Posted December 3rd, 2008
Nina Silitch at the finish line of the Patrouille des Glaciers, one of Europe’s premier ski mountaineering races. Photo courtesy of Nina Silitch.
At first glance, the towns of Chamonix, France, and Carrabassett Valley, Maine, don’t appear to have much in common. Sure, they’re small mountain towns whose residents have a love for the peaks that rise up above their villages. But that’s where the parallel seems to end. For example, it’s hard comparing the rounded forms and forested slopes of Maine’s Western Mountains, which culminate in 4,237-foot Sugarloaf, the state’s second highest peak, with the soaring and glaciated peaks of the French Alps, which culminate in 15,774-foot Mont Blanc. And yet, there remains a link between the communities and their mountains, and her name is Nina Silitch.
Silitch grew up in Maine’s Western Mountains, in the shadow of Sugarloaf. In 9th grade, at age 13, she enrolled at the Carrabassett Valley Academy, where she trained and raced as an alpine downhill skier. A knee injury sidelined her alpine ambitions, but she transferred to the Holderness School in New Hampshire and picked up a passion for cross-country. Fast forward to Silitch’s post-college years. She and her husband, Michael, moved to Chamonix, then to Switzerland, and then back to Chamonix, where Michael operates a guide service. It was there, in the French and Swiss Alps, that Silitch got her first taste of rando racing.
For the uninitiated, randonee racing, also known as ski mountaineering racing, involves using lightweight backcountry ski equipment to ascend and descend a mountain through a series of designated checkpoints. The European race scene is immensely popular, and Silitch quickly proved a fierce competitor on the circuit. She’s been named to the United States Ski Mountaineering National Team, and has logged impressive finishes in some of the Alps’ most competitive races.
For Silitch, though, the most fun and most social races have been ones known as “vertical” races. You start at the bottom of the mountain and go only one way—up—to a finish point high on the peak. Oftentimes, such races are held on Tuesday and Friday evenings, and conclude with all the racers sharing a hot meal, frequently in a refuge up on the mountain.
Though popular within some small circles of skiers, rando racing is largely unknown, though on the rise, in the United States. If there are hot beds for the sport, then the Rocky Mountains, Pacific Northwest, and New England are it, probably in that order. Silitch, for her part, wants to help the growth process along, particularly in her native New England, where she visits at least once a year, usually in December, to see family and friends. “I wanted to bring the experience of the races in the Alps to Sugarloaf,” she says, “and to offer that fun atmosphere and great ambiance to people.” Last year, to maintain her rigorous training schedule, Silitch would skin up Sugarloaf each morning before the trails opened. Soon enough, the lifts would start carrying skiers up the mountain. “They would look down and yell, ‘Take the chair!’” she says. But they—and New England’s backcountry skiing community—were her potential audience.
And so it is that on December 27, Sugarloaf, and the state of Maine, will host its first-ever randonee race, the Holiday Hill Climb, a United States Ski Mountaineering Association-sanctioned event that will kick off the New England and nationwide rando race season. In true vertical-style format, the race will begin at 4:30 p.m., after the lifts close for the day. Racers will begin at Sugarloaf’s base area and climb 1,191 vertical feet to the finish line at Bullwinkle’s, an on-mountain lodge. Racers will enjoy a post-race meal, and a ski back to the base under the light of required headlamps. Wanting to cast the widest net for potential participants, there will be two race categories: AT, which will capture all rando and tele folks, and OTHER, which will include snowshoers and folks on Nordic skis (if any are crazy enough to want to do this), with a $25 race entry fee.
Outside of the race itself, there will be a ski mountaineering racing clinic, sponsors on-hand, rando race equipment available to demo and use for the race, and discounts on gear purchases.
Pete Swenson, Competition Director for the United States Ski Mountaineering Association, will also be there to lend a hand. In addition to his role with USSMA, Swenson is a well-known, respected, and accomplished rando racer, and the founder of the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup (COSMIC) race series. And though he lives in Colorado now, the North Conway, NH, native maintains strong ties to New England. “New England has such tremendous potential,” he says. “It has it all. Glades. Steeps. A more stable snowpack without the same avalanche concerns. It just makes sense.”
This year, New England will host more USSMA-sanctioned races than ever before: six. Sugarloaf’s Holiday Hill Climb will kick off the season, and a second rando race at Sugarloaf will conclude the season in April. In between, there will be at least four more races, all in Vermont, including two of New England’s most entrenched rando races: the fifth annual Jay Peak Randonee Race, and the Mountain Hardwear Ski Mountaineering Race that goes from Mad River Glen to Sugarbush. And that six-race calendar doesn’t include other non-sanctioned races, which in recent seasons have taken place in New Hampshire and the Adirondacks.
With such a growth in the sport in the region, could a COSMIC-esque New England Ski Mountaineering Race Series be looming on the horizon? “I sure hope so,” says Swenson, though he also notes that there are no immediate plans for that to happen. Race series or not, rando racing is on the rise in New England, and Vermont sits squarely at the center of it all. So mark your calendars and start training. By the time you read this article, the first race, Silitch’s Holiday Hill Climb at Sugarloaf, will be mere weeks away.
Peter Bronski (www.peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer, amateur ski mountaineering racer, and frequent contributor to Vermont Sports. His latest book, Powder Ghost Towns: Epic Backcountry Turns in Colorado’s Lost Ski Resorts, recently came out from Wilderness Press.
Dec. 27 – Holiday Hill Climb, Sugarloaf, ME
Jan. 31 – Jay Peak Randonee Race, Jay Peak, VT
Feb. 8 – Mountain Hardwear Ski Mountaineering Race, Mad River Valley, VT
Feb. 16 – Magic Mountain Rando Race, Magic Mountain, VT
Mar. 14 – Magic Mountain Spring Rando Race, Magic Mountain, VT
Apr. 11 – Sugarloaf Reggae Rando, Sugarloaf, ME
For more info about the Holiday Hill Climb at Sugarloaf, go to www.sugarloaf.com/Events/Calendar/Holiday_Hill_Climb.html.
For more about the United States Ski Mountaineering Association, visit www.ussma.org.