Big Ups, Big Downs: Welcome to the Sport of ‘SkiMo’

At 7:30a.m., the start gun went off. With the blast I stepped forward in my skis, a pack of racers poling and striding all around me in sync and moving uphill toward mountain peaks far beyond. It was day two of the Winter Teva Mountain Games, a weekend sports festival in Vail, Colo., held earlier this month, February 9 – 12. The competition at hand, the Eddie Bauer Ski Mountaineering Race, was one among a dozen events at the Games, though arguably the most grueling of the bunch.

Heading uphill and into the pain; photo by Sean McCoy

In five hours or so we would ski many miles and up and down thousands of vertical feet, all under our own power. The course was made to simulate a long, hard day spent exploring the mountains.

Ski mountaineering racing, “SkiMo” for short, is a European sport making inroads at resorts across America. A flagged course, checkpoints, mandatory avalanche gear, and hours of time on the move going uphill are common elements of the game.

ski mountaineering
Race leaders Bryan Wickenhauser (left) and Sari Anderson in the heat of the event; Photos © Kevin Krill/Crested Butte Photography

In Vail, the Eddie Bauer Ski Mountaineering Race saw 130 competitors skiing for the prize. It was my baptism into the world of SkiMo, and the long course proved a doozey for my low-altitude lungs and legs.

“Go, go, go!” a spectator shouted as we pushed off. The race started to fanfare, including an announcer, in the village area of Vail. But soon we’d leave that all behind, our effort after an hour of motion bringing us from the valley floor to nearly 11,000 feet.

ski mountaineering race
Skiers start off from Vail village; photo by Sean McCoy

What goes up must come down, and so at the top of the resort the racers removed the climbing skins from their ski bases and pointed tips downhill. A flagged backcountry run delivered powder snow and a course that ducked into an alpine forest for a long descent off the backside of Vail. I forgot I was racing for a few minutes and enjoyed knee-deep powder turns plunging fast into the valley below.

La Sportiva RST race skis

In addition to climbing skins, the gear used in SkiMo is highly specialized and outside the norm. In Vail I demo’d equipment from La Sportiva, a company that focuses on ultra-light ski gear for the sport. My skis, the company’s RST model, were agile and incredibly light. I skied on the 167cm model, which were paired with Sportiva’s uber-minimal RT bindings.

These wild and pricey bindings ($750 for a pair) are unlike anything I have used. They almost resemble an animal trap, with black metal, exposed springs, levers, and teeth to secure a boot to a ski. Together, my featherweight ski/binding combo weighed in at only 3 pounds, 1.6oz. per ski!

Ultra-light La Sportiva skis and bindings; photo by Sean McCoy

In the Vail race, I switched modes and took climbing skins off and on three times. Initially, I pushed hard to keep up with the fit field of racers in the pack. But soon the field dispersed, the leaders in the elite category “ski-running” uphill and literally disappearing in a cloud of snow ahead.

Like all SkiMo setups, my gear was made for the up and the down. The bindings, which are an alpine-touring (AT) format, let me stride uphill in a free-heel mode. They switch for descents with the flick of a ski pole, a heel-locking mode allowing parallel turns and mimicking what you’re used to with alpine gear.

La Sportiva RT bindings

My boots for the race, La Sportiva’s to-be-released Spitfire model, were similarly dialed for the ups and the downs. The two-buckle race boots have an extra light build (just under 3 pounds per boot!) plus the ability to convert quickly from a free-moving “walk” mode for the uphill segments to a tight, supportive “ski” mode for going down.

Overall, I was highly impressed with the Sportiva gear. It was comfortable, fast, light, and powerful enough to let me hit the double-diamond mogul run featured on the Vail course without slowing down. Sure, you’ll get more float and more power with a different setup. (My skis were skinny-ish, with a 116mm nose, 77mm waist, and a 106mm tail.) But as hybrid gear, something like the Sportiva race package seems hard to beat.

It’s a rad setup, no doubt. But the Sportiva kit in full will cost you big, including the aforementioned $750 for the bindings, then $579 for the RST skis, and $899 for the Spitfire boots.

To-be-released Spitfire boot

In the end, at the Eddie Bauer event I appreciated the high-end gear. The racecourse took me up and down Vail’s mountains twice, into a rocky chute, through powder, down a mogul field, and, finally, finishing on an icy groomed run with slalom gates.

We traveled many miles and many thousands of vertical feet. To finish, I skidded to a stop at 5 hours, 41 seconds, breathing hard but smiling even through all the pain. I was 14th place out of 32 racers in the men’s advanced division, which was not a bad debut, I reasoned. The sport of SkiMo may be hard. The gear is pricey and esoteric. But I am hooked, big time, to this thrilling new up- and down-mountain game.

—Stephen Regenold is editor of GearJunkie. Regenold and reporter Sean McCoy covered the Winter Teva Mountain Games live from Vail. See reports on Day One and Day Two of the weekend-long Games, as well as an intro to the Games here.

Map of ski-mountaineering course
Stephen Regenold

Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.