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.
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 at least 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!
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!
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!