As skimo booms, Colorado athletes qualify for World Championships in Italy on Feb. 23 | SummitDaily.com

As skimo booms, Colorado athletes qualify for World Championships in Italy on Feb. 23

With two skiers standing between Teague Holmes and a spot on the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Team, he tucked, prayed and pointed it. Before long, the Summit County local was cruising at nearly 60 miles per hour on skis no wider than an iPhone.

"I just could not get going that entire first climb," said Holmes, who was one of more than 150 competitors at the Heathen Challenge skimo race outside of Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs on Jan. 15. "I was so far behind, but I didn't let it get to me. I said to myself, 'Just do what you do.'"

And so he did. Holmes, a member of the U.S. team in 2015 who calls the peaks of Breckenridge his gym and playground, knew that his descending skills were better than the final two guys he needed to pass: Rob Krar, an elite ultra-runner originally from the Canadian Rockies who has set records at the Leadville 100, and Rory Kelly, a former pro road cyclist from Boulder who grew up in Snowmass and has lungs like airbags.

After that brutal first climb, though, Holmes was about 20 spots away from a qualifying position in an 11-mile race with 5,500 feet of vertical gain. And so, after passing one person, then another, then another in the middle stretch, Holmes came to a final descent on "the Heathen" — the event's namesake pitch on a burly expanse of wide-open backcountry.

"I think my experience of backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering, plus the race experience in other races, has helped give me that 'old-man experience' you need for these things," Holmes said of his decision to trust his gut and point it from the top. "It's about being consistent for me."

Held in the woods near tiny Sunlight, the Heathen Challenge celebrated its 10th anniversary this year in style: For the first time ever, the race also doubled as a qualifier for the U.S. team, meaning it was Holmes' final chance to reclaim his spot from two years ago and, in turn, punch his ticket to a pair of major events: the U.S. Ski Mountaineering National Championships in New Mexico from Feb. 4-5 and the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships in Italy on Feb. 23.

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Holmes wasn't the only Summit local in the fray. Nikki LaRochelle had already qualified for the team and both championships at a December skimo race in Idaho, and three other Summit skiers — XTERRA athlete Jaime Brede, high schooler Henry Boyd and Western State skimo team member Skylar Drakos — would make the cut by the end of the Heathen Challenge.

But Holmes still needed to pass a duo of elite athletes, and time was running out.

Olympic bound

In the past five years, ski mountaineering has taken hold across North America. The sport began in Europe more than 50 years back and has enjoyed a strong (if small) following ever since. It combines several different skills — uphill travel, traversing and descending, all on Nordic-style skinny skis with touring bindings — and, thanks to the growing popularity of alpine touring, it's slowly winning converts in the Rocky Mountains.

"Ski mountaineering is a real dynamic sport," said LaRochelle, an avid trail runner in the summer who, soon after learning she was pregnant, qualified for the ISMF World Championships in 2015 and had to turn it down. "There's a lot more to it than fitness, so I need to keep up with transitions, the downhill — everything else. I tell people, 'We're the Jamaican bobsled team of skimo as Americans.' The European courses and athletes are on a whole different level."

True, Europeans have been skinning up and skiing down the Dolomites and French Alps for decades, but their American counterparts are catching up. Along with Summit, Colorado is well represented on the U.S. skimo team. Past and current members have come from Boulder, Colorado Springs, Gunnison, Durango and Crested Butte, considered one of the sport's stateside hotbeds along with Salt Lake City. Name a mountain town in Colorado or Utah, and chances are there's skimo happening.

Skimo is also catching on with the Winter Olympics: In 2016, the International Olympic Committee recognized ISMF as the sport's official governing body — the first step to becoming an Olympic sport.

"When the IOC makes that recognition of a sport, they're ultimately saying that this sport exists at a high level," said Ram Miklas, another Summit local and new president of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association. "We've been relatively mellow until now, but now that it's on its way to becoming an Olympic sport, we're working more closely with race directors, with athletes, with the community, to make it a higher-level governing body."

As the new president, Miklas is busy reaching out to the next generation of skimo athletes — kids like Boyd, who is traveling to the World Championships with Holmes, LaRochelle and Brede. Drakos, an 18-year-old Summit High School graduate who joined the Western State skimo team this season, wants to wait another two years for the next Worlds.

"It's such a cool sport, and it's a growing sport for sure," said Drakos, who noted that the Western State team is the only collegiate skimo program in the U.S. "It's so cool to see this sport progress and get bigger, and it's led by young people, like me and Henry Boyd over in Summit."

Nationals to Worlds

Before traveling to Italy for Worlds, the newly minted U.S. team athletes from Summit will head south to New Mexico for Nationals. "I really want to have a good race in New Mexico," said Brede, who admits she had a poor showing at the Heathen Challenge. "I managed to get a spot on the team race for Worlds, so I want to show up at nationals and show my U.S.A. teammates that I'll be capable of a good race in Italy. That's my main goal."

In the skimo world, athletes can qualify for up to five events: sprint, vertical, individual, team and relay. The individual spots are by far the toughest — LaRochelle is the only Summit skier qualified for individual racing at Worlds — and the U-23 group Drakos competes in is still relatively small. But simply qualifying is incredibly difficult, and Summit now claims five of a total 16 places for men and women. Not too shabby, Brede said.

"The thing about this sport is that the fields are relatively small, but they're quite deep," Brede said of the two U.S. qualifiers. "The women who choose to do this sport — there aren't many — are very strong. The competition is there."

At the finish

As Holmes rocketed down the Heathen, he passed Krar in a corner and sped into the transition area. One down, one to go, but Kelly was nowhere to be seen. He spotted two people strapping skins to their skis for the ascent and assumed one was Kelly.

"I'm so focused that I don't even look around," Holmes said. "I just do what I do, so I've got one last, short climb to give it all I've got, and that's when I had Rory (Kelly) behind me, this former pro road racer. I know I wouldn't make it if we were neck and neck."

With his head down and skins on, Holmes powered up the final climb and collapsed at the finish line — eight seconds ahead of Kelly for the final spot on the U.S. team. Funny enough, Kelly found him on the ground, delirious and depleted, and told him, "I'm glad you beat me." Why? He had qualified for the team the night before and didn't need that race.

"This was my last chance to make it," Holmes said. "I gave it everything I have, he gave it everything he had, and I beat him by eight seconds. And that's what this sport is all about — laying it all out and pushing each other to the brink. I love it."

Summit Skimo Sendoff Party

What: A happy hour fundraiser to benefit the four Summit County locals who qualified for the 2017 Ski Mountaineering World Championships in Italy on Feb. 23

When: Tuesday, Jan. 31, from 3-5 p.m.

Where: Breckenridge Brewery, 600 S. Main St. in Breckenridge

Cost: $10

Entry fee includes one beer, light apps and a raffle ticket. All proceeds go to the four Summit locals (Jaime Brede, Teague Holmes, Henry Boyd and Nikki LaRochelle) who are traveling to Italy for Worlds. The cost of travel is $1,400 per athlete, and the fundraiser helps cover airfare, lodging and travel to the venue. For more info, or to donate directly to the cause, email Brede at Jaime_brede@yahoo.com or see the “about us” tab at SummitSkimo.com.