Skimo racing: It hurts so good

'You're going hard until you almost puke,' racer says

Enduring cold temperatures Sunday morning, Josh Williams sets out for his last uphill portion of his Ski Mountaineering race, which was hosted by Ski Hesperus and organized by the Pine Needle Uphill Ski Club.


HESPERUS - If you like to push yourself past your limits, freeze, use dexterity with cold-stiffened digits, loose feeling in your hands and toes all while you heart is pounding and you're nauseated, then you might like skimo racing.

Ski Mountaineering races, or skimo as it is affectionately known in the United States, is growing in the Four Corners and the nation. On Sunday morning, with 20 mph winds, 5 degree temperatures and a biting windchill, 13 racers showed up at Ski Hesperus to endure the pain in Ski Hesperus/Pine Needle Mountaineering Uphill Ski Club's second skimo race of the year.

"It's really primal suffering," Miles Venzara said after his four laps up and around the 1.5 mile course. "I thought of that on the first climb when I couldn't feel my feet and my hands wouldn't work."

Venzara is co-owner of Pine Needle, and is replotting the local skimo movement. During competition, skis are equipped with removable "skins," a kind of sole that provides traction to ascend mountain slopes. Somewhere up the course they usually carry their skis and boot stomp, or "pack" a section of the climb before reaching the top, where they can remount, pack their skins and take off downhill.

Then they do it all over again.

Proceeds from the races are going to the developing Peter Carver/Joe Philpott Avalanche Scholarship Fund that will help future mountain athletes get avalanche education. A post-race party was set for Sunday night at Carver's Brewing Co., and the business also promised a percentage of back bar sales to the fund.

In addition to mountaineering skills, awareness and exposure to the elements, skimo racers use specialized boots, skis, and packs, and train for transitions in the race, fighting the clock with slow, numb fingers and burning lungs. They are traditionally required to pack mountaineering equipment: a shovel, a location transceiver and a probe, or collapsible pole, for rescue scenarios, but on Sunday you just needed stamina and a threshold for pain.

The entire sport operates under constant challenge to body and mind.

"I used to race mountain bikes, and this is a lot like mountain biking," said Pine Needle employee and racer Drew Gunn. "You're going hard until you almost puke, and then you're trying to hold on all the way down. And dealing with gear, as far as being fast when your heart rate is pegged, you coordination is the first to go."

Gunn, who's been racing since 2009, said he especially enjoys the use of lightweight gear to move quickly through the high country.

Ultra-runner and website designer Brendan Trimboli said this was his first year to the sport, and he likes the intimate subculture of skiers that seems to beg for punishment and seeks out what some would call miserable conditions.

"I've always been a fan of the freakish fringe sports," he said. "Ultra-running is kind of like that to normal runners, and this is kind of like that to normal skiers."

But not every racer dons skis. Leah Fein used snowshoes for her first race, and while skiers rip down the hill, with poles often tucked, snowshoers get to utilize a classic, refined mountaineering skill called "glissading." That means they slide down on their duff.

Fein, too, said she was out for agony.

"I just wanted to see what it's all about," she said. "Hurting a lot, getting a good work out and freezing my butt off."

Trimboli also said he does if for the fitness.

"I've always been looking for that winter activity to fill the void and keep me fit in the off season," Trimboli said. "I like the fact that within an hour I can feel really worked."

Local sponsored skimo racer Scott Simmons has raced skimo all over the West and in Europe, where the sport originated. He said the weather is always a challenge, but the constantly changing endurance aspects wear you down.

"The biggest factor is the cold," Simmons said. "It just always seems to be cold. And it's hard. When you're going up you're wishing the uphill was over, and then by half way down your legs are screaming because they're tired from going downhill, and they want to go up."

Venzara called it "good clean suffering - a tough guy competition."

"Especially today," he said. "You not only climb 2,000 vertical feet, but do it with a windchill less than zero."

Drew Gunn along with 12 other skiers and snowshoers bear bitter cold temperatures Sunday morning to compete in a Ski Mountaineering race hosted by Ski Hesperus. Enlargephoto

JENNAYE DERGE/Durango Herald

Drew Gunn along with 12 other skiers and snowshoers bear bitter cold temperatures Sunday morning to compete in a Ski Mountaineering race hosted by Ski Hesperus.

Miles Venzara points out the course and explains details to competitors before the start of Sunday morning's Ski Mountaineering race. Venzara, an onwer of Pine Needle Mountaineering, also organized the Pine Needle Uphill Ski Club and Sunday morning's race. Enlargephoto

JENNAYE DERGE/Durango Herald

Miles Venzara points out the course and explains details to competitors before the start of Sunday morning's Ski Mountaineering race. Venzara, an onwer of Pine Needle Mountaineering, also organized the Pine Needle Uphill Ski Club and Sunday morning's race.