Sunday, February 11, 2018

Black is the new White!

Snoopy knows Best!
Uphill skiing has been making big gains across the country and much of the learning curve actually begins in resort ski areas where skiers of all abilities can progress safely and within their comfort zone learning to feel out the sometimes complicated assortment of new and somewhat technical gear. 

Ski areas are the perfect venue for uphill events as they offer a go-to-place with almost guaranteed conditions for the majority of the winter. When conditions are suitable, race directors get creative and stitch together incredibly rewarding tours through gladed terrain and backcountry areas adjacent to the mountain operations. Often times you can be tricked into really believing you’re in the middle of the wilderness with a dozen of the strangest people you have ever known. 

More than 20” of recent snowfall on the White Mountains set the stage for two unique uphill ski racing events at the most traditional, old-time throwback ski areas of New England. Folks were treated to a special “double black” weekend of winter fun at Black Mountain in Jackson, New Hampshire and the other Black Mountain in Rumford, Maine. This was confusing and not alone in thinking I was signing up to race at the same mountain all weekend long. Yes. Different Black Mountains and both are your quintessential mom and pops ski areas.

Andrew getting  people stoked on uphilling!
Ski the Whites based out of Black Mountain NH held their sixth FridayNight Lights Uphill Series on Feb 9 with more than 40 participants of all abilities showing up for the blackened adventure. They knocked it out of the park with the most challenging 1 or 2 lap course featuring a full mountain skin with dozens of kick turns in foot deep powder and short but, relentless boot pack through a steep, boulder strewn glade. Without full gear of your own, a full rental fleet is available onsite by advanced reservation for those looking to explore the mountain in this absurdly fun way. Just show up a little early to get familiar with the gear before the 7:00pm start time.

Registration upstairs in the lodge adjacent to the Lostbo Pub
Photo Credit: Ski the Whites

Typical cast of characters with high powered headlamps
Photo Credit: Ski the Whites

Blazing the skin track uphill
Photo Credit: Ski the Whites
Tristan Williams won the night with an incredible time of 39:32 on the ~4.3 mile course with ~2300 vertical ascent. Jeremiah Hawkins in 42:49 and I scraped together a third place result in 46:09. Darkness fell upon me, smothered by Dave Lamb blazing trail of light, shooting down the slope at earth shattering speeds. I was barely able to cross the finish line with a mere 5 seconds ahead.

It should be noted that I have subconsciously been chasing Dave for the last 14 years since finishing dead last at the 2004 Tuckerman Inferno with a time of 7hrs 15 mins while Dave championed the event in about 4hrs 15 mins. I am never going to be anywhere near the likes of a Dave Lamb but going head to head with one of the greats was a special surprise when I found out he was the competitor hot on my tail and furiously flying down that mountain after me.

Course layout and link to the results
Racers in ski-to-skin transition require serious focus to get it right and fast
Photo Credit: Ski the Whites

Apres' feshta in the Lostbo Pub
One things for certain, the terrain and layout of a course under darkness, guided by torch lights along with headlamps made for a memorable and lung busting experience. Well over 100 different individual participants have showed for this event since its inception and averaging 40 each night this series is off to a great start. Being from central Massachusetts it’s great to bump shoulders every so often with those outdoor enthusiasts who call the Whites home. You can only expect bigger things to come as the uphill scene at Black Mountain NH gains some serious traction.

Great sponsors and participants are all entered into the raffle
Photo Credit: Ski the Whites
After the final competitors were swept off the course, après festivities were business as usual.  An open raffle as a prize giving for all series participants and was a nice way to close out the evening in the pub. Everyone went home happy wanting more.

Classy New England Charm at Black Mountain Rumford, Maine

Now onto Black Mountain of Rumford, Maine where on Saturday Feb 10 held their first USSMA sanctioned category 2 Skimo race that featured 4 laps on the same uphill and downhill route, rinse and repeat. Recreational division offered a slightly less aggressive but still very committing and nonetheless challenging 2 laps.

Race briefing with officials explaining the route and rules of the day
I was somewhat skeptical travelling farther than I expected to participate in a first year event and with winter making it difficult to execute the original planned  route through their extensive backcountry terrain, some added cause for concern.  A category 2 course is characterized by the USSMA as the following: “approximately 5,000 ft. vertical, 5-10 transitions, 50% off-piste, winning time of 1.5 hours or greater.” This backup course met those requirements exactly and nothing short of spectacular through pristine forest.

Race officials from the Chisholm Ski Club!
Photo Credit: Chisholm Ski Club

Treated with another 4" refreshed powder overnight the conditions were outstanding, though, fresh snowfall made for a slippery, skin track moving through the woods. Five crazy competitors showed up in the 4 lap course and there were about a dozen more in the recreational division. Small numbers for the first year hosting an uphill race but just showing up is the hard part and all were treated to an action packed event.

Pristine and untouched glades are just waiting for you at Black Mountain Maine

The course sent racers up a meandering skin track with dozens of kick turns up through a thicket of well maintained birch, spruce and poplar forest. This gladed ascent would surprisingly make the thought of having to lap the same route 4 times quite entertaining and leave you longing for more. Racers held together tightly with Milan pulling away despite having to work extra hard to lead that charge on soft, slippery skintrack. 

On your mark, get set, go!
Photo Credit: Deanna Kersey

Milan tearing up the course in 22 minute complete lap times!
Photo Credit: Deanna Kersey
Abe Meyerhofer and I battled for almost the entirety of the race. He pulled out ahead of me slightly bombing down the 1150 vertical descent, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder,  in a skier cross like Super G.  We were both giggling with excitement. Adding onto a slight lead, he commanded the second and third laps uphill, making focused and quick transition looks easy. However, I made a move and burned some matches to make up an almost 50 second deficit so beginning on the 4th lap we were going tip to tip, toe to toe, once again. It was all or nothing on this 4th lap and well, I was hoping for a bewildered, bonking Abe but he had another idea with some matches of his very own.  He lit me up and pulled ahead on this final lap almost catching Josh Flanagan in second place.  Abe threw down the fastest complete lap of all competitors in a ridiculous 21:16! He bested me by 3 minutes on this final lap alone, crushing my hopes and dreams. Impressive!

Photo Credit: Deanna Kersey
Photo Credit: Deanna Kersey

Milan with the one and only Craig Zurhorst

Headlines: “Kubala Wins Mid Winter SkiMo Classic”

Milan Kubala convincingly won the event on the day with an incredible time of 1:29:10 on the ~8.1 mile course weith ~4600 vertical ascentBested by Josh (2nd) and Abe (3rd), I finished respectively with a time of 1:38:43 (4th) with anchorman John Wulff (5th). Here is the link to the results.

An energetic and friendly team of volunteers really show the spirit shared at a local mountain operation like Black in Maine. Black Mountain is home to the Chisholm Ski Club and a group that goes by the name Angry Beavers.  These are the people we need to thank for managing the well developed glades throughout the mountain and used on race day.

Transition area ski-to-skin

With race officials at each transition area and Ski Patrol on course, the event was so well organized and the biggest surprise of the day came announcing the race and all participants over the PA System.  This broadcast continued with an entire play by play coming in and out of transition as we completed each full lap. The full scale assault on the mountain could be heard across the entire base area and lodge likening of a world class competition. Hilarious!

Someone was delighted to inform me that the chairlift took 13 minutes to the reach the summit and very interested in how fast we were moving top to bottom. A little mind blowing to find out this quaint little “Fearsome Fivesome” was laying down 22 to 24 minute 2300 total vertical lap times. People were shockingly in amazement afterwards at the pub telling us we were showing up the chairlifts.  Now that’s horsepower!

Did I mention this already? Craig Durhorst broadcasting the play by play the entire competition!
Photo Credit: Chisholm Ski Club

Craig Zurhorst was not only the announcer in the competition box but the MC at the pub for the awards and prize giving.  The event was well organized and his enthusiasm and positive energy was something special to behold.  Its no wonder why the pub was PACKED at high noon on a Saturday when the powder was perfect and glades were deep.

Sometimes lowering your expectation just a little sets the stage to get blown away by the result. We are all hoping to bring it “Back at Black” in 2019.  As long as winter cooperates, Black has the extensive backcountry terrain to make possible quite an epic “off-piste” course and put their Mid-Winter Skimo Classic on the map for years to come. 

Mark, Josh, Abe, Milan, John were the "Fearsome Fivesome" on the day!

With the addition of the USSMA Black Mountain ME Skimo Classic and honorable mention to the powerfully packed FNL uphill series at Black Mountain NH there is no doubt this sport is taking new meaning to the words “double back:”

Skimo can be summed both up and down by moving past those menacing "double black" gates and entering uncharted, unfamiliar territory, taking to the hills on the ski track less traveled and taking ownership of earning each and every one of your turns. After freeing the heels, you will begin to hear an all too familiar catch phrase “your going the wrong way” direction, my only recommendation is a light hearted response of, "I'm the best skier on this mountain" that assuredly returns a good chuckle.

As a sport, as an activity, my beginning experiences with uphill skiing and touring has brought me back to both backcountry and mountains high, the resurgence is real.  It reverberates through every ounce of my being having found a new way to venture through Winter.

View of Lincoln Ridge from Cannon at High Noon on February 9, 2018 (Franconia Notch, NH)

Check out this Beginners Guide to Uphill Skiing if you want to learn some more details and its crazy cousin, Skimo. Catamount Trail Association and NE Rando Race Series are the other games in town to get together with crazy, like minded individuals actively looking up for adventure. Trust me you will really start looking up that hill differently and finding secrets about life you never knew were possible. 

Always remember to "Work Hard, Train Hard, Play Harder!"

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Crowbar Backcountry Skimo Race - One Thousand and One Kick Turns!

“I discovered the middle path of stillness within speed, calmness within fear, and I held it longer and quieter than ever before.” Steve McKinney

Photo by Mark Trahan

What is Skimo? It’s actually the frozen, slippery way to say Randonee Racing which is actually French for “can’t telemark!”  When ski touring in the backcountry crosses over into competitive racing formats for skinning up, skiing down and booting all around mountains high; that is Skimo.  For others, Skimo, short for ski mountaineering, is scrambling high mountain peaks with ultralight technical equipment, packing the bare minimum, moving with efficiency and speed on snow and ice covered mountains delivering a surgical strike on some sacred, seldom skied, coveted line.... That is also Skimo. I prefer the Skimo where I wear a form fitting lycra skin-suit just to look fancy going fast up and down groomers in New England.

Skimo found me through my multisport friend Josh Flanagan who suggested to give it a try after a successful comeback to the Tuckerman Inferno in 2015 .  A comfortably advanced alpine skier, I considered backcountry skiing but never the motivation to pursue another activity that required plentiful amounts new gear.  

With blessings and support of my awesome wife, I began earning turns skiing uphill at local resorts with convenient uphill policies. Gained some experience both skinning uphill and most importantly, learning to ‘quickly’ transition between skin-to-ski and ski-to-skin. Started competing in the NE Rando Race Series directed by Jonathan Shefftz and joined his crew for summer turns off the summit of Mt Adams, WA and obligatory dawn patrols on the Mt Hood Palmer Snowfield.  Skimo was starting to take me places I previously could have only dreamed of visiting. 

Overlooking magnificent Sink Hollow in the Cache National Forest
Photo by Tyler King

Another one of those least expected places to visit was located in the Northern Wasatch Mountains of Utah. A 45 minute drive to the Northeast of Logan passing through scenic Logan Canyon was a place just far enough away from Salt Lake City that consistently remains an untouched, wintery paradise. Flying into SLT at midnight on Jan 28th and driving 2 hours North to Logan, 3 hours of sleep then off to race registration for the 2017 Crowbar Backcountry Skimo Race. So much for acclimating and resting up.  The price to pay for a 4-day whirlwind ski tour of the wondrous Wasatch.

 Race registration in the hollow. Single digits chilling an assembling crowd
 Photo by Wayne Wurtsbaugh
Arriving in Sink Hollow, a wide open space nestled between Beaver Mountain Resort and the 9200’ lone summit of Beavers Envy in the Cahche National Forest. The lone summit is a backcountry playground and the prime location for a morning of mid-winter Skimo racing. The terrain is accessed via the trailhead at Sink Hollow on the way to the resort.  Crowbar is organized by the enthusiastic, high energy team from Nordic United, a Logan nonprofit that delivers on its promise to offer outstanding array or winter sports and recreation in the surrounding Cache National Forest.  From days leading up to the race, it takes an army of volunteers to pull off an event that starts and finishes exclusively in the backcountry, never crossing into resort grounds.

An army of volunteers out several days before the event setting skin-tracks, bootpacks and flagging the downhill runs.
Photo by Erik Syrstad
Photographer Wayne Wurtsbaugh and friend at a proper backcountry checkpoint during 2016 Crowbar

             Typical Backcountry Checkpoint at Crowbar
                                Photo by Tyler King
Temperatures were a stiff -3F and just trying to stay with no luxury, sheltered within the typical front side confines of a ski lodge; thus affected my time management.  Not to mention the distraction that comes from being surrounded in the hustle and bustle of an excited group of backcountry enthusiasts and competitors. This leads me to my worst start in my personal short history of Skimo.

Participants choose between a 10 mile long full course with over 6000' elevation or a short course roughly half that distance and elevation. The full course was broken into race and heavy metal division depending on the weight of the ski/binding combination.  Either way, any choice was going to be a big challenge and excellent time had by all.

Overheard rumblings that the race would start later than intended; I got too comfortable.  An announcement was called out that all backcountry checkpoints would soon be in position and the race would promptly begin in 15 minutes. I was not dressed or remotely ready and scrambled to the starting line with less than 30 seconds to spare.  I had not completely clipped into the binding pins on the right toe piece and lost my ski off the start. Passed by at least 40 people.... Embarrassing!

The always, heart pounding lead-off where everything fell apart underneath me.
Photo by Matthew Halton, Cache Valley Daily

Racers leading the charge, slipping into dual skin track lanes.
 Photo by Wayne Wurtsbaugh
The event started with a long 2.3 mile ~16% grade approach, some 2000’ in elevation gain above the hollow, followed by several short, steep 700ft (26%) and 1300ft (31%) climbs and then one big push, summiting Beavers Envy featuring the more technical skin-boot-skin-ski transition. Had to produce a really hard initial effort through the calf deep powder along the edges of the skinning lanes, making moves between a dual tracks and finally locking into a steady 15th position, far off the lead pack. I was able to maintain a solid 2.6mph average on this opening climb.

Following each climb were bomber glade runs, weaving in-and-out of trees, floating through pristine powder meadows and occasionally breaking through the hard crust of the previous days ski tracks. The first descent, flanking ridge-lines to the foot of the mountain was outstanding.  The runs progressively got steeper and more challenging with already burning quads negotiating power stashes and dodging a continuous barrage of trees. Throw out any inclination for resembling anything remotely close to a performance turn when your skiing 65mm under foot on ultra light rando race skis weighing much less than 1000g each.  I was lacking anything in the form of control on the skinniest skis imaginable!

My personal hero, Ryan Choi showing us how to lay fresh lines in Skimo.
Photo by Amalgamated Photography

The rest of the race was as one would expect in Skimo. I exchanged places with a few people, back and forth little battles engaging each other in good camaraderie.  I was pacing myself strong and with confidence but that hard push off the start caught up with me and the altitude finished the job. Cameron Peterson, one of the original organizers of the event, made a move on me in a later section of steep skintrack where hundreds of  kick turns were getting in my way.  In fact, what’s a kick turn again?  We don’t have those back East! Next, I lost my right Pomoca race skin due to the frigid cold and second place finishing Emily Brackelsberg whom was hot on my tail pulled out in front of me.  A fairly quick exchange to backup skins tucked down, deep into the kangaroo pouch of my race suit and I was off. The gap further widened as I finally submitted to the altitude to ensure I would cross that finish line.  I was warned that it would happen, but did not know what to expect.  I was going strong, then a sudden shortness of breath and I could not turnover the pace, working harder, going slower.

Cameron ripping skins fast in transition.
Photo by Wayne Wurtsbaugh
Emily "Utah Speed Girl" steadfast and efficient in transition
Photo by Wayne Wurtsbaugh
High Altitude: Coming directly from sea level and at a base elevation of 7000ft I was advised not be too shocked about any decrease in aerobic performance or disappointed in the result.  What would a loss in performance feel like having never competed in high altitude? 

Learning to ‘quickly’ transition between skin-to-ski and ski-to-skin is very important in Rando Racing.
Photo by Wayne Wurtsbaugh
I noticeably slowed down to a crawl on the final climb which proved difficult to maintain respiratory efficiency.  Short, rapid breaths ensued which required backing off the pace to comfortably manage a deep, diaphragmatic breathing rate. Pace slowed, while average heart rate still stuck at threshold but fortunate to be in complete control with no major spiking. Opportunity for short recoveries in transition were still in command as normally expected.  The loss in performance came on the final 1.4 mile, 1900ft (24%) climb I was only able to maintain a moving pace of 1.6mph at 171HR.  I just kept in control of my now slowly, progressing pace and was having the time of my life out there.

There is much to be said about living high, training low unless you were born low like me.....  Acclimation is important and based on my Hear Rate Variability results; it suggests that 48 hours minimum would be required for both resting heart rate and overall heart, respiratory functions to normalize.

Powder Skiing:  The views on the descents were delightful, I had few opportunities to briefly consume my surroundings; an awe inspiring landscape surrounding the hollow below, with nearby ridge lines and far away mountain summits covered in a white, wintery wonderland.

Skimo certainly requires plentiful amounts of new gear!
Photo by Wayne Wurtsbaugh

Skimo requires, without question, some of the lightest, most technical combination of skis, bindings and boots in the market today. When performance and efficiency in the uphill approach is utmost important, durability comes into question and being a weight weenie is an understatement. It was quite the challenge skiing through all that powder on these skinny rando race skis. My current kit features Atomic Ultimate 65 WC with Plum 135 tech bindings and Dynafit DY.N.A. EVO race mountaineering boots

I toppled and tumbled countless times. More fluffy, puffy wipe-outs in this event than I have in the last 50 days skiing combined! Dropping lines between trees with burning quads with little control made each run feel like that final run of a long day front side, lift serviced when you decide to drop the gladed bumps one last time. Despite a sense of helplessness, lacking control, I picked up the pieces and pushed on, through the respiratory wall and the beginnings of creeping tremors, cramping up in the inner thighs on the final 200ft skin ascent before the ski to skate into the finish line.

Viewed from an open meadow mid-slope capturing the racers dropping the upper section of the final big descent

Dropping out of the upper slopes, trying not to crash into this well positioned photographer!
Photo by Amalgamated Photography
Competitor Eric Bunce was working the race course hard at the top of the pack but broke a ski on the remnants of a snowmobile track hardened in a hard pack ice crust from snowmobile traffic down low. The durability of rando race skis is always going to be a variable.It is not uncommon to hear about a racer forced to drop out at the end of the days competition.  My result was 14th overall of 26 with a time of 3:30:11 about an hour outside of the top three competitors on the podium.

Nina Silitch doing what she does best... All smiles and Skimo!
Photo by Tyler King
Jason Boro in transition.  Pro styles!
Photo by Wayne Wurtsbaugh
At the finish, I caught up with Jason Borro from SkimoCo who personally delivered an order of amazing SkiTrab Attivo goggles to my attention.  What first class service! Another favorite moment was catching up with America’s most decorated Skimo athlete, Nina Silitch whom I had luckily crossed paths with at some awesome events back in New England before relocating to Park City.  She is doing amazing things in the Skimo community and wishes to her ongoing success!

“Earning Your Turns” transcends skiing to new levels; it captures moments of peaceful solitude as you negotiate terrain and landscapes in your winter surroundings.  All heart and lungs on the way up, tapping into physical performance and then reap the rewarding experience of ripping the freshest lines, less traveled on the return trip.  Euphoric state of mind, unlike any other sport I have been involved.

Junior competitor reaping rewards. Well earned, hard days effort.
Photo by Mark Trahan
Daphnee, Nick and I at finish
Trade "Mark" Photo Selfie
Crowbar was nothing less than spectacular, showcasing the strength of Skimo racing in Utah from the top of the competition right down to the future generation of junior competitors.  Big shout-out to friends Nick Gottlieb and Daphnee Tuzlak in Logan for their invite and hospitality, making this trip a reality for me. To the University of Utah graduate students welcoming me into their inner circle for an overnight celebration at the Beaver Mountain Yurt very reminiscent of my college days.  

2017 Cache Regional Overland Winter Backcountry Adventure Race!
Photo by Wayne Wurtsbaugh
The Skimo community in Utah is an outstanding group of individuals coming together with unending desire to share their love for the outdoors in ways I never thought possible. I will be back (someday) with sights set to compete in the popular Wasatch Powder Keg, however, the Crowbar is going to be really hard to pass up.... Everyone should race the Crowbar at least one time for a guaranteed one-of-a-kind experience.....  

Three cheers to Nordic United; the race directors, volunteers and sponsors that consistently pull off a race of this magnitude.  You are all responsible for keeping the dream alive!

This photo is for Jonathan!
Burning the midnight oil in the Beaver Mountain Yurt with some much needed flag repairs.  Green flags typically get stomped and stepped on at kick turns in the skin tracks. The red flags tend to get wrecked in the downhills as racers hang the tightest lines against them.  I won't be there.... but those flags will be used at the Wasatch Powder Keg. 

Work Hard, Train Hard, Play Harder

Surviving on Stoke Factor 100!
Photo by Tyler King