Outdoors Blog

Nation’s best ski mountaineers chase world-qualifying spots at Idaho’s Brundage

If the frozen mustaches and eyebrows are any indication, it takes a special kind of determination to compete in ski mountaineering.

About 75 ski mountaineers, mostly from out of state, have gathered at Brundage Mountain Resort this week for races Friday and Saturday.

The top finishers earn spots on the U.S. world championship team.

On Friday, the mountaineers dashed about 1.5 miles with 1,700 vertical feet of climbing on skis with skins on the bottom that allow for better uphill traction.

On Saturday morning, with windchills estimated at 15 to 20 below zero for the 7:30 a.m. start, the elite racers will spend more than 2 hours covering 13 miles and 5,800 vertical feet during five climbs (four with skins and one in boots) and five descents. The recreational racers will need 4 to 6 hours to finish.

Nick Francis, a past president of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association, called Friday’s event a suffer-fest.

Then he led a briefing for Saturday’s race that included warnings about frostbite.

“You’ve got to love to suffer a little bit,” said John Gaston, who won Friday’s vertical race with a time of about 23 minutes. “Otherwise, what are you doing with a number on?”

Gaston never has cross country skied and rarely has backcountry skied, the close cousin of ski mountaineering. He was a mountain biker and downhill skier as a kid. About six years ago, his brother and a friend introduced Gaston to ski mountaineering.

He was so impressed by the concept that he ordered a full race setup from Europe — the gear wasn’t on sale in the U.S. at the time — and he has competed on the world championship team the past two years.

“It’s been around Europe for a long time and Americans are catching on,” Gaston said. “It’s just a fun way to get out in the mountains in the winter, another mode of transportation. And for those who maybe aren’t as patient, standing in lift lines gets old after a while. This is a pretty fun alternative.”

I’ll have a full story on ski mountaineering and the inroads it’s making in Idaho for Tuesday’s Playing Outdoors section.

For more on Gaston and some highlights from Friday’s race, check out the video at the top of this post.