- By Nicholas Cunkelman
Sometimes hindsight exists on the finish line. At the bottom of Jackson Hole’s tram line, at the end of the 2011 US Ski Mountaineering Championships, Mark Smiley looked at his wife.
“I knew when you started out,” he said, “it was like, ‘She’s having a good day.’”
Janelle Smiley gave a laugh that summed up the race. “It started out nice,” said the 29-year old from Crested Butte, “and got worse.”
Indeed, with a cloudy and warm morning at 6,000 feet morphing into a gale at 10,000 feet, Saturday’s field of 90 racers—divided into “race” (ultra-light setups for skinning and bootpacking up Jackson’s legendary pitches), “heavy metal” (backcountry gear running the race course), “recreation” (a separate course on any gear) and 2-person relay (the race course on any gear)—surely felt the spectrum of Teton winter weather. Still, considering last year’s race was in March, the colder, wilder weather and better snow were not the only changes brought on by the shift to January.
“It brought more people here,” said Pete Swenson, director of the US Ski Mountaineering Association. “We wanted to make it that if you’re national champion it’s the middle of the winter. It makes it more relevant.”
And international. Reiner Thoni, 26, who won the men’s race division on a course that features bootpacks up both the headwall above Jackson’s gondola as well as up Corbet’s couloir, hails from Belmont, British Columbia. He trains on logging roads in his native Canada but in between makes sure to get all the fresh snow he can.
“On your low-intensity days,” he said at the base after covering the 8,000 vertical-foot course—one that might as well be called Jackson’s Greatest Hits—in a blistering 2:39.14, “you gotta keep yourself happy.”
Brandon French, from Kalispell, MT, finished just behind Thoni in a time of 2:40.04.
“We had a pretty big group to start and it just slowly dwindled and then by the finish it dropped down to about five,” said the newly-crowned 30-year old US national champion (Thoni’s Canadian, recall). “The wind at the summit was the toughest part. It was just cold on the face, the fingers were frozen.”
In fact, with the wind chill at the summit well below zero, several competitors were advised to cover up bare skin against frostbite. That same wind also visibly wind-loaded the cornice above Corbet’s in slow motion, but it didn’t change Smiley’s take.
“Those bootpack couloir things were super fun,” she said “Totally into those.” Smiley finished in 3:07.21 with second-place racer Sari Anderson from Carbondale, CO coming in at 3:08.45.
“Sari and I were just tagging it back and forth,” she said. “I’d pass her and she’d pass me. Finally there at the end I guess I took it. She was awesome. I stuck on her tail and hoped I’d get second. The last little skin was kinda a kick in the pants.”
At the awards ceremony, with well-earned pizza and beer fueling the post-race, Swenson made it clear this event was essentially the big bang for the newborn USSMA, which sells licenses and provides race insurance for competitions around the country.
“And we’d like to bring back the national series and maybe invite some Canadians; go up there if they stop beating us,” he joked.
As for Saturday, however, where the top three American men and women automatically qualify to go to worlds, Swenson could already see the future.
“This is the most competitive race we’ve ever had in North America, and getting more people at the event, its really rewarding,” he said. “Yeah, it was pretty junky, everyone was totally blown over. But it was awesome too.”
* Nick Cunkelman is a senior at Colby College in Waterville, ME who grew up skiing at Vermont’s Mad River Glen, a mere three-hour drive from his home in Acton, MA. His writing has appeared in The Colby Echo, The Jackson Hole News and Guide, and The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.