Competitive ski mountaineering is growing in the Cascades ahead of its 2026 Olympics debut

CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN – With light snowfall and temperatures in the mid-20s, I shivered as I waited in line one March morning last winter at the base of Crystal Mountain Resort. But I wasn’t in line for the first chair on the Chinook Express chairlift with big powder skis strapped to my feet and thick Gore-Tex keeping me dry. I wore skintight spandex and was perched on impossibly skinny skis that I affectionately nicknamed “the toothpicks.” Instead of waiting to ride the chairlift, my quads were rolled up to spring into action once the race director gave the go-ahead for my wave of riders to take off uphill.

While this late winter Sunday was a perfect day to cruise around the resort, I and about 50 other people signed up to compete in the last SnowGoat skimo race of the season. We climbed from the bottom to the top of Crystal, including a steep section where we strapped our skis to our backpacks and climbed like mountaineers. On a ridge, we ripped off our climbing skins, stuffed them into the pockets of our racing suits, and descended as fast as we could without wiping out our light gear. Then we did it all again – for a total gain of 5,400 vertical feet.

Skimo, short for ski mountaineering, is an organized and competitive version of cross-country skiing or ski touring, the sport of human-powered travel through mountains on skis fitted with climbing skins. In short, it’s a race to see who can climb and descend the fastest. In 2026, the skimo will make its Olympic debut at the Winter Games in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. You can taste the Cascades earlier than that.

Ski mountaineering – climbing mountains and skiing down them – has a long history in the Cascades, as does ski racing, from downhill races on Mount Rainier in the 1930s to ski jumping competitions dating back to the 1910s. But the modern competitive iteration of the winter sport is still nascent in the Pacific Northwest, at least compared to its wild popularity in the European Alps, where spectators cheer at the finish line during World Cup races. The sport also has a strong presence in the Rockies, where a racing circuit keeps skimo athletes busy throughout the winter.

Momentum is slowly building, however, as the enthusiastic race director behind SnowGoat creates an annual series and local athletes begin to compete on bigger stages, while local backcountry skiers and splitboarders increasingly appreciate the opportunity to push themselves in a controlled frame like a ski. area that presents less of a safety hazard than backcountry terrain.

The race director is Tacoma resident Richard Kresser, a 36-year-old firefighter who runs trail and mountain bike races as a summer job. Accustomed to self-inflicted suffering in the mountains, in 2018 he concocted “Dick’s RASH”, a week-long adventure to reach the summit solo and circle Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and of Mount Hood.

The skimo bug bit Kresser in 2016 when he competed in the Mountaineers’ Patrol Race from Snoqualmie Pass to Meany Lodge, a 1930s race that local ski historian Lowell Skoog resurrected in 2014. I was blown away by this side of the sport,” Kresser said. As a regular in trail running and having recently taken up ski touring, he saw a marriage of his new sport with his old racing flame – and the potential to spark outside relationships with others. others. “Skiing is a very intimidating sport and trail running has allowed me to meet my best running partners.”

Kresser’s aspiration conveniently coincided with the Northwest Avalanche Center’s desire to contract Vertfest, an annual ski touring festival in the Alpental ski area that included a skimo race, to a dedicated racing company. Thus, SnowGoat Skimo was born in the winter of 2018-19 and will launch its fourth season on February 5 at the Loup Loup ski area near Twisp in partnership with local host Cascade Endurance.

Vertfest will take place on March 5 and the season will end at Crystal on April 3. (Oregon ski areas host three skimo races in February.) All SnowGoat races are spectator-friendly at the finish line or along the course if you’re skiing. or on horseback for the day. More than 15 volunteers with skiing experience are needed as guards, and eight others at the base who do not need to know how to ski.

At a SnowGoat Skimo race, you’re likely to see hardcore racers at the front of the pack with the lightest gear imaginable while more casual competitors move around in heavier gear or even lighten the mood with a costume. festive.

“We try to make room for everyone in the race,” Kresser said.

The fastest finishers can get Crystal up and down twice in about two hours. Christina Volken, 26, has consistently won the women’s division in SnowGoat’s first handful of races. She grew up in North Bend as the daughter of famous local mountain guide Martin Volken, which exposed her not only to the Cascadian ski culture, but also to the skimo scene of Volken’s native Swiss Alps.

“Skimo has always been in my consciousness as a serious sport that people dedicate their lives to,” she said. Back home, Christina Volken remembers saving the racers and holding the gates as a 10-year-old at Vertfest, the oldest skimo race west of the Rockies.

Volken moved to Colorado for nursing school in 2020 and was curious to test her mettle against more serious competition in a state where runners train at altitude with much easier access to training trails compared to Waterfalls. She entered the US Ski Mountaineering Association National Team Qualifying Race in December at Arapahoe Basin, Colorado.

Volken finished in the top five in every discipline and earned a spot on the United States Women’s National Team. She plans to compete at the US National Cup in Vail, Colorado in February and possibly the North American Championship in March in Kicking Horse, BC. But even though skimo is now an Olympic sport, there is no funding available to support the national team, and American competitors will likely pursue their European counterparts for years to come. This season, Cameron Smith became the first American racer to reach a podium in the International Ski Mountaineering Federation’s 20-year history of international competition.

This lack of support means potential Olympians like Volken are relegated to amateur status. For example, Volken will have to miss a World Cup competition in Spain because she has ER shifts at nursing school.

“If I were to go to the World Cup right now, I would be the last,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t think I have potential, but there’s a big gap between how I train and live and how these athletes train and live. These girls are professional athletes.

While SnowGoat sees its share of what Kresser calls “super-fast locals that can smash pretty hard,” he agrees with Volken that serious skimo racers are going to find better testing grounds in the Rockies or the Alps. Not that he doesn’t aspire to put Washington on the skimo map: This year’s Vertfest will be the first edition officially sanctioned by the US Ski Mountaineering Association.

His medium-term goal is for Vertfest to become the first National Cup race outside of the Rockies. In the long term, he dreams of a Northwest skimo marquee race on a volcano in the Cascades.

But even though North America’s most dedicated skimo racers might be aiming for an Olympic podium in 2026 and beyond, Kresser aims to continue raising a big tent for our local skimo scene.

“The skiing vibe in Washington has always been a bit more laid back than some national scenes,” he said. “We’re still going to have a costume contest at Vertfest.”

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