This is the first article in a three part series documenting the 2008 Ski Mountaineering Season from the perspective of Lyndsay Meyer and Nina Silitch.
Nina Silitch and I sat upstairs in her home office in Chamonix silently filling out a stack of race forms. She translated the French words I didn't understand, and in turn I handed her a stack of Euros so she could write the checks. This was our second year of ski mountaineer racing in Europe, and we had chosen the races in which we wanted to compete for the entire season and decided to complete all the applications in one fail swoop. Some of the more popular races fill up quickly and had a selection process, so we needed to get our applications in early. Money, license, insurance, and doctor's certificate were required with each registration packet. A few required previous race and or mountaineering experience. We were careful to write legibly and in the proper language.When finished, if accepted, we stood ready to race the Tete de Baum, the TSF Millet, The World Championships, The Pierra Menta, and the Patrouilles des Glaciers. There would be others that we would do last minute through the season, but these would form the bulk of our winter.
Ski mountaineering is extremely popular in Europe â€” the Alps especially. The sport was born based on the traditions of the army men patrolling the Alps and the internal races held to boost moral. Most traditional races take 3-4 hours to complete, involving two to three climbs and descents â€” mostly off piste. Racers switch over to ski mode, or climbing mode in designated areas called transitions â€” a racer’s ability to complete efficient transitions can win or lose a race. Some larger races require harness and crampons and can last 8-12 hours with racers competing through the night. To participate is a serious undertaking requiring mountaineering skills and is gear intensive.
Nina and I had taken the plunge last year traveling to a little shop called Fiou Sports in Aosta, Italy specializing in ski mountaineering gear. Lightweight skis, boots, poles, backpacks, you name it, they've got it. Small skins that you can rip off in seconds and of course the fancy spandex one piece to compete in and look the part. Most of these racers are born into ski alpinism as youths competing for their local alpine clubs. Nina had raced smaller uphill races with her husband, UIAGM guide Michael Silitch in previous years, but we decided we wanted to really get involved and do some of the big classic races. The first year we had a few growing pains, but this year we were ready, and could now officially race for the United States thanks to coach Pete Swenson. Originally a racer himself, Pete has now stepped back and started a series of ski mountaineering races in the U.S. hoping to get more people involved. You can read all about our American brethren and our competitions in the U.S. at http://www.ussma.org .
For our first race we woke early â€” 5am early â€” to drive to the start. The Tete de Baum was a local race, only 20 minutes away in Trient, Switzerland. We got dressed quickly and pinned on our bibs before having to board the bus that would take us to the start. Sometimes directions are lost in translation. Some volunteers said bib on left leg, others said right. We chose left, and we were wrong. Volunteers smile patiently at us and then glanced at each other. As the only Americans racing we often were treated like small children who were not quite sure what was going on.
This race was in teams of three in honor of the grail of all ski mountaineering races to be held later in the year, the Patrouilles des Glaciers. These early races would allow teams to practice and prepare racing with all three competitors for the main event. Unfortunately our third, Tara Jeffries, could not race with us as she had to remain in Cervinia, Italy, and work during the mad rush of the Christmas holidays. Instead we raced with a former co-worker and friend of Nina's from Switzerland, Tracey Wright. Both had worked at Aiglon College in Villars. Tracey races for the United Kingdom Ski Mountaineering team, and is a strong uphill climber. Dawn started to break in Trient and we arrived at the Tete Noir an hour before start time to find a small hamlet filled with cows, mazots, and not much else. We put skins on and skated around to keep warm and checked out our competition. Looking again at the course map it seemed simple, two climbs followed by two descents roughly the same in elevation gain, around eight hundred meters. Finally, half frozen, we were off in a chaotic start along a narrow path.
Nina did well to lead the way in the mess of frantic poles, tree branches, and skis, I was in the middle, and Tracey last. No rope was needed for this course as we were not crossing glacier, so to stay together was a challenge. The race was about 5000 feet of uphill over 8 miles. We zig-zagged with a few other female teams through a narrow path in the forest, gaining elevation quickly, the heavy snowfall making the going a little tough. Racers who got off course ended fighting deep snow. The wind was cold up at the second and higher of the two summits, the Tete de Baum, but the view of the Chamonix Valley was incredible. The final downhill was through a narrow couloir filled with powder and a few hidden fallen trees. We descended the last 4500 feet carefully but happy to be headed down.
This was fun and it was a powder day! The last bit was an uphill skate to the finish with cowbell ringing, cheering spectators screaming â€œALLEZ!â€ as though we were playing in the Super Bowl. Volunteers congratulated us in both French and Swiss German. Thank goodness for Tracey, behind me the whole way, cheering sincerely in her perfect teacher voice helping me up each climb. After recovering for a minute, we joined the general milling about at the finish imbibing tea, chocolate and other treats, followed by a mass exodus to a meeting hall in a nearby town where all shared a meal. The Swiss women's teams had taken first and second place. We mulled over our 5th place finish while we ate our generic pasta, happy with our start to the season.
Next on the docket was the TSF Millet, short for Tournette Sources du Fier, a two day event held in early February. This event was very technical â€” held completely off piste, away from any ski areas. Done in teams of two, it took place in Aravis and Faverges, not far from Albertville. Stage one heralded about 7000 feet of uphill, most gained on the first climb, followed by a traverse along a rocky edge requiring crampons and clipping into a fixed line, ending with a massive descent through varied terrain. This was not going to be easy, to date we had not done such a long climb, and to follow it up with an even harder day would test our ability.
The start was flat, a cross country start in which Nina excelled. I did my best to keep up and soon we were in a rhythm and time flew by. We made it to the top of the first climb prepared to put skis on packs and don helmets and crampons. In our efficiency in transition, we passed a team of women as we began the boot section, (also referred to as bootpack). We quickly clipped into the fixed ropes with slings and carabiners that we had already attached to the center loop of our harnesses. This section was the real deal, requiring front pointing with the crampons, and scrambling over rocks and through narrow passageways. Care had to be taken and an overzealous male racer failed to place his crampon properly, slipped, and kindly left an imprint of his crampon in Nina's thigh. As we neared the top of the rocky ridge we could hear an accordion playing. An elderly man sitting by the summit cross had skinned up in the dark early that morning to serenade us. They are my favorite, the crosses dotted across European summits placed up high with care by the local mountain guides.
The volunteers and spectators peaked their heads over the rocks as we struggled up the last bit, greeting us with, â€œAh les filles, la premier,â€ or, â€œAh, finally, the first women.â€ Nina and I simultaneously looked behind us – surely they were not talking to us? Were we winning? WE WERE WINNING! The orange and black suits of the second place team came into view not far behind and we picked up the pace. The last climb to the summit of the Tournette was short, and one of the women passed us just near the final transition into the downhill. We ripped skins and prepared for the descent allowing ourselves a slight hope because we knew something they didn't â€” we unlike many of these racers, could ski. The downhill was long and gnarly, passing through a steep, narrow ravine full of moguls. This was our kinda course, one long up hill, and then one long descent. We skied in sync down the 7000 feet and crossed the finish in first place. The feeling was amazing! To hear our names read first, and being interviewed by the director of the course made all the previous less that perfect race experiences fade away. We were finally figuring this whole ski mountaineering thing out!