Power of Four ski mountaineering races return with even bigger stakes on the line | AspenTimes.com

Power of Four ski mountaineering races return with even bigger stakes on the line

Athletes compete in the 2017 Audi Power of Four ski mountaineering race in Aspen.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

The Audi Power of Four ski mountaineering race has never lacked talent or competitiveness. But this year’s event will have plenty of added firepower with it being a United States Ski Mountaineering Association national championship for the first time.

“It’s definitely a testament to how far the race has come and where the race can go in the future,” said Aspen Skiing Co.’s Daragh Kneeshaw, who helps organize the race. “On our own, we’ve definitely had an incredible amount of growth over the past nine years and I think we finally hit a point where it’s time to play in the big leagues with some of the bigger European races and attract an international field. I think playing host to this year’s national championships will put us on the map in a big way.”

The Power of Four begins at 6 a.m. Saturday at Snowmass Base Village. The race will take athletes from Snowmass to Buttermilk to Highlands, including a weather-permitting hike up the bowl, before a final ascent and descent of Aspen Mountain, with the finish line near the base of the Silver Queen Gondola. Skiers will have to traverse roughly 24 miles and climb more than 10,000 vertical feet.

“There has been interest in this being a national championship race for a few years, and this year it has kind of worked out well,” said USSMA President Ram Mikulas. “The Aspen Power of Four is one of the biggest ski mountaineering races in the U.S. and one of the most demanding races. It’s an iconic race that a lot of people aspire to do and it’s got a lot of publicity around it.”

The Power of Four first received official USSMA sanctioning last winter. This year’s race will include two parts, the first being the four-mountain event Saturday that will be for the team event national championship. At 7 a.m. Sunday, there will be a race from the base of Aspen Mountain to the FIS chairlift with the winners being crowned the vertical challenge national champions.

The individual and sprint national champions were crowned Jan. 5-6 at the 2019 Heathen Challenge at Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs. Gunnison’s Cam Smith won the men’s sprint race and Breckenridge’s Sierra Anderson the women’s race. John Gaston and Jessie Young, both Aspen locals, took the individual national titles at Sunlight.

Gaston and Max Taam, Young’s husband, have long dominated the Power of Four skimo race. They set the course record (4 hours, 37 minutes, 36 seconds) in their win only last winter. Lindsay Plant and Nikki LaRochelle won the women’s race in 2018.

“To have the national championship designation definitely doesn’t hurt. It’s kind of an added bonus if you go and win it,” Gaston said. “Max and I are mostly stoked because it’s finally a little bit of a kick in the butt to get our other fast guys to the race who previously have always passed on it.”

Gaston and Taam, both longtime members of the USSMA national team, hope more than anything the Power of Four’s national championship status will bring in more competition. Numerous members of the national team, including many who have never competed in this race, are expected to vie for the national titles this weekend.

Many of these same athletes will compete next weekend at the world championships in Switzerland.

“I know a number of the USSMA national team athletes are planning to participate,” Mikulas said. “So I think in general more people and more competitive teams are looking to take home that title.”

On top of the Power of Four, there is a recreational option, dubbed the Power of Two, that begins at 8 a.m. from the base of Aspen Highlands. The shorter race only includes Highlands and Aspen Mountain. There will be an awards ceremony and post-race party at the base of Ajax following the races.

A winter storm is expected to hit the area with significant snow totals possible this weekend, which could impact the timing of the race and the specific course it uses.

More than 250 athletes are registered, making this the largest race in the event’s nine-year history.

“We couldn’t pull this race off without the tireless work of so many different teams behind the scenes,” Kneeshaw said, not wanting to forget the volunteers. “From event operations, ski patrol to Aspen Expeditions, everyone works together to make this thing happen and we couldn’t do it without them.”