Two-time World Cup Champion Nina Silitch hopes to expand ski mountaineering in Park City
Right now, Nina Silitch, head coach of the Park City Ski Mountaineering Team, says the sport is still under the radar in the U.S. But she hopes to change that.
When she moved from Chamonix, France, to Park City nearly three years ago, the two-time Ski Mountaineering World Cup champion made it her goal to expand the sport in the States.
“I started a team in Chamonix with Club De Sport, which is (France’s) umbrella for their sport programs,” Silitch said. “By the time we had left, (the club) had grown to 80 members of all different nationalities. When I moved back to the U.S., it was really my vision to help the sport grow in the U.S., and bring it to the next level, and while it is growing exponentially it still doesn’t have the same roots (as in Europe).”
That lack of presence in American culture means that most people still don’t know what ski mountaineering (called SkiMo for short) is. Silitch compares the sport to trail running races, but on skis with elements of mountaineering. Racers skin and boot-pack up a designated course up a mountainside (or several), sometimes clipping into fixed lines to scale up couloirs or arêtes. They then ski down.
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While that sounds like an avalanche waiting to happen, Silitch says races typically occur in areas that ski patrol can monitor and control. All of her club’s races occur within the boundaries of ski resorts.
Silitch was introduced to the sport while working as a teacher in Chamonix – a mountain sport mecca perched at the feet of Mont Blanc. In the early 2000s, her husband was a Ski Mountaineering guide. When she and her husband planned to ski the Haute Route together (a recreational Ski Mountaineering line from Chamonix to Zermatt, Switzerland), he recommended trying an alpine touring setup instead of her traditional telemark skis to save energy.
She enjoyed the trek, and with her alpine setup, she started competing in uphill-only SkiMo races at the local ski resorts, which typically topped out at a landmark like a ski lift’s drop-off.
“That’s how I got into it — you know, cowbells ringing, fondue at the top,” she said, describing the race scene. “There was a weekly series.”
From there her passion grew, but it wasn’t until 10 months after having her first child that she entered a serious competition. Her career as a SkiMo racer took off.
“That was the first up and down race in full terrain, and I started to really like it and it evolved into me stopping teaching for little bit, raising my kids and focusing on the World Cup for 5 years,” she said.
In 2012 she won gold in the Ski Mountaineering World Cup. , then repeated the feat in 2013.
To this day, Silitch is still the only North American to have won two gold medals.
“I feel like that was a result of me living over there and working over there,” she said.
To be good at the sport, Silitch said, it takes a solid training base, a foundation in endurance sports, plus alpine skiing skills to handle all types of terrain and a familiarity with rock climbing.
“Then, like a triathlete you have to be really fast at your transitions,” she said.
But for the Park City Ski Mountaineering Team, Silitch said, athletes don’t need to bring all that to the table right away.
“What I’m looking for from my juniors is, they don’t need to be good, they just have to have a desire to give the sport a try and push themselves,” she said.
Brighton and Solitude ski resorts alternate races on every other Tuesday night. Silitch hopes to eventually add Utah Olympic Park into the rotation and Park City Mountain Resort in her attempt to grow the sport.
For those interested in SkiMo, Silitch is hosting a hike up Wire Mountain on Saturday, Nov. 4. Contact Silitch or RSVP for the hike by emailing her at Ninasilitch@gmail.com
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It’s going to be at least another month before Summit County’s high school athletes have any chance of getting onto the field again.