This year was my third trip to the Powderkeg. In 2012, I raced the Heavy Metal division as my first ever skimo race. In 2014, I returned with Ethan Linck thinking that I knew something about something, and raced the full 3-race complement of the North American Championships. This year, I returned for a third time to race in the North American championships.
My race focus this year, undiscussed here because I’ve been neglectful, is the PDG. PDG is short for Patrouille des Glaciers, or less elegantly ‘Glacier Patrol’ in English. It’s one of the ‘Grand Courses’ in Europe, and I’ll be racing this Swiss behemoth in April, representing the crew at Skimo.Co and clocking my first race experience in Europe.
Anyways, I put the Powderkeg weekend on the calendar not as a goal in itself but as a heavy training weekend and benchmark for the PDG. I was fortunate to have both a wife who was putatively approving of skimo racing on the weekend of our first anniversary (she raced as well!) and to have a strong partner for the teams race. The weekend was on!
My second sprint race ever, and my least favorite discipline. This format confuses all who casually race skimo, and absolutely flumoxes anyone outside the sport. In short, from the start line a 30m flat skin leads to criss-crossing switchbacks with freeform route choice. These in turn lead to a boot pack requiring skis-on-pack movement. Atop the bootpack, the skis go back on for 30m of skinning before a transition and ski down through gates and a skate finish.
My goal for the weekend was to race the sprint on Friday and thus qualify me for USSMF points, to set my PR in the sprint, and to avoid racing in the semi-finals. All three goals were achieved. Seeded in the low 20s, I sprinted myself into an anaerobic hole but avoided the tunnel vision that accompanied my first experience. I missed the semi-finals by a few seconds, set my PR, and enjoyed watching my teams partner, Tom Nelson, make a fine race in the semi-finals until a technical issue with his pack saved him from racing in the finals.
We headed home to sleep and hope for the best.
An EARLY morning at Brighton resort saw us warmed up and ready for the individual start at 8:00 am. The race was a clockwise version of the standard course involving 4.5 climbs, 6500′ feet and 10.5 miles.
I lined up in the third tier, not expecting to be towards the front in a strong Nationals crowd. Mistake 1. The gun went off and I quickly found myself swimming upstream through the more optimistic but less abled. Adopting a go-for-broke style out of unbridled competitiveness, I set sights on the back of Jon Brown from Crested Butte, who I know is both a nice guy and an übermensch, and I raced hard to stay behind him up the first climb. The climb began flat but quickly kicked up steep groomer, leading to the only boot pack of the race. I burnt fuel and hit the boot pack in 8th, just out of sight of the leaders and far ahead of my plans. I felt good, but my heart felt the altitude.
I hung tight for the steep and aggressive descent and the second more-technical climb and third relatively-meaningless climb. The third descent into Brighton’s backcountry began with genuine powder before devolving into thrillingly thick aspen trees. With exhausted quads and terrified knees I began the fourth climb back to the resort.
Then the wheels fell off a bit. My I-need-a-racing-budget skins were feeling the effort, and midway up the gorrilla-warfare skinning of the 4th climb, I dropped a skin. My change was quick but cost me a position, dropping into 9th. Two racers chased me up the remainder of the climb but I held my place, praying for the integrity of my skin glue.
The penultimate descent began with disappointment. The race official at the top misdirected me, and I lost time side-stepping back to the descent track. Rejoining the skinning public down Brighton’s runs, I skied like a spandex dive-bomber to regain time and hit the final climb in 9th.
Pain cave time. A climb through trees and then groomer gave way to a poorly-broken track up a moguled bowl. Chasing 8th, I made a critical mistake and blew a skin, again. Curses. Stopping to swap, the two racers who were in the chase passed and I saw Tom coming from below. Skin replaced, I made further prayers for the glue on the other, which was looking worse for the wear.
It held to the top. Making poor decisions regarding personal safety, I tucked in for the final descent and held my ground, finishing 11th and exhausted.
We headed home to sleep and hope for the best.
An EARLIER start saw us warmed up and ready for the individual start at 7:30 am. Unfortunately, they delayed the race on account of a stuck-semi. We’d barely skated past the stuck truck on Big Cottonwood road, but the likely winners hadn’t, so the race was held for a 9:30 am start.
The theme for the teams race was wild and deep. All of the skintracks were tricky, technical, steep, an unrelenting, and all of the descents involved knee-deep backcountry powder suicide-skied on 60 mm race planks.
Essentially wasted from the individual race and poorly recovered on account of sea-level acclimatization, Tom and I opted for a take-er-easy approach to pacing. Knowing that we had 8200′ feet and 12 miles ahead of us, we strove to keep some gas in the tank for the end. Hitting the first boot pack up Milly, we were in 6th, and feeling casual. Topping out a long bootpack in the glory of a bluebird eleven-thousand-foot morning, the real racing started.
Aggressive downhill skinning on a ridge led to textbook, laser cut switchbacks climbing a pristine bowl. Skins off led down a run of deep backcountry pow, amusingly deep skiing for a race. Another short climb led to a second, longer, even more aggressive downhill skin before a long and technical skinner led up a ridgeline, serrated with at least seventy small and techy switchbacks. Tom straighlined the third descent down a field of powder and I followed suit before diving my tips and summersaulting. Recovering and skiing into the transition a few seconds back from Tom, we both began the fourth climb feeling reasonable. In the warmth of the day we slowed a bit, feeling the effort, and saw Gemma Arro and her partner climbing up behind us. I egged Tom to hold our position going into the second long booter, and we barely managed it.
On the booter, Tom bonked hard and multiple teams piled up behind us. Near the top, Janelle Smiley got pissed at Tom’s hypoglycemic stumbling and ran past on the downhill. Thankfully, we were met by our wives yelling and clanging a cowbell, dressed as for Mt Everest and injecting much needed enthusiasm. The two remaining climbs were brutal. Tom struggled to recover from his bonk as I in turn started to drop anchor. The day grew warm, and we battled back and forth with Gemma, ceding another place to their team on the final climb.
Starting the final descent, we were a few hundred yards back from Gemma, but we skied like crazy people and passed them on a cat track at 40 mph, holding on through the final flat skin finish for an exhausting 8th place.