In late May, weeks after Nina Silitch finished her last race of the season, loads of her ski-mountaineering equipment still occupied more than half the space in her bedroom.
Her husband, Michael, couldn’t understand why, after six months on the World Cup and international circuit, she wasn’t ready put it away.
At 39, Silitch was coming off a career-best season in most respects – she became the first American to earn World Cup gold in ski mountaineering after winning a sprint, finished eighth overall in the World Cup and placed fifth in the Grand Course championship series, a two-year culmination of some of the toughest mountaineering races.
In 2011/2012, she racked up nearly 30 starts, many of which included three- to four-day stage treks across technical, high-altitude terrain. Other distance races took an average of six to ten hours, and then there were team events.
Silitch ended the season on a high note, placing seventh with two of her US Ski Mountaineering teammates – Sari Anderson and Lyndsay Meyer – at the Patrouille des Glaciers in Switzerland. Typically 53 kilometers long with 4,000 meters of climbing, the team race in early May was cut short around the halfway point because of dangerous winds and unstable snowpack. Silitch, Anderson and Meyer combined to finish strong, physically tying themselves together at times to avoid falling into glacier crevasses.
Once that was over, one would think Silitch would want to move on, spend time with her 6- and 8-year-old sons, and enjoy spring at their home in Chamonix, France.
Of course she wanted all that, but Silitch had one more ski-related task on her “to-do” list. The view from her home reminded her of it almost daily. No sooner had she finished racing in Switzerland that Silitch decided to ascend Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps and 11th tallest in the world (4,810.45 meters, or 15,782 feet, above sea level).
About 500 meters short of the summit, high winds forced Silitch and her climbing companion to turn back. Two weeks later, the ski gear remained where she left it, sprawled across her bedroom.
Since moving to Chamonix in 2006, Silitch had summited the mountain twice. Both times, she packed up and skied down its North Face, but this time she wanted to do it in a day. It took most people two or three. It didn’t take long before she enlisted a guide friend to join her on another attempt.
“I wanted to do something, just to have a completion of something and put my season to end that way,” Silitch said during an online chat while visiting family in Maryland. “So that’s what I did this year, Mont Blanc from my house.”
At precisely 2:20 a.m., Silitch turned on her headlamp and left home. She had about 12 hours before she needed to pick up her boys, Birken and Anders, from school.
“Mont Blanc is big undertaking and … one that I by no means take lightly,” Silitch wrote on her blog.
It involved a tricky ascent of 3,375 meters (12,385 feet) and an equally challenging descent. There was altitude sickness to be wary of along with unknown weather elements near the top.
“The challenge of the Mont Blanc summit for me embraces much that one needs in journey of daily life whether you are a mom, dad, athlete, anyone finding their path,” Silitch wrote. “Breathe, endurance, perseverance, confidence, fortitude, grace, energy, vision, attentiveness, awareness, caution, respect, experience, tenacity, commitment, presence.”
Silitch remained focused for the duration, meeting her goal in fairly favorable conditions. After arriving at the top, she took a moment to admire the view, then locked her boot heels in place and started back down.
“I returned home safe, after a successful summit day, with some tired legs, a little nauseated stomach from altitude, but very happy to pick up my boys at school at the end of the day,” she blogged. “Now, finally the overflow of ski gear in my bedroom can be put away. Operation summer mode!”
Championing Her Sport
For Silitch, that meant fewer offseason races and more time with family. A few days after arriving in Maryland for a month-long visit with her in-laws in July, she put her 6-year-old, Anders, in front of the computer during a Skype chat.
“Hi,” he said politely, then took off.
“We were just out at the pool,” Silitch explained.
After she and Michael moved to France 11 years ago, had their children while living in Switzerland then returned to Chamonix, they made a point to return to the states periodically. Both American citizens living abroad on visas, they had raised their sons to speak French as well as English.
In Maryland, where they spent a few weeks before visiting Silitch’s parents in Carrabassett Valley, Maine (she’s originally from Shaftsbury, Vt.), the boys had signed up for swim team, tennis and triathlons.
“They’re very active,” Silitch said. She wasn’t much different.
During her 2012/2013 campaign, Silitch knocked off most every goal she set out for. On April 14 in Tromsø, Norway, she claimed gold at a SkiMo World Cup sprint, which combines kicking and gliding, kick turns, boot packing (carrying one’s skis) and often some skating. The race includes a qualification round and heats, and typically takes 3 ½ to 4 minutes to complete the course.
The final race of the World Cup season, it was only Silitch’s second sprint of the year (one other on the circuit was canceled, and Silitch did another at French nationals, where she finished second).
“It’s kind of been an event that I’ve fallen in love with,” she said. “It’s been a combination of my cross-country skiing background [at the Holderness School and Dartmouth College], but also just the event itself, combining all the aspects of ski mountaineering. You need to be very efficient in transitions … you can’t make a mistake. So it was really special that it came together.”
Next year, there are three sprints in the International Ski Mountaineering Federation series, which consists of more than 20 races in France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Poland and Norway. Silitch was excited that, for the first time, points awarded at sprints will be equal to those earned in longer races. The shorter format was adopted to broaden the sport’s appeal, and with several races in downtown venues, it’s become more accessible to spectators.
“They actually created the sprint to grow the sport more and hopefully someday it will become an Olympic sport,” Silitch said. “They’re trying to do more TV coverage next year so we’ll see.”
When she’s not gutting for a win, Silitch is the president of the volunteer-driven Chamonix Ski Alpinisme Club. She founded the ski-mountaineering group three years ago, and has since seen its membership grow from about five to 70 members.
“That’s something I’m really trying to do, help grow the sport and bring it more to women especially,” she said, “and also to the younger kids as well, the youth. In the U.S., I think that’s where we need to target, those kids that don’t necessarily find their way in alpine skiing or cross-country or even those cross-country skiers that want to try something a little different.”
One can compete in ski mountaineering as early as 14, which is the age group Silitch would like to draw in. “That’ll be my next step after competing,” she said.
For now, she’s mostly focused on the season ahead.
“I think I’m just going to give it one more year of World Cup skiing,” Silitch said. “Hopefully from that I’ll move into other things with my experiences in the World Cup and apply that to whatever I do next.”
Her husband, an internationally certified mountain guide, is interested in moving to Norway to teach. Silitch ran a female outdoors program at Aiglon College in Villars, Switzerland, while they lived there for four years, then committed to full-time racing when she made the US team in 2008.
Finances, however, remain a stumbling point for most American competitors in the sport.
“We don’t really have any funding. It’s up to everyone to get their own sponsorships and everything,” Silitch said. “All the European teams are nationally funded. They’ve got coaches and all their events are paid for and their travel expenses. For me, [it’s] from my heart and passion. … It’s definitely a big commitment, but we feel like it’s such a great experience for me and also for my family, that it’s really worth it even if it can be a little tight at times.”
In December, she’ll turn 40, yet Silitch remains relatively new to ski mountaineering after trying it for the first time in 2005. It wasn’t until two years later at a night uphill race that she decided to pursue it more seriously.
“It’s funny that I didn’t really fall into this until after my kids were born,” she said. “So that’s been a whole new experience for me, a whole new challenge. I think because it combines so many of the different things I love, the endurance, the kick and glide cross-country skiing, but also being in the mountains and the mountaineering aspect of it. I’m also a huge downhill skiing fan, and just being able to combine those things, it just kind of creates a sport that’s really fun and challenging.”
Frame of Mind
After a long season, which started in mid-December and wrapped up in early May, Silitch took about three weeks off to regenerate with some fun and loose training. She planned to slowly build into a ski-specific dryland routine while staying away from trail racing until the end of summer.
Primarily concerned about past injuries, she worked with her coach, Adam St. Pierre, a cross-country ski coach with the Boulder Center for Sports and Medicine in Colorado. With his help, she developed the strength to compete in the one summer event she set her sights on: the CCC Ultra Trail Mont Blanc. One again, it was an objective viewed from her backyard.
In late August, she completed the 90-kilometer race (slightly altered from the original 100 k), finishing third in her age group and 15th among women.
“My biggest goal of the summer is now behind me,” Silitch wrote on her blog. “1800 runners withstood rain, wind, snow, sleet, mud. Temperatures plummeted on the high cols and runners ran through passes with 10-20cm of snow. … It got to points on the course where it was merely about survival and being well prepared in the conditions with not only the right gear & clothing for but the right mental attitude.”
That was where her other summer training came in. While in France this year, she’s been working with sports-performance and mental-training coaches, one of which mentored Rafael Nadal, formerly the top-ranked tennis player in the world.
“It’s helped me tremendously,” she said of learning how to motivate herself through her sport’s toughest moments, no matter how fatigued or bad she feels.
“Usually I have little mantras like, ‘Go mommy go,’ … or ‘fast and light,’ ” Silitch said. “If I ever have a negative thought come into my head I try to have two positives. Like, ‘Oh my legs feel so heavy,’ ‘No, your legs are really light,’ and ‘Think about your quickness or your cadence,’ and those things really help. I’m really interested in that and it’s a neat thing to apply to coaching, for sure.”
For Silitch, instructing could her next step, especially as she and Michael plan their next move.
“We’re not sure if we’ll eventually work our way back to the states,” she said. “We both really love teaching, so maybe we’ll explore.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.