There's tough, and then there are ski mountaineers. Montana's Brandon French just climbed as much vertical up as he skied down to win his second U.S. national title in ski mountaineer racing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
French, who is now in his fifth season of ski mountaineer racing, won his first ski mountaineer national championship in 2008. "The most difficult part is the uphill, pushing yourself that hard aerobically," French told OnTheSnow. "It takes a combo of being fast on the uphill, fast on the downhill, and fast with transitions getting skins off and boots buckled."
Sanctioned ski mountaineer racing in the U.S. is little more than a decade old. U.S. races incorporate 4,000-6,000 feet in vertical climbing, a boot pack section, and black diamond run descents. Most courses contain several stages of skinning uphill and skiing downhill rather than just going up and down once.
The national championship at Jackson Hole lays out one of the toughest courses in North America. It bumps up the vertical to 7,700 feet to include five climbs and two boot pack sections with one up Corbet's Couloir. "There are lots of transitions: You take the skins off five times and put them on five times," added French.
Many skiers visiting Jackson Hole eye down the near vertical pitch of Corbet's Couloir and then pass on it, but those competing for the ski mountaineering national championships climb up the bugger carrying their skis. "It gets pretty steep at the top," French explained.
That's an understatement.
The pitch at the top is so steep that the resort installed a ladder and a rope line for climbing to the lip. "The Kicking Horse race has steep boot packs, but nothing as steep as where you have to climb a ladder," French said.
Racers also battle the elements in one piece Lycra suits with temperatures and conditions yo-yoing through extremes from the base area start to mountaintop. Mild weather at the bottom of the Jackson Hole race gave into full on winter at the top. "At the start line, it was 33 degrees, but when we got up higher, it was 18 degrees with 50 mph winds," said French. "My hands got really, really cold."
French finished the Jackson Hole course in 2:40.04. "I was tired, but wasn't super exhausted," said French. "It was a longer course so you have to pace yourself more."
But the day after he won the national championship at Jackson Hole, he jumped across the Tetons to Grand Targhee Resort for another competition. "Having races back-to-back like that showed who was fit," French said. "It took a while to get warmed up in the morning being tired from the day before. The last climb at Targhee is more than 2,000 feet, and everyone feels it."
Most U.S. races take place in ski resorts, tame by comparison to many European ski mountaineer races. Traditional ski mountaineer races in Europe follow backcountry courses with Class III and IV ridge climbing, clipping into ropes, and donning crampons in between ski segments.
Want to test your mettle? The next U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association sanctioned races are scheduled for Jan. 29 at Bridger Bowl Resort, Mont. and Crested Butte, Colo.; Jan. 29-30 at Whaleback Mountain, New Hampshire; and Jan. 31 at Winter Park Ski Resort, Colo. The complete U.S. race schedule is online.
See snippets from the national championship at Jackson Hole, courtesy of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort: