Sit Less and Skimo

Ben Parsons spearheaded new race league at Whitefish Mountain Resort that allows participants to skin up, ski down

By Tristan Scott
Jeff Shehan adjusts his skins before transitioning to the uphill portion of the ski mountaineering race at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 18, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The steady stream of skiers skinning up Big Mountain with headlamps on a recent Wednesday night was testament not only to the growing popularity of ski-mountaineering races, but also to this community’s allegiance to one of the sport’s shining stars.

Ben Parsons, who died earlier this month in an avalanche while backcountry skiing in Glacier National Park, spearheaded Whitefish Mountain Resort’s newest ski mountaineering league, and in the wake of his tragic death, scores of skiers and riders have turned out to make his vision a reality.

Prior to his death, Parsons had joined the staff at Whitefish Mountain Resort on a part-time basis to help develop the Skimo Race League, and its inaugural race on Jan. 18, featuring courses that Parsons designed, drew 67 participants who reveled in the aerobic suffering that defines the sport.

The four-week series of one-hour races allows skiers and snowboarders to complete one, two or three laps on alternating courses that feature 500 vertical feet, ascending the mountain as fast as possible using skins, which adhere to the bottoms of skis or split-boards and allow uphill travel.

Josh Knight, events manager at the ski resort, remembers Parsons as a superior athlete who was always positive and appreciative, and regularly took top honors at the annual Whitefish Whiteout, a ski mountaineering race that celebrates Big Mountain’s enduring tradition as an uphill-friendly ski area.

“Memories of Ben here include being perhaps one of the most accomplished endurance athletes in the region, winning dozens of races, setting uphill records, pioneering our new Ski Mountaineering League, and all the while being the single most positive and appreciative event participant I have ever worked with in 17 seasons,” Knight said. “He will be missed.”

At Whitefish Mountain Resort, and at a growing number of resorts in North America, a tribe of ski mountaineers has been eschewing the custom of skiing with the aid of chairlifts for years.

They skin up, ski down, and repeat.

But other than the Whiteout, the Flathead Valley’s roster of competitive ski-mountaineering events hasn’t kept up with the pace of the sport’s rising popularity.

Until now. And Parsons deserves much of the credit.

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.

“Ben had been asking me about this event for a couple of years, and this season the demand really seems to be there,” Knight said. “There were enough people interested in the sport, and with the Whiteout entering its 10th year, it seemed appropriate. I think Ben can be proud.”

The new skimo event piggybacks on Big Mountain’s traditional Wednesday Night Race League, which features weekly dual giant slalom racing from Jan. 18 to March 8.

In its first week, the combined races drew 124 participants for the busiest night of ski racing in a decade, Knight said.

“It was the biggest night in probably 10 years, and the awards party at the Bierstube was fun,” he said.

Knight said the new race series also gives competitors an opportunity to train for the upcoming Whitefish Whiteout on Feb. 11, an annual event that Parsons never missed.

As a driving force behind the uphill and skimo racing community in the Flathead Valley, Parsons cherished the opportunity to introduce new skiers to the sport of ski mountaineering, and the spirit of Skimo Race League holds appeal to skiers of all abilities and levels of experience.

David Steele, a friend to Parsons who is volunteering to set up the courses this season, recalls driving down to Missoula with Parsons to check out the Rando-Radness Ski Race Series at Snowbowl, where organizers launched the event last year.

The day after Parsons’ death, Steele and another mutual friend, Jason Mills, skinned to the summit of Big Mountain and discussed Parsons’ passion for the project.

“We got to the top and decided we had to make this happen,” Steele recalls. “It was game on.”

“This was definitely Ben’s project, and I think the number of people who turned out speaks to that,” he added. “It’s definitely competitive and people really push themselves, but it’s a laidback environment that makes it accessible to pretty much everybody.”

Races start at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday by the Events Building, followed by awards at the Bierstube at 8 p.m.

Pre-registration is $15 for one race, or $40 for all four races.

For more information, visit http://skiwhitefish.com/wnrl/.

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