Peter Howe

 

The Trail Less Traveled

Gliding up through the hemlock, the man in blue moved in silence. Between ragged breaths, I fumbled with my boots and stole one more glance over my shoulder. Atop the summit of Mt. Berkshire, I stood in little more than a t-shirt and running tights, on skis that looked to belong at a nordic ski center, not atop a black diamond downhill run. In the throes of my first ski mountaineering race, I wondered if I too didn’t better belong elsewhere. My lungs heaved, my legs trembled from the climb. As I peeled the climbing skins off the bottoms of my skis, the man in the blue skinsuit sidled up next to me in the transition zone with an unnerving calm. He moved with a cold fluidity and business-like execution that can only be the product of years of experience, years of repetition. Before I’d even clipped into my bindings, he’d come and gone, hurtling down the mountain in a full tuck. I’d spent weeks teaching myself to downhill ski- the art of the turn, working into my edges. None of that mattered much now; I resigned myself to a harrowing turn-free descent. In the world of ski mountaineering, the hellbent pursuit of efficiency reigned supreme.

The morning of the race, I hit the road a little after five, full of oatmeal and anticipation. The Berkshire East Randonee Race has been held for the past seven years at the Berkshire Mountain ski area in Charlemont, Massachusetts, just east of Williamstown and south of the Vermont border. Upon showing up early for race registration, the parking lot was already near capacity. The lodge was crawling with spandex-clad high schoolers preparing for the morning’s alpine races. An unsuccessful scan of the room for skinny skis, barely-there boots, or sticky climbing skins amidst a proliferation of beefy alpine gear confirmed what I’d only so far guessed at: even amidst the ski community, ski mountaineering- otherwise known as randonee racing- exists wholly upon the fringes.

Randonee racing in Europe however- the birthplace of ski mountaineering as we know it today- exists anywhere but on the fringes. In the mountain regions of the Alps and the Pyrenees, ski mountaineering- or skimo- runs deep. Organized by the ISMF (International Ski Mountaineering Federation), classic European mountain towns such as Chamonix, Zermatt, and Tromso play host to World Cup skimo races that more closely resemble the Kentucky Derby, or the Indy 500 than any endurance sporting event back in America.  First appearing in the 1924 Olympics as a military patrol exercise, ski mountaineering has evolved rapidly along with improved equipment over the past few decades, redefining the limits of fast and light movement through the high country.

With each year the technology changes- skis get lighter, boots more versatile, bindings more durable- ski brands such as Dynafit, La Sportiva, and Hagan are the industry standard. Outside of the skimo racing community, my skis and boots are feather-light. Waiting for the starting gun though, a few speedsuit -clad men talk ounces and grams. Their skis, boots and bindings weigh about as much as my skis alone. Lugging an extra 500g around didn’t exactly sound like anything I’d be losing sleep over, though efficiency is everything in randonee races. Races generally run anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours long, with 4000-6000 feet of elevation gain. Races can be lost on the downhill, but it is the climbing where races are won.

Eventually, a man showed up with a clipboard and exorbitant amounts of free energy gels. The man was Jonathan Shefftz- the elder statesman of skimo racing in the Eastern United States. Without him, there would be no New England Randonee Race Series. Though still regularly skiing his way into the top 5 as a 47 year-old Dad, back in the 90’s Jonathan skied with the best in the world on the World Cup circuit throughout Europe.  Now he directs the five randonee races throughout Western Mass and Southern Vermont as part of the NE Rando Race Series. By the time he gathered us for a pre-race briefing, Jonathan had done his fair share of laps that morning, meticulously marking out the six-loop course for us. It was a small turnout, about forty or so devotees; loyal devotees at that- traveling from across the Northeast to congregate for ninety minutes of hurt.

However small the field on the starting line, there was no shortage of talent up front. To my left, a tall wiry man with a disarming british accent made light of the comically snowless woods we were about to ski up through. Just that morning he’d made the four hour trek up from New York City for the race. His name was Dan Gray. Stretched over his bean-pole frame was a Great Britain National Team race suit. To my right stood Jeremy Arnold, a US national team member who’d won the Berkshire Rando Race every year since its inception. Surrounded by skintight lycra, my Mountain Hardware rain jacket and pink camo turtle fur seemed laughably low-tech; so did my three weeks of skiing experience. I was new to ski mountaineering, as were many on the starting line. But I was also new to downhill skiing, having spent fewer days on skis than many around me had spent years at it.

I had set my alarm for 5:30, but there was no need, really. I was wide awake. Sprawled out across the pullout sofa, I’d been studying the hotel ceiling for some twenty minutes, anticipating how it would all feel. Would it come naturally- like water flowing effortlessly and relentlessly downhill? Would I find grace and ease amidst the raw energy and power of momentum? Or would it be more of a tooth-and-nail fight against gravity- clinging, clawing, and scraping at the mountain the whole way down? Filtering in through the blinds, the moonlight danced across a pair of skis, staring back at me from across the room- yet to meet snow; there was three feet of it, waiting just outside.

****

Christmas Day was spent at 30,000 feet, bound westward over the Plains states, towards the Grand Tetons of Wyoming- towards winter. I gazed restlessly out the window for much of the flight, stubbornly searching the horizon for where the mountains rose out of the flatlands. Christmas Eve had brought record warmth to New Hampshire, and my parents, sister and I blearily boarded the plane that morning, grateful to leave a snowless New England behind us. This journey West was the first semblance of any sort of family vacation we’d been on in years- I was more thrilled for my parents than anything. Between the four of us, we’d creatively packed two ski bags full with seven pairs of skis and poles- three of which were admittedly mine.

My parents had me stumbling around on cross country skis by the age of three. As a family, we spent much of the winter adventuring throughout New Hampshire on skis, whether on our own little 26 acres of land in the Belknap Mountains, or further north into the White Mountains. Yet, despite living on the backside of a ski resort, despite growing up a stone’s throw from many ski areas that much of southern New England drove hours to on the weekends, despite most of my friends being avid downhillers, I never learned how to alpine ski.

Out of our second story window, Snowking Mountain rose sharply up out of town, not a few blocks away from the hotel. It was a cold, clear morning in Jackson- bathed in the pale light of a full moon, the mountainside glowed with a snowy iridescence. Making every attempt not to wake my parents and sister, I grabbed the gear I’d neatly piled by the door the night before and slipped out the hotel room, though not before downing a few heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter- a little (semi) liquid courage for the morning ahead. Upon stepping out into the cold pre-dawn air, the stars shone brilliantly overhead. A soft blanket of fresh snow coated the town in white, framed by the moonlit Tetons overhead, jutting skyward-waiting for the first rays of morning light to spill over the horizon. I didn’t have such patience. I wanted to go ski.

****

As I gritted my teeth hurtling straight down the lift line trail of Berkshire Mountain, I didn’t afford much thought to anything other than staying upright. For a few fleeting moments though, those first downhill turns in Jackson came flooding back. It’d been a blissful concoction of terror and exhilaration, a struggle for balance and control while my body rebelled against gravity’s relentless pull. Weeks later, making the first descent of the race, as I flirted upon the edge of control, those feelings were all still there- this time though, I was just skiing faster- much, much faster.

With each lap I gained confidence in my climbing abilities, and became more comfortable with the descent. But between the two, there remained the purgatory of the transition from skin to ski, ski to skin. Amidst the hustle to reapply skins, adjust boots and bindings, the transition period affords the racer a few valuable moments to settle one’s breathing and gather oneself before the coming ascent or descent- if that is, one remembers to relax. The burn of the lungs, the ache of the legs was all manageable; what remained truly painful was the unshakeable, acute awareness that I was bleeding- hemorrhaging time atop the mountain as I fumbled and futzed with gear– with each passing moment, squandering precious seconds that I’d fought every inch for on the uphill; precious seconds I’d trained hours, weeks for.

Moving up into third place, I’d put almost half a minute into the man in the blue skinsuit on the uphill, only to watch that buffer evaporate atop the summit, as he breezed through the transition and bolted downhill with frightening speed. I floundered in hypoxic disarray, too high-strung to wonder in awe at the bare efficiency of every motion, the explicit intention given to every muscular articulation. Although we traded for third position throughout the race, he perpetually seemed the hunter, and I the hunted. I’d catch him on the uphill, and he’d leave me sputtering at the summit as he barreled downhill. We’d later laugh about our cat-and-mouse duel. He introduced himself as Josh Flanagan, a competitive cyclist by summer, and ace ski mountaineer by winter. He was a Middlebury graduate.

Josh came into skimo like many of the top guys in the race- he was a seasoned endurance athlete through his high school and college years, running cross country, and racing bikes through the warm season. Born and raised a Vermonter, Josh also grew up skiing at Killington and Okemo, a natural downhiller. As he continued to pursue road biking at a competitive level after college, Josh found himself searching for a way to somehow stay fit in the winter months. “I’d never even heard of the sport until about five years ago”. Now in his early thirties, Josh is a fixture on the skimo circuit, each weekend making the trek northward from his Worcester, Massachusetts home, to wherever the next race lies. Halfway through the awards ceremony, Josh slipped out of the ski lodge to catch a red-eye flight out of Boston. He was Colorado bound for a few days- in pursuit of more snow, and more training. Later in the month, he, Jeremy, and Dan would be headed back out to Crested Butte, Colorado for the US Ski Mountaineering National Championships. “Want to come? We’ve got room in the condo,” they offered. “Maybe next year.” Though I’d scraped a third place on the day behind Jeremy and Dan at Berkshire, I knew that I’d need much more than just a large aerobic engine to be competitive with the top racers at nationals. I needed more tools in my tool belt, more arrows in my quiver.

With each passing day, I skied with greater confidence, and trained with greater purpose. Most mornings were spent chasing the sun up the mountain at the Middlebury Snowbowl, long before the chairlifts opened for the day, long before the first bleary-eyed skiers pulled into the parking lot. The solitude of the mountain offered uninterrupted time to focus on the task at hand- skiing faster. Day by day, I grew fitter on the uphills, and more technically proficient on the downhills. What I was missing though, was a ski guru, a coach and training partner.

We had agreed to meet at 7:30. But by the time I pulled into the Snowbowl and hopped out into a deserted parking lot- skis in hand- Scott’s unruly beard was already thick with frost. I’ve known Scott Berkley for three or four years, though couldn’t be sure it was him until he was just a few pole lengths away- lumbering towards me in his telemark boots, leaning into the wind. “I think the wind blew all the powder off the front side.” It was 4 degrees out with 30mph gusts rolling down off the mountain. He laughed. “It’s about 10 degrees colder up top.” Above us, the summit lit up with the first morning light as the sun inched up over the mountains.

At 6’3” with a matted mane of black hair pulled back into a bun beneath a mottled turtle fur reminiscent of the 80’s, Scott Berkley looks the part. Picture the cool guy your parents might have skied with in college. Imagine the free-heeling, free-spirited uncle with latin proverbs tattooed on the side of his ribs who might skip work to ski with his college-aged nephew on a powder day. Only he’s not my uncle- he’s my sister’s boyfriend- and he can recite more Robert Frost than most ski bums can re-enact Warren Miller sequences.

Well, lets go explore the backside then,” I offered. With the rip-and-stick of skins to skis, we wasted no time angling uphill toward the shelter of hemlock. Gliding up through drifts of fresh snowfall, we marveled at the arrival of winter. Persistent snow squalls muted the morning light, casting a golden glow over the mountainside as snowflakes wandered groundward into pillowy drifts. We kept climbing.

Though my skis are lighter, my boots more forgiving, Scott had no trouble keeping up. Between the two of us, he was a far more experienced skier. Scott spends his summers hiking and running through the White Mountains- a place we both call home- and his winters nordic skiing and telemark skiing throughout Vermont. He’s a New Englander- a backcountry boy through and through. Burning lungs and aching legs seem to be the common denominator of all our adventures together. Though we’ve run through the Green Mountains, The Adirondacks, and the Whites as training partners for some number of years now, skinning uphill and skiing down is a new medium of sorts for us, a new way to move in the mountains. The pitch steepens. We save the pleasantries for back in the lodge.

A few thousand feet later, Scott sits by the fire, thawing his beard out, while I wait for warmth to creep back into my fingertips. He made it known that I was still in the doghouse for denying him dinner the night prior.

The night before, Scott and I drove up from Middlebury to Bolton Valley, where the Catamount Trail Association was putting on a Wednesday night skimo race series. With a 6pm start by headlamp, it was a low key affair that attracted a great crowd of local backcountry fanatics from throughout central and northern Vermont. Arriving with just enough time to take a quick pee and get our boots on, I let slip that I’d heard the winner received a pie from the local bake shop. “Well you better win the damn pie, I’m starving.” I laughed, and echoed his sentiment. The night sky blazed overhead, clear and cold, as dozens of headlamps bobbed up and down the mountainside. After the race, we headed back up the mountain; this time, we stowed our headlamps away. The stars offered more than enough light as we once again found warmth in motion, climbing slowly up and away from the glow of the lodge below. I’d come to love randonee racing, but this was why I skied: for the training partners, the sunrises, the bushwacking, the solitude of the woods, the night sky, the trail less traveled. Distracted by the stars, we missed the awards ceremony altogether. The pie I’d won had long been raffled off to some lucky competitor. We drove home laughing with tired legs and empty stomachs.

 

 

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