SkiMo is neither.

In From the Range of Light & Fast by Howie Schwartz15 Comments

 

If you appreciate words, like I do, you may on occasion grieve the loss of them. Our culture changes and so too does our language. Handheld communication devices incentivize us to seek to conserve increasingly in demand stores of linguistic energy to create more time in our lives. We are quick to embrace language shortcuts like lol, lmfao, and cul8r. These abbreviated sentences, when used effectively, can save valuable seconds that grow to minutes, that add up to hours, days, weeks, and even months over a lifetime. I think we can all agree that no group of people is in a bigger voluntary rush to get from point A to point B than those competing in a race. Fierce competitors can’t be bothered to say it all out: ski mount-ain-eer-in-g. By saying, reading, and thinking “skimo” (one word, 2 syllables) an athlete may save loads of time and energy that can be used to spray on social media, pursue sponsorships, upload exciting POV footage, take an ice bath, depilate appendages, or even train.

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Wilhelm von Arlt

The problem here is semantics (Or shall we say ski-mantics? No, you’re right, we shan’t.). “Skimo” is a shortened term for “ski mountaineering,” a practice that has existed for well over a century. You can find various chronologies of ski mountaineering history on the internet (largely skewed to the preferences and priorities of the armchair historians that produce them). The first ski of a peak above 3000m was by German ski mountaineer Wilhelm von Arlt in 1894. Early 20th century skier and mountaineer Arnold Lunn, founder of the Oxford University Mountaineering Ski Club and the Alpine Ski Club wrote, “ski mountaineering is the marriage of two great sports, mountaineering and skiing.

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A race would be incompatible with an activity like this.

The spirit of mountaineering (also known as “alpinism”) follows the idea of climbing with the objective of getting somewhere, generally to a high point or summit and descending, using skills, knowledge, fortitude, resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and often teamwork to overcome adversity and uncertain outcomes, to manage risk and gain the rewards that the mountains have to offer.

Sir Arnold Lunn

Sir Arnold Lunn

There is an element of romanticism and adventure in alpinism that harkens of the spiritual, if not the religious. This spirit is integral to ski mountaineering. The primary rewards of the ski mountaineering experience are related to the activity of skiing, particularly downhill, where, for the initiated, skis (or snowboards) become a remarkable tool for simultaneously: 1) reducing risk, 2) increasing efficiency, and 3) adding enjoyment. The effects of skis and snowboards on all 3 of these prime directives of mountain travel are profound and arguably unsurpassed by any other piece of mountain equipment. Ski touring and other types of backcountry skiing share many characteristics with ski mountaineering. The main difference is that ski mountaineering demands the use of mountaineering safety equipment such as a harness, rope, ice axe, or crampons, to protect from the risk of falling, and that there may be a compelling desire to arrive at a summit or otherwise defined high point.

Consensus also suggests that ski mountaineering is largely human powered. Mechanized access vehicles like lifts, snowcats, snowmobiles, airplanes, and helicopters need to be left far enough behind that the outing contains a significant element of self-propelled mountain travel beyond simply descending on skis. An element of self-sufficiency/self-reliance, which implies remoteness or inaccessibility, is required in true mountaineering. It is up to individuals to make their own decisions about risk in the terrain, and to act in the event of an error or mishap. This is what distinguishes alpinism and ski mountaineering from the activities of climbing and skiing, which may be practiced in developed, controlled environments like crags, gyms, and ski resorts.

If ski mountaineering is savoring a snifter of single malt, then skimo is shotgunning a six-pack of Schaefer.

Arnold Lunn was later knighted after inventing the slalom ski race in 1922 and a career as an international skiing ambassador. He was one of the prime promoters of skiing as an Olympic sport, still he remained a ski mountaineer at heart: “I am by no means sorry that it is only piste competitions which are eligible for Olympic medal rewards, and that the mastery of real ski-ing on natural snow, with its exacting demands on the mind no less than the body, remains the monopoly of those for whom ski-ing is its own reward.”  Due largely to the efforts of the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF), ski mountaineering is on track to being included in the 2018 Olympics. There will be a piste (a track groomed by machine or human), as the competition must be sporting and on a level playing field for all, so Lunn’s assessment holds today.

In the early 90’s, these up/down mountain ski races were starting to gain traction. Alpine touring gear was getting lighter thanks largely to one company, Dynafit, that invented a way to revolutionize the Alpine Touring binding using integrated boot design. During WWII the Swiss military developed a training course through the rugged, glaciated mountains between Zermatt and Verbier as a test of skill and fortitude. After being dismantled due to a number of fatalities, the “Patrouille des Glaciers” ski race was brought back in a more controlled way for the public in in 1984.

Other similar races soon cropped up as well, in the Alps and elsewhere, including here in the US, generally using terrain within ski resorts. In the 90’s and into the early 2000’s these races in the US were called “randonnée races” or “randonnée rallies” the name used by Dynafit and Life-link, two manufacturers on the forefront of making equipment used in these events which were already popular in Europe. The French word randonnée is a mouthful for us here in ‘Merica, and around that time french fries were being called “freedom fries,” so some took to calling them “rando races” That term apparently wasn’t catchy enough. The industry and the racers themselves saw an opportunity to grow the sport, one in which lightweight gear that costs less to make can be sold for higher prices.

SkiMo in action at the classic Patrouille Des Glaciers

SkiMo in action at the classic Patrouille Des Glaciers

Rando racing was re-branded as “ski mountaineering.” “Skimo” was a natural abbreviation of the term.  Nobody really seemed to notice (or care) that the activity of ski mountaineering was being effectively displaced from its namesake by a burgeoning international competitive sport that bears only superficial resemblance.

Dynafit's modern $2500 "ski running" boot.

Dynafit’s modern ultralight skimo boot, which they refer to as, “first choice among ski touring ski runners,” hangs a $2500 price tag.

Retaining the term may be futile for ski mountaineering at this point. Skimo racing has grown close to 1000% at the elite level in the past decade, and is growing at the amateur race level as well. All backcountry ski touring is likely growing as well, based on overall sales of backcountry ski and lightweight alpine climbing gear. Snowsports Industries America reports that sales of AT ski boots are up 27% in units sold (93,000 totaling $37M) over last year. But the skills, knowledge, and experience required to become a true ski mountaineer will remain a barrier to entry. Skimo allows anyone with the legs, the lungs, the gear, and a little bit of skiing skill to get started and have success with it. If the skimo branding has helped to grow the sport, then ski mountaineering is likely going to have to move over and share it.

As we make this concession though, let’s all openly recognize that, beyond the use of similar equipment technology and the physical effects of gravity, skimo involves virtually no ski mountaineering whatsoever.

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Utah Ski Mountaineering (or as they call it, “UT SkiMo”) has nothing to do with the activities of backcountry skiing or ski mountaineering, though they freely capitalize on the images that those endeavors evoke.

Skimo occurs in a controlled mountain environment with preset and well-marked courses, groomed tracks, avalanche hazard management, aid stations, and support crews. Remoteness and self-sufficiency are largely removed from the equation. The social, competitive, and athletic aspects are more integral to the experience than are solitude or mountain adventure. They are a winter version of an endurance trail running race event, not an extension of backcountry ski touring or alpinism. This may be why many competitive long distance trail runners are taking to skimo.

Start of the UTMB summer trail race

Start of the UTMB summer trail race

Trail running races are exploding in popularity worldwide. The Ultra Trail Mont Blanc this year had around 10,000 participants in its race events. At this convergence stands Killian Jornet. One of the most gifted trail endurance runners of our time is also an elite skimo racer. He grew up in the mountains and has been a skier, runner, and alpinist for most of his life. Killian has shown that skimo racing is complimentary to competitive trail running in many ways for the year round outdoor endurance athlete, and many people have been inspired to follow his example.

kilianjornet

Killian Jornet

To further cloud the distinction is that AT ski gear keeps getting lighter yet higher performance for both ascent and descent. This allows skimo gear to be used in more ski mountaineering pursuits. As Lowell Skoog pointed out in IFMGA guide Martin Volken’s Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering (2007, before the term skimo emerged), “Since the 1990’s nordic and alpine touring have converged. Nordic equipment has become more downhill-capable and alpine equipment has become more touring friendly.” There is a full spectrum of ski touring gear out there today for every variant of backcountry skiing that can be displayed in an internet video, but it will always be the underlying motivation, spirit, and nature of the tour that defines ski mountaineering, not just the equipment type used.

Though the ethos of a race course contradicts that of a ski mountaineering objective in many ways, there are a handful of race events that manage to find a balance. The gold standard is represented by the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic (AMWSC) a team ski race that basically gets announced by word of mouth without any established race organization. The race has a start and a finish line. There is no outside support allowed, travel must be human powered, there is no race infrastructure, LNT practices must be followed, rescue is self-administered, and teams must carry some form

Alaska ski mountaineering

Alaska ski mountaineering

of satellite communicator. Other than that, racers may go any way and by any method they choose and the race usually lasts from a few to several days. This is ski mountaineering racing more than skimo can ever be, but it is notable that the racers do not refer to it as a ski mountaineering race or a skimo race. It is, purely, a race.

The Elk Mountains Grand Traverse is a Colorado race from Crested Butte to Aspen is one that incorporates more of the spirit of mountaineering. Inspired by the Patrouille des Glaciers, it has doubled in participation over the last decade. Racers must be self-sufficient in this race, but there is a snow safety team and routesetters. Racers must carry a list of gear that includes minimalist bivouac kit, stove/fuel, avalanche rescue gear, first aid, navigation kit, satellite communication, and more. Though not nearly a purist race like the AMWSC, Grand Traverse race organizers astutely avoid describing this race as a skimo event. It is certainly more closely related to ski mountaineering than any world cup level skimo race.

It is ironic that the High Sierra is simultaneously a mecca for ski mountaineering and completely inhospitable to skimo racing. Race events cannot be conducted in federally designated wilderness, and here we have tons of it. June Mountain hosted such a race in bounds a decade ago, but it quickly derailed. The 2010 wilderness additions between Mammoth and June Mountains have ruled out the potential for a race between the resorts that some have dreamed of. There was more recently an organized effort to host a race in the Sherwins near Mammoth Lakes, which would have been interesting, but a couple years of record drought cancelled it.

I mean no offense against skimo as a valid sport. I have participated in races myself and can attest that they are both loads of fun and soul crushing, in only the best of ways. And I look forward to watching drugged up 20 year olds set world records in the Olympics alongside Jamaican bobsledders and dizzy flying tomatoes on snowboards.

We'll likely never see a skimo race here.

We’ll likely never see a skimo race here.

I speak out here in defense of ski mountaineering, the term and the activity it represents. For myself, and many others, it is a sublime recreational experience that deserves its own separate distinction. It has become an emotional and spiritual cornerstone of my personal existence and I am grateful for the pioneers of terrain, technique, and equipment that have made it all possible. Its legacy has been somewhat tarnished by the industry as it invokes its namesake and imagery to attract racers, raise funding, sell tickets, and move product. I’ll be happy to sign up for well-organized ski races when the opportunity and inspiration come around, but you won’t hear me call it “ski mountaineering,” and if  the term “skimo” passes across my lips with nary a trace of sarcasm then do feel free to slap me across the mouth. That will be my insignificant micro-protest. Because in spite of what skimo may pretend to be, and the mountain terrain it may tame for its itineraries, it is decidedly more nordic than it is alpine (nordic = not “real ski-ing”), and we have sufficiently established that it is most certainly not “mountaineering.” Thus, we pundits can revel, from far below the podium, upon the jagged winter peaks and untracked open slopes, smiling faces covered with cold pixie dust, that skimo – is neither.

 

Interested in learning more about ski mountaineering? Let us show you!

photo by John Dittli

photo by John Dittli

Comments

  1. Yes,
    I 80% agree with Howie:
    -ski-mo = short for Skimountaineering.
    -Ski-mo races are NOT mountaineering. In summer, no one would say they are going “mountaineering” if they are simply walking up and down the mountain. The term “mountaineering”, even to the lay public, conjures up glaciers, rock faces, ropes and technical gear.
    -That doesn’t mean “skimo” racing isn’t a great sport
    -It also doesn’t mean techniques, gear and tactics from that sport can’t be used in legit mountaineering outings

    -Nordic = skiing: Most obviously it is done on skis. That should pretty much take care of it. But in case you want more, it is of course the oldest form of skiing. I agree that it is NOT the same as alpine skiing. Just as dowhill MTB and velodrome riding are both biking, but obviously not the same.

    1. Author

      Right on Slim. It looks like you agree closer to 90-95%. 🙂

      It’s a toungue-in-cheek assertion to be sure, but Nordic skiing is certainly a different version of skiing than the variations of downhill skiing. I was making the distinction beyond the broad definition that one is skiing as long as one wears skis on their feet, akin to the outdated comedic notion that “sport climbing is neither.” We know that in sport climbing, one climbs against gravity, and ergo it is by definition a form of climbing (with climbing now in the Olympics it is perhaps a legit sport as well). That saying was just a tribal slag by traditional climbers on Lycra wearing rap bolters of the 1980’s, many of which happily clip bolts on sport climbs to this day. Skimo as an enterprise seems to deserve a bit of similar retribution for colonializing then contracting the name, for which an existing practice already has existed in most glorious form, for the purpose of capitalistic gain (marketed as some “extreme” deconstruction of ski touring, Nordic ski racing, and winter ultra-racing). Clearly, those who invented the term were not enthusiastic ski mountaineers, or mountaineers, themselves.

      I think Skimo can simultaneously seem to exist as both a worthy and shameful endeavor, depending on perspective. I raced the new skimo race course on Mammoth Mountain this past spring and had a damn good time, even using real ski mountaineering gear! Cheers, Howie

  2. With 25 years of alpine ski racing, ski mountaineering and climbing in my background, I just finished my first skimo race. 300 minutes of cross country skiing and 5 minutes of downhill skiing. There was no need for any ski mountaineering equip other than climbing skins. I respect these (rando/x country ski races) but how anyone with any ski mountaineering and ski racing background could call that a ski mountaineering race is a huge stretch . If a mountaineering (climbing and descending terrain requiring technical skill and equipment) section were in that race, over half of the participants would not finish and most of the top competitors would have a huge brown stain down that back of their spandex one piece suits.

    Nonetheless, it’s a great sport and contributes to the evolution of having fun in the mtn’s. It just sad that it’s hi jacking a name of something it’s not. That’s a disgrace and insult to the mountaineers who have lost their lives mountaineering and also a con to the people who are entering the sport.

    1. Author

      Totally Alex. You get the premise of the article. It IS a great sport. Some people may take issue with the title of the article here which is meant as an allusion to the funny (I think) phrase “sport climbing is neither.” (Obviously, sport climbing is climbing by definition, but distinct from other forms of climbing that some people may find to be more “legit.” I personally love to sport climb as well, but I see the distinction. Fortunately, we have the term “sport climbing” to distinguish it from other types of climbing). With “skimo” we endure a coopted term that causes confusion and displaces an entire segment of what can be defined as skiing. Yes, one can technically argue that doing anything with skis on feet can be defined as “skiing,” in the broadest sense. In this context, however, ski mountaineering is clearly in the family of skiing that incorporates downhill mountain glisse into the experience on a significant level. Nordic, or X-C skiing, involves getting around on skis, but need not take place in the mountains at all. The subtle argument here is that in most cases, “skimo” is more an extension of nordic racing than of ski mountaineering, as it lacks some of the critical aspects of what can appropriately be called mountaineering or ski mountaineering. Therefore, the name for the sport is misleading as you point out and I agree that the willful (or accidental?) ignorance of those who have quite recently adopted the name “ski mountaineering racing” or “skimo” to describe and promote the sport is something of a disgrace. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Author

    Good point Alex. Alpinism started in the Alps, where it was done exclusively for many years before the same tools and techniques were brought to other ranges for conducting the very same activity outside of the Alps. It is generally accepted that the word alpinism now applies accurately to the activity conducted in any high mountain range, but it remains that alpinism in the Alps is quintessentially alpine, and seems to be a standard for comparison.

    Interesting to ponder too because it seems that the word alpinism has sometimes, more recently, been applied to describe climbing pursuits like climbing El Cap or desert towers or even sea cliffs While these may be grand, adventurous, or scenic in similar ways to climbing high mountains, they are quite far from ‘alpine’ in character. Some climbers argue that it is not alpine unless you are using crampons. I don’t personally take the interpretation that far. In my mind, I reference the origin of alpinism and the alpine biome, which in the mountains is generally devoid of trees and large shrubs due to the altitude and/or mountain topography. Not all of the alpine is covered with snow or ice, so I think you can still engage in alpinism in approach shoes in certain places.

  4. Since we are discussing the importance of words:
    Alpinist = climber of the alps (if you are not in the alps, you are technically not an alpinist and are not practicing alpinism – only imitating)
    Yet the meaning of the word has changed over time…

  5. Author

    Thanks for the good words Scott! One of my favorites, I believe said by Doug Robinson: “Only from the extremes of comfort and leisure do we return again willingly to adversity.”

  6. Really loved this little write-up. Although I’ve been trending more toward the “randonee racing” end of the spectrum in the past couple of years, I have a lot of respect for the distance and difference between, say, Rod Newcomb skiing the Grand Teton and little ol’ me racing up and down a ski resort or “side-country” course while Lycra-clad Scarpa Alien-wearers whiz in all directions. And you really hit the nail on the head about competitive randonee events being “winter versions of endurance trail race events.” In form, that’s exactly what they are; what’s more, the comparison is especially apt, because trail running is accessible to a wide swath of the road running population, and inbounds randonee races are pretty accessible to any damn fool (aka myself) who can put on a pair of skins and take ’em off at the top of the hill. Hence the burgeoning popularity. And, maybe, some of those folks who have gotten into running on trails in the past few years will someday learn some mountaineering skills and go out to test themselves (safely, one hopes!) on the Teton Grand Traverse, Nolan’s 14, Sierra High Route, etc. etc. And, maybe those spandex clad racers will decide they want to ski around a massif in Pakistan a la Ned Gillette and Rick Ridgeway…

    One could ask all sorts of questions about the “meaning” of skimo racing’s popularity on stuff like mountain safety standards, use of beacons, attitudes around search-and-rescue in alpine terrain, and so forth. For me, the question might be more philosophical…I’m reminded of a certain pioneering mountaineer back here in NH, who is quoted in Guy and Laura Waterman’s wonderful book Wilderness Ethics say that one must prolong the “luxury” of the mountain experience by whatever recourse necessary, so as not to defer to ease, convenience, speed, or some other bugbear. (I’m aggressively paraphrasing…apologies.) Anyhow, I do hope that everyone finds a wonderful, luxuriant, safe place in the mountains, whether that’s skiing the PdG or Pierre Menta, ripping power days in the San Juans, or just schussing up their local hills. Cheers!

  7. While I appreciate your position, certain “real” ski mountaineering feats would not have been possible without the adoption of skimo tactics: Dorais, Dorais, Inouye Grand Teton ski record. Yes they used crampons and real ice tools while very much racing.

    Lifelong curious mountaineers and alpinists will always be open to new techniques that will advance their practice. Imagine you were writing an article, ten years ago, proclaiming the uselessness of adopting leashless for mixed and ice. Curious alpinists would go try the leashless out for their own take.

    1. Author

      Totally agree with you Nate, particularly regarding feats where uphill speed has been key. I wholeheartedly support the part of the industry that is dedicated to making gear lighter and perform better both for competitions and the mountains. And really I do think the sport they are calling skimo is a wonderful thing that I fully support and participate in on rare occasion. Where I do take issue is that these race event organizers, participants, and the industry at large has taken to calling it ‘ski mountaineering.’ This suggests that possibly they are trying to evoke the image of the activity of ski mountaineering as a marketing device, or that they don’t understand that ski mountaineering existed long before these races and continues to be very different from what they are using the term to describe. I suspect we all would raise an eyebrow if the Piolet D’Or were given to the winner of an ice climbing competition for a single pitch of hard climbing, and the organizers started calling what they are doing with leashless tools and fruit boots alpine climbing or mountaineering. Fortunately, we have the term ice climbing, which though it sometimes does approach alpinism in its nature, and there is striking similarity in many of the tools used, we can distinguish that an ice climbing competition is very different from alpinism on the whole.

      1. Clearly you misunderstood me. I must have not been clear about the leashless similie. Alpinists of all stripes have taken the leashless tools from the icy Eastern Block comps to the alpine. Ski mountaineers where I live, in the Wasatch, Canada and across the alps (See Ueli Steck) are adopting skimo gear and tactics to make the climbing/snow travel aspect of winter mountaineering lighter and faster. This has been and will always be one of the top priorities in alpinism. I thank skimo for advancing my alpinism and I thank skimo for the improvement of ski mountaineering gear: see tech bindings and ski boots that have articulating ankle joints. I get that you are trying to be funny or something but calling out huge segments of the greater ski world (xc skiing/skimo)as being somehow invalid is just silly and misguided. Carry on.

        1. Author

          Will do, but I think you are confusing skimo racing with ski mountaineering, as many are, which ironically is the point of this post. Read carefully to see that I don’t invalidate skimo racing at all, and actually say the opposite. I am just attempting to clarify the term ‘ski mountaineering’ which now has a confused meaning after being adopted and mainstreamed by a growing competitive ski sport. Your response is a case in point.

  8. “The problem here is semantics”
    “The spirit of mountaineering (also known as “alpinism”)”

    Wait… what?!?

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