In the Alps, the sport of ski mountaineering is massive. For those in the know it is seen as the ultimate test of mountain savvy. Competitors need to be able to ski uphill as well as down, using sticky climbing skins attached to the bottom of their skis.
They have to ascend exposed ridges using crampons, ropes and harnesses where necessary; they need to be able to rescue each other from crevasses or avalanches should something go horribly wrong; and be capable of running while carrying all their skiing, climbing and safety gear on their backs. St Bernards are cute and everything, but if you were lying freezing to death on some remote hillside, you’d want to be rescued by a ski mountaineer over a rum-toting pooch every single time.
The highlight of the ski mountaineering or “SkiMo” calendar is the Pierra Menta race at Arêches-Beaufort in France. Last year’s event saw almost 500 competitors line up at the start in Lycra-clad teams of two, ready to push themselves to the limits of endurance and beyond over four days as they slogged up and down an undulating 80km course featuring approximately 10,000 metres of ascent. First prize? Just E3,000, which, once you’ve paid nearly E1,000 for your entry fee and a lot more for all the specialist gear required, barely leaves you with enough left over for a celebratory bière. But then ski mountaineers aren’t in it for the money – for many, it’s simply about the sense of achievement that comes from completing the course.
SkiMo has never really taken off in the UK so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to learn that British athletes have never troubled the top ten at the Pierra Menta. But now that could be about to change thanks to the efforts of mountaineering instructor and ski mountaineering convert Di Gilbert, who plans to hold the UK’s first ever SkiMo series at ski resorts all over Scotland this winter.
“Nobody in the UK knows what the sport’s about,” she says, “nobody has heard of it or seen it, so we just want to get it recognised.”
The SkiMo Scotland Series, as it’s been dubbed, will begin at the Lecht on 29 December, with further events at Glenshee, Glencoe and Nevis Range in the New Year. Gilbert expects some entries from serious UK-based ski mountaineers, but she’s also hoping for interest from recreational ski-tourers, who might be trying the sport for the first time. To accommodate both groups, the races will be divided into two categories: an “Individual Men’s and Individual Women’s” section for serious racers using regulation gear, and an “Open” section, for people who want to race using unconventional equipment such as telemark skis, nordic skis and split snowboards.
Gilbert says she is expecting the first-timers to outnumber the seasoned racers, with “very little in the way of Lycra” on display.
The first race, taking place at the Lecht next Saturday, will be a relatively gentle introduction. Starting at car park level, competitors will climb to the top of the Snowy Owl Chairlift and then ski or board back down again, completing as many laps of the course as they can in 90 minutes. The second event in the series, held at Glenshee, will be tougher, with competitors completing a 5km course with 426m of ascent which will take them to the top of the Cairnwell and down again – via the ferocious Tiger run, if conditions allow.
The Glencoe race in February promises to be more challenging still: a gruelling 780m climb to the top of the ski area via Etive Glades followed by a descent of the notorious Flypaper. And then, in March, the series will wind up with back-to-back events at Nevis – one a sprint climb to the top of Aonach Mor; the other a monster of a course culminating in a descent through the steep, unpisted Back Corries.
“Obviously we’re very concerned about safety,” says Gilbert. “If the ski patrol at Glencoe say ‘OK, the Flypaper is brick-hard ice, we’re not going to send people down that,’ we’ll just have to go and change the course on that top section. But at the same time we want to showcase the resorts and what they can be used for.” And who knows, maybe find a future Pierra Menta winner as well.