Skiers in Tights

By Matt Hansen
Published: January 9, 2011

When it started 11 years ago in Jackson Hole, it was known simply as the Rando Rally, a mostly community event that inspired local backcountry skiers to take part in a race to see who could ascend and descend the fastest.

The race has since become the premier "rando race" in North America, attracting skiers from all over the continent for the chance to represent the United States at the World Championships later this winter in Italy.

Held Saturday, Jan. 8, the Jackson event is now known as the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Championships, and it has succeeded in becoming the most competitive race of its kind ever on this continent, according to many of the athletes.

"This is the most competitive race we've ever had, by far," says Pete Swenson, a Breckenridge skier who is also the Director of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association. Swenson took fourth on Saturday, in 2 hours, 41 minutes, 24 seconds. The course traversed the legendary steeps of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, ascending and descending roughly (gulp) 8,000 feet of vertical. It's freakish. Crazy. A wee bit of lunacy.

And it's not even the up and down to make most people gasp in stupendous wonder. Consider the event's iconic feature: Corbet's Couloir. Usually known as the "test piece" for skiing at Jackson, the course on Saturday went up the couloir. Luke Nelson, a 30-year-old endurance athlete from Pocatello, Idaho, was the first skier to ascend into the ominous slope. He clearly had a tough time gaining purchase, as a howling wind from up top blew loose snow onto the course. He eventually took hold of the rope, which led to a ladder, to gain the top of the overhanging cornice, the snow blasting in his face as he summited the ridge.

But the others were not far behind. Like soldiers attacking, a group of five threatened Nelson's lead. After summiting the couloir, the skiers had to clip a gate at the summit of 10,450-foot Rendezvous Mountain. Then they had to descend nearly all 4,139 vertical feet to the bottom of the resort. They would then have to ascend another thousand feet back to the approximate base of the Thunder lift before descending yet again to the base of the tram for the finish.

In the final ascent up to Thunder, Nelson was overtaken by Canadian Reiner Thoni (first place, 2:39:14) and American Brandon French (second place, 2:40:04). "Corbet's was brutal," said Nelson, who qualified for the U.S. finals later this year and has the chance to ski in the world championships in Italy. "But I'm super stoked."

Thoni had never even been to Jackson before. The 26-year-old from Valemount, B.C., said he was just hoping to avoid equipment failure. "This is the deepest field I've ever seen in North America," he said. "There are so many fast people here."

Sorry Rando Rally. Your time has past. This is a full-fledged professional race. And anyone who comes had better be prepared to face the best.

(Ed’s note: This story will be updated with a photo gallery. Please check back Monday for that.)

Final Results
U.S. Ski Mountaineering Championships
January 8, 2011
At Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

Women’s Pro
1. Janelle Smiley
2. Sari Anderson
3. Monique Merril

Men’s Pro
1. Reiner Thoni (CAN)
2. Brandon French
3. Luke Nelson

Women’s Heavy Metal
1. Lisa Dickinson
2. Sarah Cookler

Men’s Heavy Metal
1. Dan Corn
2. Mike Varilone
3. Toby Stegman