If you appreciate words, like I do, you may on occasion grieve the loss of them. Our culture changes and so too does our language. Handheld communication devices incentivize us to seek to conserve increasingly in demand stores of linguistic energy to create more time in our lives. We are quick to embrace language shortcuts like lol, lmfao, and cul8r. These abbreviated sentences, when used effectively, can save valuable seconds that grow to minutes, that add up to hours, days, weeks, and even months over a lifetime. I think we can all agree that no group of people is in a bigger voluntary rush to get from point A to point B than those competing in a race. Fierce competitors can’t be bothered to say it all out: ski mount-ain-eer-in-g. By saying, reading, and thinking “skimo” (one word, 2 syllables) an athlete may save loads of time and energy that can be used to spray on social media, pursue sponsorships, upload exciting POV footage, take an ice bath, depilate appendages, or even train.
The problem here is semantics (Or shall we say ski-mantics? No, you’re right, we shan’t.). “Skimo” is a shortened term for “ski mountaineering,” a practice that has existed for well over a century. You can find various chronologies of ski mountaineering history on the internet (largely skewed to the preferences and priorities of the armchair historians that produce them). The first ski of a peak above 3000m was by German ski mountaineer Wilhelm von Arlt in 1894. Early 20th century skier and mountaineer Arnold Lunn, founder of the Oxford University Mountaineering Ski Club and the Alpine Ski Club wrote, “ski mountaineering is the marriage of two great sports, mountaineering and skiing.”
The spirit of mountaineering (also known as “alpinism”) follows the idea of climbing with the objective of getting somewhere, generally to a high point or summit and descending, using skills, knowledge, fortitude, resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and often teamwork to overcome adversity and uncertain outcomes, to manage risk and gain the rewards that the mountains have to offer.
There is an element of romanticism and adventure in alpinism that harkens of the spiritual, if not the religious. This spirit is integral to ski mountaineering. The primary rewards of the ski mountaineering experience are related to the activity of skiing, particularly downhill, where, for the initiated, skis (or snowboards) become a remarkable tool for simultaneously: 1) reducing risk, 2) increasing efficiency, and 3) adding enjoyment. The effects of skis and snowboards on all 3 of these prime directives of mountain travel are profound and arguably unsurpassed by any other piece of mountain equipment. Ski touring and other types of backcountry skiing share many characteristics with ski mountaineering. The main difference is that ski mountaineering demands the use of mountaineering safety equipment such as a harness, rope, ice axe, or crampons, to protect from the risk of falling, and that there may be a compelling desire to arrive at a summit or otherwise defined high point.
Consensus also suggests that ski mountaineering is largely human powered. Mechanized access vehicles like lifts, snowcats, snowmobiles, airplanes, and helicopters need to be left far enough behind that the outing contains a significant element of self-propelled mountain travel beyond simply descending on skis. An element of self-sufficiency/self-reliance, which implies remoteness or inaccessibility, is required in true mountaineering. It is up to individuals to make their own decisions about risk in the terrain, and to act in the event of an error or mishap. This is what distinguishes alpinism and ski mountaineering from the activities of climbing and skiing, which may be practiced in developed, controlled environments like crags, gyms, and ski resorts.
Arnold Lunn was later knighted after inventing the slalom ski race in 1922 and a career as an international skiing ambassador. He was one of the prime promoters of skiing as an Olympic sport, still he remained a ski mountaineer at heart: “I am by no means sorry that it is only piste competitions which are eligible for Olympic medal rewards, and that the mastery of real ski-ing on natural snow, with its exacting demands on the mind no less than the body, remains the monopoly of those for whom ski-ing is its own reward.” Due largely to the efforts of the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF), ski mountaineering is on track to being included in the 2018 Olympics. There will be a piste (a track groomed by machine or human), as the competition must be sporting and on a level playing field for all, so Lunn’s assessment holds today.
In the early 90’s, these up/down mountain ski races were starting to gain traction. Alpine touring gear was getting lighter thanks largely to one company, Dynafit, that invented a way to revolutionize the Alpine Touring binding using integrated boot design. During WWII the Swiss military developed a training course through the rugged, glaciated mountains between Zermatt and Verbier as a test of skill and fortitude. After being dismantled due to a number of fatalities, the “Patrouille des Glaciers” ski race was brought back in a more controlled way for the public in in 1984.
Other similar races soon cropped up as well, in the Alps and elsewhere, including here in the US, generally using terrain within ski resorts. In the 90’s and into the early 2000’s these races in the US were called “randonnée races” or “randonnée rallies” the name used by Dynafit and Life-link, two manufacturers on the forefront of making equipment used in these events which were already popular in Europe. The French word randonnée is a mouthful for us here in ‘Merica, and around that time french fries were being called “freedom fries,” so some took to calling them “rando races” That term apparently wasn’t catchy enough. The industry and the racers themselves saw an opportunity to grow the sport, one in which lightweight gear that costs less to make can be sold for higher prices.
Rando racing was re-branded as “ski mountaineering.” “Skimo” was a natural abbreviation of the term. Nobody really seemed to notice (or care) that the activity of ski mountaineering was being effectively displaced from its namesake by a burgeoning international competitive sport that bears only superficial resemblance.
Retaining the term may be futile for ski mountaineering at this point. Skimo racing has grown close to 1000% at the elite level in the past decade, and is growing at the amateur race level as well. All backcountry ski touring is likely growing as well, based on overall sales of backcountry ski and lightweight alpine climbing gear. Snowsports Industries America reports that sales of AT ski boots are up 27% in units sold (93,000 totaling $37M) over last year. But the skills, knowledge, and experience required to become a true ski mountaineer will remain a barrier to entry. Skimo allows anyone with the legs, the lungs, the gear, and a little bit of skiing skill to get started and have success with it. If the skimo branding has helped to grow the sport, then ski mountaineering is likely going to have to move over and share it.
As we make this concession though, let’s all openly recognize that, beyond the use of similar equipment technology and the physical effects of gravity, skimo involves virtually no ski mountaineering whatsoever.
Skimo occurs in a controlled mountain environment with preset and well-marked courses, groomed tracks, avalanche hazard management, aid stations, and support crews. Remoteness and self-sufficiency are largely removed from the equation. The social, competitive, and athletic aspects are more integral to the experience than are solitude or mountain adventure. They are a winter version of an endurance trail running race event, not an extension of backcountry ski touring or alpinism. This may be why many competitive long distance trail runners are taking to skimo.
Trail running races are exploding in popularity worldwide. The Ultra Trail Mont Blanc this year had around 10,000 participants in its race events. At this convergence stands Killian Jornet. One of the most gifted trail endurance runners of our time is also an elite skimo racer. He grew up in the mountains and has been a skier, runner, and alpinist for most of his life. Killian has shown that skimo racing is complimentary to competitive trail running in many ways for the year round outdoor endurance athlete, and many people have been inspired to follow his example.
To further cloud the distinction is that AT ski gear keeps getting lighter yet higher performance for both ascent and descent. This allows skimo gear to be used in more ski mountaineering pursuits. As Lowell Skoog pointed out in IFMGA guide Martin Volken’s Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering (2007, before the term skimo emerged), “Since the 1990’s nordic and alpine touring have converged. Nordic equipment has become more downhill-capable and alpine equipment has become more touring friendly.” There is a full spectrum of ski touring gear out there today for every variant of backcountry skiing that can be displayed in an internet video, but it will always be the underlying motivation, spirit, and nature of the tour that defines ski mountaineering, not just the equipment type used.
Though the ethos of a race course contradicts that of a ski mountaineering objective in many ways, there are a handful of race events that manage to find a balance. The gold standard is represented by the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic (AMWSC) a team ski race that basically gets announced by word of mouth without any established race organization. The race has a start and a finish line. There is no outside support allowed, travel must be human powered, there is no race infrastructure, LNT practices must be followed, rescue is self-administered, and teams must carry some form
of satellite communicator. Other than that, racers may go any way and by any method they choose and the race usually lasts from a few to several days. This is ski mountaineering racing more than skimo can ever be, but it is notable that the racers do not refer to it as a ski mountaineering race or a skimo race. It is, purely, a race.
The Elk Mountains Grand Traverse is a Colorado race from Crested Butte to Aspen is one that incorporates more of the spirit of mountaineering. Inspired by the Patrouille des Glaciers, it has doubled in participation over the last decade. Racers must be self-sufficient in this race, but there is a snow safety team and routesetters. Racers must carry a list of gear that includes minimalist bivouac kit, stove/fuel, avalanche rescue gear, first aid, navigation kit, satellite communication, and more. Though not nearly a purist race like the AMWSC, Grand Traverse race organizers astutely avoid describing this race as a skimo event. It is certainly more closely related to ski mountaineering than any world cup level skimo race.
It is ironic that the High Sierra is simultaneously a mecca for ski mountaineering and completely inhospitable to skimo racing. Race events cannot be conducted in federally designated wilderness, and here we have tons of it. June Mountain hosted such a race in bounds a decade ago, but it quickly derailed. The 2010 wilderness additions between Mammoth and June Mountains have ruled out the potential for a race between the resorts that some have dreamed of. There was more recently an organized effort to host a race in the Sherwins near Mammoth Lakes, which would have been interesting, but a couple years of record drought cancelled it.
I mean no offense against skimo as a valid sport. I have participated in races myself and can attest that they are both loads of fun and soul crushing, in only the best of ways. And I look forward to watching drugged up 20 year olds set world records in the Olympics alongside Jamaican bobsledders and dizzy flying tomatoes on snowboards.
I speak out here in defense of ski mountaineering, the term and the activity it represents. For myself, and many others, it is a sublime recreational experience that deserves its own separate distinction. It has become an emotional and spiritual cornerstone of my personal existence and I am grateful for the pioneers of terrain, technique, and equipment that have made it all possible. Its legacy has been somewhat tarnished by the industry as it invokes its namesake and imagery to attract racers, raise funding, sell tickets, and move product. I’ll be happy to sign up for well-organized ski races when the opportunity and inspiration come around, but you won’t hear me call it “ski mountaineering,” and if the term “skimo” passes across my lips with nary a trace of sarcasm then do feel free to slap me across the mouth. That will be my insignificant micro-protest. Because in spite of what skimo may pretend to be, and the mountain terrain it may tame for its itineraries, it is decidedly more nordic than it is alpine (nordic = not “real ski-ing”), and we have sufficiently established that it is most certainly not “mountaineering.” Thus, we pundits can revel, from far below the podium, upon the jagged winter peaks and untracked open slopes, smiling faces covered with cold pixie dust, that skimo – is neither.
Interested in learning more about ski mountaineering? Let us show you!