Racing a pack of Lycra-clad skiers up a mountain in gale force winds and driving sleet probably isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but it’s how an increasing number of hardy Scots are choosing to spend several weekends each winter.
While intrepid adventurers have been skinning up Scotland’s snow covered mountains for many years, ski mountaineering, or skimo, racing is relatively new to the UK. The format, which combines athleticism and mountaineering skills, sees competitors race each other round a set course on skis, tackling strenuous, technical climbs, tricky transitions and fast descents.
After witnessing the sport’s popularity in the Alps, mountaineer Di Gilbert decided to introduce it to Scotland by setting up the Skimo Scotland series. Now entering its seventh season, and gaining in popularity each year, the series comprises six different races, which take place in four of Scotland’s five ski areas.
The 2019 series kicks of at The Lecht in December with an introductory race, where competitors complete as many laps of a short course as possible. In January the series heads to Glenshee for a more challenging race that will also be recognised as the British skimo championships, and in February and March, Glencoe and Nevis Range will each host two-day events consisting of a vertical only race as well as a standard course.
In an effort to make the races accessible to as many people as possible, there are two different categories, which allows recreational snowsports enthusiasts with non-regulation kit to race alongside serious ski mountaineers.
Indeed, winners of the 2017 Scottish Skimo series, Donnie and Rachael Campbell had hardly done any skiing, let alone ski mountaineering, when they entered their first skimo race in December last year. As Rachael, a research nurse and Army reservist, recalls: “at one point I couldn’t even remember what to do in a transition”, while Donnie, a running coach and former Royal Marine, who’d only done a few days skiing when he took up the sport, confesses: “my downhill isn’t the best, but I can survival ski!”
However, with the couple from Inverness also being semi-professional trail runners, they took to the sport pretty quickly, sliding their way towards the top of the leaderboard from the word go.
Donnie and Rachael started ski mountaineering in 2015 as a means of sustaining their training over the long, harsh Highland winter. As Donnie explains: “Trying to run through knee to waist deep snow is not really possible and ski touring seemed the ideal sport for getting out into the mountains when they’re covered in snow. I have a competitive nature, so when I discovered skimo racing, it was inevitable I was going to try it.”
Ski mountaineering is now an integral part of their winter training schedule, and the skimo races allow them to indulge their competitive sides during the off-season. In fact, when I speak to Donnie, he’s just back from a bit of early season “heather skiing” at The Lecht:
“I couldn’t resist a cheeky wee slide, and the conditions weren’t too bad for October.”
Despite the couple’s seemingly effortless adoption of the sport, it’s not been without its challenges. For novice skier Donnie, the race at Nevis Range was a bit of a baptism of fire: “It was the first time I’d ever skied into the Back Corries, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was a bit nervous dropping in, as my downhill isn’t the best, but I managed to stay on my skis and not wipe out.”
For Rachael, it was the cold conditions that presented the greatest test: “I’m not a big fan of the cold,” she says. “On my first skimo race at The Lecht I started with my down jacket on, as I was so cold. Mind you, the weather hasn’t been as bad as I’ve heard it can be, so I really can’t complain.”
While conditions were surprisingly good for every race last season, Scottish skimo veteran and British skimo champion Finlay Wild has experienced the bleaker side of the sport. For the 34-year-old GP from Fort William, one race stands out as being particularly “character building”:
“At The Lecht in 2015 the snow was melting rapidly as we were racing. On each lap, the strip of snow was getting more and more sparse, and to make matters worse, it was so windy we could barely stand up.”
However, he goes on to add that: “the Scottish conditions are part of the fun, and rarely halt proceedings.”
Wild refers to race organiser Di Gilbert as “Miss Enthusiasm” and commends her fluid approach to the sport, adapting the format to suit the varying terrain and conditions at each race: “As people have come from all over the country, Di always tries to put something on, regardless of the conditions.”
He also describes the sport as being perfectly suited to Scotland as you don’t need perfect snow conditions to have a great race: “You only need a metre-wide strip of snow to hold a race. Having to battle with getting heather stuck to your skins is just par for the course!”
As Scotland’s top mountain runner, with numerous records and titles under his belt, Wild sees ski mountaineering as the perfect complement to running: “I run a lot, but as soon as skis seem like a more efficient way to travel, I’ll change over. In snowy conditions, it becomes as quick as running.”
Wild has also competed in several skimo races in the Alps, including the Pierra Menta, which he describes as being “next level”, but he always returns feeling enthused about racing on home turf – quite literally, on occasion.
When asked how it feels to have won the British championships three years running, he’s quick to underplay his success, preferring to focus on the bigger picture instead: “It feels good to be pushing the standards of this up-and-coming sport in Scotland, especially as it’s likely to become an Olympic sport in the near future.”
While its inclusion as a Winter Olympic sport is yet to be confirmed, skimo will feature as an event at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, potentially paving the way for it to be recognised as an official discipline at the main games. As one of the few winter sports that’s growing in popularity, Olympic status seems an inevitability, and when it happens, the thriving Scottish skimo scene is certain to produce some Olympic hopefuls to pull on those Team GB Lycra skinsuits. ✱