When the Canadian Ski Mountaineering team arrives in Europe next week for the world championships, they’ll be returning to a continent where their sport is highly popular – unlike the scattered few that compete in Canada.
“It’s grassroots here. The sport is slowly building over the past five years,” said Andrew McNab. “In Europe, there’s races that have been going for 25 to 30 years and over 400 people attending a race and thousands spectating. Here we just get made fun of at ski hills more than we get supported.”
McNab, 26, is one of three Revelstokians who are members of the national team that will be competing in Claut, Italy from Feb. 18-25. The other two are Melanie Bernier, 29, and Julie Matteau, 33.
Ski mountaineering is a common pastime in Revelstoke and much of Western Canada but the racing scene is quite small, with only about 30 regulars showing up at competitions. While many people go out ski touring, few extend that into racing.
“It’s not in the mentality here,” said Matteau. “People go into the backcountry to enjoy it. They don’t see the competition component of it. They go into the backcountry to relax and enjoy powder.”
The difference in the cultures extends to the races themselves. Europe has an established World Cup circuit while there are only a few scattered races in Canada that are run by the Alpine Club of Canada. As well, in Europe races go out into the backcountry, while in Canada the races are usually confined to in-bounds areas of resorts.
Additionally, the European events have crews who set tracks for the competitors, while in Canada the racers have to break trail along the way – making for a much more challenging and less even competition.
“It’s not really racing if someone’s breaking trail,” said McNab.
Still, the sport is attracting a small but dedicated following in North America. One sign, Bernier said, is that about 50 racers showed up at the U.S. championships in Jackson Hole wearing spandex race suits – one sign of dedication to the sport.
Spandex is just one key piece of gear. Ski mountaineers also use ultra-lightweight equipment that maximizes efficiency on the way up while still allowing for good control going downhill.
The terrain they cover in the races can get quite technical – with steep boot-packs, ridge walks, narrow chutes and tight trees to manoeuvre through.
“You go through mountain ranges and every day you’re going to a different destination and you’re never in a ski resort,” said Bernier.
For Bernier and Matteau, this will be their third world championships. At their first one, in 2008, they said their goal was to simply finish the race.
“The first year we didn’t know what to expect,” said Bernier. “Our goal was to finish. I may be last but I will finish. I will survive.”
They ended up finishing 30th and 33rd respectively out of 44 women
At last year’s world championship, both improved dramatically, with Bernier winding up in 16th spot and Matteau in 21st (out of 41 racers). This year, Bernier is looking to crack the top 15 and, hopefully, the top 10, while Matteau has not set a personal goal.
McNab went to the world championships for the first time in 2010 and wound up in 100th place out of 116 competitors. This year he’s aiming to finish in the top half.
They, along with their teammates, are working on fostering the growth of the sport in Canada. The community is tight-knit and highly supportive of each other, they said. They don’t get any funding so, unless they’re sponsored, they have to finance the trip to Europe themselves, as well as buy the equipment they need.
The other members of the team going to Europe are Reiner Thoni, Steve Sellers, Stano Faban, Alex Wigley and James Minifie. Thoni is the top competitor in Canada and last year he finished 85th at the world championships. At the American Ski Mountaineering Championships in Jackson Hole, Wyoming last month, Thoni finished first, ahead of the favoured Peter Swanson of the U.S.
The world championships consists of a 100 metre vertical sprint to start things off on Feb. 19, followed by the team race the next day, the vertical race (uphill only) on Feb. 22, the individual race on Feb. 24 and relays on Feb. 25. You can track results at www.claut2011.org.