Every small town has its sports heroes. Every few years, some local kid puts up big numbers playing hoops or football, gets recruited by a university, and ends up reaching for a wider kind of fame in a distant city. But not every town has someone like Brandon French, an accomplished athlete at a sport both grueling and obscure. Rarer still, are those athletes who serve their hometown with dedication as a Kalispell City firefighter.
When not at the firehouse, French, 27, spends his weekends traveling across the West to compete in ski mountaineering races, a sport derived from backcountry skiing. Held at resorts, the races – also called randonnée rallies – test competitors’ fitness and skills at climbing up, traversing, and skiing down what are usually the most difficult pitches of the mountain. Competitive ski mountaineering is growing rapidly in the United States, but remains more popular in Europe.
“We’re just starting to catch up here in the U.S. in terms of good athletes trying to go out and compete at that level,” French said. Last week, French raced in two events in Colorado, and after finishing fourth in each, has earned a position on the U.S. national team to compete at February’s ski mountaineering world championships in Switzerland.
“Europeans are way faster than us, so it will be a learning experience for me,” French said. “I expect it to be extremely difficult.”
When French says it, “difficult” is not a word to be taken lightly. Take, for example, the recent Grand Targhee Ski Mountaineering Classic in Wyoming, which had its top class ascend 5,000 vertical feet over the course of six legs, covering the resort’s nastiest terrain.
Racers began by climbing a 2,000-foot slope using skins, carpeting that sticks to the bottom of skis allowing uphill traction. That climb was followed by a descent, then another climb to a steeper section, where competitors took off their skis and kicked steps up the snow to the summit of Targhee’s highest peak at 9,920 feet. That leg was followed by a descent, more climbing, and finally a long ski down to the base.
French, along with partner and fellow firefighter Scott Coldiron of Spokane, Wash., came in first out of 17 teams, finishing in under two hours and 15 minutes. On Sunday, a shorter, similar event drew 17 racers. French won that too.
A graduate of Flathead High and the University of Montana, French uses the deceptively casual language common among those who are good at doing things that are very hard. This is how French describes his first race, at Lost Trail Powder Mountain in 2003, where he almost won until being overtaken by a more experienced racer: “I felt great until the last climb, then I bonked pretty hard.”
Kalispell Fire Chief Randy Brodehl describes French, on the force for two-and-a-half years, as “a very steady guy, a very focused guy, not a lot of fanfare.”
And while French is the first to admit he lacks the experience in burning buildings of senior colleagues, he has made a name for himself there too, in the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb competition in Seattle. The race draws firefighters from all over the world to see who is the fastest to climb 69 flights of stairs in full firefighting gear weighing about 55 pounds, breathing from an oxygen tank. French finished second out of 1,100 firefighters, coming in at 12 minutes, 5 seconds and describing it as “twelve minutes of just pain.”
The worst part of that race, he said, was wearing the facemask, which fogs up and becomes unpleasant if you need to spit or vomit from exertion. A short while after finishing, French decided – for fun – to race again under the name of another Kalispell firefighter who couldn’t make the event.
“I was just doing it to do it,” French said. “I can sit around and drink coffee or I can go up the stairs again.” That time, he placed third.
Despite a strong background in the mountains – including a 2001 ascent of Mount McKinley, ascents of the Grand Teton, numerous ascents and ski descents in the Canadian Bugaboos, and countless trips in and around Glacier Park – French has never sustained a serious injury or had a bad accident, other than being caught in a small slide in Jewel Basin this year that he was able to ski out of. Describing himself as “pretty dang cautious,” he is jarred by the recent avalanche deaths of two skiers in the Canyon Creek area, where he skis frequently. In his job as a firefighter, and his recreation backcountry skiing, French admits to being drawn to the careful decision-making and risk-assessment integral to each activity.
“I think we can decrease the risk considerably,” he said. “If there was no risk, or there was no challenge, it wouldn’t really be worth much.”
French doesn’t claim to train particularly hard or keep to a rigorous diet. While he has made a pact with his wife to avoid refined sugars, he enjoys nachos and coffee. Other than a quick prayer, he doesn’t have much in the way of pre-race rituals. He practices removing his climbing skins in his backyard, to tighten transition times during races between ascending and descending. And he often has the classic nightmare of showing up ten minutes before a race with no equipment. But regardless of how French fares in world competition in Switzerland, his goals are the same: the simple joy of competition and physical exertion.
“I’m just trying to use the talents God has given me,” French said, “and have a good winter skiing.”
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