CHOTEAU, Mont. — A select group of ski racers are as interested in climbing uphill as they are in skiing down.
Randonee races challenge skiers to climb up a slope using their own power and then ski down a set course. The winner is the person who completes the course in the least amount of time. Randonee races are gaining popularity across the country, and races with long climbs are especially popular.
The promise of 5,000 feet of climbing attracted some serious racers to Teton Pass Ski Resort recently for its Jack’n’Jill Randonee Race.
Ben Parsons was the first men’s finisher at a Saturday race. He was one of four or five sponsored athletes who competed.
The Jack’n’Jill race, in its third year, added a longer course this year, in response to requests from competitors in past years, said Maggie Carr, events coordinator at Teton Pass. This year’s longer race attracted a different caliber of skier.
“This year, we have way more professionals,” Carr said.
Parsons started doing randonee races about eight years ago after a buddy talked him into trying one.
“I got hooked as soon as I started traveling with him and racing,” Parsons said.
Now Parsons competes in about eight randonee races per year, traveling to Wyoming, Canada and elsewhere. This year, he’s raced almost every weekend this winter, following the United States Ski Mountaineering Association’s circuit.
“There’s a whole calendar,” Parsons said.
Teton’s race isn’t part of the circuit, but for Parsons, who lives in Kalispell, the race was an excuse to visit Teton Pass.
“You’ve got the funnest atmosphere here,” he said.
In his near decade of randonee racing, Parsons has seen the sport grow in popularity.
“There are more races popping up and more people racing,” he said.
This year, there are about 100 races for randonee skiers.
In past years, the Jack’n’Jill Race has taken competitors from the ski area’s base to the false Mount Lockart Summit, about 2,300 feet of elevation gain. This year, racers had the option of following that course in the “recreation” division, or they could opt for a longer course with 5,000 feet of elevation gain in the “pro” division.
Inge Perkins, of Bozeman, was the first-place female finisher in the pro division.
She saw a flier for the Jack’n’Jill Race and decided to compete.
“I’ve done a few randonee races before,” she said.
Perkins previously lived in Colorado and did a few races there. Last winter, she lived in Germany and tried a race there.
“I did horribly,” she said. “It’s a different scene there.”
That race consisted of one short climb, which was more like a sprint.
Despite having three climbs, ranging from 900 feet to 2,300 feet, the fastest racers did sprint up the slopes, essentially running on their skis.
“It’s like a trail run on skis,” said Ryan Hollow of Teton Pass.
Parsons finished the race in 1 hour, 40 minutes, and finished the first 2,300-foot climb and descent in 45 minutes.
“That’s pretty quick,” Hollow said.
Typically, touring skiers, when not in a race, aim to climb 1,000 feet per hour, meaning the same climb would take them more than two hours.
During the race, skiers also had to remove the skins from the bottom of their skis at the top of a climb and put them on again at the bottom. Those transitions counted toward their overall time.
Many racers wore the same skis and boots they would wear for backcountry skiing. However, some of the more competitive racers used randonee-specific gear, which includes lighter, skinnier skis.
Parsons estimates that his skis and bindings weigh about 2 pounds, whereas the typical backcountry setup weighs about 10.
The skinny, light skis, however, don’t handle as well on fast downhills.
“They’re definitely interesting, skiing down at break-neck speeds,” Parsons said.
However, most randonee races aren’t won on the downhill. Instead, fast times on the climbs are important for winning.
Some randonee races include 8,000 to 10,000 feet of climbing, Hollow said.
“They’re huge races,” he said.
The length of Teton’s pro race was fairly typical for a randonee race.
“Five thousand feet is pretty much the standard affair,” Parsons said.
The climbs at Teton also included boot-pack sections, where racers removed their skis and climbed in their boots.
That’s also typical for a randonee race.
Some races have technical climbing sections that require ropes and harnesses, Perkins said.
Teton added the longer course this year, to make the race more attractive to serious randonee racers.
“It was partially due to feedback from racers last year,” Carr said. “They wanted more of a challenge.”
The Jack’n’Jill Race had its best turnout this year.
The pro course attracted 28 racers, but racers looking for less of a challenge had the option of the recreation course or an even shorter No-Name Scramble, which included 900 feet of climbing. Twenty racers competed in each of those races.
This year’s event was Julie Davis’ first time in a randonee race. She competed in the recreation course, which included 2,300 feet of climbing.
“I had just gotten into touring this year,” said Davis, of Great Falls.
Davis wasn’t there to win.
“I hadn’t gotten out much this year, and I knew I would not be competitive,” she said.
The race fell on a beautiful, sunny bluebird day, and the views from the top of the mountain made the climb worth it.
“On a day like today, you can’t beat it,” she said.
Amber Steed of Kalispell competed in the pro division. She had done the race in previous years and keeps coming back because, she says, it’s a great course and a great atmosphere.
“It usually attracts a fun group of people,” she said.
Teton’s scenery doesn’t hurt either.
“It’s so beautiful at the top,” she said. “I just wanted to sit up there all day and take pictures.”