Liz Stephen has made a name for herself as one of the best uphill climbers in the world on the cross-country World Cup circuit, frequently achieving her best performances of the season in the final stage of the Tour de Ski up the grueling Alpe Cermis climb on a ski slope in Italy. She placed second for the time of day up the climb again this year, her fourth time to do so.
“I want to win this thing before I retire,” Stephen told FasterSkier in January. “So we’ll see, maybe a little extra training for it specifically next year.”
FasterSkier recently learned that the 30-year-old Vermont native, who was introduced to cross-country as a young alpine skier at Burke Mountain Academy, plans to take her uphill climbing skills and indomitable fighting spirit to the next step. After next season (2017/2018) and the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, Stephen plans to professionally take up the sport of ski mountaineering.
Despite the fact that ski mountaineering (“skimo” for short) sprung out of cross-country skiing, the race formats and equipment slightly differ between the two sports.
“Individual” skimo races can last one to three hours and include up to 2,000 meters of total climb, multiple ascents and off-piste descents in difficult terrain, as well as steep sections where the skis have to be carried in a rucksack harness on the back. There are also fast-paced sprint races lasting just around three minutes on a ski slope, and long-distance team races with a partner as well as relays.
“I just love the concept of that sport. It looks so hard but also so much fun,” Stephen said after being glued to the online broadcasts of 2017 Ski Mountaineering World Championships in Piancavallo, Italy. “They only ski steep uphills for hours, which is just my thing, and while the downhill sections are a bit scary I can finally put my high-school background in alpine skiing from Burke to good use.”
The skis used for skimo are wider and heavier than cross-country skis and have steel edges, but the boots and skis are lighter than the ones mostly used in alpine skiing. While skiers can use any technique, there frequently are no tracks, so the typical climbing style looks similar to diagonal classic cross-country skiing. On the steep ascents racers don’t use kick wax, but synthetic “skins”, before taking them off for the downhill sections, often just stuffing them under their spandex race suits for re-use on the next ascent. They also wear helmets for protection.
Stephen, who still regularly goes alpine and backcountry skiing in the offseason for fun, said she especially looks forward to the team events and a discipline called “The Vertical”, a format usually “carried out on well packed snow with the whole race taking place with skins under the skis in a single, long ascent,” according to the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF).
A separate entity from the International Ski Federation (FIS), the ISMF has professionalized the recreational sport of skimo with regular World Cup tour and biannual World Championships. The races are becoming increasingly popular in central and western European countries bordering the Alps, such as Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany. And the sport has also been gaining traction in North America.
One of the most prominent athletes in skimo is Spain’s Kilian Jornet Burgada, an elite skier and mountain runner who became known in the U.S. to a wider audience when he won the 2015 Mount Marathon race in Anchorage, Alaska, in a record time. A year later, Alaskan elite cross-country skier David Norris broke that record.
Stephen is an accomplished runner herself, as a three-time Trail Run National champion at half-marathon distance as well as shorter “fun” events, such as the Red Bull 400 hill climb up a ski jump in Park City, Utah, another indication for her excellent potential in the sport of ski mountaineering.
Skimo is not yet an Olympic sport, but the ISMF is hoping to soon make it one, with a potential demonstration to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as soon as the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.
At those Games, Stephen still plans to compete in cross-country, targeting individual races as well as a medal in the women’s relay.
“I feel like I won gold already with this team,” Stephen told FasterSkier in an interview during the Nordic World Championships this season in Lahti, Finland. “I think it is more about these friendships and these inspiring teammates that I am around every day. They are why I ski, and I couldn’t be happier to just be a part of the team.”
This time next year, Stephen will be making the transition to a new team and a new sport. While she said she’ll miss her friends, she said training solo won’t be a problem as she’s done that for years based out of Park City during the offseason.
In the ISMF World Cup’s overall rankings, there aren’t any senior U.S. skiers currently in the top 30. However, the U.S. team did post multiple top-15 results at this year’s World Championships, and 15-year-old Quinn Simmons of Durango, Colo., even earned a bronze medal in the cadet (youth) sprint race.
“There’s definitely going to be a learning curve for Liz, like quickly skinning the skis without any help from ski techs, or carrying them over steep sections using ropes and crampons,” U.S. senior national team coach Joe “Pale Thunder” Howdyshell said on the phone. According to his bio, he’s a self-described “jorts-wearing, whiskey-drinking, creative-swearing badass coach.”
“But she seems like a hard-working, passionate athlete, and given her enormous endurance and experience as an alpine racer, I know she’ll be a huge asset to our skimo family,” Howdyshell continued.
And at the ripe age of 31 next year, she’ll be one of the younger ones on the U.S. senior women’s team, most of which is over the age of 30.
“I am so fired up about PyeongChang and going out on the highest note possible,” Stephen said of her cross-country career. “Then onto higher mountains and hopefully, even bigger things.”