Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hypoxia punctuated by Terror

This past weekend was the much-anticipated Wasatch Powder Keg:  the annual ritual of people who most-often like to hike up untrammeled slopes to ski untracked lines instead finding themselves charging up and down the Brighton ski resort in an effort to crush themselves and each other!  

The first couple years of the Powder Keg were modest affairs with only 40-some odd participants, then the Euros heard about it and it became "a big deal" with the race being a stop on the "Skimo" (short for "Ski Mountaineering"; more on that later) World Cup circuit.  After a couple of years of that it maintained a high level of enthusiasm among some locals and cogniscenti, but the competition level waned a little (I got 2nd one year!).  Over the last couple of years, however, the sport's growing popularity and race director Chad Bracklesberg's incessant efforts and enthusiasm has once again made the Powder Keg the biggest skimo race in North America.  So it was fitting that this year's version also served as the North American Championships.  

The weekend festivities started on Friday night with the Sprints.  Momentarily forgetting that I haven't had a single fast twitch muscle fiber ever detected in my body I registered for it, but fortunately one of those many slow twitch muscles in my back tweaked itself a couple of days before and I opted out of the 4 minute acute sufferfest.  Jason Dorais put his sub-1:50 800 meter track speed to good use in conjunction with his ever-improving ski skills to win it for the locals:

with equally-speedy brother Andy getting literally elbowed off the podium in the final strides

and transplanted local Gemma taking the women's with a blistering climb.  

The "main event" got going early next morning with over 150 people charging off the line to climb and ski over 6000 feet for the "elites" (folks on the lightweight skimo gear) and "heavy metal"-ers (regular AT/tele skis/bindings or split boards) and 3000 feet for the recreational division.  As always, I tried to not go out too hard so as to not blow up immediately, and as always I did anyway, though it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  Atop the first climb I got some heckling by the wacky Elliot Braceilewoskiwitz about how I was about to get schooled by my old skis (that I had sold him in the Fall) and I responded as any testosterone-infected male would:  by charging down the first, super-steep chute way too fast with no regard for my safety and only a vague acknowledgement that I was going stupidly fast enough to not only jeopardize my race but my season as well if I careened into one of the many trees, but fortunately the gods let me go this time and I breathed a latent sigh of relief as we hit a groomer that whisked us to the first transition. 

The rest of the race was pretty straightforward; suffer on the climb, quick transition, and hang on for the descent.  I was going back and forth with the venerable Michael Hagen, who is the US distributor of Hagan skis (coincidence that his name is almost the same) who finally asked me how old I was, since he knew there was a master's division.  I assured him that it was 50+ (he's 51) and I wasn't quite that old, but he still dropped the hammer on me on the last climb!  I thought I could catch him on the final descent, but instead I caught a tip and tumbled down the last steep chute and almost lost my ski, so my 17th place was sealed.  Now that I think about it, I caught a tip on the final descent of the Jackson nationals last year and got passed as I untangled myself and....was also 17th.  At least I'm consistent.  

Sunday brought the "technical teams race", which meant that there was a climb and descent on boots that were both steep and exposed enough that we needed to haul a harness, ascender, and via ferrata system along with us - and know how to efficiently use all this stuff which I found is a lot easier in our basement than it is in a frenzy on a 45 degree slope of sugar snow with numb fingers
You can see racers booting up the center

Here's a view of the booter from the other direction.  We went up through the rocks and into the main chute, then down the left horizon ridge. 
it was nice to know I wasn't the only one clustering around with this gear.  You go Teague!  
using the rope is apparently the "mountaineering" part from which "Skimo" - which typically happens within ski resorts - takes its name!
charging down the ridge

This day was longer, with several more miles and ~9000 feet of vertical, and  - a critical aspect - everyone had a partner.  I had a ringer:  Colter Leys moved to SLC a coupla years ago and his high-end nordic background lends itself to excellent hammerage on the skin track as well, tho he typically uses this telemarketing stuff that is amazingly sometimes still seen in these parts.  But it was clear from the get go that he had no problem transitioning to the lightweight skimo gear, either on the climb or - importantly - on the tricky descents.  

As we approached the "technical" section on the 2nd climb we became aware of a big commotion around us, and I remembered that Chad had been all excited because the Life Flight guy had offered to take one the visiting Italian Skimo Federation dignitaries up in the heli for some birds-eye video footage to show his EU counterparts.  I must say that I don't really envy the many sports that are now using heli footage; having the heli hover above us as we tried to negotiate a challenging skin track, the sugary bootpack, and the unfamiliar gear was a bit unnerving with the deafening noise and rotor-wash spindrift (not to mention the debris being rained down on us from the guys in front of us).  But we dutifully forged ahead, and soon enough found ourselves in a bit of a no-mans land a bit behind the fastest teams and a fair distance ahead of the folks behind us. And despite the fact that we had heard one of the women's teams exhort to each other "we just need to talk a lot!" Colter and I generally just marched along in silence; in my hypoxic state I couldn't think of many clever things to say and didn't want to expend the energy anyway.  

We also used a tow system; when I had mentioned it earlier in the week Colter thought that I was kidding, but it's a pretty common practice.  If we are "even" in fitness, I was tired from the day before and Colter was fresh, so - as I anticipated - the tow system on my harness was just a waste of weight, since Colter literally towed me on every climb!  We had been told to get about 8' of 4mm bungee, and it worked quite well, especially for getting over the many little steep/challenging sections; once Colter got over a bump he got going again and his momentum would give me a little tug right when I needed it.  We had been strongly encouraged to practice towing, but of course we blew that off and did just fine learning on the fly.  
"Tom, you coming?"  Uh....yeah, yeah, I'm coming!"  
The most memorable section of the race was about halfway through when we topped out on a long, south facing shot that had been baking hard in the sun the day before.  Colter shoved off a couple of seconds before me as I gulped a bit of water, and when I looked down he was far below me;  the "shot" was probably a quarter-mile wide and dropped well over a thousand feet, and though it was pretty much bulletproof in the early morning but was butter smooth, so we went from 0-60 in about 2 seconds. As I like to say:  going fast on big skis is pretty fun, but going that fast on little rando skis is really fun!   It then funnelled into a gully where the nice supportable crust went to decidedly punchy, then we ended up on a steepish, bumpy mining road.  By the time we hit the transition our quads were smoking and Colter simply fell over!  But soon enough we were back on the skins for more uphill trudging.  
Happy to be on top of the longggg, 2nd to last climb.  
Then more harrowing descents, then more trudging uphill, then more harrowing descents, etc.  Until we finally finished, in a respectable 8th place.  Overall a silly, exhausting, and fun weekend.  

Thanks again to Mike Hales for loaning me all his nice race gear for Colter and I to use, to Colter for being a stellar pard, all the great volunteers who were so cheerful and supportive despite early mornings and long days, and to Chad and Emily for their tireless efforts in putting on a very impressive event.  

Some additional pics from the Italians, Kevin Buckingham, Willow Toso, and Fred Marmsater.  There's a ton of pics here:  http://wasatchpowderkeg.com/2014-photos-videos/
Local boys Jason and Tom putting the wood to the Coloradans
Jason's effort garnered him the silver, which he was clearly happy with (but he's always happy!)
Bruce Tremper showing that former national champ downhiller form
The views were beautiful, tho I never even looked up!  
The only water on the course got frozen, which was a bummer, but these Canucks figured that kissing the spigot might help?  
Mark Christopherson of Voile with his main cheerleader; Mark spearheaded the effort for Voile to do their new "Wasatch Speed Project" Rando ski that the locals - including me - have been snapping up, and Voile was a huge event sponsor
Here's to hoping to evolve into Stand Up Skiers!  
Happy to be done!  Colter wasn't towing quite fast enough so I had to whap him a time or two to get him to speed up.  And of course to make him look all burly.  

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