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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Ski Mountaineering"? I Think Not.

I have a few friends who get way into the whole rando ski racing thing, and once I look past the hype and the spandex suits I am totally impressed by their athleticism.  The speed at which they climb and descend on their tiny little race skis is amazing.  I have zero drive to join them, but I admire what they're doing.

Ski mountaineering it is not.

Perhaps it's a compulsive need for honesty in language and communication.  Maybe it's just that I love ski mountaineering and have a deep respect for the sport and those who do it well.  Either way, it strikes me as disingenuous that people refer to rando racing as "Ski Mountaineering Racing".

There's even a non-profit organizing body for it in the US.  According to their website"The United States Ski Mountaineering Association (USSMA) sanctions and governs competitive ski mountaineering racing in the US and promotes and fosters recreational ski mountaineering through access, resources, education and community."

What am I getting at?  There is no actual ski mountaineering in these "ski mountaineering" races!  Doesn't anybody else see it?  It's uphill-downhill ski racing--running up hills to ski back down.  Which is impressive in its own right, but please let us stop calling it what it's not.

Years ago in a fit of questionable judgment I entered the Jackson Hole event on my snowboard, thinking that it might be interesting to test my abilities on some of the more extreme ski terrain in the US.  And then we skinned up groomers and moguls, and skied down a bunch of the same.  The climb up Corbet's Couloir had the potential to offer a good technical challenge, until they put a ladder up it and turned it into just another bootpack.

Hell, in the US most of these races aren't even held in the backcountry, let alone in mountaineering terrain.  The track is set (no route-finding or trail-breaking involved,) the hazards are controlled, and you would have to really fuck up to get yourself lost.  
At least in Europe they race on glaciers, but their "safety systems" are little more than g-strings with dental floss used to attach to one's teammates.  Which is probably appropriate on a controlled course with virtually zero objective hazards.

"But you wouldn't be able to travel at racing speeds while safely making technical moves."  You're probably right.

"It wouldn't be fair to the race leaders if they had to break trail for everybody else."  Debatable, but missing the point; I'm not arguing that the sport be changed, just that we stop calling it what it's not.

By no means am I trying to take away from the remarkable athleticism of the racers out there competing in these events.  They're amazing.  Their accomplishments are amazing.  What they have dangling between their legs is doubtless far chubbier than mine.  (The guys, anyway.)

And there is no doubt that rando racing has propelled innovation in ski touring gear leaps and bounds in the last decade.  The development in equipment and techniques inspired by racing is awesome; every one of us in the backcountry benefit from it.

But it's still not ski mountaineering.

Andrew McLean on the second known descent of the Hossack-McGowan Couloir on the Grand Teton.

Mountaineering is exploration and adventure, challenging oneself to see if that summit is achievable or that range can be traversed, assessing and managing hazards, succeeding or not based on one's skills, endurance, and judgment.  Add skis to the mix and it's all about taking on a difficult descent involving some degree of objective hazard with poise and grace.  "I wonder if that line is skiable?"  "What would it take to link that up?"  Ski mountaineering is an ephemeral thing, with success more often than not hinging on the ability to predict weather patterns and route conditions.

Rando racing does indeed challenge an athlete's skill and endurance, to a point, but it removes any hint of exploration or hazard management.  The terrain is determined, and racers can win by putting on blinders and charging through the course, oblivious to the world around them.  Do that while mountaineering and you'll be lucky to come home.

So what do we call it?  I thought Randonée Rally Racing was pretty good.  Backcountry Ski Racing would work, if it took place in the backcountry.  Dynafit has a complete line of skis, bindings, boots, and poles devoted to what they're calling "Ski Running"; that could make a decent name.  In the end it makes little difference to me what it's called.

I just want to us to stop denegrating the name of ski mountaineering by claiming that this racing sport is anything more than a dim shadow of what it's purported to be.


  1. I think your blog post, which is now on Backcountry is rather insulting. Maybe in the States, most of the races are within controlled environment because of liability reasons and we end up racing on groomers. On that, yes you are right it does not feel like ski mountaineering is the right title for the sport. But, Canadian races and specially European races are technical, you need to not only be a really strong athlete but also a really good skier and alpinist. I think slagging the shit out of a sport without really knowing what you are talking about and doing it in the open is a proof of how little education you are about the subject and how close minded you are. This is because of people like you that the sport gets bad press. Thx a lot!

  2. Mountaineering is sport, hobby or profession of hiking, skiing, and climbing mountains. Pretty simple concept why be naive?

    Like Mel says in the US its liability reasons why races cant go beyond a certain risk threshold and have to stay mostly on piste even though some races like the Crested Butte push these limits. Maybe you should be slagging your government no???

    Athleticism is a big part of Mountaineering maybe part of the reason why Mark Twight did a skimo race yesterday.

    Mountaineering should not be about how much risk you take or how fast you go, people do like to push these avenues and there are many who like to push both you are probably one but lets not degrade people who get out for pure enjoyment in a none technical way.

  3. Thank you for your feedback, Melanie and Reiner. Unfortunately Backcountry edited my post quite a bit, and changed its tone--if you read the original blog (above) you might get a different impression. The athleticism of these races is astounding, and I very much respect and admire it. My apologies if the BC version was offensive, but I stand by what I wrote in the original version.

    Yes, much of the racing sport's limitations in the US are a result of our excessive system of litigation and the liability issues it brings. I would love to see that change as much as anybody.

    And we could have lengthy conversations about what defines the sport of mountaineering, but I think that most people would agree that it involves some degree of technical difficulty and objective hazard. The reality is that in the US these aspects are removed from the competition, and therefore I assert that it's no longer mountaineering. As Melanie says I can't speak to the character of the sport in Canada, but from the videos I've watched of racing in Europe that hardly qualifies as mountaineering either.

    Which is by no means an attempt for me to belittle the sport of racing! Clearly it requires remarkable athleticism and skiing abilities, and I would imagine that most of the competitors train by ski mountaineering to some degree. But why is it so important that it be called ski mountaineering racing? Why not give it a more accurate name?

    Again, I apologize if I offended--that was not my intent. I think my original piece from this blog gives a far better picture of what I intended to say than the version found at Backcountry.

  4. I also think just like Reiner commented above. Mountaineering is a favorite sport millions of people die to try on. With the right guidance from mountaineering courses and the basic details of avalanche timings, it will sure turn your try a success.