Earn your turns — it’s the mantra of a growing Alpine touring (AT) and ski mountaineering culture, those among us who elect to forgo the modern convenience of the chairlift to hike uphill before skiing down it. Whether it’s to get to the backcountry’s fresh lines or just for a morning workout in-bounds, the numbers are continuing to grow, according to SnowSports Industries America, the trade association that monitors trends in the ski industry. But in that culture there’s also a growing subset of even more rabid uphillers; the ones in it for competition. And every spring for the last 23 years they’ve been returning to the slopes at Breckenridge Ski Resort for a special kind of competition, the Imperial Challenge.
Part bike race, part uphill climb and Alpine downhill, the competition could best be described as a triathlon with a High Country twist.
“It’s a blend of winter to spring where you’re riding your bike and skiing in the same day,” race organizer Jeff Westcott said, calling it a “rite of spring” here in Summit County.
“It’s a Breckenridge tradition that people put on their calender,” he said.
Resort spokeswoman Kristen Petitt Stewart added, “ It’s a part of our culture here. As much as we love to downhill, there are plenty of us crazy enough to go up. This event embodies that spirit of athleticism.”
This year’s Imperial Challenge will take place Saturday, April 12. Registration is ongoing and will include day of registration for an additional charge.
The first leg of the competition starts with a 6.2-mile bike race from the Breckenridge Recreation Center to the Peak 8 base area, via back roads and past Peak 7. In addition to cycling, this year’s event will also feature a running option for the first part of the course.
“I’m excited that they added that element,” Petitt Stewart said. “I’m excited to see how those legs do.”
From the Peak 8 base area, competitors have a number of options. Those with touring setups will click in and start a 2,000 to 3,000 foot climb — depending on course selection — up Peak 8. Others may opt to snowshoe up the slope with skis or board strapped to a pack. Still others may opt for even simpler methods, Westcott said, also explaining that the competition typically features a broad range of abilities.
“You’ll have everything from the hardcore ski mountaineering crew to people carrying snowboards. It’s a great blending of different types of folks. It’s not just for the hardcore.”
The uphill portion features two course options. There will be a short course where athletes will turn around after reaching the top of the T-bar, and a long course that will summit Peak 8 at the top of the Imperial chairlift.
“To climb and summit Peak 8, there’s something special about it,” Westcott said of the draw to the competition. “Conquering that thing you look at every day is really cool.”
In its 23-year history, the race has seen many iterations. It first started as a run from the top of Chair 6 up and over the Imperial Bowl.
“This was well before a lift was up there,” Westcott said.
In later years the competition involved carrying full ski gear during the biking portion of the race.
Race organizers revived that spirit last year with a retro category that will return again this year.
“We’re getting back to our roots,” he said. “It was huge (last year). A couple people pedaled in their tele boots.”
Runners will have a 9:15 a.m. start, bikers will follow at 10 a.m. There will be a 12:30 p.m. cut-off time at the top of the T-Bar for the long course.
Registration information is available at www.mavsports.com.