As uphill skiing grows across Vermont, a group of elite skimo racers are working to build community around competition.
In the parking lot at Bolton Valley Ski Area, shortly after sunset, a group of skiers gathers in the growing dark. Pulling packs and skis from their cars, they make small talk as they strap skins to skis, shaking hands and feet to ward off the cold. Someone, somewhere, is playing the Grateful Dead from a small portable speaker. Headlamps bob.
Some folks are clad head-to-toe in tight, bright Lycra racing suits, hands clasped around skinny, feather-light skis. A few women are wearing purple and pink tutus. One guy is wearing a pair of beat up jeans and leather boots. His skis have three-pin telemark bindings. Eventually, the crew of about 50 splitboarders, telemark skiers and randonnee skiers lines up. A race organizer calls out the start and the ragtag crew moves as one up the gentle slope under the Wilderness lift. A few tutu-sporting folks on fat DPS touring skis straggle behind the rest.
The goal? To reach the summit as quickly as possible, remove your skins, tighten your boots and ski down to the bottom to do it again.
This is the scene on any given Tuesday evening at the Green Mountain Skimo Race Series at Bolton Valley. Skimo—or ski mountaineering—racing involves moving as fast as possible uphill and across varied terrain on randonnee skis using climbing skins. Technically, a skimo race has to follow rules set forth by the International Ski Mountaineering Federation. The Bolton series, like many races in New England, is best categorized as an “uphill travel” race, rather than a sanctioned skimo competition. It’s an open race for splitboarders, skiers on alpine touring gear, telemark skiers and anyone with a metal edge.
Skimo racing in its purest form involves challenging racers to navigate mountainous terrain as fast as they can using skis and crampons. Races involve mandatory bootpacks, require that you have a helmet rated for multi-directional impact, releasable skis, crampons and more. A relatively small number of serious competitors (likely fewer than a thousand people across the United States) participates in sanctioned skimo races to earn points on the national and world circuits. In Vermont, most sanctioned races draw 30 to 40 competitors and have for the last ten years.
In 2017, the United States Ski Mountaineering Association was formed. The same year, the International Olympic Committee announced that ski mountaineering will for the first time be part of the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland in 2020.
Greg Maino, communications director for the Catamount Trail Association started the Green Mountain Skimo Race Series in 2014 as a casual way to get people outside and exercising together on weekdays. “Two years ago, we averaged about 35 racers per night,” says Maino. “Now, we’ll have nights where 80 people show up.” That growth mirrors a trend across the state.
At Magic Mountain in Londonderry, president Geoff Hatheway estimates he sees 30 people a day making use of Magic’s uphill touring policy, which requires skiers pick up a free uphill pass before using ski area trails but rewards them with a free lift ride for their next run once they reach the top. “Ten years ago? It would have been half that many people. Alpine touring equipment has made it that much more accessible,” says Hatheway.
And across Vermont, the winter is packed with uphill races, from the snowshoe-friendly Winter Wild Series to USMA races like the NE Randonnee Series.
The Denim Ghost (and Other Characters)
In 2016, Milan Kubala was about as far from donning a spandex suit to run up a mountain on his skis as a person could be. The former professional tennis player and Stowe resident skied in his jeans and was proud of it.
Today, he’s a major advocate for the skimo community. In fall 2017, he founded Vermont’s only sponsored skimo team with the help Stowe’s MountainOps shop owner Don Allen, also a rising star on the New England circuit. In March 2018, Kubala won the New England Randonnee Series’ Bromley race after taking first in the series’ race at Magic Mountain in January. He consistently finishes in the top 10 in larger regional races like those hosted as part of the SkimoEast series.
Kubala, who is the Director of Tennis at Stowe’s Topnotch Resort, runs or bikes to work every day. A former professional tennis player and member of the Czech Republic national team, he came to uphill racing with a 12-year habit of skinning up Mount Mansfield before work on a pair of narrow fish-scale skis with metal edges, three-pin bindings and leather boots, something he picked up when he moved to Vermont in 2004. “I’d go up and ski with my dog in my jeans,” he said.
A life-long athlete, Kubala became fascinated by the possibility of covering long distances by ski. He’s skied the roughly 20 miles from Bolton Valley to Smugglers’ Notch in a day and completed other long tours in the state. “For me, skimo is about connecting to what skiing used to be in the old days—a really physically demanding sport,” he says.
When he started showing up to the Green Mountain Skimo Race Series in 2016, Kubala earned the nickname “The Denim Ghost,” says Maino. “It’s dark when everyone starts and he would show up at the start line with his leather boots and three-pin bindings and jeans and just take off. We joked it was like we weren’t sure if he was ever there.”
At that series, Kubala met Waterbury-based triathlete and trainer John Spinney. The two, along with another racer, John Wulff, started training together—and racing in their jeans. “We decided to show up to race in jeans at SkimoEast’s annual race at Mont Tremblant in 2017,” said Kubala. “We sewed some Dynafit patches to the back pockets. The sport is much more established in Canada and we really stuck out amid all of the speedsuits. We still didn’t really have skimo gear,” said Kubala. They ended up finishing in the top 10 (Kubala took second place) and earning the attention of the regional Dynafit rep, a relationship that paved the way for the sponsored team they launched in 2017.
Today, the team has eight members, two of whom are women. They travel and compete and Kubala, who sits on the board of the United States Ski Mountaineering Association is dedicated to promoting the sport in Vermont. He hopes skimo racing will someday be an Olympic sport. Building an athletic base in the United States is key to doing that. However, Kubala says, “I’d like to show people that you don’t have to have the lightest gear and be dressed in Lycra from head to toe to get out and do this,” he says. “Plus, there are real applications for backcountry touring and it’s a crazy workout.”
A Full-Body Workout
Dr. Kevin Duniho, a.k.a., Dr. Skimo, is a former collegiate Nordic racer, lifelong alpine skier and passionate skimo racer. In 2017, he skied Colorado’s Grand Traverse, a 40-mile race in the Rockies between Crested Butte and Aspen at elevations of up to 13,000 feet. He’s also a physical therapist who specializes in treating skiers.
Duniho lives at the base of Bolton Valley’s backcountry zone where he logs more than 100 days per year on skis. Last spring, he did a 26-mile ski from Timberline at Bolton Valley, up and over to Trapp Family Lodge, up Mt. Mansfield and down through Smugglers’ Notch. “At 9,000 feet of vertical, it’s actually more climbing than the Grand Traverse,” says Duniho. “That’s the great thing about Vermont. You can go for miles on challenging terrain with lightweight skis without ever encountering avalanche terrain.”
According to Duniho, who has treated Vermont athletes such as Skimo World Championship competitor Ian Clarke and Aaron Rice (who logged a record 2.5 million vertical feet in one year), uphill skiing is just about the best workout an outdoor athlete could ever get. “It works a couple of muscles that a lot of other sports don’t hit as intensively,” says Duniho.
“Almost all of us athletes have constantly atrophying gluteous maximuses and abdominal muscles. This sport is by far the best thing I’ve ever done that targets those two muscles specifically,” says Duniho. Like running and cycling, uphill skiing works your hamstrings and quadriceps. On the way up, skiers tend to engage slow-twitch muscles and get an aerobic workout. Then, when they descend, they get an anaerobic workout and work fast twitch muscles. “Everybody I’ve talked to in the fitness world has so much stoke about how good of a workout uphill skiing is. It works everything and it’s complete, from head to toe.”
Duniho contrasts it with Nordic skiing. “Elite Nordic skiers have been found to have some of the highest VO2 maxes in the sports world,” says Duniho, referring to an athlete’s ability to retain oxygen. “I’d argue that skimo racers possibly have even higher VO2 maxes. Our races are more intense and longer and we go up steeper hills.”
Duniho sees a lot of endurance runners entering skimo races. “It’s a great workout for runners who put in a majority of their miles on the flats. Runners classically have underdeveloped gluteus maximuses,” he said. They also tend to have overdeveloped hip flexors. The tension between the two can cause injury and pain. “Uphill skiing is great at correcting that.”
It may come as no surprise that three-time Sky Running World Champion and mountain legend Kilian Jornet is one of the top skimo racers in the world.
Duniho did warn against overuse. “I do see a lot of knee injuries among skiers and one risk factor is having a weak gluteous medius, which helps stabilize your knee and protects against injuries to your ACL or meniscus,” says Duniho. He warned to watch out for pain on the inside of your knee as a sign of overuse.
It’s All in the Transition
Humans have been traveling through the mountains on skis for a long time, but modern skimo racing with its Lycra suits, low-tech bindings and ultralight skis, has its origins in Europe. In the Alps, racers compete in multi-day epic tests of mountaineering skill, ascending and traversing massive mountains in avalanche terrain and foul weather. Perhaps because of the influence of certain historic races, like the Patrouille des Glaciers, a ski mountaineering race organized by the Swiss Armed Forces and part of La Grande Course, an annual race series that is the pinnacle of the sport, races are designed to be a test of skill and physical ability in the mountains.
According to Kubala, the most competitive skimo races are won and lost in the minutiae of transitions. These are the periods between sections of a race where a skier has to switch their gear from uphill touring mode and ski downhill or get ready to hike or navigate a snowfield with crampons and an ice axe.
In Vermont, bootpacks are rare and most transitions involve removing the sticky mohair or synthetic skins skiers use to ascend. Proper technique involves first dropping your poles on the ground, then bending down to tighten your boots and put them in ski mode, switching your bindings to ski mode, then ripping your skins off of the bottoms of your skis and stuffing them in your Lycra onesie for the descent. The best racers do all this in about 20 seconds, an impressive feat to anyone who’s ever waited around at the top of a run for a friend to remove their skins and get into ski mode on a backcountry ski tour.
This is much easier said than done, as was evidenced in the clinic Kubala co-taught with Spinney at the Catamount Trail Association’s AT and Skimo Camp on December 15. At first, skiers were falling over sideways trying to rip their skins off, while the instructors did so in one clean motion, a combined hop and rip. However, by the end of the day, most participants were removing their skins from their skis without taking their skis off their feet. This was a victory.
“Imagine you’re on a 20-mile tour,” Spinney told participants. “My partners and I will sometimes have a 10-point rule we use. We each get ten times to stop and fiddle with something, whether our pack, your skis, your bindings. When you can transition without stopping, you save energy, you get time back to take a photo, you get to eat, you get to stay warm and more than that, you get more laps in.”
The Uphill Skiers
Vermont’s skimo community is an interesting crowd. The sport draws competitive endurance athletes, backcountry powder junkies and everyone in between. As Kubala’s training partner John Spinney says, “Uphill skiing is not easy. And when you’re really pushing yourself, it can hurt. But you’re also getting out there in the mountains and the trees in the middle of winter. It takes a certain type of person to like that.”
Jonathan Shefftz has been doing competitive skimo racing in Vermont since 2005, when he first entered Jay Peak’s Skimo Challenge, once one of the state’s longest-running events comprised of a grueling nine-mile race with 5,250 feet of climbing through moguls and off-piste terrain around the ski area.
Eleven years ago, he founded NE Rando Series, an annual five-race series across three New England States. He’s the treasurer of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association and is passionate about making skimo an Olympic sport. “Our races are the equivalent in the skimo world of what the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association is for alpine skiers.” Skiers register and win points to compete on the national circuit. Winning races helps you qualify for the National Championships, typically held out west, where skiers can qualify to compete in the World Championships.
So far, only one American has ever podiumed in the World Championships. Nina Silitch of New Canaan, N.H. took silver in the sprint at the World Championships in Pelvoux, France in 2013 and gold in 2014. “It was a perfect way to combine my passion for mountaineering and alpine skiing with my background as an endurance athlete,” she says. She is an ultrarunner and frequently podiums or wins the NE Rando Race series in the women’s division.
Killington resident Ian Clarke went to the Youth World Championships in 2017. Clarke, who is also a sponsored Cannondale cyclist, started showing up at NE Rando Race Series events in alpine touring gear when he was in high school. Schefftz noticed that the former alpine racer was beating people with much lighter ski setups than his own and helped him get a sponsorship to access race gear. Clarke loves the outdoor community he’s found in skimo racing and is interested in building a youth racing league in Vermont. “Over in Europe, skimo is like what basketball is for us. Racing there, you get to the top and there are fans and spectators watching, cheering.”
Still others, like the Catamount Trail Association’s Greg Maino, got into randonnee skiing as a way to stay fit in the winter. Maino, an ultrarunner, prefers skiing uphill to skiing downhill. “I think a lot of people from the trail running community are looking at it as a way to stay in shape and be outside in the winter. It’s a great alternative to running on the road.”
Caitrin Maloney, a member of the MountainOps Skimo Team and the top female racer in the state says, “I have skied my whole life and I like to get out and push myself. But at the start line for these races, even if you have butterflies in your stomach, it is the most welcoming scene—even in the competitive races. People are just happy to have a community around moving fast uphill and being outside.”
Maino pointed to the egalitarian nature of the sport as a reason for more Vermonters to get involved. “Even in the really big races in Europe, you have the top athletes in the world competing on the same course as recreational racers who are just out there to be in the mountains, to have the experience and to push themselves in their own way.” Maino’s co-race organizer, Scott Berkeley, echoed that. “What a lot of people love about skimo racing and why so many of these races have become popular is that you can feel part of this really cool athletic event without caring if you’re in 12th place or 150th. You still get to push yourself in your own way in a beautiful place—and it’s definitely better for you than watching Netflix on a weeknight.”
Featured Photo Caption: For some, skimo racing is about competition, but for others, it’s about moving quickly so you can get more our of your backcountry tour. Here, racers take a pre-work lap at Bolton Valley. Photo courtesy Kevin Duniho