This year’s ski mountaineering world championships was centred around the town of Claut in the spectacular Friuli region of the Italian Dolomites.
Unlike much of the Alps this season, there was plenty of snow to be had, and the organisers made the most of this, providing us with challenging, beautiful and spectacular courses for the team and individual races, alongside the piste-based vertical (uphill only), relay and sprint races.
Team GB arrived in dribs and drabs by plane, train and automobile, most of us arriving in our accommodation by late on Friday night. The first race was the team race on Sunday, so we spent Saturday skiing sections of the course at a very leisurely pace, with the more experienced members of the team trying to feed the new recruits as much of their knowledge about racing as possible in the time that remained before lining up.
The team race is the standard format for ski-mountaineering racing, usually in teams of two, but sometimes three, over a challenging course with multiple ascents and descents on skis, foot, crampons and hands and knees (hopefully not too much of the latter!). For Sunday’s world championship it was teams of two, a total of 2105m of ascent split over seven climbs, four sections on foot, some very deep powder and difficult descending, and the whole race run in about 5m of visibility; the clag was right down!
Deciding on who should race with who proved to be a bit of a headache for the men, since one of our racers, new recruit Tim Short, had elected at the last minute to only do the vertical race because of a knee injury. This left us with five team members to divide into teams of two! Luckily our Portugese friend Nuno Caetano was in a similar situation, being the sole representative from Portugal, so Es Tresidder raced with him as a “non-scoring” international team. Ben and Ivor were first GB team home in 25th place in 3 hours 35 minutes, and Dan and Kirk in 30th position just under 4 hours. The Portugese/British alliance of Nuno and Es were a non-scoring 23rd in 3 hours 23 minutes. At the front of the race there was much controversy, with the French team of William Bon Mardion and Didier Blanc crossing the line first, only to be awarded a 3 minute penalty over a controversial decision. This pushed them back into 3rd place, behind the Italian teams of Matteo Eydallin/Denis Trento, and Lorenzo Holzknecht/Manfred Reichegger. No matter the rights or wrongs, all three teams completed the course in amazing times of around 2 and a half hours!
For the first time Great Britain had some representation in the senior women category, with Gabby Lees moving up from the junior category (competing as an espoir, but in the same races as the senior women), and Leanne Callaghan, Di Gilbert and Catrin Thomas making their world-championship debuts. Leanne and Gabby proved to be well matched, and crossed the line buzzing with their race and well pleased with a respectable 12th position. Leanne and Gaby were particularly delighted to finish the team race with such a good result as neither of them had ever even completed an ascent of 2200m vertical before, let alone at race pace.
In fact neither of them had done a team event before or, for that matter, even met each other! And the majority of their training had been at sea level on Tarmac. Well done ladies!
For Di and Catrin, on heavyweight kit and in their first ever race it was a baptism of fire, and they were timed out halfway through the first big climb. To their credit at the end of the day they were still smiling, full of lessons learnt and fired up for the rest of the week’s racing.
Monday was a well-earned rest and time to prepare body, soul and equipment for Tuesday’s vertical race. Vertical races are a bit of an acquired taste, but suit some of our athletes more than the up and down races, being a bit less dependent on years spent in the alps perfecting technique, although there’s still a surprising amount of technique involved in skinning uphill very fast! This year’s race promised a little more technique than usual, with long gentle sections, short bits of downhill, two sections of kick-turns, and one couloir to be climbed on foot with the skis on the sack (normally vertical races are just straight up a piste, with no kick turns or any other jiggery-pokery).
Leading light of the GB team at this discipline for several seasons has been Ben Bardsley, who’s been able to translate his substantial fell running talents into doing pretty well at skiing uphill. Again Ben was the strongest of the team this year, finishing a creditable 44th in 29:47 for the 540m of ascent. Next was Es, 46th in 30:19, followed by Tim, 52nd in 30:44 and Dan, 57th in 32:09.
For the women Gabby again put in a solid performance to finish 26th (8th espoir) in 42:21, with Di and Catrin in 29th and 31st respectively, a decent effort on heavyweight kit. Leanne was getting a damaged ski fixed so luckily avoided the suffering!
Wednesday was a new addition to the world championships – the sprint race. This race is designed to be more spectator friendly than typical multi-hour races in remote mountains, and starts with a section of easy-angled skinning, then steeper kick turns, then shouldering the skis and running up a steep boot-pack, then donning the skis again and skinning to the summit of the course before whipping the skins off and haring down a short slalom course, then an uphill skate to the finish. All that is packed into less than three minutes by the best racers and is excellent to watch! As a racer it’s a different matter, and the race seems to pass by in a blur of lactic acid and fumbled transitions. For the GB team competing in this it was a real education about exactly where our weaknesses lie – in explosive power, gliding technique in skins and lightning-fast transitions.
For the men only Es and Dan competed, with Es finishing 51st and Dan 60th. For the women Leanne came in 27th, Gabby 29th and Di 33rd.
That brought us to Thursday and the highlight of the week’s racing; the individual race. This race was on the same mountain as the team race, but this time the sun shone and we were able to fully appreciate the amazing surroundings. The race comprised a total of 1420m of ascent (inexplicably, slightly less for the women) split into three big climbs, the first mostly on wide, gentle (and fast!) tracks, then subsequently more typical ski-mountaineering terrain of narrow skin tracks, kick turns, exposed ridges and even down-climbing a ladder (less typical!), before a final thigh-burning 1400m descent to the finish.
Excitingly, all three athletes who competed last year (Ivor, Ben and Es) did substantially better, in terms of a percentage of the winner’s time, than last year, and new-recruit Dan Gay raced a very respectable race to cross the line with Ivor, although he hadn’t seen him for the whole race and didn’t realise how fast he was being caught until moments before the finish! Es was 51st in 1:47:40, 20 minutes behind Spanish winner Kilian Jornet, next was Ben in 58th (1:51:24) followed by Dan and Ivor, 61st and 62nd, both recording the same time of 1:56:53.
For the women Leanne and Gabby put in good performances to rank 26th and 27th (8th espoir) in 2:06:10 and 2:08:20 respectively. Catrin was 31st in 2:37:16.
That just left the relay for Friday, and a party atmosphere reigned. The men were unable to field a full team of four since Tim, Kirk and Ivor had gone home, so again teamed up with Nuno Caetano for an international team that claimed 13th position, just ahead of the other international pairing of Japan and Greece! For the women it was teams of three rather than four and Leanne, Gabby and Di put in a solid performance to just sneak 8th position ahead of the Japanese/GB alliance finishing 9th with Catrin as the anchor leg!
In the overall ranking, Great Britain did a lot better than in previous years. Despite being one of the flattest, least snowy nations represented, we placed 12th overall out of 21 countries, just behind the USA and ahead of such hilly, snowy luminaries as Canada, Slovenia, Sweden and Japan. This was thanks in no small part to having a women’s team, something we’ve always lacked in previous years.
Results of the races can be found by clicking here and an excellent video of the individual race by clicking here.
A few Brits are doing the prestigious four day Pierramenta race in the coming weeks (17-20 March), you can follow their progress at www.es-on-ice.co.uk and Ben Bardsley's blog.
If you are interested in getting involved in ski-mountaineering racing and want to find out more, email Es and check out the race calendar at www.skimountaineering.org.
Thanks to the BMC for their support.