The 2008 Wasatch Powder
By Mitch Weber
Photos by Matt Law
March, 2008, Alta, Utah--Okay, I'll admit it... the
whole idea has always seemed kind of off to me. A backcountry
race? Somehow, to me, "backcountry" and "race"
are two words that don't seem like they belong together, you
know, like "crash landing" or "amicable divorce."
And I always have wondered why on earth skiers would want to
race each other in the backcountry anyway? What's up with
that? In the continuum of backcountry skiing, I'm pretty much
at the other end of the spectrum.
You see, in some thirty years
of doing this stuff, not once have I ever been in a big enough
hurry to even attempt to take my climbing skins off without getting
out of my skis.
And we always stop for lunch. Big
Tim didn't get to be Big Tim by eating PowerBars for lunch.
Buried in my pack somewhere is an
altimeter, not for tracking my vertical, but for emergency navigation.
Heart rate monitor? You've got to be kidding. Good bottle of
2008 Powder Keg Video
TeleVision rating: G... Length: 13:10
So when I first decided to head
to Utah earlier this month in order to check out the 2008 Black
Diamond Wastach Powder Keg race, I fully expected to feel like
the proverbial fish out of water, but I went anyway, reasoning
that it's my job, and that it really was about time that we checked
out this 5 year-old ski mountaineering race... the premier event
of its kind in our part of the world.
As it turned out, I was wrong in
my preconceived notions, having neglected to consider the one
true common denominator among skiers of every persuasion:
The universal pursuit of fun.
And when all was said and done,
the Powder Keg surprised me, turning out to be mostly about good
times and a positive backcountry vibe.
Of course there is a pretty serious
side to the competition, particularly for the top 10 or so competitors
in the Race Division categories, yet with well more than 100
entrants in the event, my impression was that 90% (or more) were
in it purely to have a fun and personally challenging experience.
As a result the vibe was also surprisingly mellow.
Race day began early. The day before
a localized snowstorm had dumped a foot or more of fresh powder,
and as is often the case in the Cottonwood Canyons of the Wasatch,
the road up to Alta was scheduled to be closed for avalanche
control work that morning. Everyone was required to be in the
lodge at Alta by 6:15 a.m., and to remain inside until "interlodge"
restrictions were lifted and the race could begin sometime shortly
after 8:00. The energy level was high inside the Goldminer's
Daughter lodge during this pre-race gathering as the competitors
prepared themselves for the race. Circulating through the crowd,
I enjoyed chatted with several entrants, including Polly McLean,
who last year raced while pregnant with Mira, she and husband
Andrew's little baby girl. This year Mira attended the Powder
Keg once again, and enjoyed the post-race view from the podium,
perched in a pack on Mom's back.
Once the race was underway things
began happening very quickly. I grabbed a few shots of the race
division competitors heading up below High Rustler, spent a few
minutes plotting video shooting locations, then took Alta's surface
lift "transfer tow" over to the area's Albion lift
side before making the short skin up to the course's third checkpoint.
All of this didn't take very long,
but by the time I got there the leaders were already coming down
"Gunsight," the first steep downhill of the race. A
few shockingly short minutes later the first of the racers were
already moving through the checkpoint and transitioning to skins
for the climb up to Patsy Marley. Five or six AT racers came
in ahead of the first tele skier and familiar (to me) face, Mark
Christopherson, a co-owner of Voile Equipment.
I couldn't help but notice that
unlike most everyone ahead of him, Mark's helmet clad head was
snow-free, the knee deep untracked powder on
Gunsight having proven to be rather challenging for many of the
leaders, equipped as they were with skinny skis (±65mm
In their rush many were seemingly
throwing themselves down slope, and some spectacular cart wheeling
took place, along with many first class diggers,
though none of this was slowing the racers down now as they put
on their skins and took off up the hill. Their blistering fast
pace thus far had been truly impressive to me, and remained so
throughout the rest of the race.
I stayed at Checkpoint Three for
a little while longer before beginning the skin up to my next
shooting location, an area known locally as "Michigan City,"
Checkpoints Five and Seven on the course map.
I cruised up alongside the course
in the company of another media type, and with Mark Lengel of
Ski Trab, a leading maker of skis designed especially for this
type of racing. Once up at Michigan City, it was great to have
Mark around, knowing the players and sharing his insight into
the competition. We had a fine view of the athletes as they skinned
up and skied down the loops in the course above Grizzly Gulch.
While here we watched as eventual
winner Brandon French sidestepped up to our position and headed
down the final descent to the flats leading to the finish line.
Not far behind was perennial race
favorite Pete Swenson, who blew by a recreational division racer
while I was shooting video, thus giving us a pretty cool reference
point indicating just how fast the leaders were moving. Swenson
crossed the finish line just 39 seconds after first place finisher
Brandon French, very close to the margin between them when they
went by our position in Michigan City.
I found out later that the eventual
finish order of the first five places in the AT Men's division
had essentially been determined in the first 15 minutes of the
race. This was the result of critical strategic moves that had
been made by the leaders right after Checkpoint Three, way back
on the second uphill pitch, underscoring the importance of a
fast start, allowing one to move up early and away from the rest
of the pack, thus avoiding the inevitable bottlenecks which occur
further back on the course.
Left, 16 year-old
Erica Sweigert atop the podium, and at right on top is Brandon
As he crossed by our position I was
surprised to see that Mark Christopherson had fallen back to
third place in the Tele Race Division, he had been moving so
fast last time we saw him. After the race we found out why: Mark
had lost a skin on the climb up to Patsy Marley and he reportedly
had to stop to dig around for it in the fresh powder, costing
him dearly. Chad Brackelsberg, one of Mark's training partners,
finished in second place in this division. After the race we
heard Chad talking about Mark's mishap: "I felt kind of
bad about passing my friend due his having had such an unlucky
equipment malfunction, but I just kept going." Someone in
the group then observed, "That's the difference between
a ski mountaineering race and a mountain bike competition, in
a bike race you wouldn't have felt bad at all, you probably would
have even smiled."
After leaving Michigan City, I skied
down to the finish to catch a few of the racers as they crossed
the line. Many were very tired, but most all of them were smiling
and happy to have completed the course. The awards ceremony took
place after lunch and a highlight was Andrew McLean's presentation
of the first ever "Hans Saari Award." McLean had announced
the night before at the athlete's meeting that the award would
go to the "most inspirational" of the young ski mountaineers
competing in the Powder Keg. Fittingly, the award was won by
the youngest competitor in the race, 16 year-old Erica Sweigert
of Victor, Idaho. Erica not only won the Hans Saari award, she
also won the Women's Recreational AT Division, and rather handily
at that, crossing the line more than 20 minutes ahead of the
second place finisher.
As the day wound down, racer Megan
Michelson, a media colleague and an editor at Skiing Magazine,
asked me about my "take away" from the event. At the
time I didn't really have a quick answer, and yet upon further
reflection I would have to say that I went from being 100% sure
before the race that this was something I would never ever consider
doing myself, to seriously thinking about taking a stab at participating
in the rec division next year.
Now don't get me wrong, I have no
illusions of greatness, and it was very clear to me that the
fast guys and gals in this race are amazing athletes who are
among the most fit in any sport. And to my eye even the most
casual of the rec racers tend to be fitness buffs as well.
Still, surprisingly, the Powder
Keg looked like a lot of fun, and worth the training time, especially
if one considers the side benefits of working out in the ideal
training venue for a race such as this one. What a great excuse
to spend more time in the backcountry early next season.
I had a blast at the Powder Keg
this year. It's a wonderful event staged in a fantastic setting.
And of course it didn't hurt that, according to at least one
Alta local, we experienced one of the ten best powder sessions
of the season the day before the race, and had another most excellent
one the day after
did I mention that I would like to go
back next year?
I guess the only question is this:
if I do race in 2009, will I be allowed to bring along a box
Hard at work: that's me filming
as Mark Christopherson heads down the home stretch to the finish
line. Photo: Mark Lengel