Team USA have done their country proud, coming in 9th in the overall country ranking at the end of the 2010 Ski Mountaineering World Championship, one better than their previous best in 2006. They were the only non-European team in the top 10. The Italians won the country ranking – again – and took first and second in the women’s combined (Roberta Pedranzini and Francesca Martinelli), while France took first and second in the men’s combined (Didier Blanc and Florent Perrier).
Three more races have happened since my last blog post to bring us to this successful conclusion. Venga, allez, dai, go-go-go! The crowds are cheering the start of the teams’ event. This is the one race that happens at the other end of the country (it takes less than an hour to drive to the other end of the country) and it has a special place in the hearts of the volunteers. It starts out of the ski resort most liked by local residents. Arcalis, with no village at the base, is less crowded than the other resorts and has some of the best snow and easily accessible off-piste in Andorra. And sitting just outside its boundaries is the most iconic ski-touring peak in the country – Font Blanca 2903m. Despite light snow and enveloping cloud everyone is desperately hoping that this is the one course that will not have to be shortened.
In the end the competitors did the full race, the hardest of the championships, 23 kilometers long with 2305 meters of height gained in the process of climbing three summits. Unfortunately Font Blanca was climbed in cloud, robbing the racers of spectacular views across the Pyrenees. “I wasn’t even sure if we’d gone to the summit,” admitted Reiner Thoni of Canada. “There was just rock and mist. We could have been anywhere.” “I certainly wouldn’t have gone up there without the flags to follow,” confessed British racer Greg Devine, of whom more later.
The racers ski in pairs and the women begin first, with the Italian team of Francesca Martinelli and Roberta Pedranzini dominating right from the start. They would eventually win in a time of 02:50:16. I am stationed at the head of a steep gully that makes up part of the first descent and third ascent. It comes at the end of a long schuss, with skiers pouring over a lip into a narrow icy chute filled with tracked up snow and deathballs. Trees and rocks dotted along the edges add to the potential for disaster. It is a good place to see the action.
A slower Spanish pair are carefully picking their way down when the front line of the men sweep over the lip like a tsunami. The women sensibly hide behind a rock while the men turn wildly round trees and try to cut down past each other. It rather resembles ski cross, except that the field is not just restricted to four competitors at a time.
“I think I’ve broken my thumb,” one British ski mountaineering racer yells to his partner as he jump-turns round his pole, giving up or slowing down clearly not an option at this point. “Uh-oh” mutters the Bulgarian as he skids to a halt at the top of the gully and looks back for his race partner, who is nowhere to be seen. After waiting a few moments he resignedly starts side-stepping back up the slope in search of him. By the time I see the Bulgarians again one of them will have broken a ski behind the back binding, skiing on with the wood flapping and the base twisting.
An interval of peace follows once the last racers have poured past, for me at least. Some of the strongest of the volunteers skin up past me, pulling out the red downhill flags and replacing them with green uphill ones. They are also trying to set a skinning track up the icy chaos of the gully all the competitors have just skied down. The leaders of the men’s pack come back up hard on their heels.
The front of the pack skins in absolute silence, total concentration given to the track and the turns. The Swiss pair of Martin Anthamatten and Florent Troillet is just in front, ascending clipped together with a line. The French team of Didier Blanc and Florent Perrier, skiing unclipped, take this opportunity to overtake, abandoning the tracks to skin straight uphill. Blanc and Perrier would eventually win in 02:14:54, with the Swiss arriving 01:55 behind them.
The middle of the pack is rather chattier as they push past, swearing at botched kick-turns, shouting encouragement to each other. “Come on, you can go faster than that!” US team member Monique Merrill yells back to Pete Swenson, who with team-mate Cary Smith is hard on the heels of Monique and Amy Fulywer.
Pete had refused to be drawn on the chances of the US in this race. “There are so many variables in a team race. We don’t train for this, we only do it one day a year.” He simply hoped that everyone could ski to the very best of their ability. Team USA consisted of four male teams and two female.
Eventually Brandon French and Ben Parsons would finish 19th out of 41 teams, in 02:48:00, with Cary Smith and Pete Swenson just 25 seconds behind them. “It was one of the best races I’ve ever done,” Brandon told me later, “great course, great snow”. Ben and Brandon are both firefighers at departments in the Flathead Valley in Montana. It is Ben’s first international competition, he made the U.S. team just one season after beginning skimo racing. “It’s ridiculous I’m on a national team,” Ben told local press before he left home. “As a mountain bike racer, I’d be happy to finish in the top 20 of a national event.” Monique and Amy (who came first and second in the 2009 US Ski Mountaineering National Championship) came seventh out of a field of 13, finishing in 03:28:11.
The back of the pack is once more reduced to silence, heads down as they endure the third exhausting slog of the race. Along come the last of the men’s pairs, the British team of Jon Morgan and Gary Devine, who are having an animated chat about skiing in Zermatt, as if they were just out for a day of touring. Which in a way they are. The British team of seven, being one short for the teams’ race, phoned up a friend who runs a guest-house just over the border from Andorra in France. Gary Devine is a former British fellrunning champion who has won a number of mountain running World Cup medals in the course of his twenty year career. Now running as a veteran, what better way to undertake your first ever ski-mountaineering race than at a world championship? The pair finished in a creditable 03:59:51. We local recreational ski tourers would be happy to have done Font Blanca on its own in that time!
The day before the teams’ race has been the cadets (15 to 17 years) and juniors (18 to 20 years) individual race. The US was represented by Swiss resident Mat Burgunder, whose only aim was to do better than his previous best of third last. It was not to be as he came 23rd out of a field of 24. The name to look out for in years to come is German cadet Anton Palzer who finished five minutes ahead of any other cadet and did most of the race on the heels of the top three juniors.
The final race of the championships was the relay, which took place on Saturday at the ski resort of Soldeu. Finally the weather cooperated and partly clear skies and sunshine showed off the mountain panorama of Andorra. It seems strange to reduce ski-mountaineering to a 10 to 20 minute sprint with two ups and two downs, on bits of snow between the pistes within a ski resort. But it makes an exciting event for spectators. Although all of the race courses are designed to maximize spectator viewing points, the fact remains that much of the action can only been seen by the camera crew in the helicopter. In the relay, with a set of skins and minimum effort, the crowds can move from one location to another, enjoy a skinning track, a bootpack, a changeover point and a wild descent, all within a single race. With no need to conserve energy, the racing is extraordinarily fast.
The women race in teams of three, the men in teams of four, and the youths with one girl and two boys, with one team per country. The Italians won all three races in an impressive display of dominance. The American women came 9th out of 10, the men 10th out of 13. The Italian team is brutally efficient. On the video their junior woman could be seen removing her skins by clicking her heels down, reach down to her tips with both hands, jumping the skis up and ripping both skins off simultaneously, tip to tail, in a single pull. “I think we have more team spirit” said Canadian racer Reiner Thoni, perhaps a little defensively, when I joined the Canucks for lunch afterward. They were in awe of the sheer intensity of the Italians and agreed that whatever it was the coach was yelling with such volume and passion at his racers, it probably wasn’t complimentary. The Italians host the European Skimo Champs next year, expect the home crowd bias to be vicious!
For now everyone is happy with a successful championship, ready for some rest and relaxation. The flags and banners are put away, the volunteers back at home after six long days of work, the organizers finally finished after four long years of planning. However, many of the racers head off to the Pierra Menta, one of the three most famous alpine skimo races. The French four-day stage race for teams will cover 9700 metres of elevation.
(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.)