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Going Big at the Shedhorn SkiMo

The Shedhorn SkiMo race at Big Sky Resort, Big Sky, Montana, might be an infant amongst older competitions at other prestigious North American ski resorts, but who cares? It has one of the highest pucker factors of any race like it in the U.S. and that’s what may bring more top athletes to this three-year-old race up in the wilds of the Treasure State.

Montana likes its rough-and-tumble reputation, so it’s no surprise that this new entrant in the SkiMo community is ideally suited to the best of what the sport can offer. It’s a true test of endurance, skiing ability and technical mountaineering skills—the comp has the vibe of classic small European SkiMo events. Add it up and competitors say there’s a good chance Shedhorn is going to grow quickly beyond the 36 entrants and 20 finishers from last season’s event.

This European flavor, says Cosmic Series race director Joe Risi, who’s responsible for putting on the race with the support of Big Sky’s patrol (the largest paid ski patrol of any resort in the U.S.), draws the top competitors from across the U.S. to what is basically a locals’ event.

It also represents a new frontier for Risi. The COSMIC Series—or Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup—is transforming itself to become something broader, so that Risi and his small but growing band of supporters and sponsors can put on races such as this one outside of colorful Colorado.

I got word of this potentially classic event through Risi and the folks at Big Sky last spring and agreed to race the Randonee portion of the race, which takes place the same day—but covers less mileage on easier terrain than the harder, premier SkiMo course. Sadly, the Rando was cancelled due to too few participants, so I got to swill a few extra pints and spend the following day shadowing former patrolman and photographer Jason Thompson. That gave me an up-close-and-personal experience freeskiing this sprawling mountain and taking in the sights and sounds of the top racers during competition.

2016 Big Sky Ski Resort Shedhorn Skimo Race
2016 Big Sky Ski Resort Shedhorn Skimo Race

Patrol On Their Side

Located just about 45 minutes from formerly quaint Bozeman, Big Sky Resort’s base area is nice and manageable, small really, considering it accesses more than 5,800 skiable acres—bigger than Vail with more than two acres per skier all to oneself on any given day, no shit.

After unpacking and jumping in the outdoor hot tub to soak in the scenery at the famous historic, and nicely renovated, Huntley Lodge, I navigated to an upstairs conference room and joined the race meeting, immediately recognizing one of my favorite inspirational Instagramers Meredith June Edwards, by her pink trucker hat and pigtails.

“When there’s a required ice axe out, I’m more interested,” said Edwards, who had driven up from Jackson Hole, after she checked off the required safety test for the race. “I think the general consensus is it’s silly to call most of these races Ski Mountaineering because we are in bounds and going up groomers. But the Shedhorn puts the mountaineering back in SkiMo racing.”

Hanging out in the bar after the meeting, Shedhorn race co-director Noah Ronczkowski and I chatted about skiing, climbing, long-distance running, and the scene there at Big Sky. He and fellow patrollers’ enthusiasm for the event and the course design is no small part of the stoke factor.

It’s not just Risi, whom many of the Colorado SkiMo tribe may know from the Arapahoe Basin race series or even from the pages of this magazine, that racers have to thank for the Shedhorn. On the local side it’s Big Sky veteran ski patrollers Ronczkowski and Casey Heerdt. The climbing partners and guides do most of the heavy lifting and champion the event to their enthusiastic brethren of the white cross, all of whom seem oddly psyched about a group of out-of-towners in spandex taking over the most dangerous aspects of their mountain for a day.

Ronczkowski said they initially tried to envision Big Sky’s 4,350 vertical feet and Lone Mountain’s 11,166-foot summit sans lifts, allowing them to plot an extreme but logical course around the mountain. That wasn’t really hard to do, given the raw wildness of the area and the fact that the Lone Peak Tram wasn’t installed here until 1995, which previously left the upper mountain mostly accessible only by human power. Now, visitors to Big Sky Resort can ski in almost every direction (about 280 degrees) off the top of the tram into an unprecedented amount of legit terrain.

The Race is On

So there we were at the largest, most welcoming ski area in the country, witnessing American SkiMo history being made. And it wasn’t just ski patrol egging Risi on, it was Big Sky’s official marketing arm, who together with patrol had allegedly been plotting this race for several years before pulling the trigger in 2015 with an invite-only roster. The second running of the Shedhorn in 2016 featured 18 gnarly miles with about 9,000 vertical feet of climbing via skins, boots and fixed ropes.

“Using the ascenders was pretty real,” Edwards said, laughing. “It was quite the jug up. Parts of the course felt like it was true no-fall zones … a real pucker factor in a race. I really enjoyed it.”

An avi bomb on a timer kicked off the race—an irony and special gesture that doesn’t go unnoticed as the elite crew skinned away from the start at the base area. The fact that the resort is privately owned and sits mostly on private land is the other factor that makes this race unique and allows patrol to hang it out.

At the end of the day, Edwards finished first among women and sixth overall. Fellow U.S. Ski Mountaineering Team member and Breckenridge local Teague Holmes finished second. Both say they are coming back in 2017.

“There’s something in the water up here,” Holmes said. “The guys on patrol, they’re going to deliver. They want to put on a race that’s relevant to real ski mountaineering. Big Sky resort management and operational staff is 100 percent behind this race and they’re putting effort into producing a really good event. Whereas 90 percent of the other ski areas are just tolerating the race, Shedhorn is like, ‘do whatever you want to do, we trust ski patrol to take people in logical places and keep them safe,’ and you can feel that when you’re there.”

Growing the Stoke

Holmes, who may be the only athlete to complete the Shedhorn and The Rut (the three-day ultra-running competition on the same terrain in the summertime that draws thousands each year), says the Shedhorn is the closest thing to a true technical ski mountaineering race in the U.S. “It’s becoming a bucket list kind of race that appeals to a broader range of human-powered skiers,” he explained.

The COSMIC Series is entering its tenth year and the SkiMo scene in the U.S. is finally coming into its own. Risi traveled more than 62,000 miles last season and logging some 140 days on-mountain in the process.

Montana is a booming hotspot for ultra-runners, and the Shedhorn is poised for growth. Risi says organizers want to create a no-holds-barred event with the largest cash purse in North American SkiMo. “In the end, it’s game on. It’s gonna be awesome and it’s gonna be super techy,” Risi said. “It’s cliché, but we can literally do whatever we want.”

—Elevation Outdoors Contributing Editor Aaron Bible lives at 8,400 feet in Nederland, Colorado, where he can literally look down his nose at Boulder.

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