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What do you call a flock of snot-beaked euro-twigs in Lycra huffing upslope on scrawny skis? Sounds like a bad joke, but it’s ski-mountaineering racing, an 80-year-old sport that’s coming across the Pond in a big way.
It’s known as randonnée rallying here. Four years ago there was one North American race; now there are six. In addition to Life-Link’s five-race series that opens in January at Whistler and wraps up in March at Jackson Hole, Black Diamond’s Wasatch PowderKeg is a World Cup event in only its second year.
The sport is simple enough: Racers run to their skis, skin up 1,000 feet or more to a gate, ski down to another, and so on, until they’ve logged about 5,000 feet of vertical in and out of bounds. Elite racers finish in around two lung-busting hours. And while there are no restrictions against using telemark gear, to be competitive you need a lightweight, controllable, alpine-touring setup. “Tele skiers are getting clobbered,” says Andrew McLean, who designed the PowderKeg course.
As it happens, the spike in rando racing is in synch with a booming AT market: In 2003, the online retailer BackcountryStore.com reported a 260 percent sales increase for the Scarpa Laser AT boot. Life-Link’s sales of the Dynafit TLT Tristep binding were up 300 percent. And Backcountry Access, which began distributing the Swiss-made Naxo binding this past fall, said demand has been downright nutty. “We brought in a product that no one had seen, and we had to quadruple our first projection to meet demand,” says sales manager Steve Christie. “It’s like crack cocaine.”
Despite the epidemic, don’t expect North Americans to be whupping Euro-ass anytime soon. The schedule on the Continent includes more than 200 races, the biggest of which see as many as 2,300 competitors, and race programs routinely recruit top athletes. Exum guide Brendan O’Neill, who won the Life-Link series last year but got smoked by 20 minutes in the Jackson race by a Spaniard, thinks Yanks just have a different mentality. “My friends and I have always gotten into race mode with each other, but it’s one of those deals where it’s not cool to admit you’re competitive.”