Slogging up through fresh snow in the grey light of early morning, with yet more falling around us it looked as if the Individual race of this year’s Ski Mountaineering World Championships might be about to end before it had ever started. I was out as one of the volunteers that set the route and man the race control points, breaking trail for a race due to start in a two hours time. A muddle of voices speaking Catalan came over the radio as the organizers frantically tried to come up with an alternative line free of avalanche danger but still challenging enough for a world championship.
The bi-annual Ski Mountaineering World Championships in currently taking place in the tiny principality of Andorra, deep in the Pyrenean mountains of southern Europe. www.canillo2010.org We huddled, shivering, at our control point, sharing a thermos of coffee with fellow volunteers, watching a helicopter sweep across the slopes of the final climb and descent of the race, dropping avalanche bombs to stabilize the snow. The course had been modified, shortened by four kilometers and 260 vertical metres, reduced to three climbs rather than four. But at last, an hour late, the race was on.
Shortly after the 10.30 a.m. start the leaders came marching through our control point. Local favorite Kilian Jornet of Spain was already in the lead. This remarkable 22-year-old endurance athlete already has a world class reputation. He has been World Champion in the Buff SkyRunner World Series for the last three years, and has been in the medals at all European and World Skimo championships since he was old enough to compete as an adult. Despite have a cold and a temperature in the days leading up to this championship, he had won the vertical race two days before in 39:50 minutes, the first time the 6 kilometer and 880 vertical meter course had been done in under 40 minutes. Thus expectations in this race were exceedingly high.
However the Swiss around us were cheering on their race favorite, Florent Troillet, who was battling with an aching leg. His supporters even had their own fan bibs to wear. The 28-year-old is a dedicated ski racer but has never won gold in a European or World Championship race as an adult. The Swiss flags added a touch of color to a grey landscape but I really could have done without the supporter who was ringing a monstrously big Swiss cow bell in my ear. Cow bells as not nearly as melodic as you might expect.
The first American through our control was Team USA coach and participant Peter Swenson. He told me after the race that on their team recce the day before the Team USA skiers had encountered icy conditions, with very technical skinning uphill and superbly fast descents. “I really like icy conditions,” he said wistfully, given that what he got was fresh snow and flat light. The new course was 14 km long, climbing 1,520 vertical meters. Swenson said that while it was shame not to have done the whole course, while the race is on, no one is going to object to having less far to go.
The race leaders had already begun the first descent by the time the last of the 127 athletes were skinning up past us. Soon Kilian Jornet was coming through our control point again, still holding on to his lead, but with the Swiss man hard on his heels. They did the second half of the first ascent again (part of the modified race route), overtaking much of the field still on their first ascent and topping out on Pic de Montmalús (2,780m) for the second time.
Adventure racer and endurance athlete Monique Merrill was the first American woman we saw, sitting in a remarkable 7th place. Hopes were high following her 9th place in the women’s vertical race two days before, her best placing yet in a vertical world championship race. She was helped by the fact that Spanish favorite Mireia Miró had now abandoned, assisted down by her coach while apparently hyper-ventilating.
The weather was slowly improving as the race progressed and we could see the leaders schussing down the long straight to the third change point, and then heading up the hill towards Serra Seca (2,730m). By now the race supporters had long abandoned our control point for places closer to the finish and we were left waiting for the stragglers, coming through many minutes apart. With no supporters to cheer them on, and no other racers in sight, it was a long and lonely haul at the back of the field.
China has sent a team of young racers who are determined but well off the pace. The last few were still passing through our control as we saw two tiny figures hurtling down the final descent, well ahead of their competition. Kilian Jornet was still in the lead with Florent Troillet skiing wildly behind him, at one point on just one ski, arms windmilling in the air. Troillet finally overtook and crossed the finish line just 5 seconds ahead of Jornet. Jornet said he was satisfied with the result and proud not to have let Troillet go until the end.
Monique recorded the best result for Team USA, finishing 9th. Although she had come to this championship hoping for top 10 placings – and has succeeded in both races to date – she admitted after the race that “I was bummed. I was sixth for about 10 minutes and then steadily seventh right through the race.” But she lost two places on the second half of the final ascent, where competitors were required to wear crampons for the bootpack. She admits that she should have thought through the crampon change in more detail. “I shouldn’t have had them so deep down in the pack,” she said.
The crampon change cost Peter Swenson several places, too. His difficulty was getting them back in his pack on the summit. “It’s just not something we are used to,” he said, referring to using crampons in races. At the control point briefing we had been warned not to allow any competitors, hoping to save time, to simply stuff their crampons down inside their vest, before racing down the descent. Swenson finally finished in a very creditable 29th place, an improvement on the 32nd best place achieved by the US in the world championships in France two years ago.
The consensus from the American team was that the course was “great”. In the end it combined flats and switchbacks, trees and summits, steep bootpacks and sweeping descents, all covered in surprisingly good snow. After their team recce Canadian racer Alex Wigley commented on his blog that: “The course is beautifully designed and well thought out. It begins and starts in the same location, and will allow spectators to view most of the course from easily accessible areas, as well as the ski resort base. We’re definitely learning the difference between race courses on the World Cup, and North American courses!”
Peter Swenson is also impressed by the organization of the championship, particularly by the willingness of the organizers to alter plans to reflect changing conditions. Months of planning have gone into planning the most dramatic courses possible, while creating courses that can be modified quickly should weather and snow conditions require it. With an eye to a race Swenson is planning in April, he commented that he was also “learning here just how much is involved” in successful competition creation.
Andorra has put enormous effort into the championships, with nearly 200 volunteers trying to make things run smoothly for the twenty-three countries taking part. Racers from the USA, Canada, Argentina, Chile, South Korea, Japan and China joined a wide range of European countries. Hosts Andorra are punching well above their weight. Despite having a population of only 80,000 to select from, their first woman placed fifth and their first man twentieth. The country is only 468km sq, and is totally contained within the Pyrenees mountains that separate Spain and France. And yes, you can ski tour right round the border of the country in about 5 days (for us non-racers). For those of your who have never heard of us, we’ve been in existence for over a 1000 years!
(Guest blogger Cathy O’Dowd is working as a volunteer at the World Skimo Champs. She is a South African who now lives in the tiny mountain principality of Andorra, and is the first woman to have climbed Mount Everest from both north and south. Having been a passionate climber most of her life, Cathy only discovered the pleasures of skis when she moved to Europe 10 years ago and is now making up for lost time! When not in the mountains she makes a living as a motivational speaker. www.cathyodowd.com.)