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Skiing at the Speed of Light

GreatOutdoors.com covers the 2006 World Ski Mountaineering Championships in Cueno, Italy
By Andrew McLean - April 26th, 2006

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Ski mountaineering races are a new twist on the oldest method of skiing/hiking up under your own power and then sliding back down. Long before chairlifts, trams or rope tows were even imagined, skiers attached animal skins to the base of their skis for uphill traction, then removed the skins at the top when it was time to schuss downhill. The original fur-clad pioneers of the sport would not only blink in disbelief at the colorful skin tight suits and ultra light gear of modern day racers, but also at the amazing speed and proficiency of today's top caliber athletes. The ultimate gathering of the best-of-the-best in the world takes place every two years at the Ski Mountaineering World Championships. The 2006 event marked the third time this extravaganza has taken place and was held in Cuneo, Italy from February 27th through March 4th. Racers from 35 nations participated in this year's event and ranged from the fully teamed powerhouses of Italy, France and Switzerland, all the way down to a few intrepid competitors from Russia, Greece and Korea. The U.S. team grew from two people in 2004 to eight in 2006, plus myself, who was there as a judge for the International Ski Mountaineering Council (ISMC).

The basis of the sport is a series of four to six ascents and subsequent descents that are done in challenging mountain terrain and cover roughly 10 miles with 6,000' of elevation gain and loss. An average competitor will complete the course in about three hours, with the fastest racers coming in at about half of that. The sport enjoys huge popularity in Western Europe where over the last 25 years it has developed into a national mania and big competitions can draw several hundred racers. In the U.S., it is still in its infancy, which makes for a rude shock the first time American racers compete in a World Cup event. Pete Swenson, the 2006 American champion, described the mass starts as "Total mayhem. When the gun went off, I was literally trampled. People are elbowing each other, taking any little gap they can get, breaking poles and running right over your skis. I started near the front and after the first 100 yards was almost last."

To the top tier countries, it is almost a blood sport, with national pride, substantial sponsorship and careers at stake with every race. There are long term rivalries, fan clubs, flag waving and screaming spectators which urge the racers to climb even faster and descend with fewer turns. This popularity has prompted organizers to reinstate it as an Olympic sport (as it was in 1932) and also add media friendly variations to the competitions, such as the Vertical and Relay events, as well as standard Individual and Team competitions. It is a made to order sport for the Olympic motto of "Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger) and stands a good chance of being included in the 2014 games.

In anticipation of this, the 2006 Ski Mountaineering World Championships were a dry run of the Olympics, complete with an opening parade and flag ceremony, multiple events, spectacular parties and the best athletes in the world going for the gold.

Day One - The Vertical Race, Crissolo
The beautiful medieval town of Cuneo in northwest Italy was the central hub of the World Championships, but the actual races took place in the surrounding mountains about 45 minutes away. The Vertical race was held at a small ski area named Crissolo and was as much about pain and suffering as anything else. Vertical races are the skiing equivalent of an uphill drag race - they start at the bottom, climb 1,000m to the finish line at the top, and the person with the fastest time is the winner. As downhill skiing isn't a consideration here, the event favors racers who are lungs with legs and have the mental fortitude to ignore their screaming thighs and push themselves uphill for 3,281 vertical feet of running with skis on their feet. It is common for competitors to pass out and/or vomit as they cross the finish line as vertical races offer no reprieve.

The starting sequence ran a racer every 30 seconds, beginning with the junior racers first and finishing with the top seeded men last. The course began on a narrow cat track before merging on to groomed runs and held a steady angle of ascent the entire way. Vertical races are often times won by cross-over athletes from Nordic skiing or bike racing who may not be great downhill skiers, but can fly on the uphills. In this case however, Patrick Blanc from France, one of the best all around skiers alive, laid down a smoking time of 39:11.3 to capture first place, and was followed by two of his teammates for a complete sweep of the podium by France. In human terms, Patrick's time equates to climbing at an average of 5,023' per hour, or basically sprinting uphill with skis, boots, poles and a backpack. Natascia Leonardi of Switzerland took first place in the women's division with a time of 50:11.5 (average of 3,922' per hour) followed by Italy in second and Switzerland in third. The top Americans were Pete Swenson of Boulder, CO (30th place) and Jeannie Wall, the USA Team Manager, from Bozeman, MT (17th). (For complete results, see http://www.skimountcuneo2006.it/eng/classifiche.asp)

Day Two - Senior Teams Race, Crissolo
The Team Race is closest expression of a pure backcountry skiing experience. Teams of two (both of the same gender for race purposes) must stay within 20 meters of each other throughout a series of climbs and descents which include grueling skin tracks, challenging descents and brutal stretches of booting uphill with your skis on your backpack. The racers are not allowed any outside assistance, but can carry each others gear or help the other racer apply or remove climbing skins.

The course at Crissolo was a skier's dream that for liability and safety reasons would never be possible in the United States. It covered wide open alpine terrain, steep couloirs, groomed slopes, rocks, powder and everything in-between in a stunning mountain environment.

Racers strategically pick their partners based on complimentary skills and speed. The favorites in the mens division, and eventual winners, were Patrick Blanc and Stephane Brosse from France. As a team, they would be outweighed by most NFL football players. Patrick and Stephane aren't the types you'd be afraid to meet in a dark alley in a dangerous town, but in their element of high alpine terrain, they are a fearsome duo. These two guys are the most serious, best trained, best equipped racers in the world and they led the race from the beginning to the end.

As a spectator and judge, it was almost disappointing to see them in action. They were the first to arrive at every checkpoint, never seemed out of breath or hurried, had smooth transitions, skied fast but cautiously and never made a mistake. More than anything, what put their performance in perspective were the wild eyed teams who arrived after them, gasping for breath and wincing in pain and yet still losing ground.

Day Four - Rest Day and Individual Race Briefing
After two days of racing, it was time for a rest and a chance to get psyched up for the main event taking place the next day, the Individual race. Of all the races, the Individual event is the most popular as it is every man, woman and child (minimum racing age is 16) for themselves. The venue shifted to the beautiful alpine ski resort of Artesina and the 10.6 mile course was designed to test racers to their limit, with 5,700' of ascents and descents over completely untamed terrain.

Day Five - The Individual Race, Artesina
Unfortunately, Mother Nature had her own plans for the day of the race which featured incredibly high winds. For safety reasons (wind is known as the architect of avalanches) the course was altered once, then again and finally a third time before the starting gun went off.

The first long ascent was followed by a tough skiing descent through wind sculpted snow. France, Italy and Switzerland had assumed their usual positions in the lead as they headed up the second ascent, which involved carrying your skis on your backpack while you climbed up a vertical rock wall with a safety rope hung to the side in case you needed it. This was followed by a free fall down an open couloir, where you would then pass through a previous check-point and go on to repeat the course twice. However, what actually happened next would not only cancel the race, but would make headlines all around the world.

The sport of ski mountaineering is deeply rooted in the high alpine mountains were avalanches are one of the most serious threats. As such, all racers are required to carry avalanche transceivers and a shovel, as well as other safety gear. The courses are designed to be safe, but the high winds from the previous day had reached down into the deeper valleys and wind loaded an obscure bump near the top of the first climb. After allowing over 100 people to pass, the slope fractured and sent torrents of snow down on top of course workers, spectators and roughly 20 racers, including Polly Samuels McLean (my wife). "It happened right in front of me. People were yelling "AVALANCHE! AVALANCHE!" and I saw a group of racers being swept downhill. My first thought was "Can this really be happening?" but everyone was so amped up on adrenaline we all just kept going."

The race was eventually stopped as all efforts were concentrated on finding out if anyone was buried. The local Mountain Search & Rescue teams organized everyone into probe lines which methodically moved up the debris piles inserting metal avalanche probes into the snowpack to try and locate missing persons. The sound of dogs, helicopters, radios, beacons and excited Italian shouting filled the air for the next four hours until everyone was finally accounted for and it was determined that nobody had been buried or hurt.

It was an exciting day with a happy ending, although there would be no results or rescheduling of the premier event of the competition, and thus no way of crowning an individual World Champion for 2006.

Day Six - Team Relay, Artesina
Team Relays are fairly new in the world of Ski Mountaineering competitions and a favorite among spectators as they pack lots of fast paced action in a small amount of terrain. Teams are comprised of four racers, all of the same sex, who take two laps on a very short course, then tag the next racer, who does the same. The total time for a relay race is about one hour and the lead changes often as different racers come and go.

In what was almost a made for TV ending, the Italian women's team won on their home turf by a little over one minute, which helped to get the crowd warmed up for the final event of the week, the men's competition. Individually, the French seemed unbeatable, yet the Italians jumped into the lead and were able to slowly grow it as the race wore on. With the crowd whipped into a frenzy, the local favorite and 2006 World Cup Champion, Guido Giacomelli, took the final tag for Team Italia. After extending the lead on his first lap, he came around for his second with victory virtually and so much mass hysteria from the crowd that they almost blocked his way. When it was over, Italy had won by almost two minutes over France, who was a mere 1.3 seconds ahead of Switzerland!

All Over But the Dancing
Italy is famous for its incredible food & hospitality and the final feast that was held during the awards ceremony didn't disappoint. Amid steak tartar and clicking glasses of red wine, Italy was crowned as the overall World Champions, followed by Switzerland and France to almost nobody's surprise. Team USA fared well for its first serious entry into big league racing, coming in tenth place, right between Andorra in ninth and Slovakia in eleventh.

As the official ceremonies died down and people started to leave, the unofficial and most serious gathering of the week was just getting started - the extended after hours party complete with a live band. Skiers love to have a good time, especially with like-minded spirits and the Greeks, Spanish and many other nations were all well represented by the time we walked out of the tent after hours of dancing and strolled back to our hotel through the ancient city walls. Earlier in the day, it was announced that the 2008 World Championships would be held in Switzerland, and I have the feeling that people were already getting excited for them before the band finally called it quits that night.


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