Ski mountaineers pivot on approach to winter comp season due to pandemic
U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association cancels national championship, national team, but still hopes to have a few local contests
FRISCO — The pandemic has forced local and national ski mountaineering entities to alter or cancel their winter seasons, going as high as the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association.
Association President and Summit County resident Ram Mikulas said Tuesday the COVID-19 situation effectively forced the organization to cancel its national championship event and national team this season. That’s because the association isn’t able to host qualifying events for a national team, Mikulas said. Without national championship qualifying events — originally planned for Eldora Mountain this month and Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort in Glenwood Springs next month — there’s no objective way to select a national team for the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships slated for March in Andorra.
“It is a really big bummer,” Mikulas said of the cancellation. “It was a really challenging decision for us to make. But the primary factor in all of this is safety. We want to make sure everyone stays safe and healthy.”
Mikulas said another primary concern for the association was whether or not American athletes would be able to make it over to Europe for the world championships with the uncertainty and difficulty of intercontinental travel restrictions during the pandemic. To this point in the season, Grace Staberg of Silverthorne is the only American to compete in a World Cup in Europe.
Staberg returned to her home in Silverthorne on Monday after spending several weeks in France and Italy training and competing in a French Cup event and the first World Cup of the season. Staberg said she plans to return to Europe next month for more World Cup events. She said she is confident it will be able to work out for her after she was able to secure a special talent passport visa, which is the reason she was able to travel to Europe in the first place after a previous visa request was denied.
After canceling the national team events and program for the year, Mikulas said the association has shifted its focus to create what he called the U.S. Skimo High Performance Group. He said the group is basically an open invitation to any high-level athletes who aspire to be on the national team in the future to educate themselves via the more off-snow elements of ski mountaineering. That includes sharing resources on skills, nutrition, anti-doping, rules and regulations through training, anti-doping seminars and coaching presentations.
“To continue to keep them engaged in the sport during this time when races are really uncertain, and to have them help spread the word about skimo racing to help grow the sport,” Mikulas said.
Mikulas said the association also hopes to use the program to educate those new to backcountry skiing and uphilling at ski resorts about ski mountaineering.
As for local race series in Summit, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area spokeswoman Katherine Fuller said the ski area is still interested in hosting a skimo series this winter, but nothing is scheduled yet. Last year, the series already had put on three events by Dec. 17.
In Breckenridge, Vincent Hutton of the town’s recreation department said details on the plan for the Breck Ascent series would be forthcoming, likely by the New Year, though it’ll likely be challenge-based, where individuals can undertake the challenges on their own on their own time, rather than actual races or virtual Strava races.
Mikulas said there are still some plans to race elsewhere in Colorado, such as a race at Sunlight Mountain Resort in early February, a race hosted by Cripple Creek Backcountry at the newly-opened Bluebird Backcountry ski area later in February, and the Aspen-based Power of Four and Grand Traverse races deeper into winter.
Mikulas added the changes to the association’s plans for this season wouldn’t trickle down to impact the international process to potentially add ski mountaineering to the Winter Olympic program in 2026 in Italy.
As for Staberg, after training with French ski mountaineering legend Laetitia Roux in Tignes, France, she was the second-fastest woman of any age in the vertical race at the French Cup qualifier featuring the fastest French females in the sport. Then, the next week, at her season-opening World Cup in Italy, she struggled in sprint and vertical races, finishing 12th and 8th, respectively.
Despite the struggles, she is hopeful more American athletes will be able to join her at some of the five more World Cups and the World Championships she plans to compete in before winter concludes. Without the official national team, Mikulas said American athletes like Staberg will travel and compete more as individuals, even if they don the stars and stripes, as Staberg always does.
Staberg said, judging by their presence and numbers at the Italian World Cup season-opener, European skimo teams don’t seem to be as affected as the Americans are right now due to the pandemic.
“They haven’t had to limit the number of people they’re taking to World Cups,” Staberg said.
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