Sunlight Mountain’s Heathen Challenge at leading edge of ski mountaineering | SummitDaily.com

Sunlight Mountain’s Heathen Challenge at leading edge of ski mountaineering

Competitors start to climb one of the hills at Sunlight Resort in the 2016 Heathen Challenge at Sunlight Mountain.

For the 10th year in a row, Sunlight Mountain on Saturday and Sunday will host the Heathen Challenge, but this year the ski mountaineering event will hold higher significance than just a local race. This year, the top finishers will earn a qualifying bid to the national race for a chance to compete in Europe as part of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering National Team.

The Heathen Challenge started 10 years ago under the vision of Pete Swenson, who used to run the Cosmic Ski series. Swenson was able to use Sunlight's runs as a course, creating the first competitive ski mountaineering race in Colorado — and possibly in the entire country.

Swenson previously raced in ski mountaineering events in Europe, where the sport has been popular for the last 50 years or so, and has now made its way to the U.S., where it has exploded in popularity.

"This sport is a no-brainer for anyone that likes to ski and hike, putting it all together," said Doug Stenclik, owner of Cripple Creek Backcountry in Carbondale. "All it takes is for someone to tell you about it and show you how it works while being able to do it in a safe environment.

"The race course takes all of that out of it, though. It shows you where to go, takes you on a really cool tour and there's plenty of people to do it with. But the sport has really reached this critical mass point where almost everyone knows someone that is going uphill, so it makes it way easier to get exposed to the sport."

With the 2017 edition of the Heathen holding such power as a qualifying event for the national race, Stenclik — the race director — and Sunlight Mountain are expecting about 150-200 competitors this year, not just locals, but athletes from across the country as well.

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"It's always been one of the better-attended races, but because it's a qualifier we're starting to see it pull in more of the elite athletes from across the country in a lot of different sports," Stenclik said.

Ski mountaineering in some form has been growing in popularity here in the Roaring Fork Valley for the last few years or so, with a growing group of people trekking up the mountain at night at Sunlight for a good aerobic workout before skiing back down.

The sport itself involves skiing up and down mountains, usually on groomed runs, with transitions in between to allow changes in gear setups. For most uphill sections, racers attach skins to the bottom of their skis to provide better traction before then removing the skins for the downhill portions. For some steep sections, racers put their skis on their backs and hike in their boots.

The sport and its equipment were developed from troop movements through the Alps during the world wars. Originally, ski mountaineering was recognized by the Winter Olympics following World War I as a an expedition sport, and in the coming years the sport is expecting to again become an Olympic sport.

The skis used are short and narrow in comparison to what most people use for downhill or backcountry skiing. The racing minimums for the sport are 160 centimeters in length for men, 150 centimeters in length for women and 65 millimeters wide underfoot for all competitors.

At Sunlight this year, the course will run mostly in the backcountry around the mountain, using the resort's Forest Service permit to go further outside of the resort itself.

Stenclik said the course will run up Williams Peak first before skiing down the Babbish Head Wall, which is a ridge that connects Williams Peak to Sunlight Mountain. From there, the course will then come up the back ridge of Sunlight Mountain, opposite of where the lifts come up, before then finishing at the Sunlight lodge.

In total, the course is 11 miles of terrain and has a climb of 5,500 feet, according to Stenclik.

The Heathen Challenge will start at 5:30 p.m. today with the sprint race, before wrapping up at 8:30 a.m. Sunday with the featured individual race.

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