“Could you imagine doing that if you sucked at skiing?” TJ yelled as he caught up to me on the traverse. We had just skied through the Pit of Despair, a rolling backcountry trail that connects Snowmass with Buttermilk, on our tiny SkiMo skis.
“No way, man,” I replied. “But that’s probably why we just passed so many people!” The conditions were essentially inches of sugar snow on rock, and my partner TJ had literally gone ass-over-teakettle when his skis were snagged by stones I uncovered just seconds before he gracefully somersaulted.
TJ and I met eight years ago as competitors on the Freeskiing World Tour, but had more recently become ski mountaineering partners (i.e. climbing semi-technical routes up mountains and skiing down, no racing involved).
Together, we were racing in the Power of Four, a grueling SkiMo race that starts in Snowmass Village, climbs to the top of Snowmass, traverses to Buttermilk, descends to Maroon Creek, climbs all the way to the top of Highlands Bowl, descends down to the very bottom, and then ascends and descends Aspen Mountain, finishing at Gondola Plaza. We’d end up covering 10,000-plus vertical feet over roughly 25 miles, which I was hoping to do in about seven hours when the starting gun fired at 6am.
TJ, a professional skier and mountain runner, was preparing for an extended stay in Chamonix, where big vert and long days in the mountains would be the norm. I was coming off a two-week East Asia trip, skiing Japanese powder and covering the Olympics. In other words, I was the slow one. Luckily, TJ wasn’t in it for anything more than training, and mentally pulled me through some of the darkest moments seven hours in.
I shouldn’t say I was completely unprepared. I had been training as much as my schedule allowed in Boulder, and even competed in a few SkiMo races to practice. I had come in dead last in January at the COSMIC race at Sunlight Resort but had fared better during the short Nighthawk races at Eldora Mountain.
What I had not done, however, was spend more than four hours at a time skiing uphill and downhill, which would lead to a struggle approaching the Highlands Bowl boot pack. As we crested the final climb before the transition, our friend Katie was there, with camera, water, and snacks in hand, cheering us despite my obvious grimace. Her positivity and support made the Bowl climb speed by, and skiing chalky, delightful snow to the bottom raised spirits all the way to the start of the Aspen Mountain climb (the ibuprofen helped, too).
The climb up Aspen Mountain took forty minutes longer than I wanted, thanks to incredibly overpowering pain in my feet. I had to reenact slow-motion pee-pee dances at several points, hoping to alleviate the painful pressure that grew with the swelling in my boots. TJ, always positive, simply enjoyed breaks in the shade as the day got hotter. At the top of the climb, seeing more friends with more water and encouraging words made me forget the pain, and we descended Aspen Mountain with smiles the whole way.
“Do you remember seeing me at the top?” my friend Cooper would later ask, handing me bags of snow to numb my naked toes some time after TJ and I crossed the finish line. “Of course!” I said, happy to be done. “I wanted to hug you, but I thought I was a little too sweaty.” Our final time clocked in at 7:46.
Later on, as TJ and I sat with everyone I saw along the course and enjoyed a post-race meal, it dawned on me that despite the spandex I once laughed at and the tiny skis, SkiMo is a community, or, more simply, a sport best enjoyed with friends. I couldn’t have done it without all of the great people along the way, and will likely keep doing it to help others feel welcome in this silly, grueling sport.