How to Get Into Ski-Mo Racing

A ski-mo racer makes his way up the hill in Big Sky, Montana. Gabe Priestley

Maybe you’ve been following along with my ski-mountaineering series, or maybe you’ve heard of ski-mo and wondered what it was all about. No matter how you got here, below, you’ll find battle-tested advice for everything you need to get into one of the most challenging and rewarding sports around.   

Invest in Gear

“If you wanted to run a marathon or a 10k, you wouldn’t buy a light hiker, you’d buy a real race shoe,” says Pete Swenson, program development director for the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association and the godfather of U.S. ski-mo racing. Swenson counsels ski-mo newbies to go all-in and buy gear intended specifically for racing. “You’ll be much happier with the proper gear,” he says. “Don’t try to approximate with an 80-millimeter-wide ski and handicap yourself from the outset. Buy a real 65-millimeter racing ski — and get the most expensive one you’d feel okay about replacing if you were to break it.”

While you could piece together a kit from the internet, the best place to start is a ski shop that “speaks rando,” Swenson says, using the shorthand for randonnée skiing, another name for ski-mo. Shops with employees who know and use race gear will help you find the most suitable ski-boot-binding combination, and they’ll have expertise in mounting your bindings — a delicate procedure most alpine-only shops are ill-prepared to undertake.

Which shops, you might be wondering? In the East, you’ve got The Mountaineer (Keene Valley, NY) and International Mountain Equipment (North Conway, NH). In the Rockies, check out Cripple Creek Backcountry (Carbondale and Vail, CO), Skinny Skis (Jackson, WY), and the nation’s only dedicated ski-mo retailer, Skimo Co in Salt Lake City, Utah. Skimo Co has a brick-and-mortar store as well as a thriving e-comm business — if you’re limited to internet shopping, I recommend them. On the West Coast, find Alpenglow Sports (Tahoe City, CA).

Find the Skin Track

My friend Travis Brock, ski patrol director at my home hill of Eldora Mountain Resort, would club me with a ski pole if I said that skinning at a resort is safer than in the backcountry, but ski resorts like Eldora that allow uphill traffic are the most convenient and simple places to train. You don’t have to carry avalanche safety gear as you would in the backcountry, but you do have to stay out from under snowcats, snowmobiles, and other routine mountain ops. Consult Backcountry Magazine’s Uphill Travel Guide for policies nationwide. And don’t be a scofflaw — your participation makes you an ambassador for this growing sport, and the only way we’ll convince more resorts to open access to uphillers is by respecting existing policies.

Get Ski-mo Fit

Options abound, from your local Crossfit box to a home gym like the basic one I’ve cobbled together. If I had time, I’d attend classes at the Alpine Training Center in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. But because my work and family schedule doesn’t permit that, I use the online training programs created by ATC owner and head trainer Connie Sciolino, which only cost $50 for six-week blocks. My race partner, Eric Henderson, and I started a simplified version of Coach Connie’s Skimo Program six weeks before the Power of Four and things went swimmingly.

And though I’m no nutritional expert, I’d say it’s also worth examining your eating. Last fall I did the Whole 30 Program on a whim and have more or less followed it since then, though I’ve reintroduced beer, tequila, and small amounts of carbs. I dropped about 12 pounds, felt lighter and faster, slept better, had more energy, and experienced less joint pain — all of which helped me train and recover more effectively.

Learn to Ski

Experienced alpine skiers already have this box checked, but would do well to practice lots of fast skiing on their race gear in steep, ungroomed terrain. If you’re starting ski-mo with strong fitness but little ski experience, suck up your pride and take a few ski lessons on standard alpine gear, then work on transferring those skills to your race setup. Practice really does makes perfect.

Find A Race

Locals’ races helped me develop a racing mindset that proved invaluable for my successful Power of Four experience. As USSMA’s Swenson says, “If you want to be competitive, you’ve gotta race.” While long, slow tours certainly have their place in a training scheme, regular, intense, hour-long races are probably more effective.

Here’s a highly unscientific list of race series and bucket-list marquee races across the country, plus three European biggies:

Regular Race Series

  • NE Rando Race Series (New England)
  • SkimoEast (Vermont/Quebec)
  • COSMIC Series (Colorado, New Mexico)
  • Eldora Nighthawks Series (Colorado)
  • Arapahoe Basin Rise and Shine Rando and Alpenglow Series (Colorado)
  • Breckenridge Ascent Series (Colorado)
  • Wasatch Citizen Series (Utah)
  • Snoqualmie Pass Skimo (Washington)

Bucket List US Races

  • Elk Mountains Grand Traverse (Colorado)
  • Audi Power of Four (Colorado)
  • 24 Hours of Bolton (Vermont)
  • MRA Summer Shredfest (Montana; North America’s only summer ski-mo race)
  • Whitefish Whiteout (Montana)
  • Shredhorn Skimo (Montana)
  • Alpental Vertfest (Washington)
  • Peter Inglis Fund Tellurando Race (Colorado)
  • Wasatch Powderkeg (Utah)

Bucket List European Races

  • Pierra Menta (France)
  • Patrouille des Glaciers (Switzerland)
  • Trofeo Mezzalama (Italy)

And finally, remember, you’re supposed to enjoy it. As I mentioned in my first article, I can’t imagine a winter sport that can beat ski-mo in terms of fitness and fun. The challenge of earning proficiency in and assembling the sport’s disparate skill sets is intensely gratifying, and the almost indescribable joy of skiing downhill is only compounded by the glow of achievement you’ll feel from earning your turns. Good luck out there.