There’s a universal winter currency tendered at mountain ski areas the world over – flash a pass to ride up the chairlift, and then schuss down the snowy slopes.
At Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain, and at a growing number of resorts in North America, a tribe of ski mountaineers has been eschewing that custom for years – skin up, ski down, repeat.
The mantra is not for the faint of heart.
To the novice ski mountaineer, the activity renders quads and calves down to the consistency of uncooked bacon strips, but for a quorum of elite athletes who train for and compete in ski-mountaineering races all winter long, it’s an opportunity to test their fitness at the highest level.
The upshot of their uphill efforts was on full display Jan. 16 at the eighth annual Whitefish Whiteout, a ski-mountaineering race that celebrates Big Mountain’s enduring tradition of uphill skiing as much as the endurance freaks who opt to don Lycra suits, lash rail-thin skis to their racing boots and dash up the mountain as fast as physically possible.
The sport of ski-mountaineering racing (or “skimo”) is a European import that subscribes to the French style of randonee ski racing, where racers ski up the slopes wearing climbing skins beneath their skis, providing friction on the ascents, and then peel off the strips to descend challenging terrain.
This year’s event featured a stout course and drew a slate of elite skiers from far-flung regions, including Paris, France; Prince Edward Island; Alberta; and Alaska.
The roster included a handful of professional ultra-runners like Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe, both North Face-sponsored runners from Missoula, and Adam Campbell, a professional runner from Calgary, Alberta, who in 2014 placed third in the vaunted Hard Rock 100, a 100-mile endurance foot race in Silverton, Colorado, landing on the podium despite being struck by lightning atop a 14,000-foot peak.
Ben Parsons, a local firefighter and perennial favorite at the Whiteout and other skimo races in the circuit, said the field was especially competitive this year.
“As I was helping set up the course the day before the race, I was thinking there are nine or 10 guys who could be pushing up front,” Parsons said.
A recent father, Parsons said his fitness wasn’t at the level it needed to be to win, but it was good enough for a photo finish against Foote and a spot on the podium.
“I knew it was going to be a good, hard battle up front,” Parsons said. “I also knew that with my dad fitness I wasn’t going to be the strongest guy, so I relied on my hometown advantage and course knowledge to hang on for third.”
Foote, 32, took second place with a time of 1:51:47, and Parsons finished less than a second later. Skimo racer Peter Knight, 26, of Edmonton, took first place with a finishing time of 1:51:15.
First place in the women’s field went to Bozeman’s Michela Adrian, 35, who won in a time of 2:14:15. Michelle Katchur Roberts, of Canmore, Alberta, earned second place with a time of 2:18:31, while Katie French, 33, of Whitefish, notched a third-place podium finish in her debut skimo race.
This year’s long course featured an ascent of four mountain peaks that skiers skin and bootpack, totaling more than 5,000 vertical feet and eight miles of terrain, while the short course offered 2,600 feet of vertical and 2.7 miles of terrain.
Phil Grove won the men’s short-course field with a time of 1:00:30, despite wearing a cast on his wrist for an injury.
“I just went old-man style with one cane,” he said. “It was a little bothersome in the transitions but other than that not too bad.”
Arden Young, 30, of Calgary, won the women’s short-course with a time of 1:08:40.
The field of 90 athletes wasn’t all composed of elite competitors, however, which is what makes the event so unique – it is accessible to ski mountaineers of all levels, and also allows telemark skiers and split-boarders to compete.
Riley Polumbus, spokesperson at Whitefish Mountain Resort, said the Whitefish Whiteout is a unique race for a ski resort to offer, and highlights one of Big Mountain’s most distinct features – uphill travel permitted without a ski pass.
“We have a lot of people who hike the mountain who are not super competitive athletes, but who enjoy going out to get some exercise and this recreation course allows them to come out and test themselves against other skiers,” she said. “This competition allows them to do some climbing in areas where they normally can’t, and it does have some higher-caliber, serious athletes.”
Parsons said he hopes to start a weekly race series next winter in an effort to cultivate a stronger culture of ski-mountaineer racing in the Flathead Valley.
“This year was the best turnout they have ever had, and I would say the most well-attended race I’ve competed in,” Parsons said. “It’s kind of cool to see the sport grow, and next year we’re working to get a Wednesday night race series to get even more people into it.”