Ella, who is seven, steps forward holding out a flask.
"Whiskey?" she chirps.
Sam and I are standing in a transition zone halfway through the Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race, in Aspen, Colorado. After about four hours of racing we're in much more dire need of a bottle of electrolytes than a belt of rye. I acquiesce, not wanting to let Ella down, and take a swig that burns and makes me dizzy, but Sam won't, or can't, indulge.
"I'm kind of on the edge here," he pleads. "How 'bout after the race?"
"Shop's closed after the race," she says, thrusting out the flask. Sam holds firm. Other adults are around, handing out snacks and drinks, but where are her parents?
I'm regretting the shot, and admiring Sam's resolve. The longest slog of the day awaits: a 5-mile grind up the back of Aspen mountain. The race requires you to compete as a 2-person team, and to stay within a few seconds of each other. To help, we bungee cord ourselves together, and begin the interminable shuffle up the snow-covered jeep road, me in front, Sam in lock step, both of us suffering silently.
SKI MOUNTAINEERING RACING, or "skimo" as it's often called, is neither skiing nor mountaineering, at least in the traditional sense. You gotta use skis, true. And go up and over mountains. But the events are are more like running an ultramarathon uphill in the dead of winter in your underwear. Perhaps that's one of the reasons it's so popular in Europe; some in the Old Country actually call it "ski running." Most competitors wear skin-tight one-piece outfits, despite the high-mountain setting. One of the best skimo racers in Europe, Killian Jornet, is also one of the world's top ultrarunners.
That may also explain its growing popularity in the U.S., where more runners and other long-haul, pain-craving endurance athletes are discovering the sport. What used to be the province of downhill and backcountry skiers trying to stay in shape has morphed into a more competitive field of lithe endurotrons.
Skimo's roots trace back to the '20s, in the alps, where military units used it as a way to test fitness. Those proto-races often involved shooting, like a kind of high-altitude biathlon (skimo is generally considered biathlon's predecessor), and was showcased as an official sport at the 1924 Winter Olympics in (where else?) Chamonix, France.
Civilian events took off in post-war Europe. While there are now hundreds of races each season around the Alps, three marquee events have since emerged: The Mezzalama, in Italy; the Patrouille de Glaciers, in Switzerland, and the Pierra Menta, in France. They draw hundreds of elite racers and crowds reminiscent of the Tour de France. At the Pierra Menta, for example, spectators hike to the top of high ridges, hauling cowbells, horns, and other noisemakers, and cheer the racers three deep in some spots.
In America, those kinds of crowds are only in the lift lines on powder days, as the sport is still nascent. But since 2006, the Colorado-based COSMIC race series, of which the Power of Four is a part, has more than tripled its number of races, to 18 events in 2013-14. Sales of skimo gear—including popular brands like Dynafit, La Sportiva, and Camp—has grown 50 percent, year over year, according to the Wall Street Journal. And a big kahuna skimo race has emerged, the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse—a 40-mile, 8,000-vertical-foot route from Crested Butte, Colorado, to Aspen.
The growing interest may also be due to current plans to include skimo as an official sport at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
HOW POPULAR THE SPORT might become in America is hard to say. What I can say, as a participant, is that it hurts. At the Power of Four, Sam and I were technically signed up for a baby version that involved just two of the four mountains. The full Power of Four climbs up Snowmass, then goes up and over Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, and Aspen Mountain. Our course "only" included Highlands and Aspen—a mere 8,000 vertical feet of climbing over 16 miles (the full course is 12,000 feet over 25 miles!).
From the start, we headed straight up from the base to Highlands Bowl. I was drenched in sweat by the time we arrived at the final ridge. Worse, conditions were—as a few ski patrollers were putting it—"full epic." Wind gusts were hitting 60 mph, and it was snowing hard, creating white-out conditions in places. It was so bad that race officials decided on the fly to allow racers to take an alternate route down, avoiding the ridge altogether. Despite the fact that Sam and I were both freezing, we opted to brave the ridge.
I'd stuck my skis on my pack, and several times the wind knocked me to my knees. By the top, my fingers were blocks of ice; I could barely operate my bindings. If I expected a respite on the descent, there wasn't. We had to muscle through 15 inches of fresh snow on woefully skinny skis. Then we dropped down a steep trail (not a run!) called Conga, which was really just a luge track, lined with tree branches that slapped us all the way down. And then, at the bottom, in the transition: Ella.
By the time we topped out at Aspen Mountain and began our final descent down the front side, on double-black-diamond runs, the proverbial wheels were coming off. I couldn't thaw my hands, making it impossible to hold my poles. Sam's goggles had fogged and it was snowing harder than ever, rendering him blind. We were both so exhausted we couldn't make five turns without stopping. It was so bad that a friend schussing around the slopes had to help guide us down safely.
FINALLY SLIDING ACROSS the finish line, we saw all the fast teams that had passed us much earlier in the day lounging around the base. Overall winners Max Tam and John Gaston were still lingering in their onesies. Women's champs Sari Anderson and Stevie Kramer where in a nearby restaurant, back in civilian clothes and having a beer.
Sam and I had done fairly well, all things considered for an off-the-couch effort, but something strange had happened out there. Somewhere amid the lethal winds and 7-plus hours of aerobic agony, and somehow despite my hands freezing and getting passed by teams like we were standing still, I'd completely gotten hooked. Skimo was badass! And I wanted to get better at it.
A few days later, with all the memories from the race morphing into good ones, I did something that some might consider truly idiotic—I signed up for an even more punishing event: The Grand Traverse, kicking off at midnight on Friday, March 28. No ski-area racing this time; the course ventures through seriously remote and rugged backcountry. In other words, forget the cushy support stations with shots of whiskey.
Sam was out; ultrarunning superstar Jenn Shelton, who holds the fastest time ever run by a woman in a 100-mile race, was in. Her partner had bailed at the last moment and in a fit of overconfidence I'd stepped up. She'd been training; I hadn't. In fact, I barely had enough time to round up the proper gear. More sweet suffering was just three weeks away.
Now where's Ella, because I really need a drink.