Ski mountaineering races to growth in the Wasatch
January 20, 2018
On Tuesday, two budding youth ski mountaineering programs took to the snow for a mid-season race at Brighton Ski Resort: The Park City Ski Mountaineering team and the Silver Fork Ski Mountaineering team. The two are the only teams in the Wasatch, and through their friendly competition, they hope to grow the sport overall.
Standing in the dark across the parking lot from the lodge at Brighton, the two teams lined up with dozens of other skiers and formed a mass of headlamps at starting line. At the word of a race organizer, the racers pushed off and climbed up into the aspens by the Milly chalet and around the back of the run.
Ski Mountaineering, or SkiMo, is a combination of Nordic and alpine skiing. Skiers race around a course that typically incorporates elements of cross-country skiing, boot packing and climbing, and alpine skiing.
"At night, the biggest challenges can be the cold, the darkness and just doing all the things you do in SkiMo in the dark, and navigating trickier downhills," said Nina Silitch, head coach of the Park City team.
The Park City team made its way through the course, and finished among the Silver Fork racers, with Jamerson Kent leading Park City's junior racers with a second-place finish followed by Wesley Perkins in third and Declan Kryger in fourth.
Silitch said having two teams has fostered competition as the sport starts to take hold in Utah.
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"It's great," she said. "I mean it's a really good ambiance, and sometimes we will have practices together."
She and Sarah Cookler, the coach of the Silver Fork team, a neighborhood near Brighton Resort, both started coaching last year after discussions with Utah Ski Mountaineering.
"It started with the neighborhood crew — skiing around the neighborhood and getting into it and playeing around," Cookler said after the race.
As her pupils skied by, she caught one skier's attention and congratulated him.
She said he was one of two neighborhood kids who saw her touring, and after seeing the season's culminating event — the Powder Keg — in his backyard, asked if she would train him and a friend for the event.
"(They) approached me about two weeks before the Powder Keg when they were 8 and 10 years old saying, 'Hey, I think I want to try it,'" Cookler recalled. "I was like, 'Guys, let's give it a try.'"
She said that at the time, the Powder Keg, a three-day event, didn't have a junior division, so the kids raced with the adult recreational skiers.
"An 8-year-old, who doesn't really know how to ski, banged out the full Powder Keg," she said. "Then we just kind of grew it and started practicing once a week, and then last year was a formal start to the team and it's just continued to grow."
The teams will both end their season with the Powder Keg, which will also double as the U.S. Nationals race after the scheduled venue in New Mexico didn't receive enough snowfall.
Both teams will compete in the sprint race on Friday and the individual race on Saturday, which Cookler said would mean about 3,000 to 3,500 feet of climbing for the junior competitors, but she said they are up for it.
"These kids, they are on race gear and 30-second transitions," she said. "They are crushing it."
According to race organizer Eric Bunce, the teams are part of a trend toward growth in ski mountaineering in the Wasatch Range. He said the sport has grown exponentially since its first races were held at Brighton a little less than a decade ago.
"It went from five to 10 guys, to 20, to 50; and now 80 to 100 is pretty average most nights," he said.
Utah Ski Mountaineering, which organizes the Brighton races and the Powder Keg, plans to expand to more venues, starting with two races at Solitude Mountain Resort in the upcoming weeks, and hopefully more in the upcoming seasons. Bunce said SkiMo organizers have also been in contact with Snowbasin resort about potential races there.
"But what I would like to see is more venues in the Wasatch instead of it being just at Brighton — showcase the entire Wasatch and all the great resorts we have here," he said.
Through the growth, the seven-race Brighton series hasn't lost its original charm. Just as when it was first held, the races still start near Thanksgiving and continue until the Powder Keg in late February.
"They just sort of put a loose course together and gave out pies to the winners," Bunce said of the series' origins. "And we keep that tradition going. There's baked goods for the winners tonight."
Cookler said both she and Silitch are hoping more teams will join in the future, but for now the little rivalry works well.
"Who knows?" she said. "Maybe some of these kids will be our next Olympians."