/ski.

    While a carbon cuffed boot saves some weight and adds some stiffness, the all carbon boot is absolutely the weigh to go (pun intended). They are as feathery as your nordic skate boots and give precision and support to your downhills. An all carbon boot has incredible sensitivity and lateral and fore/aft rigidity greater than even the beefiest tour boots. Mine in size 27.5 weigh 750 grams/boot with the liner and insole.

    Its hard to describe the feeling of skiing down with a rig like this–it’s a combination of the minimal weight on your feet combined with the sensitivity and precision of the all carbon boot that allows you to really fly.

    You can accomplish a lot more in the mountains with a lightweight rig. My wife, Nina, raced the Patrouilles des Glaciers last year and completed the 53 km, 4000 meter of climbing course with 5 climbs in around 12 hours. This course starts in Zermatt and finishes in Verbier which is basically most of the Haute Route. On standard touring equipment this section takes me 4 full days to complete with strong ski touring clients.

    If your looking for a change in how you travel in the mountains, I highly recommend a lightweight set up.

  12. Lou February 11th, 2009 9:56 am

    Michael, yeah, those all carbon boots look incredible. Do you think the officials will eventually reduce the minimum weight requirement for sanctioned ski mountaineering races? Seems like they need to do that to allow continued gear innovation. Also, I heard that next year they will not allow modified boots in the races, so the stock lightweights will be very important and perhaps get a boost.

  13. Michael Silitch February 11th, 2009 1:08 pm

    I think they have lifted the weight requirement. Yeah, I think I heard they are banning gear mods as well. http://www.ismf-ski.org has all the rules and regs. INteresting to note as of last year, they allow carbon ski poles and I have not seen any breakage on the world cup circuit.

    I think the sport is really growing. China, Japan, and Korea just announced a new ski mo racing association (www.skimo.org) and on the US front, Nina organized a race in Sugarloaf, ME over christmas and had 100 racers and two full instructional clinics. Two more races (Sugarloaf and Saddleback) are slated. And the USSMA already has a great race series in CO, and the 24 hours of Sunlight which looked to be a hoot this year.

    Here is an short equipment excerpt for your entertainment:

    4.1.1. Compulsory equipment
    The following equipment is compulsory for all competitors in all categories:
    • a pair of skis with metallic edges covering at least 90% of their length, and a minimal width of at least 60 mm under
    the boot; ski length must be of at least 160cm for men and 150cm for women and youth categories (juniors and
    cadets, men and women).
    • bindings which allow heel movement during ascents and are blocked for descents; they may or may not be
    equipped with security straps. The front and rear parts of the binding devices must have frontal and lateral release
    safety systems.
    • boots covering the ankles with notched soles in Vibram or an equivalent. The soles must cover at least 75% of the
    boot surface and the minimal depth of the notches is 4 mm. There must be at least 8 notches under the heel and
    15 under the front part of the sole, with minimal surface area of 1 cm2 per notch. The boot must have at least 2
    buckles. Boots must be adapted for the use of metallic crampons. Cross-country ski boots and bindings or
    equivalents are strictly forbidden.
    • a pair of alpine or cross-country ski poles (carbon or other material) of a maximum diameter of 25 mm, and with
    non-metallic baskets.

  14. Jonathan Shefftz February 11th, 2009 2:09 pm

    Michael — How is the flex on the all-cf boots? Reasonably progressive, or does it just abruptly stop at one point?

    Lou (or anyone) — Are ski straps / safety leashes required in the WC races?

  15. ScottN February 11th, 2009 4:33 pm

    Brian or Lou – Any idea where you can get or check out the Hagan skis? It seemed like there were no dealers in the U.S. when I checked on the web.

  16. ScottN February 11th, 2009 4:39 pm

    also, what’s an opinion on Goode skis (other than they’re very expensive) for races? It seems the majority gravitate toward the Trabs, and they’re not much cheaper. Thoughts?

  17. Lou February 11th, 2009 5:20 pm

    My guess is the Trabs are more durable and might ski better. I’d find it hard to believe Goode puts even 1/100 the effort as Trab into R&D for building a ski mo race ski. Perhaps we can get some of the Goode version here to test and prove me totally wrong.

    For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure Trab uses carbon in their top race ski and perhaps in their consumer model.

  18. laketahoeskilessons February 11th, 2009 6:37 pm

    Hey I enjoy watching that video!!! I really love skiing it’s very fun and enjoyable!!! I really want to comeback at Homewood resort where we spent our holiday last year but I don’t make enough of a living as a blog comment spammer to be able to afford it.

  19. Bert February 11th, 2009 11:43 pm

    Michael: lightweight gear is indeed great for “flying up the mountain”, and it may also work for the down if conditions are adequate, but that’s only one side of the medal.

    Numerous race-styled ski mountaineers I meet in the mountains I can tell from looking at their pack that no way there’s a shovel or even serious jacket in it. They seem to rely on their cellphone only. Actually I can understand this mindset, there is no point of saving a few grams by using titan screws in your binding, and then carry a bivy bag, but it’s a dangerous decision.

    Also I can’t imagine that sub-1kg skis work in powder. I’m not quite happy with the performance of my 173cm 120-72-106 freeride-ish ski on the low angled descends one does on avy days, and at 75kg I’m average weight.

    Finally, I’d have to get new friends for touring. We’re maxing out at around 8000ft vertical per day. As I’m growing more into the group and getting fitter the choice for me clearly is to get beefier gear. Having the fitness and skill to hunt down chopped up crud on skinny skis is one thing, having the float to make some snowboard-style turns is the other thing.

    Anyway, to each his own, as always, isn’t it?

  20. Michael Silitch February 12th, 2009 4:15 am

    Jonathan,

    Good question about the flex. My wife and I both ski in Pierre Gignoux’s. Currently the only all carbon fiber boot on the market. He has been hand making this boot for over 10 years I think and is a biomechanical engineer. I have not skied a better touring boot. Being carbon fiber, you would think it might be too stiff, but being so light it does seem to have the perfect amount of flex–I don’t know how it would do driving a big ski but on small and medium skis I feel like the flex is perfect. It is much more rigid forward flexing than the F1 which is kind of a noodle when you really press on it. Yet it doesn’t feel too stiff. It has 4 different forward lean positions although I left mine the way it came. The uppers closure system seems to allow you to manage the flex a little with a velcro powerstrap and nylon reinforcement panel. You crank it down if you don’t want any movement and can leave it a little loose if you want to flex more. I basically crank mine down and love the sensitivity. My wife who is a former alpine skier found them to ski incomparably better than the supple F1.

    I see you are based in MA. Come on up to Saddleback, ME for a cool randorace this spring.

  21. Michael Silitch February 12th, 2009 4:27 am

    Jonathan,

    Caron fiber boot flex:

    To sum up, I find the flex perfect and somehow progressive.

    Safety leashes and locking mechanisms:

    In Europe from small races and world cup races on and off ski areas, safety straps are not required. Most skiers just lock the toe piece of the dynastar binding up in touring mode (not so releasable) and the Italian race specfic bindings, ATK Race and Colibri only have one position so you spend less time getting in–when youstep in they are already “locked” . With such small light skis (men ski 160-164 cm) I have not had or seen a problem with this. But knock on wood.

    I wonder if Lou (Or Fede from Dynafit, sp?) knows what the DIN setting equivalent would be of a “locked” Dynafit toe piece? Interesting to note, the ATK and Colibri toe piece look like some of Lou’s museum Dynafit toe pieces, in terms of how they lock.

  22. Michael Silitch February 12th, 2009 4:30 am

    On Carbon Skis:

    Goode and Merrelli both make light carbon fiber race viable skis. Merrelis are made specifically for the race circuit and used quite a bit over here. However, they break! A top Spanish racer broke a pair training and a race shop owner in Aosta broke his.
    A snow basin Utah friend broke their Goodes, but they werent the lightest model. I would be careful though.

  23. Michael Silitch February 12th, 2009 4:40 am

    On the Ski Trab World Cup

    The Trab is the best skiing small and light ski I have ever skied on. It has the perfect flex, the perfect side cut for a small ski and skis on piste or on packed powder like no other. Great for Slalom or GS turns. Not bad in powder; you have to work a little in crud, but dont you always. We havent broken them and I dont think they break that often.

    Before the World Cups we had the race Aeros which have a slightly more lively ski feel, but not much that much different. i prefer the weight savings of the world cup and next year it will drop to 745 g. Not the lightest ski on the world cup curcuit, with some at 700 or under, but I bet it skis the best. And the lightest ones do break. Anything under 800 grams is visible by looking at what the top ten athletes really ski.

  24. brian February 12th, 2009 7:24 am

    Hagan skis.

    The couple at Sunlight who finished 3rd were both on Hagans. They spoke highly of the weight but I know nothing of the construction. The big selling point was the cost…about $600 USD. Now that is very inexpensive for a light racing board.

    As for finding them, some of the couple’s contact info is on the 24hrs of sunlight website. They both seemed to know “someone” in Europe responsible for distribution.

  25. John Warner February 13th, 2009 9:36 pm

    I have had Ski Trab Rando Lights for two years (178cm) and they are great with my F1′s or Megarides (did you know Megarides are 0.05 lb (that’s 110 grams) lighter than unmodified F1′s?), I just did Crested Butte Rando Race this weekend and they skied great again, though I got a core shot on the “Peel/Banana” finish. I’m taking the Ski Trabs to Europe for a ski mountaineering trip this April instead of my 184 cm G3 Barons. Thanks for the great info.

  26. Kyle February 14th, 2009 9:20 am

    Hagan

    If you want to pick up Hagan skis, Up here (ie canada) is the place to come. MEC (warning: I do work for them) has sold them for a few years now but can’t ship them south of the border.

    I won’t post a link (unless people ask, it’s easy to find) but the x-race skis are much less than $600 usd.

    Looking forward to the Trab factory trip blog, have heard many good things from others that have been.

  27. Jonathan Shefftz May 12th, 2010 10:57 am

    “The couple at Sunlight who finished 3rd were both on Hagans.”
    And they’re now the U.S. distributor: http://preview.tinyurl.com/28svt59
    (To add to potential confusion though, his last name looks like an incorrect spelling of the ski brand!)
    More here:
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/28ffu82

  28. Jonathan Shefftz May 12th, 2010 11:10 am

    Whoop, silly me (re my prior comment awaiting moderation) — I didn’t realize that Mr & Mrs Hagen (importer/distributor of nearly identically named Hagan skis) had won this year’s event, and also posted extensively in the thread for that:
    http://www.wildsnow.com/2655/sunlight-endurance-challenge-2010/

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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