SKAGIT ALPINISM

My first Skimo Race – Tour du Rutor 2016

August 14th, 2016

Here’s a rather tardy blog post about my first ski-mountaineering race, last April in Arvier, Italy, told partially by myself, and partially by my partner in crime, infamous trail runner Jenn Shelton.

COLIN: I had never done a ski mountaineering race before. Jenn had just started learning how to ski. I didn’t own the right clothes, the right backpack, the right poles. Then Jenn fractured her fibula… I figured the race was off, but Jenn assured me she was doing the race and finishing the race. She was so determined to heal her broken ankle that she went to such extremely healthy measures as eating vegetables. That is serious dedication.

JENN: I even ate some dandelion greens.  That’s a step beyond vegetables.  I ate flora, people. I’m not really a big fan of excuses, but I think this situation really does warrant some backstory.

Five and half weeks before the race, I hit a tree at an unreasonable rate of speed, given my skill level. My ski bindings were locked and did not release. The result was a fractured fibula and “torsio gravis” in my left ankle and both knees. Although the doctor said I was off skis for a minimum of four weeks, at the time I figured I’d be back in action after a few days rest, as I’m pretty hard to kill. This, of course, was not the case. Three weeks after my accident and two weeks before the race I went for a checkup.  I still could not walk.  The doctor didn’t exactly say I could ski, but he didn’t exactly say I couldn’t either.  He just kind of laughed, like, “Uh huh. Yeah, go ahead and try. You’ll see how much you can ski.”  I took that as a green light. I have skied every day since that visit. I’m playing this cool but two nights before I was supposed to take a train and meet Colin in Chamonix, I had a panic attack.  I can pull off many things, but this time I knew I was in way over my head. I’d been living in the Dolomites for the season with my main intention being to learn to ski, but the winter had been devoid of snow. There is a prolific sort of sandbagging in skiing where people like to pretend they can’t ski. Then immediately after claiming that they are a “beginner” they go huck their meat off a cornice and only then do they admit that they actually have been skiing since age three. When I say I didn’t know how to ski before this season, that is an understatement. My friends in Italy joke that I have more balance when walking on my hands than when standing on my skis. Jokes are only funny if they have an element of truth. But in my defense I am really fucking good at handstands.

When, at the beginnning of the season, I asked Colin to be my teammate in the Tour du Rutor, I figured I had all the time in the world to become a competent ski mountaineer. I had five months! By the middle of February I had 80 ski days and was feeling like I was finally making progress. But because of the snow situation in Europe, only two of those days, February 16 and 17, had been off piste.  I’m not much of a “numbers” person but I remember these dates because the latter was the day I hit the damn tree.

Despite all this, I still wanted to do the race. I’d come to Europe for the season to ski, not to sit on a couch.  But I didn’t really think it was fair to make Colin do the race with me in my current condition. I’d lost over a month of fitness, and I was still limping.  Plus, as mentioned, I still did not know how to ski. Colin was a world class alpinist, and he was having a hell of a year. He had better things to do than babysit me in the mountains. So after my panic attack I called him and told him the choice was up to him. I was game. I was willing to be a complete shit show in spandex and I was even willing to rebreak my leg, because April would be mud season anyway. Not great for skiing or trail running. I could recuperate. But it was his call.

COLIN: So Jenn told me to decide. I had already come to the conclusion that Jenn was completely nuts for even still considering doing this race. There is absolutely no doubt that if I had a fractured fibula I would’ve written off the plan immediately. So, I e-mailed Jenn and told her I thought we should cancel. She called me a few minutes later: “I veto your decision.” So much for leaving it up to me! To the Aosta Valley we went!

Jenn and I were kindly dropped off in Arvier the morning before the race started, by my friends Rob and Jackie. It didn’t take long to realize we were the only team, out of more than 300 hundred, to be there without a car. Apparently we were the only team that didn’t realize that the pre-race briefings and the race starts are separated by a thirty-minute drive. Fortunately, bumming rides was pretty easy, and a great way to chit chat with other teams.

The evening before the first day of racing, we sorted out our equipment. I packed 12 energy gels. Jenn looked at me like I was insane, and packed three. I’ve had plenty of days in the mountains when I’ve consumed more than 20 energy gels, so I didn’t see what the big deal was. Jenn presented me a skimo race backpack that she had brought for me to use. These packs have a nifty system for attaching and removing your skis without having to take your backpack off. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that 20 years of rock climbing had rendered my upper body less flexible than most skimo racers, and I would definitely be taking my backpack off. Oh well, it didn’t seem like a few seconds lost to my backpack would exactly be making or breaking a podium finish…

JENN: Spoiler Alert: the podium was dismantled and packed away by the time we finished the race each day. But we are getting ahead of ourselves…

I can see why Colin would think I am nuts for doing the race.  But I believe the definition of insanity involves not being able to recognize your disconnect from reality.  And given the nerves that were mounting the night before the race, it is clear that I recognized–in a very sane and real way–that this shit we were about to do was bananas. But Colin (who is maniacal about not carrying an extra gram while in the mountains…alright…maybe he is maniacal about not just that but everything in life…) defended that carrying an all-you-can-eat gel-buffet on his person was not only sane, but strategic. He was wrong. He is wrong.  Wrong wrong wrong. The body can only digest 100 calories an hour when exercising.  And gels are as heavy as calories get. They are basically the neutrinos of endurance food. That is physics.  Or math.  Or some  kind of indisputable science.  Why would he insist on carrying the nutritional equivalent of packets of lead, and quadruple what he could digest?  Because he’s crazy, and because he’s stubborn, that’s why.  

While Colin was obviously the insane half of our quaint team of two, he was also obviously the stronger and more competent half. While I was secretly crapping my pants about how the hell I was going to pretend my leg wasn’t broken the next day, he was totally nonplussed. His biggest concern seemed to be his new pack. After cutting off every strap that he deemed extraneous he set about the task of mounting his skis.  His pack had a system so easy it made Velcro laces look a Rubiks cube. Yet somehow he couldn’t do it. I admit it was refreshing to see him fail at something. Anything! I relaxed on my bed, savoring the moment as I watched him struggle, knowing how much I would be struggling the next day during the race.

COLIN: I won’t bore anyone with a blow-by-blow account of three-days of racing, but merely mention a few general themes and impressions… I’ve been skiing since before I can remember, ski mountaineering since twelve years old, and am generally pretty fit cardio-wise, so ski mountaineering racing is a pretty good fit for me. However, other than playing soccer as a kid, I’ve never done competitive sports, and wasn’t sure that racing, with all the rules and stress of tons of people trying to out-do each other, would bring me much joy in comparison to ski mountaineering with friends in wild terrain and with no rules. Certainly most of the skiers I know in Chamonix would be mortified to wear a spandex suit, and most of them don’t even own any skis less than 100mm wide at the waist. Just as boulderers love to make fun of trad climbing, and alpinists love to make fun of sport climbing, free-riders make fun of skimo racing, and skimo racers make fun of free-riders. The truth is that most of the time people diss on different branches of the same sport because they’re not very good at that aspect of the sport. Most of the free-riders who diss on skimo racing aren’t nearly fit enough to do a skimo race, and most of the skimo racers who diss on lift-served freeride skiing would not be able to make much out of a brilliant powder day at Brévent. Well, I suck at bouldering but I still love and respect it. I would probably get beaten by twelve-year-old girls on a slalom course, but I still enjoy and respect downhill ski racing.

Ski mountaineering racing is vastly more popular and well established in Europe than it is in North America, and Jenn had somehow managed to get us (one cripple, and one person who’d never done a skimo race before) into one of the biggest races, the Tour du Rutor. The race consisted of three consecutive days of racing, all in the same valley but covering different terrain, and each day involving about 2,600 meters of elevation gain and loss. At the starting line each morning were about 650 racers (!), and to give you an idea of how much bigger skimo racing is in Europe than in North America, every single one of those 650 racers was wearing a spandex suit. The heaviest boots I saw were the Dynafit TLT6, and the heaviest skis that I saw were the Dynafit PDG.

Because Jenn had missed about a month of exercise prior to the Tour du Rutor, we had a noticeable discrepancy in speed during the climbs. I had always thought it seemed ridiculous that in these races one person often “tows” his/her partner with an elastic cord, and the night before the first day of racing I insisted that I would be doing no such thing… Well, after one day of racing I got into the spirit of it, and on the second and third days we developed a pretty good towing system. While we had a noticeable discrepancy in speed during the climbs, we had a very big difference in speed during the descents – I come more from a freeride background, and Jenn had just started learning how to ski. Contrary to the belief of most freeriders, the top skimo racers are actually very good downhill skiers, and you couldn’t be very competitive in the sport if you sucked at downhill skiing. However, at our location in the pack, the level was not so high, and I gleefully passed many people during the descents (I only learned afterwards that it is not allowed to ever be more than 30 seconds ahead of one’s partner). Skiing as fast as you can, on ultralight gear and in funky snow, is actually pretty damn fun! While she wasn’t very fast on the descents, Jenn’s determination was very impressive. On the bigger descents (some were about 1,000m before the next climb) Jenn had literally about ten crashes, on each descent! She may be reckless, but at least she’s fearless!

All in all, I had an absolute blast in my first skimo race, and I definitely hope to do more in the future. Pushing hard on the climbs was fun, skiing as fast as possible on the descents was fun, the general vibe among the racers was awesome, and in true Italian style, music was always bumping out of a massive sound system at the start and finish line.

JENN: I think one of the most fascinating aspects of consciousness, or the human condition, or however you want to describe how homo sapiens react with their environment, is how two people can be put in an identical situation and come away with completely different interpretations of their experiences.  I think this is not only fascinating but also probably the basis for all art. 

I am, of course, one of those assholes who thinks sport is an art form.  Or at least can be.  Or should be.  Or wants to be. I think the ability to make a serious situation fun is a form of high art.  I am one of those assholes who thinks comedy is the highest art form.  One of those people who points to Shakespeare and notes that his most tragic plays are his comedies, except I don’t think Shakespeare should be the end-all-be-all for interpreting life. At some point in my life, I will probably disagree with me.  But this is how i feel now, how I have felt for so far for the entirety of my adult life. Comedy > Seriousness. Or rather: Comedy = Seriousness.

At dinner the night before the race Colin made a comment about how he was impressed that I had been dedicated to learning Italian, because he thought my typical MO was to skate through life on talent and good looks without every really trying very hard at anything.  He meant it is a compliment.  Colin does not have a malicious bone in his body, as far as I can tell.  Whatever the intention, I was pretty crushed.  Colin, like most people, didn’t respect me.  He thought I was just a silly girl, which is something I am used to and don’t usually take too much stock in.

Before that comment I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to finish the race, I just knew that I wanted to try.  After that comment, I knew that I was going to finish even if it killed me.  Since, as Colin mentioned, our blog post is a touch tardy, I will tell you that in a few days it will be July [Editor’s note: It’s now mid August!].  Months have passed so the race obviously didn’t kill me.  But I think it is fair to say that the race has–at least for the last few months–completely altered my way of life. 

Only last week have I finally been able to run again, for about thirty minutes a stretch.  I don’t have to get into all the boring details, but basically skiing on my broken ankle caused bone bruising in my back.  This is considered a fracture, although not the kind that shows up on x-rays.  It is when the bones are bleeding from the inside.  Bone bruising usually occurs from a blunt force trauma, but mine occurred from skiing up and over mountains while using only one side of my body, because, of course, I was protecting my left side.  The dysfunctional movement pattern put enough force on my back, over enough time, that I essentially broke my back.  Of course I did not accept this fate until it was too late, did not stop running or skiing until the pain was so significant that I could not stand or even lie down without severe pain.

I guess what I’m getting at is it is really hard for me to read Colin’s blogpost about how I was out of shape and that is why we were slow during the race.  Sure, I had gained some weight from my broken leg–from going from about 9 hours a day of training to zero minutes–so I guess this is how Colin got to the interpretation that I was just milling around in the skin track out of shape while in fact I was nearly killing myself out there, every fucking step of the way. I know. It doesn’t really matter. My ego is taking a beating here. I don’t like being told I’m out of shape when I feel like I am accomplishing the impossible. I was slaying dragons out there! I need to get over this.  It guess it just feels like such a downgrading of my experience. I mean I don’t climb the mountains that Colin climbs. So maybe it was just child’s play out there. But it was really really hard for me. I guess in some extreme worlds that makes me a pussy and I have to just accept that.

This is how I remember it. Every step was confusing. Sometimes my leg could take my full weight. Sometimes it could take only a little bit. And sometimes it would buckle, not taking any. The times that it would take my full weight, I would tell myself that I must be making up the other times when it would not. I would tell myself to toughen up, that I was a hypochondriac. Then I would abuse my leg until it just wouldn’t have it anymore. I would fall to my knees, which was not exactly pleasant, many times losing my ski in the process. It was so fucking frustrating, and this was just the uphills. Not to mention dangerous for the other competitors.

When Colin decided to tow me I was really torn. I needed his tow to finish the race, to take some of the load off of my leg, but it was also the last thing in the fucking world I wanted to do, to need his help. He made some comments that I just have bad technique on my skins.  And I was irate, thinking, of course I have bad technique how can you possibly have good technique when you can’t weight one of your legs? I’d spent a significant amount of time working on uphill technique. I knew I had bad technique. But there was nothing I could do about it. And to make matters worse, my right leg was getting pretty fucking fatigued, taking the brunt of the work.

I didn’t know how to reconcile this. I told myself to get some perspective. I was racing in the Italian Alps! I was using equipment that cost more money than I could have ever imagined that equipment could cost. My sponsor was paying for this race that I could never have afforded on my own. I was lucky. Just take the tow and be fucking grateful. I tried to laugh at the ridiculousness of my predicament. That my knight in shining armor was the one person i wanted to prove to that I didn’t need a knight in fucking shining armor.

I did a pretty good job, I think, of keeping it light out there during the race, though I did lose my cool a few times. The irony was that when I would keep it light, it was obvious that Colin thought that I wasn’t being serious. But that keeping it light was the only way I was going to get through the race. It was the only way I knew how to deal with serious situations. 

It seems weird to say but I really did have a good time. I’m super happy we did the race. I learned a ton.  I’ve spent the past few months re-educating my brain to use the left side of my body again.  It’s been super frustrating, to not have access to muscle synapses when I want to access them.  I guess humans are the only animals that will continue to limp even after their injury has been eradicated. The human condition is a crazy ride. In this re-education or rehabilitation or whatever you want to call it, I’ve had to re-visit the race, emotionally and physically and all that. It’s just part of the process. It’s been such a weird thing. To read about Colin’s seemingly superficial experience of this race, and to know how deeply this race has affected my life.

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