Warning: ski mountaineering plus racing is highly addictive

Posted by Ben Bardsley on 28/05/2012
Team GB at the World Championships
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Ben Bardsley gives us a round-up of the 2012 rando season with British racers competing in events across Europe – and a taste of what this lung-busting, adrenalin-fuelled sport is like. All words and photos by Ben Bardsley.

As a small child, each winter I was obsessed with getting my weekly fix of Ski Sunday. Mountains, snow, speed and competition was for me, a thrilling combination. Eventually I found myself on a school ski trip aged 13. However, my dreams of becoming the next Ingemar Stenmark were hopelessly dashed as I hung out the back of my boots snowploughing my way down the pistes of Foppolo! About 20 years later, (ambition of ski racing unfulfilled) I was in the “KE Adventure Travel” Offices in Keswick. I saw a calendar on the wall with two lycra clad guys on skis racing across a Swiss glacier. It was one of those defining moments in my life; I saw something that I had to try – Ski Mountaineering Racing or “Rando Racing”.

A bit of digging around and I discovered that a fellow fell runner and UIAGM Guide Dr Jon Morgan was in fact a racing ski mountaineer. I contacted him, arranged to meet him in Chamonix that winter, borrowed some kit, and “got involved”. Even before my first race, I knew I would be addicted.

Now, every winter I make an annual pilgrimage to the Alps to participate in ski mountaineering races. Specific kit means ultra lightweight skis, bindings and boots. Specifically designed clothing looks more like fancy dress getup. The all-in-one lycra suits incorporate snow gaiters, and numerous pockets to house all the associated paraphernalia.

A small group of Brits are now well established on this friendly race scene. At times these “Rosbifs” have caused quite a stir, with some notable achievements.

The Pinnacle of the calendar has to be the “Pierra Menta” – somewhat akin to the “Tour de France” of ski mountaineering. This is one of the most amazing and most competitive events I have had the pleasure of racing in. Over four full on days of ski racing from the tranquil town of Areches in the Beaufortain,  you probably do about a months’ worth of regular touring. PD ridges and 40+ degree descents in the Alpine wilderness are lapped up for breakfast by competitors as they set off at daybreak, arriving at the finish by late morning to be greeted by fistfuls of croissants stuffed with Beaufort cheese. The whole town comes to life as they actively participate as “Benevoles” to facilitate the race. Afternoons are spent catching some continental sunshine before the daily ritual of kit preparation starts for the next stage. Jon Bracey (Chamonix based UIAGM Guide) and Carron Scrimgeour (Chamonix based Medic) have been GB’s “biggest hitters” so far in this event, with an impressive 27th a couple of years ago. This year GB had a solid representation in the form of Carron and Jon in the top 40. Es Tresidder teamed up with Thomas Brigand from the Maurienne to just squeeze in the top 50. Jonny Morgan and I were hot on their heels. However most respect must go to the mixed pairing of Nick Wallis and Leanne Callaghan who day after day defied the ultra tight cut-offs and completed their first Pierra Menta – brilliant!

Earlier in the season Carron and Jon had paired up for an iconic race in the Maurienne – “The Sybelles Villarinche”. In very difficult snow conditions (glad I missed this one!), amongst a very competitive field,  they put in a notable performance – just getting inside the top ten.

Quite a few of us have now joined the Chamonix based ski mountaineering club. The club, still in relative infancy was set up three years ago by US ex-pat Nina Silitch and Portuguese expat Nuno Caetano. Amazingly, the club is now one of the biggest in France. With many locals now making up the “hardcore” of the club, we all found the Club to be incredibly friendly. It was great to really feel a part of the scene.

In February, the European Championships were held in Pelvoux, France. Two GB pairings lined up for the Team race – Jon Bracey with Carron Scrimgeour, the other was Es Tressider and I. It was incredibly cold – minus 22 degrees centigrade on the start line! Otherwise it was a perfect day with not a breath of wind. The course was extremely exciting testing all the skills of ski mountaineering; an arête on foot, a couple of steep descents, some perfect powder, a goulotte, plenty of kick-turns and even a kilometre of skating. The European Championships doesn’t attract many countries that don’t get much snow, and so participating is somewhat of a humbling experience! Carron, Es and I also raced in the individual race and the 1000m uphill suffer-fest, also  known as the “Vertical”. It was a great experience. However, we need some girlies to come and fly the flag next year!

At the start of March was the The Chamonix Clubs’ hometurf “Vertical”. This is a night race up the “Kandahar” World Cup Downhill Course in Les Houches. The course is notoriously icy, but this year conditions were absolutely perfect, thanks to a light topping of fresh snow. Jon Bracey and I had a great duel for first Brit, with Jon just getting the edge. We all recorded excellent times for the Course. I was delighted and amazed to top the podium in the Over 40 category, walking away with a “Federation Francaise de la Montagne et de l’escalade” gold medal.... happy days!

The inaugural “British Championships” were held in late March as part of the “Cols et Cimes Haut” race in the Aiguilles Rouges. It was a perfect spring Alpine day. Starting relatively late at 9 am, we were all soon melting in the punishing sun! The race attracted a good sized field. It was great to see some of the old stalwarts like Al Powell on the start line along with plenty of keen new blood. Well done British Champions Carron Scrimgeour and Leanne Callaghan. Carron finished a very impressive third overall in what was a very competitive race (Yannick Buffet – World Champion took the honours).  Thanks to Es Tresidder for his efforts to bring about this event. Also thanks to the BMC for some great perpetual trophies

The last race of the season was the iconic mass participation “Patrouilles des Glaciers”... a whopping 112 km – from Zermatt to Verbier. Chamonix based ski coach Alison Culshaw teamed up with the highly experienced mountaineering duo Di Gilbert and Catrin Thomas. The team put in weeks and weeks of meticulous training. Unfortunately, constant bad weather in the lead up to the race meant that on the day it had to be abandoned due to high avalanche risk. The team had covered over half the distance, well ahead of schedule when the plug was pulled.

Next season, Di Gilbert is planning some taster races in the Highlands. The emphasis will be on having fun!  Why not come and give it a go?... But be careful, it IS highly addictive!



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