Two Aspenites named to U.S. ski mountaineering team
The Winter X Games are finished for another year, but extreme sports of another type are hardly over for two Aspenites.
Jessica Phillips and Max Taam were named recently to the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Team that will compete in the World Championships in Claut, Italy, Feb. 18-25.
The sport is catching fire in the U.S., Taam said, and it’s already popular in Europe. Ski mountaineering races are brutal affairs that sear the lungs, sap the legs and test the endurance of the athletes. Racers alternate between climbing uphill with skins on their skis and skiing down gnarly slopes on lightweight gear. A typical race has three or four uphill stretches, each interspersed with a run down a steep trail. They cover between 4,500 and 6,000 feet of climbing, Taam said, but some races feature up to 8,000 vertical feet of grueling climbs. Most races take between two and three hours.
“It’s full, 100 percent capacity the entire time,” Taam said.
To call Taam and Phillips uphillers would be like saying Shaun White performs tricks on his snowboard. Ski mountaineering races are nothing like strapping on some tele skis or alpine touring boards and skinning up Aspen Mountain, Phillips said. That was her expectation when Taam introduced her to the sport this winter. It has turned out to be more like skinning up Aspen Mountain, skiing down Walsh’s, skinning back up Walsh’s, skiing down Hyrup’s, skinning up Kristi then skiing down Northstar.
“I really think it’s one of the hardest things I’ve done,” Phillips said. “It’s very humbling.”
The skis, bindings and boots are about half the weight of alpine touring gear typically used for uphilling and backcountry skiing, Taam said. His skis and bindings weigh about 2 pounds combined. Boots are also lightweight.
“It’s kind of like skiing Walsh’s in tennis shoes,” Phillips said.
The skins are more sparse than those used for recreational uphilling. Taam said some racers bring multiple skins to use in different conditions.
Phillips, 32, a pro cyclist and a ski instructor, said she didn’t even skin uphill until this season, a testament to her aerobic conditioning. Taam, 28, also a bike racer and a ski patrolman at Aspen Mountain, knew Phillips from cycling and thought she would excel at ski mountaineering.
Phillips said this season is more about learning the sport. “I definitely struggle on the technical aspects of the sport,” she said.
Ski mountaineering racers head up extremely steep slopes. There is often a set track but rarely a groomed route. Getting up the pitch requires a zigzagging motion that requires a perfectly executed kick turn when the racer wants to zig instead of zag or vice versa. It’s crucial not to break stride to make the turn, Taam said.
The other vital technical requirement is changing skins without taking off skis, Phillips said. The best racers can apply skins to their skis in less than one minute. They can rip off their skins, fold them and store them in their packs in less than 30 seconds.
“That’s where I’m losing so much time,” Phillips said.
Taam has participated in the sport for five years and qualified for the world championships last year. He said races in the U.S. were rare at first, but more events popped up the last couple of years, each attracting more participants. Taam and Phillips both qualified for the national team with top-three finishes at a race at Sunlight Mountain Resort outside of Glenwood Springs in mid-January.
Both Aspen racers also posted impressive times at the U.S. Ski Mountaineering National Championships in Jackson Hole Mountain Resort earlier this month. That included climbing about 8,000 vertical feet. After 6,000 feet of climbing combined with a handful of downhill runs, competitors had to strap their skis to their backpacks and climb the legendary Corbet’s Couloir, which is so steep the final section over a cornice required a rope ladder.
“The hardest part was the upper portion of the couloir before the cornice,” Taam said. “You didn’t really have time to get scared, but looking back at it I am pretty surprised no one fell.”
Taam placed 13th out of 44 starters, finishing in 2:49:06.
Phillips was 10th out of 14 with a time of 4:03:40. She competed Monday in an event at Winter Park that featured other members of the U.S. team. Phillips said one of the veteran racers planned to work with her on transitions to help her prepare for the world championships. The lesson worked – Phillips finished first.
While she is thrilled to compete in the world championships, it’s also “intimidating.” Phillips said she has raced road bikes in Europe, but never skied there. Now she will line up against the greatest ski mountaineering racers in the world. She plans to use this winter’s race to gain experience in preparation for next season.
With a year of experience under his belt, Taam is competing in three events at the world’s: individual, team and relay.
While the sport is picking up steam in the U.S., team members must still pay their own way to travel and stay in Europe for the world championships. A benefit uphill skin or hike will be held Sunday, Feb. 6, on Aspen Mountain. People of all skills are welcome. Ute Mountaineer will rent ski mountaineering equipment for 50 percent off for the event.
The climb will start at 6:50 a.m. at the base of Little Nell. A complimentary brunch and a silent auction will be held at The Little Nell Terrace Room at 9:30 a.m.
The cost is $40. All proceeds from the event and the Ute’s rentals will be donated to the travel expenses of Taam and Phillips.
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