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Uphill Mobility

Ski mountaineering might rank right below team handball on the list of most obscure competitive high school sports in the U.S., but a new generation of Colorado athletes is poised to make a show at the Youth Olympic Games.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine the bright lights of the Olympics from the stage in the ill-lit auditorium at the Frisco Senior Center. This is where 12 high schoolers from Summit County, Colorado, have piled their coats, school backpacks and perfectly broken-in Vans on a frigid Friday afternoon in late October. They stand in a semicircle, some in street clothes, some in Spandex, all wearing lightweight ski boots and clipped into slim 162-mm race skis. For most of the 90 minutes of practice, the kids are bent over, unbuckling boots, side-stepping out of bindings, ripping skins off skis—and repeating. At one point, they take their skis off entirely and sling them into hoops and hooks on their backpacks. This is definitely not downhill practice. It’s not cross country, either. Welcome to high school ski mountaineering racing.

For almost all Americans, ski mountaineering—a.k.a. skimo—is far from a traditional high school sport. With only a handful of kids participating across the country, youth skimo’ers sometimes spend as much time explaining how it works (you skin up, you ski down, you skin up, you bootpack up, then you skin up some more before you ski down) as they do actually participating in the sport. Nevertheless, you wouldn’t know that from the turnout at Eldora Mountain Resort in late November.

Over 120 suffer-loving endurance athletes gathered at the small Front Range ski resort to get an early-season race fix. For the nine high schoolers who toed the start line, the individual and sprint races were much more than weekend workouts: Four of the kids who raced also qualified for January’s 2020 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Lausanne, Switzerland.

It’s taken a lot of both scenarios—the repetitive transition drills at the Senior Center and the cold, early mornings on the ski hill—to bring the youth of skimo to where they are today. For the kids from Summit County, It’s also required the energy, enthusiasm, and guidance of their coach, Joe Howdyshell. For the last three years, Howdyshell, who grew up in Wyoming, competed in cross-country and Nordic skiing at West Point. Since 2006 he has coached endurance sports has dedicated himself to growing the sport of youth skimo.

The Cold Early Mornings

“Everyone is faster than you,” screams Howdyshell. “They’re catching you. You’re not gonna make it to the Youth Olympic Games. They’re catching you. You had a lead, and you’re losing it. Come on, come on! Let’s go!”

In the Senior Center auditorium Howdyshell’s voice rises above the din of ski boot buckles snapping shut and bindings being stomped into and out of. The kids’ faces alternate between uncomfortable smiles and intense concentration as they try to keep their transitions—between skin mode and ski mode—as smooth and efficient as possible despite their coach’s best efforts to distract them.

“What is the most important thing in hearing all of that?” Joe asks as the drill ends and heart rates settle. “Maintaining your own self narrative. You cannot think negative thoughts. You must think positive, or neutral. Focus on the rhythm of your process.”

With almost 14 years of coaching both youth and adults under his belt, doling out tidbits of sports psychology comes naturally to Howdyshell, who is also the head coach of the US National Ski Mountainteering team. Receiving the knowledge drops is just as familiar to the kids, most of whom have grown up competitively ski racing, bike riding, and running in the pointed peaks of Colorado’s Ten Mile Range. Nevertheless, skimo, as a sport both in its infancy in the U.S. and one that requires an incredible amount of endurance, poses some unique challenges to the high school athlete.

All three of the high school seniors on Howdyshell’s Summit Endurance Academy skimo team agree—hitting the ski hill on cold, early morning before dawn a few times a week to train is brutal. Other than that, though, they really aren’t complaining.

“This is way more fun than the other winter sports,” says Summit High School senior Sam Westcott. “It has a more technical aspect. We’re all endurance athletes. Skimo is a good mix between everything—you can do an endurance sport and still downhill ski.”

His teammate Connor Albin agrees. “People are like, ‘skimo, what’s that?’ It’s like backcountry skiing but really fast,” he says.

According to the United States Ski Mountaineering Association (USSMA), “the sport of competitive ski mountaineering racing is typically a timed racing event that follows an established trail through challenging winter alpine terrain while passing through a series of checkpoints. Racers climb and descend under their own power using backcountry skiing equipment and techniques.” 

So, the kids are spot-on. I can attest—it’s technical, a mix of everything, and really fast (and requires being up in the cold early mornings). However, skimo is also much more common in Europe than in the U.S. (meaning fewer opportunities to compete here). Gear can be prohibitively expensive, and support for the athletes tends toward the grassroots. Nevertheless, Howdyshell and a group of dedicated parents, skimo supporters and the kids themselves keep chipping away at the challenges. Late last year, they received news that their efforts had paid off in a major way.

Olympic Dreams and Hand-me-downs

In 2017, when  International Olympic Committee (IOC) inducted ski mountaineering into the 2020 Youth Olympic Games, USSMA President Ram Mikulas was thrilled.

“We reached out to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to understand the logistics,” he says. “They were great with communication but politely informed us that they have never before taken any athletes of sports that weren’t already an Olympic sport.”

This meant that there wouldn’t be any spots given to youth skimo athletes from the USA. Nevertheless, says Mikulas (who also acts as Vice President of the Summit Skimo Club), the USSMA continued to encourage youth skimo athletes to participate in Youth Olympic Games (YOG) qualifying procedures. This would would earn the USSMA its general nation entries. In the process, American youth earned two (one male, one female) of the possible four total entries for each nation in skimo.

“We at least wanted to show that we have talented youth and are capable of earning entries as a team,” he says.

While the kids were working hard on the hill, the IOC was busy tinkering with rules and regulations in the boardroom. In late autumn of 2018, the USSMA received notification that, based on the governing Amatuer Sports Act, the USOPC could not disallow skimo athletes from attending the YOG. Since the American youth had already snagged two spots at the 2018 Pan American Championships, one boy and one girl would be traveling to Lausanne in 2020. Then, in March of 2019, Mikulas traveled with Howdyshell and 12 of his youth skimo athletes to the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF) World Championships in Switzerland. The team’s collective results earned them another male and female spot for the YOG, bringing the total to four.

The teen scene before the YOG qualifying race at Eldora in November was fairly typical: Gangly boys and well-put-together girls clustered together in the lodge, readying their gear before Howdyshell called them out to the hill to warm-up. Nerves and excitement ran on parallel frequencies in the air, for both the parents and the teens. Jason Staberg, whose daughter and Summit High School senior Grace would go on to qualify for the YOG that weekend, reflected on what the sport had come to mean for his family.

“It’s been incredible at every level,” Staberg says. “The community is really inclusive and supportive, and the adults in the sport took Grace under their wing immediately. They seemed sincerely excited about having youth get into the sport, which is an attitude she can feel as she’s out racing and practicing.”

With Howdyshell, the USSMA, Summit Skimo Club and a sizable group of professional adult skimo racers firmly ensconced in Summit County, the young athletes there have had opportunities unlike other teens in the US. Last year, a community fundraiser pulled in enough to outfit four youth in skimo gear. Furthermore, Summit Endurance Academy coach Jaime Brede says the more people who participate in the sport, the more gear in the community that can be passed down to others. Carpooling to practice and races makes a big difference. For Staberg, who is also on the board of the USSMA, the support and enthusiasm of the Summit County community has made a logistically challenging sport much more accessible.

“Grace was able to go to informational meetings, meet with coaches, get gear and see updates on races, all in Summit County,” he says.

In fact, when Grace stumbled into the sport three years ago, it was through local connections, and a lot of her own hard work, that she found Summit Endurance Academy and Howdyshell, who would become her coach.

“I was running during the summer, and I really enjoyed it and didn’t really like just skiing in the winter,” she says. “I wanted to do an endurance sport. This was in ninth grade, so I knew I couldn’t just join the nordic team because I didn’t know how to Nordic ski! I did some research and got in touch with Jon Lowe, who runs the Summit Skimo Club, and he put me in touch with Joe.”

All Uphill

It’s pretty impressive to go from never-ever to YOG qualifier in three years, but that’s the trajectory that those involved in youth skimo foresee as the sport gains traction across the country. Mikulas believes that the positive trends in uphill skiing for adults further reflect the potential for youth.

“Uphill skiing is the fastest-growing segment in skiing,” he says. “Access at resorts to uphill skiing is making the sport available for people in a safe and controlled environment. All of this leads to more people finding out about the race scene and participating. For kids, who have so many options these days in activities to participate in, skimo is an attractive option with endurance ups and speedy, fun descents. It’s a lifelong sport and activity.”

Although skimo may remain absent from the mainstream until it reaches the big Olympic stage, there are already rumblings of Italy 2026 as its inaugural appearance at the Games. Before then, however, all eyes should be trained on Lausanne 2020 and the four kids from the U.S. who are only going uphill from there.

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