At its April conclave in Belek, Turkey, the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee granted provisional recognition to the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF) for the possible inclusion of skimo as an Olympic event: As early as the 2022 Games we could see not just more Spandex and snot but improbably stripped-down AT bindings, backpacks that weigh less than a bra, dental floss harnesses and high-mountain suffering.
Skimo (formerly known as rando-racing) is huge in Europe where there are hundreds of races a year (see a calendar of all races worldwide, here). But in North America, skimo is still the outer limits of what is already a niche sport. And really, should North American backcountry skiers give a huff?Well, consider mountain biking in the late ’80s: It was seven years after the National Off-Road Bicycling Association (NORBA) held the first National Championships in America that the International Cycling Union recognized the sport and hosted the first World Championships. The bikes? No shocks rear OR front. No clipless pedals. Clumsy thumb actuated friction shifters. Race bikes weighed 30 pounds. That was 1990, the same year the IOC granted recognition to mountain bike racing, which would ultimately wind up in the ’96 Atlanta Games.
The co-designer of that Olympic course was Mountain Bike Hall of Famer Dave Wiens, whose most recent claim to fame is outdueling Lance Armstrong in Colorado’s Leadville 100. Wiens now runs Western State Colorado University’s Mountain Sports program, itself comprised of freeskiing and mountain bike racing among other, more traditional winter sports like alpine and cross country skiing. (Recently, several of his athletes took up skimo.)
Niche or not, when a sport makes it to the Olympics, things change. According to Wiens, there were explosive gear improvements in the run up to Atlanta. “The prospect of Olympic racing really drove technology,” he says of the early years. Manufacturers saw early on the potential value of getting their products and athletes onto the biggest stage, and how that presence might impact the bottom line. “It takes a couple years of racing and then that technology trickles down to everybody. Light and durable is the name of the game in XC and endurance mountain bike racing. It’s also the name of the game in skimo. Racers can test the durability of products because they use their equipment the most and the hardest, and they also have the most knowledge of the sport.”“The racer needs the lightest of the lightest boots that ski well,” he continues. “The consumer needs a pretty light boot that skis well. Most of the riders racing the Growler here (in Gunnison, Colo.), they’re not racing on an 18-pound World Cup race bike because of the price tag, but they’re racing on a 21-pound bike. [Manufacturers] took that 18 pound technology and put it in a more affordable package.”
Without going deep into the history of backcountry skiing, let’s first agree that while light has always been important, it’s been trumped until very recently in favor of mass-market, high-performance product that appeals to traditional alpine skiers.
Only a few years ago, the move in backcountry was toward bigger and more powerful resort-inspired boots—boots that the mainstream would understand. Black Diamond and K2 both launched offerings squarely in the middle of the sidecountry market with their Factor and Pinnacle models, which matched well with Marker’s behemoth Duke binding. Yet, it’s the skimo-inspired Dynafit TLT boot series with its own simple, easy mode change that includes some of the best-selling recreational AT boots in the world. And Dynafit’s competitors are taking note.
I was at the Scarpa factory in Asolo, Italy a few days after the IOC met in Turkey. The announcement prompted me to ask how much of Scarpa’s involvement in skimo racing influences a boot we will see in the U.S. One, say, which would actually appeal to anyone outside of the Spandex set. It was a soft pitch: I was thinking specifically of the new F1 Evo which will be available this winter and in which I’d skied a day on Vail Pass in January. The boot features what could be a game-changing walk/ski mechanism: Rather than actuating the mode switch with your hand, the boot automatically goes into ski mode when you step into your Dynafit or other tech binding. And, intuitively, when you step out, you’re back into walk mode. It’s got a Boa closure system over the instep that can be set for the day with little or no futzing, resulting, as I experienced, in a full day free of bending over to adjust the boot.
“The inspiration for one of the key features of the new F1 Evo comes directly from the race world,” Scarpa’s winter product manager Massimo Pellizzer says of the walk/ski function. “During the last several years our R&D team attended many races and explored every single action of the racers. During the transition from the ski to walk mode, and the opposite, all racers had to bend for closing the rear buckle installed on the cuff and this knee-bend many times [would] give cramps. [So, to] develop a product for the race gives us always the inspiration for the recreational product.”
And the sport will continue to change as a result of this technology. As with mountain biking, the gains in efficiency will change the objectives. This gear has prompted an explosion in speed attempts on some of the most classic lines in the world. The other end of this spectrum can be witnessed at New Hampshire’s Tuckerman Ravine. Those in the know are walking the several mile approach not in hiking boots (with their alpine boots in their bindings on their packs) but in ski boots from Dynafit, Scarpa and La Sportiva. Then they’re banging out a half dozen Headwall laps on their carbon skis.
For former U.S. National Skimo Team member Bryan Wickenhauser, the race-inspired gear that’s now selling so well simply reflects a bigger growing trend in the sport: Going farther, faster. Or, shorter and really faster. And when you can session quick vertical, away from the crowds, you can do things like have a job and a family while experiencing the mountains and getting and keeping fit.
“As skiers realize they want to push their game in the mountains a little bit they realize this high-end race gear can actually sustain a good beating and ski quite well up and down,” Wickenhauser says. “They can start attaining those objectives that are farther and farther away from the trailhead. It opens up the whole sport.”