Summit Daily photographer describes lessons learned competing in Aspen Power of Four ski mountaineering race
With each ski mountaineering event I compete in, I’m reminded there are always new things to learn. The Audi Power of Four in Aspen on March 2 was no different.
Tackling Aspen Snowmass’ four mountains put me in situations to continue to grow my ski mountaineering skills, namely the downhill component, as well as nutrition and hydration.
That’s because ski mountaineering is a sport that combines three distinct racing elements over long-distance courses. In this case, we set out for nearly 11,000 vertical feet of elevation gain over 25 miles.
Along the way in a race like this, the best racers will be the ones who’ve come closest to perfecting three elements. The first: the endurance that comes with using “skin” ski traction sleeves to climb uphill. The second: the technical skills of traditional downhill ski racing. And, the third: the efficient technique required during the all-important gear transitions between going up and down.
For this race I was, for the first time, paired with Sam O’Keefe of Breckenridge. Sam, 25, is one of the area’s top mountain bikers and a really strong skimo racer. However, both he and I are still relative novices in the sport, having only competed for about the past year. It was also the first time competing in the Power of Four for both of us. Sam and I met while out on a training day, via Breckenridge local and U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association head coach Joe Howdyshell.
On this frenetic tour of Aspen’s four mountains, Sam, for the majority of the race, would be in the lead. He also was critical in reminding me when and where to consume my calories and drink water.
My biggest concern heading into the race was to avoid what many Summit County endurance athletes regard as a “bonk.” To bonk, in our parlance, is to crash during a race due to a deficiency in caloric energy and/or water. For the race, I made sure to prepare by efficiently packing the front of my waist with Clif Bars, Clif Gel Shots, Honey Stinger waffles, the Ascend electrolyte mix in my first two water bottles — and a Snickers bar, of course.
After a five-hour sleep and a 3:30 a.m. breakfast of pancakes and eggs, the race got underway. Not soon after, I found myself eating and drinking before I was even hungry or thirsty. That’s because Sam did his best to remind me at various checkpoints during the early portion of the race to eat and drink. Heck, there’d be aid stations along the way to refill my water, so, might as well.
The race began with a moderate skin up Snowmass — about 1,000 feet per mile over 3 miles. It’s in this uphill portion of skimo races where my high-elevation endurance from Summit County shines through. Despite the recent snowy conditions, while skinning up Snowmass there wasn’t too much powder to trudge through — maybe 3 inches atop previously groomed snow.
Once summiting Snowmass, we found ourselves staring down slope at cliffs leading to clouds. It was quite the sight to see while transitioning to our downhill gear and traversing along the ridge from Snowmass to Buttermilk.
Once at Buttermilk, we flew down the resort before crossing the highway to begin the steep climb to the top of Aspen Highlands. Along the way Sam was kind enough, in a couple of spots, to tow me from ahead. Again, Sam was sure to remind me to consume more calories and drink more water. Being sure not to bonk was as key as ever, as race rules stipulate that teams of two skiers must be within 10 seconds of each other during the duration of the race.
Atop Highlands, I was eager to refill my water at an aid station, but we found the Gatorade bucket had frozen. We were reassured by a race volunteer that there’d be water we could access at a mid-mountain location. After refilling, some of the hardest racing terrain was up ahead.
To bottom out from Highlands before beginning the climb to the final mountain, Aspen Mountain, my downhill skiing was tested. That test came within what was almost like singletrack skiing through the racing corridor in between the trees and the towering powder around us. Some racers, including myself, actually resorted to the beginner tactic of “pizzaing” with their skis to negotiate the turns during a specific section of this descent. It was the third of four total descents during the race.
That portion of the race set us up for the gradual yet difficult climb up to Aspen Mountain. During this stretch of the race I was able to use my endurance strength to help Sam and I pass other teams. In fact, on a portion of the climb I was actually able to lead Sam. I’m sure the calories and hydration from earlier helped.
When we topped out on Aspen Mountain, I was expecting that last descent to be a glorious one, down a groomer run to the Silver Queen Gondola Plaza. But no, the red flags — which were the course markers — directed us straight into the double-black-diamond runs to skier’s right. Dipping into this terrain, the powder was deep and the moguls were as imposing as they were bulky. This final descent to the finish line wasn’t for the faint of heart, as it separated the elite downhill skiers from the rest of us. Sam and I finished in 17th place of about 100 teams in the open division, with a time of 6 hours, 9 minutes and 43 seconds. For perspective, race champions Max Taam and John Gaston finished in 04:45:26.
Looking back on my first Power of Four race, it was yet another adventure that spoke to why I continue to pursue ski mountaineering. A lot of people talk about a runner’s high, but the skier’s high that you get from your body’s endorphins when traversing dramatic winter terrain like this is unlike anything else. Truly, in my mind, in a world dense with many different sports, ski mountaineering is unlike anything else. It provides someone like me with the opportunity to view so much of such an awe-inspiring location like the wilderness surrounding Aspen. Or, in inclement weather, it provides a stark reminder of the menacing power of the mountains.
On a more personal note, I feel that the skimo world, like life, can remind you of something very important: that the path to earning your rewards may often be harder than you expect.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A local kid got on the X Games Aspen podium on Sunday night, but it wasn’t the one most people expected. Even Jon Sallinen didn’t think he’d be taking home a medal.