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The Rise of Ski Mountaineering

While our beloved resort infrastructure continues to expand beyond its bursting boundaries, the core community of skiers and snowboarders is seeking out remote powder playgrounds to escape the crowds.

Story and photos by Vince Shuley

It's an exciting time to be living in the mountains. While our beloved resort infrastructure continues to expand beyond its bursting boundaries, the core community of skiers and snowboarders is seeking out remote powder playgrounds to escape the crowds.

Helicopters and snowmobiles allow quick access to remote backcountry areas, albeit for a price. Touring bindings and split boards now allow folk to push beyond the ropes and enjoy unblemished slopes. With the exception of people taking the time to get educated about safe travel in the mountains, what is stopping us from getting after it?

It's hard to point fingers at the equipment any longer. What used to be feeble and unreliable a decade ago is now stalwart and innovative, and without the weight penalty. If the gear climbs as well as it descends, can't hiking up a ridge with resplendent mountain views and gliding across a voluminous glacier offer fulfillment? We need not suffer like we once did, though the desired freedom is amplified if we choose to endure it.

Ski mountaineer (or 'skimo') racing is the pinnacle of self propelled backcountry skiing. These men and women (who race in aerodynamic suits and equipment that is literally weighed in grams) ski more vertical than almost any recreational skiers in the backcountry. They may not necessarily be 'all about the down' but they certainly get to experience more 'down' than their burdened brethren.


Humble beginnings

While ski mountaineering is perceived as a relatively new form of recreation and competition, the roots go back to the origin of skiing itself.  The Norwegians of the Middle Ages were known to use skis to hunt and to travel over distances during the winter months. A legend exists that around 1000 AD the Norse explorer Leif Ericsson brought the first skis to North America after landing at the northern tip of Newfoundland. While there is little supporting evidence that the travelling Norsemen were actually skiing in the Maritimes, there is early literature describing the northern ski touring folk in Scandinavia.  The oldest lengthy description of skis and climbing skins has been found in Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A History of the Northern Peoples) by Olaus Magnus, published in Rome in 1555. An excerpt from the English translation reads:

"...having their feet fastened to crooked pieces of wood made plain and bent like a bow in the former part, with a staff in their hands to guide them; and by these, at their pleasure they can transport themselves upward, downward, or obliquely, over the tops of snow. They provide that those pieces of wood be covered beneath with the tender skin of a young fawn, the form and color whereof is like to a deer skin but it is far longer and larger. But why the pieces of wood are covered with these tender skins there be diverse causes given; namely that they may transport themselves the swifter over these high snows, that they may the more nimbly avoid cliffs of rocks, and steep places with an overthwart [transverse] motion, that when they ascend to a place they may not fall backward: because the hair will rise like spears, or hedge-hog bristles, and by an admirable power of Nature hinder them from falling down."

Like many technological advances in the last few hundred years, modern ski touring techniques were tried and tested in the military. In 1716, during the Great Northern War, a Norwegian general was alerted of an imminent Swedish attack by a messenger on skis. After surprising the Swedes and repelling the attack, Norway realized the advantage of quick mobilization on snow and enlisted every skier they could find into their military ranks. In the 1800s, Nordic military ski patrols began to organize competitions which led to the foundation of modern Nordic ski racing.

The ability to travel quickly over rugged mountain terrain was essential to the armies in the European Alps. The first Patrouilles Des Glaciers (Glaciers Patrol) in Switzerland was a race held by the Swiss Army in 1943 and included a shooting component much like modern biathlon. Eighteen patrols, each of teams of three, raced from Zermatt to Verbier climbing and skiing a total of 7,000 metres (22,900 feet) over a distance of 53 km. The following year 44 teams participated, but the race was forced into a five-year hiatus during the conclusion and aftermath of World War II. When the Patrouilles Des Glaciers resumed in 1949 three competitors lost their lives after skiing into a crevasse. The race was consequentially banned by the military until it was again revived in 1984. The race is now open to civilians and last year had over 4,300 participants from 17 countries.

But the Swiss weren't the first to hold such a grand competition of ski mountaineering. The Troffeo Mezzalama race was first held in 1933 in honour of Italian mountain hero Ottorino Mezzalama. The race hosted the first "skimo" World Championships in 1975 and maintains its tradition of teams of three running the entire race tethered together by rope.

The jewel in the crown of the skimo racing and the culmination of the "Grand Three" races in the Alps is the French "Pierra Menta." Over four days, competitors run through the Savoie region in the French Alps, climbing and descending over 9,700 metres (32,000 feet) while resting in the towns along the route.


Skimo, North American-style

While the roots of skimo racing run deep in Europe, North America is seeing rapid growth of the sport. The two largest races are The Five Peaks in Breckenridge and The Power of Four in Aspen Snowmass. The 2010/2011 season has also seen eleven skimo races in B.C. and Alberta under the sanctioning of the Alpine Club of Canada. When the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF) held its first World Championships in Serre Chevalier, France in 2002, the ACC quickly canvassed the backcountry skiing communities looking for a team of two competitors. Ptor Spricenieks and Richard Haywood accepted the challenge and served as Canada's impromptu national team for the first World Champ event. Today the national team consists of eight members, both male and female.

David Dornian holds the chair of Ski Mountaineering Competition Canada (SMCC), the skimo racing section of the ACC. According to Dornian, it's a tough sport to get into.

"The Canadian [Skimo] National Team currently receives no funding. All of our athletes have day jobs, everything from tree planting to web design to support their own racing budget. The Alpine Club of Canada sponsors the team by covering the athletes' membership fees internationally and by providing support through prize money and race registration. SMCC will be applying to Sport Canada for recognition and possible athlete funding in the near future.  There is progress being made by the ISMF for skimo to be included as an Olympic sport, but it has a way to go yet. "

Seeing a budding national ski team travelling across the pond to take on the Europeans brings up affectionate memories of when the Crazy Canucks cemented Canada on the world stage of alpine skiing. These skimo athletes are not on the podium yet, but it's only a matter of time before Canada breaks into the Euro-domination of ski mountaineer racing.

Canada's most notable ski mountaineer has a strong race resume, but he wandered from crowded competitions so he could pursue his own quests for powder and vertical. Greg Hill climbed and skied a world record two million feet in 2010, equivalent to a daily average of 1,800 metres (5,500 feet). That's the equivalent of skinning from the Whistler Valley to the peak of Blackcomb every day for a year.

Greg's colossal record will no doubt stand for years to come. He also holds a couple of records here in Whistler; his time of four hours and one minute still stands for the Spearhead Traverse, as does his enchainment of the Spearhead's eleven summits (6,500 metres or 20,000 feet) in 13 hours.

What would inspire a man to set such a tremendous goal of climbing and skiing two million feet in a year?

"I went after the two million to see what my human potential is. It's important for me to know that I am furthering who I am and progressing what I do. So for 10 years I trained and learned to safely travel in the mountains so I could ski two million feet. In a previous record I figured out my potential was 50,000 feet in a day [24 hours], now I know what my potential is in a year."

While there will be few people (if any) that would even consider pushing themselves as much as Greg Hill has, there are more and more people exploring the boundaries of what they're capable of.

"I have already met many people who now have a 5,500 foot minimum for their day of skiing. When people hear of some crazy Canadian doing two mil they realize that they can also do more. Not necessarily two million feet but I am sure it makes their days slightly easier when they can imagine how hard my year was. For years it was very rare to hear of people doing 10,000 foot days and I spent years pushing the daily potential, denaturing what was considered a huge day. Now it's a common occurrence for people to do over 10 grand, which means that more people are getting extra runs and more summits in their days."


Tackling the Spearhead

It's springtime in Whistler and I'm ready for my own challenge. Today I've given myself every advantage to move faster and smoother through the mountains. I'm rocking the legit skimo gear; skinny skis, slipper boots, bindings that connect with little steel pins. I left my ski touring pack at home and replaced it with my lighter and smaller biking pack. I've crammed it with the bare essentials; shovel, probe, a warm layer and a sandwich.  The side pockets are stuffed with energy gels for quick, on-the-go access.  My hydration bladder is full and fizzing with dissolving electrolyte tablets.

If I don't make my goal of completing the Spearhead Traverse in six hours, I certainly cannot blame the equipment.

But fancy gear alone isn't going to net me my goal. To get through this traverse as fast as possible I need the right guide - someone with skimo race experience who can share with me their techniques and knowledge of speed traverses.

Alex Wigley is a member of the Canadian National Ski Mountaineering Team and has competed in races around North America and the World Cups in Europe. An Ontario native and Whistler lifer, he works as a ski tech and avalanche course instructor. Calculated and conservative, Alex has an impressive skimo resume. He has numerous first descents to his name in the Coast Range (he passionately argues that a true first descent can only be claimed by climbing, not by mechanized means) and together with Keith Reid and Craig McGee he currently holds the record for completing the McBride Traverse in 18 hours and 21 minutes.

For those who aren't familiar, the McBride is a five-to-seven day traverse from Blackcomb Mountain to the base of Rubble Creek on Garibaldi Lake, a total distance of 70 km. The previous speed record was approximately 48 hours.

It's a sunny morning on the Blackcomb Glacier and there are at least a dozen folk gearing up to head out into the Spearhead Range. I've stripped off all my outer layers and my skins are securely fastened. Alex gives me the nod and I click the start button on my stopwatch. He takes off up the skin track and I'm right on his heels.

It's not long before we encounter our first hurdle climbing up Decker Mountain. The skin track that Alex cut for us yesterday has disappeared under another 8 centimetres of fresh snow. It turns out today wasn't the most ideal condition for a speed traverse but I was determined to take advantage of the weather window. With Alex breaking trail ahead of me I'm sure I can still set an acceptable time.

We're approaching the Pattison-Trorey Col and I'm in the zone. The watch reads one hour and 21 minutes and I'm hydrated and aerobic. Alex continues to break trail through the powder on the glacier but I can tell it's starting to wear him down. We top out on the col and after another quick transition we descend into the Tremor glacier with some great pow turns. With all the extra effort of stamping down a skin track at least we're rewarded with some enjoyable skiing along the way.

An hour later we're on the Platform Glacier and I begin to feel the blisters on my heels. The sun is still poking through but the flurries persist and lay down more snow to impede us. Alex takes a break to eat an energy bar and I have a turn at breaking trail. I weave through the glacier trying to step on harder wind affected patches without diverging too much from the route.

My transitions are getting smoother- Alex showed me how to get my boots and bindings into ski mode by only bending down twice. In addition to saving considerable time at each transition, by not bending down you avoid unnecessary compression of your diaphragm, which in turn inhibits your breathing. While I want to ski as fast as I can down towards the base of the next climb, I recall another piece of advice from Alex. The descent, like the transition, is effectively a rest so you want to let your heart rate subside. That way when you begin to climb again your body isn't starved for oxygen.  I appreciate this wisdom as we drop in towards the base of the Iago Glacier. This is the first of the two biggest climbs on the traverse and I can feel myself beginning to grind. Alex is attempting to maintain his cadence with lots of switchbacks but he's now slowing down to a shuffle. His tiny race skis sink on every step.

An hour slog up Iago and the weather briefly engulfs us. We both take a five-minute break and eat a sandwich at the base of Diavolo Glacier. Alex assures me even though we are wasting time eating it will pay off on this climb. Diavolo is known as 'Bonk Hill' and while I eat the most delicious ham and cheese sandwich of my life he recounts the time during a race when a friend collapsed on this climb and sat on the snow completely delirious. I'm thankful I'm racing against the clock and not a bunch of crazy skimos.

My ultra-light gear feels heavy for the first time today as I toil up Diavolo. I'm over four hours in and find myself stopping to breathe before every switch back. I know if I can power through this climb the rest of the way will be relatively effortless. I stop and down my last two gels for the day just as Alex overtakes me. The sun is well and truly gone for the day and I can barely make out the skin track in front of my skis.

A brief whiteout lets us rest as Alex deciphers our exact position. The enormous amount of snow this season has changed the appearance of the terrain and we don't want to risk skiing off a cornice. The whiteout clears a few minutes later and  we're on our way onto the Overlord Glacier. Alex negotiates the crevasses and I follow him turn-for-turn.

I see Fissile and I'm immediately reinvigorated. All that's left is the traverse around Cowboy Ridge and a quick skin to hop onto Singing Pass. The watch reads five hours and 45 minutes, and I accept defeat on making it down in six hours flat. But I'm not slowing down. I pump the rollers on Singing Pass, skating like a madman on the flats. I'm losing elevation and the light layer of snow has warmed, dragging my ski bases like sand paper. I keep the skis on edge as much as I can down the final cat track towards Lower Olympic.

I ski into the Village where the World Ski and Snowboard Festival is in full swing. I check my time, feeling my heartbeat resonate with the bass from the music stage. Total time: 6:31:01

The disappointment of not achieving my six-hour goal evaporates instantly as the euphoria of achieving my personal best takes over. I have never skied that far, that fast, ever in the backcountry. Any previous perceptions of how far I can travel on skis in a day have just been defenestrated. I'm already devising strategies for how I can beat my time on the Spearhead.  There were periods today when I was suffering, but the pain was eclipsed by a feeling of flowing through the alpine, climbing and skiing seamlessly from one mountain to another. Today's challenge has swung the door wide open, and I like what I see on the other side.


With files from Lou Dawson ( and Ski Theory (