“Hey, let’s go race each other uphill on skis in the dark!”
Some people (probably most people) would say, “No! That sounds stupid and painful and why would anyone do that!” A much smaller group of people would say, “Okay, that sounds like a logical and enjoyable way to spend an evening. Where do I sign up?” Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’re in the latter tribe. But to those in the former, you are also correct.
Please, hear me out.
Peter, a kindred spirit in the brutal nocturnal stupidity department, suggested we do the final Wednesday evening Nighthawks Skimo Race at Eldora, the local ski hill outside Boulder. Since we are usually found out running around trails on Wednesday nights, adding the skiing component wasn’t too much of a stretch, especially for Peter who is more at home on skis than off. What I had been expecting (from previous runnings of the race) was two laps of the main mountain; up on skins, down on a blue groomer trail from the top, about 1000′ of climbing and descending each time. No problem. I got out my telemark gear, put on my cold-weather running togs, and toed the line. That was the last thing that went predictably for the entire evening.
This being the final race of the season, the race director had added a few surprises. First was the LeMans-style start: run from the gun up to a line where our skis were lined up. After skiing about a hundred yards across the base area, we took skis off and carried them up the terrain park in the gathering dusk. Then the skis went back on we skinned skinned through the dense woods for a while before topping out on the top of Sunset, a short blue groomer back to the base. Getting in and out of telemark bindings takes time and (de)skinning ditto. Since we were headed right back up and the descent was short, I elected to keep the skins on… which made for a rather dicey descent in the gloom.
Once more up the terrain park, but this time on a narrow skin track on the right side. Just for fun, the RD had routed the course over some fallen trees and up a short cliff. I managed to circumvent both and not waste time getting the skis on and off. Another descent of Sunset, this time with skins off, under much better control.
There were about 40 of us racing and at least half of those people were in spandex and ultra-light (and pricey) skimo race gear. Predictably, most of them had taken off at the start and weren’t seen again. Most of us on heavier gear (tele, AT, even a splitboard) were left huffing and puffing in the back.
I knew this climb would be bigger than the first two combined (though with hopefully less shenanigans), so I dialed the pace down into endurance mode, fueled up with a gel, and headed up the skin track up the old lift line. By this time we were all spread out pretty far. I could see occasional headlamps in the woods, the first about a hundred yards ahead of me and and another three a hundred yards behind. Somewhere back there were Peter and Audra and I hoped to at least beat them up the climb (because I sure wouldn’t beat them back down!). The track was pretty easy to follow not just from the dozens of racers ahead of me, but the green and yellow flags and LED lights marking the turns.
I was getting pretty winded and overheated by half way up. The splitboarder and two newbies (like me!) on demo skimo skis (not like me) caught up. We played leap-frog for a while and I got a chance to see the pros and cons of the different equipment. The splitboard had plenty of floatation, but wasn’t edging well. The tiny little skimo skis didn’t have flotation or handle well on the steep traverses. Honestly, my tele rig did pretty well on steep, dense forest with tight turns and I used my heel lifters quite a lot.
Finally the summit came, dimmly, into view. I had expected pretty cold temperatures and a hearty wind (as is typical at Eldora). Instead it was pitch dark with not a breath of wind. Lights from the lodge down below and Boulder down in the valley below that made it quite peaceful. The other three I’d been swapping leads with arrived shortly after me and spent less time looking around at the scenery before starting the descent.
Ah, the descent. The scary part. I’m not even an okay telemark skier even under the best of circumstances and a steep, icy blue run in the dark is not good circumstances. My headlamp was fine on the ascent, but wholly inadequate for the downhill portion. Fortunately, my running flashlight was better, but that meant holding it in my hand and even more awkward skiing.
I picked my way down the broad, steep slope making survival-ski turns watching the little LED lights far below marking the course. Halfway down the first, steepest pitch, two people rocketed by… that would be Peter and Audra. This reminded me that we were supposed to be racing, so I picked up the speed a bit, tucked across the flats, then made some bold-ish turns down Sunset (for the third time now) to the base area.
The final bit of course shenanigans was the the finish line was actually inside, with your skis, at the bar in the lodge. Clock stopped with beer in-hand. Appropriately enough, beer was provided by Upslope Brewing of Boulder. Done! I finished in 1:16 while the top finishers were at about 35 minutes. For the record, I wasn’t last (I think a few people came in behind me). Good enough.
That was stupid and brutal and unexpected and fun! I would definitely do it again, but definitely bring a better light.
Map and such: https://www.strava.com/activities/1441828147/overview