Saturday Jan. 31, 7:30 a.m.: As the first rays of dawn light scatter across the sky, the B parking lot at Bridger Bowl, usually filled with the broken down Subaru’s of powder hounds, was instead crowded with slightly newer Subaru’s of randonee race aficionados. Over 50 aficionados gathered to test their grit at Bridger’s Skin-to-Win Randonee Rally.
Randonee racing, also known as ski-mountaineering, is a fringe sport that requires the power of a nordic ski racer, the technical skills of a ski mountaineer and the endurance of triathlete. Competitors ski uphill, using one-directional skins. When uphill travel becomes too steep to ski, they take off skis and hike to the top. Then the athletes ski downhill until the course turns around and heads up again. This is a relatively simple task before factoring in the hazards of mountain travel, which include cliffs, narrow ridgelines, foul weather, steep ice, less steep ice and malfunctioning gear.
On this Saturday, the inside of Jim Bridger lodge was dedicated to the preparation of the randonee race. Athletes cluttered the main room, attaching bibs and checking gear. Thousand dollar ski boots and skis weighing ounces littered the tables. Athletes taped the vents of their helmets to prevent escaping heat from fogging their goggles. They donned aerodynamic packs and checked the batteries in their avalanche transceivers. In the pro division, each racer likely had several thousand dollars invested in their ultra light setup. In the recreational division,
participants used their everyday backcountry ski setups or splitboards.
The weather was great for racing though the snow conditions were significantly less so. Racers had to ski chutes up to 50 degrees in steepness, including the entrance to Hidden Chute. This is challenging for an expert skier on normal alpine skis. On randonee skis and with tired legs, it is something akin to madness to navigate this terrain.
Icy conditions made for an exciting race. Some of the boot pack sections, especially the one through the top of Z-chute, presented no fall scenarios. The skiing portions were especially tricky. A snowboarder took a fall resulting in a dislocated shoulder, cutting his race abruptly short. Other racers reported losing skis and requiring the help of Bridger Ski Patrol, who were stationed strategically throughout the course, to retrieve them.
The winner of the pro division, Ben Parsons, climbed and skied over 5,000 feet of elevation in addition to traversing from the northern to southern boundary of the ski area, in just under two hours. The recreational race covered roughly half the distance and elevation change as the pro division. However, many of the recreational racers are on heavier setups, which provide their own challenge.
At the finish line racers cheered each other on. Unfortunately the race finish was an inaccessible location for the public. Although randonee racing may be the least spectator friendly sport ever created, these participants did not show up looking for fame and glory. They came for the personal challenge, to meet like-minded friends and of course, for the free beer. The awards ceremony was held in the bar area at Jim Bridger Lodge. Top finishers won all sorts of swag, including new skis and bindings. The atmosphere was relaxed; friends were made, pints drunk.