Gaston, Smith lead national-class skimo competition at Winter Mountain Games
Colorado-based athletes pepper individual and sprint results
VAIL — With ski mountaineering set to make its Winter Olympic debut in 2026, those attending the Winter Mountain Games in Vail on Friday and Saturday got a front row preview of many Cortina hopefuls.
Nine of the 10 U.S. senior national team members hail from Colorado, and all but one competed in Friday night’s individual and Saturday’s sprint. Both events, together with the Sunday morning vertical, serve as the U.S. Skimo national championships this year.
In Friday’s grueling 10-mile round trip over Vail Mountain into its legendary back bowls, John Gaston and Cam Smith went back and forth on the first 1,700-foot climb, trying to wear the other out. Aspen’s Gaston was the 2018 and 2019 senior national champion before Smith unseated him in 2020, winning the sprint, individual and vertical titles. Smith, who calls Crested Butte home, also brought three of the Western University athletes he coaches to Vail and is accustomed to battling Gaston.
“You know everybody’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said of the tight-knit skinning community. Last winter, Smith teamed up with Gaston to break the Power of Four skimo record. Next week, he’ll partner with Friday’s third-placer Tom Goth for a race in France.
Cold, new snow slowed things down as athletes navigated the 4,500 feet of elevation gain. Somewhere along Riva Ridge’s second climb, the 35-year-old Gaston separated from Smith. The Aspen resident crossed the line first in 1:32:18. Goth caught Smith near one of the final transitions and the two rode the final downhill together, with Smith eventually finishing just 20 seconds ahead of the Utah native.
Rea Kolbl was the women’s race champion, defeating Nikki LaRochelle by just over two minutes.
Kolbl’s story to the sport is unique. Growing up in Slovenia, she spent 10 years on the national gymnastics team. Unable to make an Olympics and burned out, she dropped organized athletics altogether at the age of 17.
After moving to the U.S. for college, she started trail running, winning six trail ultras and setting five course records between 2012 and 2016. She quit her Ph.D. program and moved to Boulder to focus on being a pro athlete again. The lure of nearby snow, combined with the rising cost of lift passes, steered her toward uphilling.
“I found out that I’m pretty good at it, and I really love it,” she told the Vail Valley Foundation’s Ross Leonhart before the Winter Mountain Games.
Now 30, she has her eyes on the Olympics … again.
“When I was little and I was a gymnast, Olympics was kind of my goal there and I didn’t quite make it. I was close but not quite there. So it almost seems like I have another shot at trying to get there,” she told Leonhart.
In the U18 race, Park City’s Griffin Briley was in a class all by himself. The 17-year-old, who won the U18 European championships in the vertical and individual races earlier this month, took the win by eight minutes.
“It was really fun. It was good competition — I had my friends right behind me and yeah, it was a good course,” Briley said.
On Saturday, the runner and skier quickly made up ground in the staggered start sprint qualifier, showing off his main strength.
“I like climbing,” he stated matter-of-factly, humbly dismissing his smooth work of the switchbacks up Head First. Athletes traversed over and down Pepi’s Face to complete the 0.5 mile course. Though “sprint” is in the name, you won’t find Usain Bolt’s physiological makeup in any of these individuals.
“Nobody in this sport is really a true five-minute kind of athlete,” Smith explained. “Sprints are really funky for everybody, which evens the playing field a little bit. It isolates a lot of the skills.”
An accomplished trail runner, Smith also relies on his aerobic engine to make moves on steep uphills.
Rea Kolbl – 1:59:02.5
Nikki LaRochelle – 2:01.30.5
Kristin Layne – 2:05.18.0
Josie Fisher – 2:07:59.6
Kate Zander – 2:10:26.3
John Gaston – 1:32:18.5
Cam Smith – 1:38:36.4
Tom Goth – 1:38:56.5
Matt Ruta – 1:41:55.9
Arthur Whitehead – 1:44.38.5
“The slower and tougher, the better,” he said.
Having placed third at the Comapedrosa, Andorra ISMF World Cup on Jan. 16, Smith understands fitness isn’t final, however.
“That’s your entry level into the sport, but at a high level, everybody’s fit and it comes down to the skills and the skiing,” he stated.
As the Mountaineer’s coach, he enjoys the company from his student-athletes.
“It’s really fun, getting to ski and train together during the week,” he said, noting that during events, the athletes know to take care of food, warm-ups and other logistics independently.
In Sunday’s Mountain Plaza to Mid-Vail 2.2-mile climb, he’ll line up next to them, as the U20, U23, senior and masters athletes all race the full distance. Briley is also amped for the uphill.
“That’ll be fun to go out with a lot of the faster guys,” he said.
Next weekend, on Saturday, March 5, Aspen Skiing Co.’s annual Power of Four skimo race will return.
Mikaela Shiffrin did a lot of soul searching after she didn’t win a medal and didn’t finish three of her five individual races at last year’s Beijing Olympics after entering the games amid enormous expectations.