With a toque-topped DJ spinning tunes, sunshine beaming through intermittent clouds and honed and toned athletes wrapped tight in Lycra, the air of celebration was as contagious as spring fever at the 2011 Dogtooth Dash Canadian Ski Mountaineering Championships.
Thirty-five racers from as far as Edmonton, Calgary, Jasper, Whitehorse, Fernie, Kelowna and Whistler participated in the main event held at Golden's Kicking Horse Mountain Resort last weekend.
It included an entry level 7.3-kilomtre, 611-metre Poker course, a 10.2-kilometre, 1033-metre Enduro course, and the World Cup sanctioned Elite course.
Leading from the centre-stage Le Mans start, which showcased competitors running around the Eagle's Eye Valemount mountaintop restaurant, B.C.'s Reiner Thoni capped an impressive season with another win.
He'd already captured the U.S. Championships in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in February.
Thoni, 26, defended his Canadian title, blasting through the 1,590-metre, 14.3-kilometre Elite course in 2:09:40. Crossing the finish in second place was fellow national team member Andrew McNab from Revelstoke in 2:15:03, with third place going to course designer and national team member Ian Gale in 2:25:51.
Gale's finish was bittersweet, however, as Canada's top female, former Whistlerite, now living in Revelstoke, Melanie Bernier, bumped him by finishing third overall in 2:21:35. Fellow Canadian team members Julie Matteau of Revelstoke came second in 2:43:46 and Golden's Billie Velisek third, in 3:00:51.
"The first two climbs were hard for me," said Bernier, 29. "I knew it would be a long, hard course, but I kept reeling it in. Last year I came fourth behind Ian. It feels really good!"
Overseen by the Alpine Club of Canada's competitive ski mountaineering division, Elite category racers skinned up - wearing mandatory transceivers and carrying shovels and probes - and skied down all four of KHMR's alpine bowls. With even the Poker course including a well-set boot pack section (elite racers endured five boots packs) all racers had a chance to participate in the full "ski mo" experience of a sport that is slowly gaining traction in Canada.
"I just put the course in all the places I like to ski, and incorporated our new terrain - Super Bowl and Terminator 2," said Gale, also with KHMR's snow safety crew. "The nature of our terrain lends itself well to boot packing and technical ascending techniques. Most of the descents are black diamond descents."
For the members of Canada's team - whose national championships were hosted by Whistler Blackcomb until 2009 when Kicking Horse took the post - challenging courses on home mountains are essential training grounds for international level competitions. Benefiting from European hosted skills camps where they practice techniques such as stripping and reapplying their climbing skins as quickly as possible, Canada's racers are gaining ground on the World Cup stage.
Thoni and McNab finished 16th in the uber-competitive men's team event at the World Championships in Claut, Italy last month, while Bernier captured 5th in the women's sprint and finished 9th overall.
"This year's Canadian Championships was a good test for the Canadian team," said Whistler's Alex Wigley, a national team member who finished 8th. "Everyone was feeling strong from racing the World Championships. The Dogtooth Dash always provides a fantastic gruelling course with everything ski mountaineering should have. Whistler has a beautiful course as well, but made for distance racing. Both are fantastic; both are a great way to test racers' limits. Hopefully the Whistler Race should happen again next year. No matter the course, the level of competition has gone up so high that Canada is really gaining momentum on the World Cup."
To that end, this year's Canadian championships included four junior competitors, the most ever at a Canadian event. In Europe juniors compete internationally by the age of 14. Western Canada's eight-competition season was the largest yet.
But with a fast-paced team event on the Sunday and the local favourite Heavy Metal category the third annual Dogtooth Dash was as much fun as serious racing.
The Heavy Metal event saw Golden's Martin Lafontaine win the Enduro race, despite lugging 34 pounds worth of gear in 1:53:59, far ahead of Golden's Matt Kally who exhibited quads of titanium under 40.5 pounds of equipment to finish the Enduro race in last place at 2:57:42.
The event was indeed a celebration. How could it not be with smooth switchbacks on the recreational course, playing cards dealt out to Poker competitors and enthusiastic spectators cheering the nine teams racing in Sunday's event with cowbells from the mid-mountain Heaven's Door Yurt patio.
And all of this topped off with a stellar sunset viewed over the championship mountain top dinner.
"It's a good, well organized race at a great ski resort where they're really supportive of the sport," said Whistler's Dusan Kafka who used to work on the timing at the Whistler/Blackcomb ski mo competitions, and who finished 10th in the Elite race.
"We don't yet have the crowds they do at some of the U.S. events, but it's a really great winter activity."
For race results, visit www.kickinghorseresort.com