About a Backpack: A Skimo Season Retrospective

Some people start skimo racing as cross training. Runners mostly, I think. Other people seem to do it because they think XC skiing is too easy, or they’re just masochists.

I got into it, at least in part, thanks to a backpack. If diving headfirst into a sport because of a piece of gear seems a little backwards, well, it is. What you have to realize though, is this isn’t just any pack.

It’s a faded, green Millet Race; beat to shit from doing things like bushwhacking, carrying regular size backcountry skis, and bushwhacking while carrying regular size backcountry skis. Trevor owned it first. On his back, it probably saw as many wild places as any ultralight race pack ever has – plus a handful of local skimo events.

Our first race together was at the 2016 Vert 180. The Vert 180 is an unusual race in several ways. First, it’s held in Calgary at Canada Olympic Park and it’s the Canda Cup season opener, so it’s a first skimo experience for many – myself included. Second, it’s heinous. The unusual format is, as far as I can tell, purpose designed to extract maximum suffering from each and every participant. I was no different and traded my ability to walk normally for a few days for a midpack finish on my regular steep skiing setup.

Apparently I enjoyed the experience, because a year later the backpack and I showed up for more – now with a shiny new pair of race skis in tow. The gear upgrade was enough to beat a mid race bonk, and 14 soul destroying laps of the park in the allotted three hours were good for 7th place this time around.

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Niall Conaty photo.

That bizarre little human powered NASCAR race was probably a bit of an insult to a pack of the Millet’s pedigree though, so shortly thereafter we made the trip to Castle Mountain; a race reportedly containing some real skiing. Running through gale force Southern Alberta winds along a proper alpine ridge, I started to see the point of this sport. On the steep, chalky first descent I caught myself having some legitimate type one fun. Then the second climb made me forget about it. 9th across the line in the end. 

A groomer grind at Fernie with great skiing on the descents followed. Each race I was chipping away at the gap between me and the leaders. I missed out on the Fernie sprint race’s final by a ski length thanks to a few too many buckles to fiddle with on my boots, which I decided wouldn’t do. So I attempted to buy myself some more speed with a proper race pair. 

At Panorama, they propelled me to 10th place in the vertical race: a format which suits exactly none of my strengths. The pack didn’t get to come on that one. Feeling left out, perhaps it was responsible for my bad luck in the individual race the day following, when I was beset by no less than 7 full skin failures. At least I hit the podium in the enduro style timed downhills.

You can’t buy skill, but you can buy tubes of Gold Label skin glue. A few weeks later at Marmot, the skins’ freshly reglued tails stayed firmly attached. So firmly, in fact, that I had a bit of trouble getting them off quickly, but I’d much rather sacrifice a few seconds there to literal hours dealing with failed skins. Steep skintracks and awful visibility on the descents made for challenging racing, but it was a good day for me. JM, a strong skier from Vancouver surged hard at me partway up the final climb. I managed to hold him off until the descent, at which point the race between us effectively ended. I know where my one strength in the sport lies, and I use it every chance I get. By holding off that surge I secured my first (and only) individual top 5 of the season.

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Before coming into my possession, Lake Louise’s Ken Jones Classic was one of only two races the pack had ever participated in. Trevor deemed it “really the only race within a few hours of Golden which is actually on terrain that’s worth a damn” and went on to note that “the rest you might as well use cross-country skis, if they were actually allowed”. Now I’m not entirely sure I agree with that, but there was no doubt that the Classic was going to be one of the season’s better courses. On top of that, it was also the Pan-American Championships, and with a number of strong Americans making the trek, the field was going to be unusually stacked. Riding the confidence from a good result at Marmot, I was stoked to be there.

I was markedly less stoked after the sprint race, but that was fine. An early exit left me both well rested and suitably pissed off for the individual.

When the gun sounded, the entirety of the field set a blistering pace up the initial groomer grind. I did my best to avoid any early chaos, knowing there would be infinite passing opportunities for the entirety of the climb. The herd thinned out, I settled into a rhythm, noticed I was feeling good and decided to attack. I pulled up 5 or 6 places and found JM, who, not enjoying his own strategy when it’s turned on him, matched my pace.

That would be the story of both our races. I’d open up a gap on each descent, which JM would do his level best to close on each climb. It wasn’t until the second last one, a long painful bootpack, that I managed to break his relentless attacks. He tried one more on the last, brutally flat climb up Larch, but I’d simply put in too much distance by then. We both played defence from there on out. I did make a token effort to catch the American who was in front of me on the long ski out descent to the finish, but it was no use. I’d been on his tails until the flats, but spotted him far too much time there to make it up.

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Yeah, I wore the suit. It’s just more comfortable, which equals faster. Casey Marshall photo.

I crossed the line close enough behind the winners that people seemed genuinely surprised to see me. I was just happy to feel like I’d begun to figure the sport out, and to discover that there was a table full of hot gatorade and cookies at the finish. I hung around the line to thank JM for such a great battle and congratulate more friends as they rolled in. After a while, I grabbed the old, green pack, snuck away up the bunny hill and looked out across the valley at the peak that inspired Trevor while he raced on this same course. The place where his story ended, so close to the place where I was now, in some small way, trying to keep his memory alive.

It’s not really about the pack anymore, although it’ll stay on my back until it disintegrates. Which may not take too much longer.

As usual, I’m dragging myself through the dog days of summer with dreams of big objectives, too many hours at work, the occasional day in the alpine and mind numbing training runs. For the first time in years, I’ve also got competitive goals to look forward to. Once a racer, always a racer it would seem.

I’ll next toe a meaningful start line at my third Vert 180 in December, and for some reason, I can’t wait.

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