By Karilyn Kempton/special to the Times Review
With a bronze medal finish at the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Cup sprint race in Italy on February 7, Revelstoke resident Melanie Bernier became the first Canadian to reach the World Cup podium in the sport. “Standing up there felt like a reflection of all the work I put into preparing,” Bernier said with a grin. “It felt great, but also like I really deserved it.”
Bernier hopes her result will help put ski mountaineering racing on Canada’s radar. “I’m stoked about getting more people involved,” enthuses Bernier. “I want to be able to share the sport.” While ski mountaineering racing is picking up steam in the United States, Canada has been slower to take to it. Bernier hopes her result could be the start of a shift, proof that a Canadian can go to Europe and earn a great result. “We’ll gain respect from people in Europe as well,” notes Bernier. “Before, Canadians would show up and be considered the underdog, but now people know we’re there to compete.”
Ski mountaineering racing (also called randonnée racing) combines skiing and mountaineering skills, using ski touring equipment to race up alpine terrain past check points in a course. Athletes use special skins to ascend slopes on their skis, scramble over rocky sections with skis on their packs, and descend on skis. The winner is first to cross the finish line.
Bernier has been a member of the Canadian National Ski Mountaineering team since 2008. She has finished in the top five at prestigious races around the world, and felt like the podium result was a long time coming. Bernier spent a month in Europe this winter and competed in ten races, including three World Cup races.
The day after Bernier’s third place finish, she placed sixth in the World Cup Individual event, only one second after fifth place and twenty-three seconds behind fourth. Currently ranked sixth in the world, Bernier hopes to make it to the final ISMF World Cup race of the season in Norway so she only misses one World Cup race of the season. “I may need to find a pot of gold, rob a bank or sell my car,” she jokes.
Hailing from outside Quebec City, Bernier got on Nordic skis at four, downhill skis at seven, and raced moguls as a teen. She first ski toured in 2006 while living in Whistler, and then entered her first ski mountaineering race only a few weeks later. After racing in her first world championship in 2008 in Switzerland, she returned to Canada inspired by the level of competition and fitness. Though she has had a fitness coach, Bernier’s success has come without the help of a ski coach. Bernier loves the challenge of competing against high-level athletes on the World Cup circuit. “You don’t learn if you’re the queen in your backyard, you learn when you’re last somewhere else,” she laughs.
Bernier spent the 2012–13 winter season living and racing in France. This winter, Bernier spent a month in Europe and competed in ten races, including three World Cup races. She admits that training in British Columbia can be difficult because of all the snow (though she does love powder skiing). An architect and owner of Monashee Drafting & Design Company, she plans to spend next winter living and working in France.
Upcoming on her race schedule is the ROAM Randonnée Rally in Nelson next weekend, and the North American Championships in Utah. She then heads back to Europe to compete in some longer team races. She hopes for podium finishes with her French partners—she and her teammate finished fourth last season at the classic four-day Pierra Menta endurance race.
Bernier’s advice to aspiring ski mountaineering racers is to get light gear and get out there. “Challenge yourself to do as much vertical as you can in a day. See how much you can push your limit,” encourages Bernier. She suggests jumping right into a race if a skier is interested in the sport.
Bernier believes that passion is a big part of success. “Everyone is a champion at something,” she says with a smile, “and if you’re lucky enough to know what your calling is, that is a gift.” Bernier is certainly happy to be competing in the sport she loves, and happier still to be winning medals for it.