After about 45 min on an Italian autostrada (highway) we split off onto winding mountain roads going up and over several mountain passes. We went through Briancon and eventually to the mouth of the Ecrins valley where the competitions were to be held. The Ecrins National Park consists mainly of the Massif des Ecrins a series of high peaks, many of which are glaciated and over 4,000m (13,000 ft). In fact we were only a few miles from the steep skiing mecca of La Grave. The pass to La Grave is closed in the winter and our hotel was located at the end of the paved road in the Ecrins valley in a small town called Pelvoux. Directly across from the hotel was a small ski resort with one lift and two pomas. Climbing steeply to the lookers right of the resort was Mt Pelvoux, nearly 9000 ft above the valley floor.
On Saturday morning, with the teams race the following day, we checked in as a team and headed out to recon the course. We drove to the resort of Puy St Vincent, just down the valley from where we were staying, outside the town of Vallouise. Max Taam, John Gaston, Andy Dorais and I rode the lifts to the top of the second climb, and then completed the course from there (minus the 4th climb which was essentially an out and back). The snow was fantastic even on tiny race skis and borrowed gear (Dom and I were still missing bags). Having too much fun we called the other guys and told them not to wait for us at the van. We skied all the way back into Vallouise where the finish would be held and then hitched a ride back to the hotel.
Our bags had thankfully been delivered while we were out and I was starting to feel good about the following day’s race. We attended the opening ceremony and then headed back to the hotel to lay low. Interestingly during the ceremony, the ISMF president shared that the IOC would rule on whether ski mountaineering would become an Olympic sport by this May.
Sunday morning we all shuttled down to Vallouise for the start of the teams race. The race got underway at 8:45am - the start was fast! The tops teams flew away on the flat XC track. It was immediately apparent that kicking and gliding was a huge weakness of ours in the US, as we bobbed up and down jogging the flat section. Nonetheless the track did start to go up. I was feeling fantastic, keeping my pace in check and taking the occasional glance back to find Andy behind me. The first climb was pretty mellow in grade but still gained about 2,800 ft. The first descent was incredibly short, just a few hundred feet right into a packed transition zone with dozens of other racers. The second climb was mostly kick turns through the woods ascending the shoulder of the Puy St Vincent ski area. The technical skiing suited Andy well and the two of us were holding our own with Luke Nelson and Marshall Thomson next to us and the top Canadian team just ahead. There were plenty of others in the mix too, Solvenians, Austrians, etc.
After 2,000 ft of the next climb disaster struck - my skins were failing. I stopped and swapped skins only to have my next pair fail shortly after. I was gunning it trying to catch back up since Andy had a bit of a gap at this point. Andy gave me one spare and then another at the next up transition. Several minutes were wasted, Max and John passed us along with many other teams. We babied our skins, since we each only had one working pair now that I had borrowed Andy’s spares. Each transition was painfully slow. On the third climb (1,000 ft) Andy was climbing stronger and it was all I could do to hang on.
The fourth climb I finally started to feel better, we were making up ground on some other teams and Greg Ruckman and Scott Simmons were coming into view. We cramponed up for the final steep icy booter. We passed one team there (Austrians?) and then after a quick transition we passed a team of Andorrans in the steep choke of the next descent.
Having previewed the course the day before I felt confident on the descent. I gapped Andy a few times, but he was never far behind. Towards the bottom of the descent I saw Greg and Scott, which added motivation to ski harder. I skied up on their tails, but couldn’t pass since I couldn’t see Andy! Finally I saw a white suit behind. We skied into the transition, but the white suit wasn’t Andy. He had gotten held up by another team. I transitioned slowly and waited, finally and definitely outside the legal distance (50m) Andy arrived. He had a good transition and soon we were back on the heels of Greg and Scott.
The final descent we both skied well and passed our countrymen, only to have them claw their way back on the XC skate in Vallouise. There was one final transition skinning to the water fountain in the middle of town. It turned into an all out sprint where Andy and I managed to pull ahead. We came thousands of miles across the ocean to race each other!
Across the line I was happy to find Dominique who had her own adventures that morning trying to spectate the race. They involved trudging up and down Puy St Vincent after inconsistencies about being allowed to ride lifts without skis!
I couldn’t help but think about the “what ifs” of my skins problems. In hindsight the issue was waxing my skis the night before and not scraping well enough. Nevertheless 20th was not bad and the US men did respectably (10th, 17th, 20th, 21st) even cracking the top 10! The US women did even better with a 5th place finish for Janelle Smiley and Stevie Kremer.
Monday was the sprint race and without fresh legs on the men’s team or dialed transitions none of us got out of qualifying! However, the women fared better - Nina Silitch crushed it and took the first US podium at a World Champs in 2nd place. The sprint race is approximately 3 min long with a skin, bootpack, skin, ski through giant slalom gates and into a skate finish. It is very technical, touching all aspects of skiing and very intense with the short duration. Throw in 5 other racers at once and it is fun to watch! With 18” of new snow, a rest day the following day and Nina’s success the atmosphere at dinner was celebratory.
The following day John, Max, Marshall and I went out to recon the individual course. We went right to the top of the second climb via a lift and poma, skied down the ascent and then rode back up again. By the second lap the guides had begun to put in the skin track to the top of the course along a knife edge ridge. When we caught up to them we chatted with one of the guides. To my excitement he brought up Mt Pelvoux as a great ski mountaineering objective. When I pressed for more details he suggested it for May or June, not Thursday! We took in the awesome bluebird day with fresh powder in sublime surroundings before transitioning and starting down. We were then treated to what we unanimously agreed was the best powder run on race gear ever! We checked out a bit more of the course and then skied into Vallouise for lunch.
At this point in the week the days were beginning to blend together. We had another hang out session in “living room”. The hotel common area was the only place anyone got internet reception - slow as it was. There was another team dinner in the hotel which I had begun to look forward to each night. We had a team briefing for the next day’s individual race and received our numbers. Mine was 77, the highest in the race, a placement which which I planned on improving the following day!
The day of the individual race was another beautiful day, sunny and crisp in the morning with warming already happening by the race start, 9 am. The race start was fast and again the kick and glide of the field was impossible to ignore as we flew up a gentle groomed run. Despite wasting energy running, I made it to the double skin track in good place just behind Reiner Thoni of Canada. The pace slow as we bottlenecked and I got a nice reprieve from the fast start. We had a few dozen kick turns through the woods up to a couloir in the rocks above. At which point we switched over to booting and exited out on the plateau and village of Puy Aillaud. I held my position over the coming flats and then more kick turns as we gained another ridge. There was a quick descent and after transitioning, John was coming in behind me. He had been making up ground after the booter. At this point the sun was in full effect on the southeast aspect we were on. I was getting hot! The fast pace was also taking a bit of a toll, I felt heavy. I tried to back off a bit so that I didn’t completely implode. John caught up and passed me and I started to lose contact with the main pack in front. There was a pretty big gap to the racers behind.
At the top of the second climb I was still out mostly alone, but I did get a glimpse of Marshall’s orange helmet making up some ground. I felt like I had a pretty slow descent in the chopped powder but no changes occurred. Max Taam made up a bunch of ground on that descent and entered the transition as I left. After a kick turn or two on the last climb I kicked off a skin. Max went by and I managed to hook the bungee back on. The final descent was fun and fast.
The fast start probably hurt my overall performance, but I was happy to go all in and see how it panned out. Now it is back to the drawing board, I learned a lot of good lessons during these races and have plenty of ideas for training going forward.
I managed to borrow some skimo gear from Janelle for Dominique so she could try skinning and skiing on Thursday. After a leisurely breakfast we headed out to watch the vertical race start - on skis. The original plan was to ski up and down the nordic trail which went through the valley, but she didn’t want to miss (or me to miss) the vertical finish, so we hopped on the ski lift. We rode up 2k vertical feet and would have a trial by fire on the way down!
With everyone trying to get on the lift to see the finish we missed the top finishers, but made it just in time to see the US men and women finish. The vertical race finish is incredible to watch since nearly half of the competitors collapse at the finish line! Race officials take skis off of athletes as they lay on the ground, lungs and legs burning.
After everyone finished Dom and I headed over to a groomer and started our descent. The piste we were on would be considered solidly blue square or harder skiing in the US. Not bad for her first run! Apart from all of the race traffic skiing down on us, the run went well. Although I think she was wishing she could trade the minimalist rando race gear for her snowboard by the bottom. She was a good sport and put up with my attempt at ski instructing.
We went back to the hotel where I met up with Andy, Scott, Micah and Mark Smiley for one last ski adventure. We set off skinning up the valley on the closed snow covered road, eventually passing through the nearly empty town of Ailefroide. The mellow skinning was welcome since most of our legs were spent, most of all Andy’s and Scott’s after competing in the vertical that morning. After a few miles we began to see a wide chute which seemed like it might “go”. As we got closer Andy and Mark recognized it as a line they spotted from a previous day on La Blanche. 4 miles from the hotel and only 2,000 ft higher we turned off and start our way up the chute. After about 1500 ft, Scott and Micah thought it wise to bail since they were competing in the relay race the next day. On their heels, taking advantage of our nice skin track came Luke and Chad.
Andy and I traded trail breaking up the chute, choosing the lookers left branch when it split. There seemed like an obvious saddle below a rocky peak which we both wondered if we could stand on top of before dark! We kept chugging away and what had appeared to be a saddle kept extending away from us. The incline kept rising as well and we chose to regroup with the others, now a party of five. Everyone agreed to press on and we switched to booting. We continued to make progress despite some punchy snow and the rocky peak which had been escaping us was now very much within our grasp. To get there without scrambling, we had to cross a different aspect and chutelette. With the change in snow and some trepidation about the late hour we flipped it around. If only we had another hour of daylight we would have scrambled the last 300 vert to the summit! Still it was more adventure than I had anticipated for that afternoon - I had left unprepared with no water or food. 10 snowballs later and some bummed candy bars I was standing on the top of a 5,000 ft chute with over 7,000 ft of skiing back to the hotel!
The skiing was variable, the light was nearly gone but it was fantastic nonetheless. We skied straight back to the hotel, popped skis off and traded stories with the rest of
the team over dinner.
The next day would be a whirlwind of travel which would hopefully land us in Moab, UT for a trail run on Saturday. This weekend had been in the works before I qualified - her parents, our friends Garrett and Kristina and numerous others were going to be there. We packed up our gear, slept for a few hours, drove to Torino at 3 am with Andy and connected through Charles de Gaulles where we nearly missed our connection to SLC due to a massive passport check queue.
We arrived in Salt Lake City feeling tired but Dom and I both agreed we felt better than when we landed in Italy on our departure. I dealt with another lost bag and then Garrett drove Dom and I home where we grabbed running shoes. Having now met up with Kristina I drove the four of us down to Moab. Four hours later due we had arrived and I was ready to pass out, too tired to eat. The other three went out for some food and thankfully brought me back some pizza. My stomach changed its mind. We said hello to Dominique’s parents who were next door and then promptly passed out for the night.
I woke up before my alarm, wide awake at 5 am and to my surprise feeling pretty good. I went through my pre-race routine for the fourth time that week. Since we had missed the check in the night before, I was stuck with my original choice - the 55km (34mi). Garrett, Carol (Dom’s mom) and I were in for the ultra and Dom and John (her Dad) were going to run the 33km (20mi) together. It was my first ultra and Dom’s longest run ever straight off a week of travel and racing!
I wished Dom luck and headed to the start line with Garrett and Carol. At the start line I thought it was pretty novel how simple running is after dealing with the mental gear checks and rechecks in skimo racing. The gun went off and I rolled along with the lead pack for the first few miles. I had a healthy respect for the distance, so I let the battle rage on in front of me and slipped off the back of the lead chasers around mile 4. I was running alone taking in the scenery, laughing to myself about the absurdity of all this and ticking over nicely.
At mile 15, Karl Melzter, an ultra runner badass passed me and I ran with him until mile 18 when I could feel my hamstrings protesting the pace. I took 2 dixie cups of coke at each aid station and felt fantastic energy wise. From mile 20 to 27 my legs got abused by the slick rock (the term in Moab for the bedrock jutting out of the desert). It’s as hard as concrete and not running since October was rapidly catching up to me. Now it was my quads protesting. The last 6 miles were a struggle even though they were all downhill! Just before the finish line I caught up to Dom and her Dad who had started the 33km race after us. I got some water and a kiss - a perfect ending to the race and a crazy week. We did it!