In the Tahoe area, we enjoy a climate that provides a long trail running season (for a mountain town) but also an off-season filled with many options due to our ample snowpack. While you could spend the winter drinking beer, watching Salomon videos, and crafting the ideal summer racing schedule, you could also spend the winter drinking beer and getting strong.
One of the most rapidly growing winter sports for ultra and trail runners is ski mountaineering and specifically skimo racing–it enhances endurance, build strength and is fun enough that it may even turn your “off-season” into a cold weather “on-season”. The Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA) is even trying to bring skimo to the Winter Olympics.
Well established in Europe and a few spots in the U.S., such as the Wasatch, skimo is gaining some traction here in the Sierras, as well as among the trail running community in general. Several notable runners spend the winter competing in skimo races including Killian Jornet, Rob Krar, Emelie Forsberg and Stevie Kremer. So logically it would follow that if you skimo this winter, you will win Western States and Hardrock this summer.
Skimo (aka ski mountaineering, rando racing, ski running, fitness skinning) is a pretty basic concept. First step is acquiring some super light AT skiing gear (see below). Next, attach climbing skins to the bottom of your skis. You then climb uphill on a ski run (or in the backcountry) using the traction from the skins to keep you from sliding back down. In some cases the pitch may even be steep enough that it is more efficient to actually take off your skis and boot pack up. Once at the top, peel your skins off, lock your heel down and proceed to ski like you would in a more traditional downhill fashion.
In training, you can obviously pick and choose how many laps up and down and which route you will take, but in races there will usually be several checkpoints and transitions from climbing to skiing and variety in terrain. Many races will actually have a short running segment to go along with the skinning and skiing, and some extreme races may have a more technical section involving ski crampons, ropes and harnesses.
For me, skimo is very similar in nature to running a very mountainous course—your heart rate can be quite high while ascending and the downhill provides a little time to recover aerobically, albeit with some technical concentration. Skimo is somewhat more demanding on your fitness, i.e. one hour of skimo is harder than one hour of trail running, although effort in both is obviously pace dependent. While there is a repetitive use component to skimo, it is substantially less than running and lacks most of the pounding and resultant stress. Of course you do expose yourself to more traumatic type injuries that could result from a crash (ACL, fractures, etc.)
I’ll cover the more race-centric gear here—if you are looking for primarily a backcountry experience you may want slightly heavier or more substantial gear as well as additional gear such as an avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe and a head full of avalanche/backcountry knowledge.
If you are planning on racing in sanctioned events there is a minimum weight requirement. The International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF) requires that skis be at least 160cm and combined with bindings must weigh at least 750 grams (1,500 per pair or 3.3 lbs) for men and 700 grams (1,400g/3.1 lbs per pair) for women and junior racers. This regulation is to ensure safety.
Boots—these are ridiculously light. High-end carbon race boots may only be a few ounces heavier than your running shoes, but even solid non-carbon boots such as the Scarpa Alien or Dynafit PDG, typically only weigh 800-900g (28-31 oz). Price range from $700 up to $3000 for some all carbon models—these may even come with a condo in Chamonix judging on the price.
Skis—also light and short. Be prepared for the folks at the ski shop to mock your “powder skis”. You could probably strap 4 or 5 of these skis together to resemble the big mountain boards that you will see in most ski shops these days. Typical length is around 160 cm and weight from 1300-1600g per pair. The length isn’t as dependent on the skier weight as traditional skis, but heavier racers may want to bump up to a 170. There is not as much sidecut as you might be used to with dimensions being around 98-65-80 for most skimo skis. Familiar brands and models include the Dynafit PDG and DNA, Voile Wasatch Speed Project and Ski Trab Gara, Atomic, La Sportiva and Hagan. Price range $500-$1000.
Bindings—these are pretty much all “tech” style (think pins) and there are a number of choices from the typical players (Dynafit, Hagan, Ski Trab, Plum, Fischer). Be aware that most race models don’t have much of a riser and don’t have ski brakes so you may need to buy a separate lease or restraint for training at a resort. Also most race bindings have a fixed release (i.e. non adjustable) and are geared to stay on. You can increase weight and buy a slightly heavier model if you want these features. Typical weight is 200-400g per pair and run $400-$800.
Skins—three types, nylon, mohair and a mix. Mohair is lighter and glides better, nylon is more durable. Most skins for skimo attach at the tip, do not have a tail piece and rely on the adhesive for full attachment. They will run almost the length of the ski, although some racers will trim them to end just behind the heel. Price $100-$200.
That’s the basics although other things to consider are poles (some use regular ski poles while lighter weight skimo specific poles are made), a helmet–many use a lighter weight, breathable, climbing style helmet (Black Diamond, Camp, Salomon) rather than a full on ski helmet, and a lightweight backpack that can hold skis if needed on a boot pack section. Some races do require other safety gear such as the aforementioned transceiver, shovel, probe or technical climbing gear. While most races are shorter, some races are “ultra” distances, such as the Grand Traverse in Colorado, and since you might spend 16+ hours on the trail require bivy gear as well.
Finally, a bit on attire–it’s Euro (meaning there is a lot of lycra on race day). There are skimo specific race suits that are made of lycra and have various pockets for your skins, hydration, etc. That being said there really is no “uniform” just like in ultra running. You can go race style with the lycra, you can go hipster with skinny jeans and a flannel, and for the truly ultra light you could go naked. I typically dress like I’m going for a winter run and have an extra windlayer to throw on for the descent.
Buying all new gear can be an investment, but there are opportunities to pick up used equipment.
Training and Technique:
Training is similar to running with solid training involving a little variety throughout the week. The three basics are endurance (your base runs), speed (your tempo runs) and strength (your hill runs). For an endurance workout something in the 1-3 hour range at a moderate effort will suffice for most people unless you are specifically training for a longer race or just really enjoy being out all day. For tempo I usually try to pick a climb that is not too steep (i.e. doesn’t require making switchbacks/kick turns to climb on skins) and then ramping up the effort in bursts. Most of my training here is similar to “fartleks” in that I do multiple shorter bursts rather than one long sustained effort. Every skimo outing involves hills so in reality every skimo outing is a strength workout, but you can enhance this by picking steeper climbs some days. This is one of skimo’s great advantages for runners in that you will build strength (not only leg strength but core and upper body strength) that will last through the summer running season. And if your arms somewhat resemble a T-rex like mine then you might even move from a 3 inch bicep to 4 inches…
Regarding technique, if you are not an experienced skier you may want to consider taking a few traditional downhill lessons at one of our fine local resorts. While the uphill technique is somewhat intuitive and can be picked up pretty quickly, downhill technique requires a little more fine-tuning. For skinning up, try to drive your weight through your heels, stand up straight, use your poles for power, and don’t lift your feet off of the ground.
Additionally, practicing the transitions (skinning to skiing and vice versa) is useful. There are also many videos on transition technique to help out. https://vimeo.com/17093476
You can buy a training guide with many ideas on technique, training, etc here: http://www.skintrack.com/manual-for-ski-mountaineering-racing/
Where to go:
In our area there are a few resorts with established uphill policies. Sugarbowl allows uphill travel with routes up each of the main peaks between 6am and 7pm as long as they are not actively grooming or working on a particular run. You can buy an uphill season pass for around $150 for the season or $25/day.
Diamond Peak also allows uphill travel but only when the resort is closed unless it is a sanctioned event.
Other resorts are becoming more receptive to the idea, and here is a link to other uphill policies http://tahoeskimo.com/uphill/
Finally, the backcountry is always open and always free. Of course, you need to be well versed in avalanche awareness, snow safety, and overall backcountry skill before getting out there. There are many local course and classes to help improve competence. http://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org/education
I hope that this helps get you started. Similar to trail running, the more you go the more you will find out what works for you. We are trying to build a community here so that we can all share and learn from each other and perhaps introduce the skimo world to the trucker hat. Check out the Tahoe skimo webpage http://tahoeskimo.com and facebook page to keep informed on events and outings.
Hope to see you and your lycra out there soon,
And there are dozens of quality blogs out there as well