Ski touring has long been considered a mostly solitary sport, especially deep in the backcountry where it might just be you and only one or two trusted ski partners. But, there is a more competitive side of walking uphill on skis known in the US as Ski Mountaineering Racing or Randonee.
This sport has been quickly growing across the world with hopeful admittance into the Olympic Games. But like all things that bring communities together, the early 2020 portion of the race calendar was wiped from the records. As we round the corner at the end of 2020, what do racers have to look forward to in the 2021 season? How does ski mountaineering racing fit into the Covid world?
To answer this, I reached out to race organizers in the US and Europe. Here’s what they have to say.
Race outlook in the US
“Skiing is inherently dangerous,” says Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup organizer Joe Risi. “Every year individuals from many ski races, skimo included, end up in a hospital due to an injury. It’s not if, it’s which race.” He postponed the 2020/2021 season indefinitely, adding “It’s not cancelled, but I have made the call to postpone any races in the immediate future.”
Since travel between communities is inherently involved in events and competition, Risi has left it up to individual resorts to decide if it is safe to proceed with races. Within the Roaring Fork Valley, both the Aspen Ski Company and Sunlight Mountain Resort will try to run their annual races. The Sunlight Heathen Challenge has been delayed February 6th to leave some extra time to see if local Covid conditions stabilize. The Aspen-Snowmass Audi Power of Four has opened registration, but no money is due until the race can be confirmed closer to its March 6th race day.
Postponing races with a wait-and-see tactic seems to be the logical approach. However, these races take months of planning to secure spots on busy resort calendars. As resort capacity is restricted, spandex clad skiers going the wrong way could be the first to be cut.
In the New England zone, Northeast Rando Races Series organizer Jonathan Sheffz is optimistic the season will happen. “We are currently planning a Thursday night series of eight crit-style races combined with four USSMA sanctioned races in January through March,” says Sheffz (see locations and dates here). However, even the small region of the North East is divided. Vermont has placed travel bans on cross state travel for leisure purposes which limits race venues to Massachusetts only.
As for how races will be conducted, “Safety should continue to be the number one priority as races are organized,” says United States Ski Mountaineering Association president Ram Mikulas. “We are making race directors aware of the safety guidelines the International Ski Mountaineering Federation has put together and are encouraging them to have appropriate health and safety plans in place.”
Mikulas continues, “We imagine this will result in having only online pre-registration, pre-race instructions electronically distributed to participants, no gatherings before or after the races, possibly virtual results ceremonies, face masks, social distancing, etc. It will be important for race directors to work closely with resorts and local agencies to ensure they meet all necessary regulations. The USSMA medical directors are also available to race directors to consult with.”
Race outlook abroad
The first International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Cup event is gearing up for December 19th and 20th in Ponte-di-Legno Italy and it brings all a new set of challenges for international competition. Racers will all be tested for Covid-19 72 hours before entering Italy and each nation competing will be housed in separate hotels. World cup events exist as invitation only and are usually limited to around 100 competitors. Larger open races in Europe can have more than a thousand participants and are likely to be held without more stringent restrictions.
More creative virtual solutions to competition are a viable alternative, but not without challenges. According to ISMF athlete advisor Maximilien Drion, “It is complicated to organize skimo races on Strava (like a few trail running races took place this summer) because the mountains in winter can be much more dangerous and snow conditions have a big impact on the result.”
Drion continued, “It’s difficult to find original concepts for skimo races that gives the feeling of racing to the athletes and respects all the rules imposed by the governments.”
As an ‘athlete’ myself who has competed in dozens of races around the country, it is hard to imagine a more socially distanced race than randonee. During races, I often find myself wandering in the woods alone with only brief glimpses of racers far up the kick turns in front of me. That said, it’s a weird year and full contact, big money sports like football are more likely to prevail than those that exist primarily for the love of the activity.
Each racer’s motivation for pushing themselves through competition is different, however a love for the mountains combined with health and fitness all play an important role. The motivation to get out and stay healthy in a time of global pandemic could be more important than ever as long as it can be done safely. In a season, when many skiers of all backgrounds will want to tone down their objectives for Covid related reasons, ski mountaineering racing gives competitors a more controlled environment to push themselves in the mountains.