Euro-style randonee series coming to Colo.

Devon O'Neil
Summit County correspondent
Competitors in the Grind hike up a run at Arapahoe Basin in April. Next year's fifth annual Grind will be the final stop in the inaugural Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup. (Kristin Skvorc/Summit Daily file)

For someone who has seen the sport at its highest level, ski mountaineering races seem too cool to ignore.

That’s what Pete Swenson believes, anyway. And it’s why he is going to terrific lengths to make sure others do, too.

Swenson won the ski mountaineering (also called randonee racing) national championship last winter at Jackson Hole. But while he was the best in America, he was only pretty good when he competed at the world championships later that season in Italy.

The disparity between European ski mountaineering and American ski mountaineering is nothing new, nor is it likely to change in the next couple of years.

But Swenson believes the U.S. can draw closer if it feeds the pen full of able backcountry-skiing bulls that exists here in the states. The effort, at least the one he’s spearheading, will begin in Colorado.

This winter, the inaugural Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup (COSMIC) series of backcountry ski races is set to debut at five ski areas around the state, including two local mountains on the Continental Divide, Arapahoe Basin and Loveland. The series will kick off at Sunlight near Glenwood Springs on Jan. 13, and will also include stops at Snowmass (Jan. 20) and Silverton (April 21) before the finale at A-Basin on April 28. Loveland’s race, the third in the series, is set for March 3.

Explaining his initiative to found the Colorado series, Swenson, 39, who splits his time between Boulder and Breckenridge, said, “I’d gone to enough of these in other states and other countries, and I started looking around thinking, man, we’ve got as good mountains as anywhere – and better weather – and it just seemed logical that there should be backcountry ski races in Colorado.”

Swenson acknowledges that there have been backcountry ski races in this state for a long time; however, events like the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse are not traditional randonee races, but rather point-to-point competitions through uncontrolled terrain.

The races in the COSMIC series, Swenson said, will feature traditional ski mountaineering courses, which generally involve multiple ascents and multiple descents, on controlled but ungroomed terrain. Swenson said each venue will feature two courses – a recreational route, with about 2,500 feet of climbing; and an advanced course, requiring about 4,500 feet of climbing.

The events are not only intended to test athletes’ fitness on the slopes, either. The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) will also be involved in the COSMIC series, Swenson said, offering clinics on backcountry safety.

“So when someone comes to a race, they’re going to learn about snow as well as backcountry ski racing,” he said.

Carbondale resident Lou Dawson, a well-known ski mountaineering veteran and the first man to ski all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, is among those lauding the novel Colorado Cup.

“Any mature alpine sport, it’s always healthy for it to have competition,” said Dawson, who expects to be involved in some capacity, whether it be competing, volunteering or simply spectating. “And then the techniques that get developed in the racing filter out into the general backcountry community and make the sport more fun.”

Swenson has secured a number of established backcountry gear sponsors for the COSMIC series, including Black Diamond, Scarpa, Cloudveil and The North Face. But other, non-ski-related brands like the Japanese restaurant Tokyo Joe’s have also signed on in support of what could quickly grow into a national venture.

“I’ve already had interest from (resorts in) Alaska and New Hampshire,” Swenson said. “But it starts in the back yard.”

As far as designing courses at the individual resorts, Swenson said care will be taken to showcase out-of-the-way routes.

“The idea,” he said, “is if you ski the mountain often, you’ll see a new part of it.”

A-Basin marketing director Leigh Hierholzer said the April 28 COSMIC race – which will serve as the Basin’s fifth annual Grind, only in a greater capacity – could utilize the famed Montezuma Bowl, which is currently out of bounds but is set to open to the public in the 2007-2008 season.

Loveland marketing director John Sellers, meanwhile, said the March 3 COSMIC race will “encompass pretty much the whole mountain.”

Then there is Silverton, the one-of-a-kind ski area in southern Colorado famous for its steep terrain and cliffs, and for offering guided-only skiing.

“That should be a very spectacular course,” Swenson said. “(Silverton co-founder) Aaron Brill called and said, ‘We may need a little extra budget for more bombs.'”

Speaking of such things, even though the COSMIC series will use controlled terrain for its races, all competitors will be required to carry avalanche beacons, shovels and probes, with racers in the advanced divisions also required to wear helmets, Swenson said.

COSMIC events will be open to skiers with alpine and telemark bindings, as well as snowboarders. There will be different divisions for each type of equipment.

“I sort of feel like this is an opportunity – the analogy I use is it’s maybe where mountain biking was in 1989,” Swenson said. “Having been to Europe and seen it at the highest level, I’m just excited to introduce people to it.

“If we give the sport some energy now, I think it’ll be very popular in the near future.”

For more information on the COSMIC series, will have all the details beginning later this month.

Jan. 13 – Sunlight

Jan. 20 – Snowmass

March 3 – Loveland

April 21 – Silverton

April 28 – A-Basin


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