The 15th Annual Wasatch PowderKeg ski mountaineering race went off last weekend, and as far as I know, nobody got hurt, lost, died, or filed a lawsuit, but that has not always been the case. The early days of ski mountaineering (SkiMo) races in North America were a comedy of errors and I’m thrilled to see that the sport has not only survived, but thrived.
A few favorites…
One of the early PowderKegs took place right after a big storm while the resorts were doing avalanche control work in and around Alta, where the race started. Everyone was lined up and amped to go when suddenly a 105 howitzer went off with an impressive boom, which was mistaken as the starting gun. The race was on!
Being of Scottish descent, I thought it would be cool to start the race with howling pipes just as the sun was coming up. Apparently the guests at the Alta Lodge were no so psyched with the 7:00am wake-up call right outside their window.
Mystery First Place Finisher
The first year we held the PowderKeg as a World Cup event, we had no idea how fast the Euros were and assumed the course was going to take about 2 hours to complete. An hour and a half into the race, the finish line was still being set up when suddenly a lone Swiss skier named Rico skidded to a stop in the finish area with his arms raised. People looked at him for a minute before realizing… OH MY GOD – HE’S THE FIRST PLACE GUY! Nobody had a watch on him and the sound system wasn’t working yet, so we just kind of made up a finish time and told him to hang out for a few minutes, which he graciously did.
Pro Leisure Tour
The early PowderKegs always had midpoint cut off times to ensure the race didn’t drag on into the heat of the midday sun. During one of the World Cup PowderKegs, two European friends in their 60’s were told they had missed the cut-off and the race was over for them, to which they promptly replied “There is no such thing as a cut-off time in a World Cup event.” which was news to us. We found a race volunteer who was willing to hang out with them, sun bathe, eat lunch and finally ski to the end, where they became the World Champions in their age category.
As racing started to spread, not everyone understood there was a format to it and some of the early races involved beacon searches, answering questions and skills stations. At one event, the organizer rightfully said that breaking trail was part of backcountry skiing, and since there was about two feet of new snow, the racers would have to figure it out. The end result was that the entire pack stayed together on the ascents as it was such slow going, and then the skiers with the heaviest gear blew everyone away on the descents. On the final descent it was a complete madhouse and I think the entire field finished within about two minutes of each other.
People have always used the PowderKeg as an excuse to visit the Wasatch, do a race and then spend a few days touring. On the left in this photo is Andrea Grecco from Italy, Jeannie Wall, Guido G. (??), Greg Hill from Canada, Toti Bes from Catalonia, Adam Howard, unknown, Polly Samuels. Front row – unknown european racer, Andrew McLean, Leslie Ross and Susie.
When I was the PowderKeg course setter, I’d often go up a day ahead of time to break trail and set the flags so people could preview the course. On one occasion, I plugged in about 100 “pin flags” along the Patsy Marley ridgeline, only to find they were all missing on the day of the race. I figured some angry Wasatch local had plucked them out, but later the next summer found a bunch of them way down in the Grizzly Gulch area where they had been blown out by the wind. Ooops..!
Luckily this happened over in Italy during the 2005 World Cup Championships, but right in the middle of the Individual race, after probably 100 people had passed over the skin track, an entire in-bounds slope ripped out and buried an access road where a group of spectators had been just moments before. Nobody was hurt or buried.
The first climb of the very first PowderKeg finished with an ascent through the moguls on Sun Spot at the Alta Ski Resort before heading into Gunsight. Some people loved them and other hated them, but a few years later we decided to add moguls back in. This time however, they were steep, right out of the start and unfortunately frozen solid from the night before. There was no skin track per se through them and the entire field was still all together as racers zig-zagged randomly through the bumps. At some point, a few people fell and zipped through the entire group below them, taking out others in the process. One person, who happened to be a good friend, hurt her foot badly, but eventually everyone made it through and continued on. Wheesh.
Jordi Canals and his group of racers from Catalonia remain one of the true highlights and legacies of the PowderKeg race. They were the first to come over, the fastest and also some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.