The course was technical and "punchy," the athletes were focussed and fuelled up, and the spectators were highly impressed.
And just two hours, one minute and 19 seconds after the start, the winner of the 2013 Gore-Tex Dogtooth Dash Continental Ski Mountaineering Championships crossed the finish, having blazed up and down the 1,590-metre, 14.3-kilometre Elite course a full three minutes ahead of his nearest competitor.
A member of the U.S. National Ski Mountaineering Team, Scott Simmons, 41, said he'd wanted to race in Canada for years, and was thrilled his sponsor granted his wish by sending him to Golden for the event last month. The spectator-friendly Kicking Horse Mountain Resort course, designed by patroller Ian Gale, also a Canadian national skimo team member, did not disappoint.
"I really liked the course," said Simmons, of Durango Colorado. "The climbs are shorter than we're used to and that made for a dynamic race. This was a little more punchy. You couldn't just settle in for an hour; you had to be thinking a lot, ready for the next transition. It made the time go fast."
Simmons was followed by Vancouver's Eric Carter, 26, who, skiing independently finished in 2:04:14. Canmore's Peter Knight, 23, was the fastest Canadian national team member, taking third in 2:05:12. Squamish's Brad Schalles, 27, took fourth.
"It went awesome, it really felt good," Knight said. "I love this course; it's one of the best in Canada. You have to be on your game. There's lots of transitions. It's tough skiing."
Canadian team member Martha Burley, 40, won the women's Elite race in 2:47:41, followed by Calgary's Michelle Katchur Roberts, 29, who finished in 3:08:03 and Valemount's Karen McKirdy, 26, in 3:22:05.
For Fernie's Burley, the win was extra sweet since two years ago she was stopped in her quest to ski the Elite course at the Dogtooth Dash because she was too slow, and had to settle for the 1,033-metre Enduro course. She considers all her skimo races as training for the 2014 Patrouille de Glaciers, billed as the "toughest mountain race in the world." Organized by the Swiss Army every two years, the 55-kilometre event involves 1,500 teams of three (military and civilian) climbing some 5,300 metres and descending 6,400 metres across the Alps. The record time is five hours and 52 minutes.
Tracing its roots back to WWII military training exercises, competitive ski mountaineering has been gaining popularity in Europe for decades. Skiers race uphill using climbing skins, then strip them off to ski down. Avalanche transceivers, shovels, probes and daypacks are mandatory; serious racers sport Lycra and gear as light as cross-country skiing equipment. The DTD course included several bootpack sections where competitors hiked up steep gullies and along narrow alpine ridges carrying their skis. The Canadian governing body, the Alpine Club of Canada, has joined international lobbying for Olympic inclusion.
At the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships in France in February, Knight and Schalles posted the best results yet for Canadian men since the first Worlds in 2002.
"We were the rookies. It was great to see how fast the Europeans are, it gives us something to shoot for," Schalles said. "Now we know some of the things we need to do to get there."
With weekly World Cup events, Europe provides the best training available for sport-specific skills, such as uphill/downhill transitions. Several Canadian team members, including defending national champs Melanie Bernier from Revelstoke and Valemount's Reiner Thoni spent their winter racing in France, resulting in Bernier being ranked 10th in the world.
Interestingly though, efforts to grow skimo in Canada are not focussed on backcountry skiers, but on competitive runners, cyclists and mountain bikers seeking to stay fit through winter.
"Most backcountry ski tourers don't have the 'competitive heart,'" said Canadian team member Stano Faban, who grew up with skimo in Slovakia. "We're drawing from athletes who are already attracted to competitive sports. If they get powder on Wednesday, they'll still come race."
Steadily growing its competitive ability, this winter Canada hosted six events, with the Dogtooth Dash being a crowd favourite. Beginning at the spectator-friendly hour of noon with an exciting Le Mans start, competitors raced around the Eagle's Eye Restaurant before launching into Crystal Bowl. Categories included Recreational, Enduro and Elite, as well as Junior, with a sprint relay the second day. The fifth annual DTD — hosting its first N.A. championships — drew competitors from Colorado, Squamish, Smithers and Whitefish, Montana.
To grow the sport, a junior program is imperative, Faban said; ours consists of Port Coquitlam's Katarina Kuba, 18, and 17-year-old Martin Charnogursky from Vancouver.
"I started downhill skiing when I was five at Mount Seymour," Charnogursky said. "I outgrew the bunny hill and progressed to skiing Whistler. This is the next step. It's you and the mountain; you're really experiencing skiing to the fullest."