Aspen Times Weekly: Why ski mountaineering racing hurts so good

Nelson Harvey
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo by Jeremy Swanson

ASPEN – The first time I saw Max Taam, he was just a red light bobbing in the distance. As he drew closer I could see that the light was fastened to his bike-it was 6:30 a.m., still dark, and he was cranking up the hill toward lift 1A on Aspen Mountain.

“That hill always hurts in the morning,” he said as he approached my car. I noticed he was smiling, though I’ve since learned he’s always smiling, especially when he’s in pain.

This is Taam’s winter morning routine-bike to the hill, skin up Ajax, then put on his ski patrol suit at the top and start an eight or nine hour workday.

He’d agreed to let me tag along for the skinning part, though I expected that I would mostly be tagging behind.

Taam, 30, is short and stocky, and seems to be mostly muscle and white teeth. He’s been known as an endurance freak in Aspen for much of the last eight years-he runs marathons, races bikes, and recently skied Highlands Bowl 10 times in a single day. Lately, he and racing partner John Gaston, 26, have been making a name for themselves in the small but growing world of ski mountaineering racing.

The sport involves skinning up and skiing down technical and often brutally steep terrain for hours at a stretch. Between them, Gaston and Taam won every race they entered in the U.S. this ski season, including Aspen’s Power of Four and The Heathen Challenge at Ski Sunlight, and qualified for spots on the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Team. They also placed 10th at the World Championships in Pelvoux, France in February, the best result ever earned by an American men’s team in a Euro-dominated sport.

Taam and I were midway up Little Nell when the idiocy of trying to interview him while skinning became clear. Our pace-an epic workout for me, a Sunday stroll for Taam-had me racking my brain for short questions with long answers, so that I could breathe while Tamm was talking.

Near the top of Kleenex Corner, Taam broke the silence. “I’d be struggling too if I was on that gear,” he said, smiling and gesturing at my feet.

“The difference between this gear and that gear,” he said, pointing to his own twig-like skis and boots that looked like slippers, “is like the difference between riding up to the Maroon Bells on a road bike and riding up on a cruiser.”

This stung a bit, but it also came as needed comic relief.

“[Taam] is always smiling,” said Gaston, when I met him to drink coffee the following day. (This activity was far closer to my speed).

“Even when you’re suffering he’s smiling, and sometimes it’s like ‘what the hell?'” Gaston said. “He definitely lightens the mood up.”

Gaston is a ski fanatic and Highlands Bowl evangelist who founded the Aspen-based ski clothing company Strafe Outerwear with his brother Pete in 2009.

He did his first ski mountaineering race just a year ago, but he has risen fast.

He won all three U.S. World Championship qualifying races in January despite having no formal racing background, and is so competitive that he sprints to the finish in every race, even if he’s leading by a landslide.

When we met, Gaston looked the part of a skier on a day off, dressed in a beanie and jacket adorned with the Strafe logo. But as he talked in rapid-fire fashion about skiing, his blue eyes reflected his intensity-a trait that seems to mix well with Taam’s experience and technique.

“I think John is stronger than me on the climbs, but I’m older and have a bit more racing experience,” Taam had said.

Ski mountaineering team races require evenly matched partners, since race rules mandate that they must stay within a few seconds of each other.

Gaston said he tends to start races faster than Taam, but he lets Taam control the rhythm of the race once it’s underway.

“Max is widely known as the best-paced [mountaineering] racer in the country, period,” he said. “I let him dictate the tempo.”

Years of skiing in the Aspen area have made both men strong downhill skiers, which allows them to make gains on other racers during descents.

“They are extremely fit guys and strong climbers, but really they can out-ski people on the downhill,” said Chad Brackelsberg, a Utah-based racer who coached the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Team this year at the World Championships in France.

Over a season of racing, the pair has also learned to communicate without much talking.

Because ski mountaineering races can last for more than five hours and cover over 5,000 vertical feet, racers sometimes lash themselves to their partners to get through a low-energy stretch.

“If you’re bonking, you can put yourself on tow for a minute,” said Gaston, noting that he and Taam use a homemade contraption fashioned out of retractable dog leashes and bungee cords to tow each other. “Mentally it helps, because it keeps you close.”

About half way up Aspen Mountain with Taam, I was in need of a little mental help. I got some physical help, though, from a quirk of my gear: my old bindings have adjustable heel risers for steep inclines, and at the top of each hill I was grateful for the excuse to stop and adjust them. (Stopping, it seems, is not something that Taam does much on his own).

For all the importance of sheer physical conditioning, much of ski mountaineering racing is ultimately decided by quirks of the gear.

Since races require multiple transitions from uphill to downhill mode, winning means getting those transitions down to a science.

“A good mode switch should take about 20 seconds at the top, 45 seconds at the bottom,” said Taam.

A racer who quickly adjusts their boots, bindings and skins-or who stows their skins correctly so they stay sticky and unfurl quickly-can have a tremendous advantage in a tight race.

Seemingly small decisions, like whether to wear glasses or goggles or whether to carry an extra pair of skins, can mean the difference between first and second place, Gaston said. And with so many variables in play, sheer luck also features prominently.

“A huge part of why we’ve done so well is luck,” he said. “We haven’t broken too many boots or skis.”

Pain tolerance is another mysterious factor that can determine the outcome of a race. Most endurance athletes tend toward masochism, but between the marathon-plus mileage, altitude gain, rough terrain and bitter cold, ski mountaineering requires particular grit.

“You can feel great for the first two hours of one of these races, then just blow up,” Gaston said.

Both he and Taam use the same approach to distract themselves from the pain: they focus on ski technique.

“When I’m hurting, I try to focus as much as possible on making sure that every step or glide is as efficient as I can make it,” Gaston said. “Although sometimes, you put in the effort just because you know it’s going to be over soon.”

Taam, for his part, seems to have an uncanny sense of the most efficient way to climb a hill.

As we skinned up Ajax, he pointed out the skin track of a skier who had preceded us that morning.

“Sometimes you can tell by the skin track what kind of a skier the person is,” he said. “This guy is pretty straight, but every now and then there’s some weird sideways stuff.”

He paused, suddenly aware of his nerdiness. “It’s just something to keep you entertained,” he said, and laughed.

In the U.S., ski mountaineering racing is a niche sport within a niche sport.

Still, it’s growing, and U.S. athletes are starting to gain ground on the Spanish, French, Italian and Swiss skiers who have long dominated the sport.

At the world championship qualifier race in Jackson Hole this year, the top 10 racers all had faster times than the winner did in 2012.

And at the world championships in France a pair of U.S. women, Janelle Smiley and Stevie Kremer, placed sixth overall, even higher than Gaston and Taam.

“It was definitely apparent that some of the European coaches were impressed with the progress of the American team since the last world championships,” said Brackelberg, the U.S. coach.

Ski mountaineering is deeply embedded in the culture in many snowy parts of Europe, and some European countries have federally-funded race programs, allowing their top athletes to focus exclusively on training.

Such an arrangement is a pipe dream in the U.S.-Gaston and Taam both work full time jobs, and the pair had to cover their own travel and lodging costs at most races this winter, including their plane tickets to France.

Yet they get support from sponsors like Oakley, Strafe Outerwear and Honey Stinger foods, and they recently inked a deal with the companies Scarpa and Skitrab for boots and skis next year.

Still, they train around their work schedules. Taam and I were about midway up Silver Bell when he finally ditched me. He had work in five minutes, and figured it would take him that long to get down the mountain.

Before I know it he was 400 feet ahead, near the Sundeck. He ripped off his skins with a quick sweeping motion and stuffed them in his pocket. Then he skiied past me, waved, and was gone.