As I mentioned previously, I was planning on doing the VertFest randonnee race this weekend, mostly because I wanted to get out backcountry skiing and this seemed like the easiest and surest way to have people to ski with. On Friday night I decided to take a look at the course profile, and I was a little disturbed to find that it had two booters (step sections that you ascend by carrying your skis and kicking steps in the snow) and a double black diamond descent. I had never done a booter in my ski boots, or done a double black diamond run (nor done a backcountry ski race, for that matter), so Saturday would be a day of firsts. I didn't have a pack that I could mount my skis on for the booter sections, so Roanne and I made a late night run to REI to rectify that situation, and were able to take advantage of some end-of-winter sales and pick up a nice Black Diamond backcountry ski pack. With all the details sorted out, I laid out my things for the next day and retired to bed.
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, and at 7:15am when I awoke it looked like things were on track for the forecasted high in the 60s. I loaded up and drove to Alpental, arriving just in time to register and attend the pre-race meeting at 9:15am. Here is a shot of the view from the lodge just after I arrived at Alpental, look at those blue skies! Outdoor Research is based in Seattle, and was one of the sponsors of the race.
The organizer started the pre-race meeting by jubilantly announcing that they had cracked the 100 participant mark for the first time, making this the largest randonnee race in the Northwest. Boy, and I thought nordic ski racing was a fringe sport! I guess most people aren't that keen on going up ski hills with heavy alpine touring gear.
After the race meeting I walked back to the car and suited up in my gear. It was going to be warm so I dressed about the same as I would have for a day of nordic skiing, with the only difference being my backpack full of avy gear and my skis, boots, and bindings weighing about 20 times as much as my nordic setup. I arrived at the start line about 15 minutes ahead of the 10:15am start time, here I am getting ready to put my skins on.
With about 5 minutes to go I took my place on the starting line. I would have normally chosen to start further back, having never done a race like this and not being uber confident in my skiing abilities, but apparently others had similar inclinations as the back row was full and there were lots of vacancies on the front row. I hadn't wanted to force my way onto the front row, but if a good starting position was on offer I figured I might as well take it so I took a place at the head of affairs. As I gazed up and down the row of my competition, I noticed that there was a complete dearth of people on the heavier Fritschi Freeride bindings that I have, almost everyone was on super light Dynafit setups and many people had really small and light skis that seemed to be a hybrid between backcountry skis and nordic skis. I began to think that some people take this sort of thing quite seriously, and that feeling was compounded by the fact that people on both sides of me were wearing downhill ski racing skin suits. Oh boy, what I have gotten myself into!
Luckily I didn't have much time to ponder this question because soon after a transceiver check the gun went off promptly at 10:15am and everyone started running up the hill. Yes, that's right, running! I thought to myself: "Are these guys nuts? I can't run uphill with these 50lb skis strapped to my feet!". I did the most reasonable approximation to a run that I could muster, and luckily people calmed down after a few hundred meters and the pace settled down to brisk striding. The conditions were hard packed and icy since it had frozen over night, and the going was quite difficult as we started by ascending a steep mogul field. There were some bottlenecks as people became stuck or slid backwards on the ice, but luckily my start from the front row had positioned me well heading into these obstacles so I didn't have to wait too much. A number of people had ski crampons on, which looked really helpful in these conditions. We had to go through a number of control gates on the way up, and one of the volunteers at the third gate encouraged me with the utterance "Nice job, heavy set-up!". I thanked him for reminding me about how much my skis weighed, and continued on my way.
About halfway up we came to the first booter. I had planned on removing my skis and putting them on my pack (hence the trip to REI the night before), but others were just carrying their skis one hand and their poles in the other, so I followed suit. The steps had been kicked in pretty well by the time I got there, so the biggest challenge was doing a one arm lift with my skis every two steps to get them in a stable position for the next two steps. After topping out the booter we then continued the skin ascent, and after one more booter I found myself at the top. Everyone around me was using the skis-on skin removal technique, so I followed suit and after donning my helmet and gloves I was ready to go. I dropped in, and quickly realized that icy conditions and fried legs from ascending 2300 feet are not a good starting point for skiing your first double black diamond mogul field. After a lot of side slipping, kamikaze snow-plowing, and the odd turn, I finally made it through and arrived at the first downhill checkpoint gate with my legs burning with lactic acid and screaming at me in pain.
I had to assure that volunteers manning the checkpoint that, yes, despite my unconventional downhill technique, I was in fact one of the race participants, and after doing so I continued on my way. After the gate the downhill route left the in-bounds area and did some traversing through trees and some steep narrow sections, but luckily the snow was softer here so I could do something that was a closer approximation to skiing. The course eventually spit us back out onto the resort groomers, and after bee-lining it to the bottom I took a deep breath and got ready to go up again. There were two categories that participants could have signed up for at VertFest, and if I had registered for the "Rec" division that only did one lap, I would have been finished at this point. However, registering for something called "Rec" runs counter to all of my guiding philosophies, so I had registered for the "Race" division that did two laps of the ski hill. The fact that I was headed up again wasn't as hard to accept as you might think, the downhill had been way more painful than the uphill so the pending ascent seemed like a break compared to the harrowing descent I had just completed.
The second ascent was considerably easier than the first, as the snow had softened up more and there didn't seem to be anything quite as steep. After passing a few people I settled into a good rhythm on the back of a group of about 5 skiers. I probably could have passed a few of them as I felt pretty comfortable; however, I knew there was no point since they would blow by me on the downhill, so I contented myself with ascending at this more moderate pace and snapping a few photos along the way.
Upon reaching the top I de-skinned and began the ascent, feeling much more in control due to having taken it a bit easier on the way up. This feeling of being in control quickly dissipated as the descent progressed and my legs became tired, but I finally reached the bottom in one piece with an overall time of 2 hours and 36 minutes. I'm not sure how that placed me as I didn't see the official results, but I definitely wasn't dead last. I summoned my last ounce of energy to walk back to my car, where I removed my ski boots and lay in the sun while eating a delicious sandwich that I had brought along.
As part of our race registration we had received lift passes for the resort, so even though I was completely gassed and my legs felt like rocks, after finishing my sandwich I felt obligated to go ride the lifts and do some more skiing. My legs started cramping as I tried to put my ski boots back on, but after three attempts I finally got them on and headed back to the lift. On the way down I found myself getting tired and needed a break after every 3 turns, so after one run I decided to call it quits and drive back to Seattle to hang out with the newt for the rest of the afternoon. I still haven't seen the results, but I will post the details here once I find out along with any other photos I can rustle up from the event photographers.
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