Randonnee racing isn’t backcountry skiing, or is it? Today’s Powderkeg rando race at Alta, Utah might qualify. The “Race” class competitors enjoyed a brutal course that began with technical skinning up a steep iced-over mogul run where in the words of one racer, “it was carnage, people were sliding down the thing, reverting to side stepping, and just plain involved in a fight for vertical.” After that the Race class boys and girls circled out of Alta to the true backcountry, still moving so fast you have to see it to comprehend what is possible on a pair of climbing skins.
I’m glad I wasn’t there. Instead, my wife Lisa and I got to skip the moguls but still have an adventure on the Recreational division course. (For a good report on the race division, check out TetonAT.) The issue of the day was still ice. Everything was frozen tight after a soupy thaw the day before followed by a crispy night. Our race would thus be a battle with glazed skin tracks and fearsome boilerplate downhills, not to mention falling objects (which we hoped would not include our own cuerpos).
For me getting ready for comps is the worst part. Seems like I’m always loosing stuff. At 5:00 A.M. I’m searching for stuff buried under stuff that’s buried under other stuff. We get it together and stumble in the dark from the Peruvian over to Gold Miner’s Daughter where the race start is. I get my skins on, then notice one of my skis is missing the safety leash (turns out those would come in handy). Back to the lodge for a look but no go, then I walk back and find the leash on the ground. Shew. Backcountry skiing? Dawn patrol. Check.
We check in and they test our beacons. Turns out avy danger will be rated high today once the snow gets sun softened, and most of our race is actually outside ski area boundaries in snow that may indeed get iffy when the sun hammers. Backcountry danger. Avalanches. For real. Check.
The starting gun fires and we try to nordy stride next to the Alta rope tow. Fifty pairs of scuffing skins makes an eerie sound — sort of like a horror movie soundtrack for a creepy crawly thingie. On the toothy snow glide is not really a concept, so we make do. The terrain steepens as we climb a cat track. I’m wondering where to fit in the pack but things sort out quickly as we single-file a traverse. Looming above is the west wall of Patsy Marly mountain, where the boot pack awaits us like a school principle with a spanking paddle.
The spanking begins earlier. Below the boot climb are a series of steep switchbacks where we traffic jam behind folks who don’t have their kick turns wired enough for what’s basically an ice wall. Faster rec racers are already on the boot pack above. Suddenly calls of “ROCK” echo as a fist sized missile shoots down the hardpan, missing a couple of racers by inches. Backcountry, or perhaps alpinism? Check. And if you ever wonder why they make you wear helmets in these races, wonder no more.
Flying rocks are not the end of it. Next comes a ski pole skittering down the frozen snow like an oversized toothpick dropping from the mouth and rolling down the chin of a drunk redneck.
Ski pole is a preview — we should have known what was coming. The fearsome cry “SKI” echos through the valley as someone pops a shoe and sends a 165 cm missile downrange. It’s astonishing to see a ski with climbing skins still attached achieve enough velocity to launch 30 feet off a roller and T-bone a tree (and equally interesting to watch everyone ducking and scrambling for life. Good the tree was there.)
After the ski comes the person who was formerly attached to the ski, clawing and clutching as they sled down the hardpan in the classic slide for life. Backcountry skiing. Slide for life. Check.
Lisa and I pass a few people who seem frozen, then start a good grunt up the boot. It’s just like climbing Highland Bowl back home, about the same vert, about the same knee torque. A heavy guy I’m trying to pass sinks to his waist, claimed by this year’s bottomless depth hoar of the Wasatch. I’m up one! Backcountry issues. Check.
Next, the frozen windrows of Patsy Marly ridge…. Check back later for part two. For now, it is important to announce that Lisa was the fastest woman in the Recreational class, and has thus achieved the pinnacle experience in North American randonnee racing: that of standing on the podium at the Powderkeg. (Hubby ended up sixth in men’s AT class Recreational, and a matrimonial finish was achieved whrein the WildSnow team finished with exactly the same times.) What a day!
|Lisa takes the highground! That’s Marcie Hahn on the left and Anne Perry on the right.|
|The gal with her Powderkeg certificate of merit. Race tradition is that now she has to go Race class the next time she’s in the ‘Keg. Shucks, does that mean I have to as well? I wonder if they’ll have the mogul climb…|
|Powderkeg mens overall winners, race class. That’s Ethan Passant on top (#1), Chris Kroger on the left (#2) and Pete Swenson on the right (#3).|