2014 Wasatch Powderkeg


Of all my quasi-competitive pursuits, skimo racing has the most puzzle pieces to assemble. Three events into my nascent “career,” I still have a heck of a lot to figure out. 

The 2014 Wasatch Powderkeg got underway Friday afternoon at Brighton Ski Area in the Wasatch Range outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. I hooked up with speedy Jon Brown of Team Crested Butte for the long drive from Colorado and rolled in with enough time for him to compete in the brutally anaerobic 3-minute sprint time trial. Patrick, whose urging was impetus for my attendance at the race, also lined up, and threw down an impressive performance for his first-ever attempt at the event.

Saturday was the main attraction, the individual race. For the elite division (in which I was entered by virtue of gear weight, not talent), the course covered 10 miles and 6200’ of climbing, including two boot packs. At the gun, close to a hundred races jogged off the line, at a pace more manageable than I feared. I gracefully spent about two minutes poling with one hand as I tried to get Strava to activate, before focusing on less important matters, like the race at hand. The first climb filled me with optimism, as I steadily passed racers on both groomers and more-technical stretches of skintrack. Delusions of a solid mid-pack finish filled my head, and my smugness increased as I eased past a skier I knew was on Canada’s national team, using my acclimation to the race’s high altitude (8800’ – 10600’) to my advantage. I kept Patrick in my crosshairs and worked to close the gap, arriving at the first bootpack shortly after him.

Alas, ski mountaineering is a discipline that relies on far more than fitness, and rewards such preparation as knowing how to use the ski carry system on your backpack. Struggling for several minutes to find the shoulder loop on my pack, I watched maybe ~10 racers slip by me before I managed to effectively affix my affects. From there, some of my competitive fire slipped away, but I trotted up the boot pack as quickly as the queue would allow, and then jogged down the ridge (exhilarating, if you were wondering) to the first transition zone. In what was to be a theme for the weekend, I botched my switch into ski mode and lost another few places before tackling the steep chute that began the first descent. I was a bit overzealous, and before long my quads were burning as I struggled to stay in control, but by treating it as if I were skiing the old Chute-to-Liftline linkup at Mad River Glen I think I managed to get down with a modicum of grace. 

So it went for four more climbs, descents, and a second bootpack. I traded positions with the same few racers all day, but was pleased to move up a handful of spots on the final climb, crossing the line in 2:53:51 for a humbling 51st place.

On Sunday, feeling somewhat less fresh, Patrick and I joined forces for the technical teams race, a brutal 15 miles with over 8600’ of climbing and a Euro-style via ferrata section of fixed ropes up the steep face of Mt. Millicent. “Slow is fast, don’t be last” was our mantra, and we tried to treat the day as simply an ambitious tour. The first ascent was icy and unnecessarily steep, but we climbed well and I felt our pace was strong yet relaxed. A quick, competent descent, and we skinned up to the base of the via ferrata section, where our heart rates promptly plummeted as we waited for racer after racer to inch up the bootpack, ascender in hand. But it was sunny, and no one much minded. Topping out, I struggled to descend the ridge quickly in loose sugar snow, but caught up with Patrick and down we went. And up. And down. Ad nauseum. I had a bit of a low patch coming up from the back side of the resort on an endless stretch of steep kick turns in what had turned into a hot day, but mostly we just put one ski in front of the other and I continued to fumble at transitions.

During the penultimate climb morale was again low, but Patrick’s comical dialogue imagining us as a pair of delusional Austrian skiers (“More quickly Hans, or ve vill not Podium!”) kept things light, though laughter induced hypoxia. The real fun of the day came on the final climb, when Patrick decided to drop the hammer on a coed team we’d been trading places with for hours. We passed them, and I finally managed a smooth transition before tearing down the last descent. Patrick lead, and I followed, skiing fast enough that they couldn’t quite catch me on the final skate sprint to the finish. We may have been one of the last teams out there (22nd place in 5:10:11), but it sure felt like racing.

Beer, a burger with ample mayonnaise, and the trek to home to the Gunnison valley followed.

As almost everyone who tries it says, it’s an addicting sport. More importantly, the Wasatch are predictably beautiful, and a fantastic place to ski. I hope to be back next year with more time to explore, and my racing skill set a bit more dialed. 

Photos (c) 2014 by Patrick Fink.


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