"It was an eye-opener"
Gunnison Valley skiers and avid randonnee ski racers Bryan Wickenhauser and Ethan Passant joined the U.S. Ski Mountaineering team to compete at the Ski Mountaineering World Championships in Les Portes du Soleil, Switzerland, Sunday through Friday, February 24-29.
It was the second time a team from the United States headed to Europe for the event to take on the top ski mountaineering racers in the world.
And it was the second time the team got an education in the sport.
The U.S. team headed to the Worlds in 2006 and found themselves behind the times in a number of areas—specifically equipment.
Over the past two years the U.S. racers have made strides to match up with the Europeans skis and bindings, but this time around they found themselves behind once again in the boot and climbing skin departments.
According to Wickenhauser, the boots several of the European teams were using are half the weight of the boot of choice for members of the U.S. team, the Scarpa F1.
"There’s one or two boot cobblers over there making a carbon fiber boot that weighs 700 grams," says Wickenhauser. "The F1 boots, when modified, weigh 1,350 grams."
Furthermore, several of the European teams have a legion of coaches and technicians, including one dedicated to choosing and preparing climbing skins.
"Skins is like a science over there," says Wickenhauser. "All the countries have a skin guru, just like how Nordic ski racers will have a wax tech."
Throw in the fact that ski mountaineering has a long history in Europe and it becomes apparent that the U.S. team was up against some serious competition.
"There’s a lot of history there and it was fully educational," says Wickenhauser. "Those guys are well ahead of the curve."
"We’re a little behind the eight ball," adds Passant.
The Worlds involved four separate races over six days, opening with a short-course randonnee race, similar to the length of the randonnee race here in Crested Butte.
Day two was a four-man team relay; day three was a pair’s race with 5,000 vertical feet of gain and raced in a similar fashion to the Grand Traverse, just much shorter.
After a day of rest, the event returned with an individual uphill race. The event concluded with a solo ski mountaineering long course complete with 9,000 vertical feet of climbing broken up over eight stages, some including boot packing. The final long event did not count in the overall standings.
Wickenhauser competed in the team relay, the two-person team race, the uphill and the final long course event.
Passant partook in the opening short course, the two-person team race and the final long course.
What they found, in addition to the equipment and historical advantages the Europeans have, was warm, sloppy conditions and courses set much differently from the ones the U.S. team has seen in North America.
"It’s a whole different race over there," says Passant. "They set such a low angle track for a lot of the uphills that it’s all about low angle kick and glide."
"Some days it was raining at the start," adds Wickenhauser. "It really made skin selection out there crucial and they’ve got it all figured out. I’m giving it all I got at the start and these guys are just gliding away like they’re on kick wax."
In the end, the U.S. team finished 14th overall out of 28 countries.
Passant teamed up with Cary Smith from Jackson, Wyoming to post the top result for the United States overall, taking 24th place in the two-person race.
Wickenhauser was the workhorse of the U.S. team, competing in four of the five events and finishing three of them in the top 40.
"We knew it was an uphill battle coming in," says Wickenhauser. "It was an eye-opener."
"I didn’t race that well," admits Passant. "Live and learn."
Passant believes there is still hope for the United States on the international ski mountaineering circuit, though. He just thinks there is untapped talent in this country that just needs to step up in time for the next Ski Mountaineering World Championships in Andorra in 2010.
"I think there are better athletes out there than me," says Passant. "They just need to show up. I think we can beat the Euros. Lance (Armstrong) did."