Last Saturday I participated in the 2nd annual Outdoor Research rando rally at Crystal Mountain. It was a weekend of firsts for me -- first time to Seattle, first time being in the Cascades and in the midst of Ranier (which I now want/need to ski), first non-Powder Keg rando race, first time racing with my new Dynafit gear, and, unlike years of past, e.g. 2006, I never felt like I was having a personal meltdown. The absence of the feeling of imminent disaster, which is a worthwhile rush in and of itself, was pleasantly balanced out by the fact that (a) I did a decent race, finishing in the number 2 spot overall, and (b) Karen was able to be there. The Vertfest left a lasting impression. I'll likely go back. Here's why:
Why am I the only one running?
I was a bit confused by the race start. Having just emerged from the cross season, I am used to fast and furious starts; the euro footage of rando race starts are even faster and furious-er. Last year at the Pkeg, the start was a stampede. Furthermore, I showed up at the Vertfest wearing a skinsuit. So, I had no choice. When I heard the word "go," I went. I ran. The odd part was that I don't think very many other people ran. I don't know why. Maybe it was because all of the fast guys were skiing in Europe. Maybe it was because other racers didn't want to look as goofy as me: running in randonee gear is admittedly not that elegant. Because I was focused on not to tripping over my skis, I didn't look around and I didn't have time to be self conscious. I just ran.
The rest of the race.
Because I ran, I got a gap. The only person who bridged that gap was Benedikt Bohm. Because his name was Benedikt spelled with a "k," he was wearing a skinsuit identical to mine, he had long blond hair, and had a German accent, I surmised that he was a force to be reckoned with. Little did I know that "Bennie" was a true skiing rockstar. Had I known that this, maybe I wouldn't have run. More on Bennie's rockstar status later.
Bennie crossed the gap quickly and joined me on the first climb. Shortly thereafter he passed me. I tried to hold his skis, but the gap increased on the boot pack up the K2 face. After the first descent, I don't think I saw him. The rest of the race, I kept a decent LT pace (as opposed to a lungs on fire pace). I even caught myself looking around at the scenery and may have even smiled once or twice. When my skins failed midway up the final climb, I removed my pack, pulled out my spare set, put them on, and kept climbing. I didn't crash in the icy couloir, and crossed the line in 1:50, 5 minutes after Bennie whose time was 1:45. The third place finisher, a Vancouverite originally from Slovakia, finished a few minutes later.
In ski mountaineering races, gear is important. Every little piece is part of a large machine. If everything's not clicking, then things can get really frustrating. Part of the reason I was happy with my race is that I finally feel like I have my gear dialed in. As I mentioned, I was racing on a new Dynafit setup -- super lightweight skis (SR 11s), super lightweight bindings (Low Tech Race), and a stylish skinsuit. For boots I was wearing my trusty modified F1s, laced together with parachute cord and duct tape. For skins, I was using Dynafit mohairs, and carried a spare set of ABS nylon mohair mix skins in my pack. Because I got snow all over my Dynafit skins in the first transition, they eventually failed and I was grateful to have the spare set. My pack was a CAMP XLP 290 super lightweight pack. In addition to being lightweight, it has a ski carry system that allows you to get skis on and off your pack without taking it off, which is a big time saver for the boot pack section. Poles-wise, I could have done better. I was using some cheap nordic poles that kept bending. I lost some time trying to reshape them. I also lost some time taking my pack off to replace my skins. Next time I'll do better.
Food-wise, I carried a hydration bladder in my pack. I only carried 24 oz. of gatorade/water mix. I ate one gel during the race.
Being in the midst of Rockstars.
The Vertfest was attended by some high profile backcountry skiers. They included Lowell Skoog (Cascades adventurer and brother of the late Carl Skoog), Martin Volken (a guide and author of a book on ski mountaineering), Tim Kelly of Dynafit, and Backcountry Magazine. And then, of course, there was Bennie. As I later learned from Tim, probably because Bennie is too modest, Bennie is a world class ski mounaineer. In addition to being on the German national team, Bennie has racked up several one-day first descents of several 8,000 plus meter peaks, including Manaslu, Gasherbrum II, Mustagh Ata. If you're a Dynafit junkie, you'll notice that these are the names of their latest line of skis -- all named after Bennie's ski exploits. Here's an account of Bennie's Gasherbrum II exploit.
A three sentence editorial.
I think it is intriguing and great for the industry and the sport that the heads of the backcountry skiing/ski mountaineering state are throwing their weight behind rando racing. Bennie has certainly shown that rando racing and the cutting edge of ski mountaineering go hand in hand. I am certainly convinced that rando racing skills are directly transferable to backcountry touring and ski mountaineering -- applying the gear and know-how allows any tourer or mountaineer to travel faster and further. I like to think that's the name of the game. (Sorry, that was four sentences.)