‘It’s just been fun to be the underdog’: Sierra Anderson of Breckenridge reflects on what it took to win 3 major ski-mo races in 2 weeks
Heading into last weekend’s first-ever Pan American Ski Mountaineering Championships in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada, Sierra Anderson knew she could endure enough to surprise most everyone in attendance. She had that confidence, whether or not she had any idea if it’d be enough for her to win at this year’s biggest North American ski-mo event.
Anderson knew she could endure because that’s exactly what she did the week before at the Shedhorn Ski Mountaineering race at Big Sky Resort in Montana.
“If I can endure that,” Anderson thought of Shedhorn before departing for the Pan Ams, “I can endure anything.”
For the 32-year-old Breckenridge resident, the most difficult moment across her four ski mountaineering races in the recent two-week span came at Big Sky. After competing in smaller ski mountaineering races at home in the High Country through her rookie ski-mo season, the Shedhorn race was a big step up for Anderson. The race required her and other competitors to gain around 9,000 vertical feet over about 16 miles.
And the toughest part was at the beginning, as Anderson climbed an initial 3,600 feet, suffering through a 20-degree drop in temperature, to reach the 11,166-foot summit of Lone Peak.
The weather “became nuclear,” and fast, Anderson said. She slipped on crampons to ascend the ice, but one failed halfway-up. Her hand was soon “completely numb” as she clung to the steel of the cold crampon while ascending with the other still strapped to the bottom of her boot. Anderson, though, made it up and over in ideal position to go for the win.
Though she couldn’t feel her hands, she knew this was a turning point not only in this race, but in her ski-mo career.
“I kind of hit a new threshold of misery there and overcame it and kept going,” Anderson said. “I thought, ‘OK, Sierra, you can do this.’”
What she did was not only win the women’s division at the March 17 Shedhorn ski-mo race. Less than a week later, Anderson surprised most everyone — including herself — by winning the women’s vertical and individual races at the first-ever Pan American Ski Mountaineering Championships, while also finishing atop the podium in the women’s sprint race.
During both weekends of races, Anderson said her focus wasn’t at all on winning. Rather, she just wanted to do her personal best, and wherever that ranked her, so be it.
After all, the former elite high school downhill skier and Southern Methodist University distance runner didn’t really get into ski mountaineering until this past December. Before then, she had tried a couple of races around Summit County back in 2016, but nothing too serious.
And earlier this season, before her breakout performances in Montana and Canada, Anderson was still learning the fundamentals of ski-mo. For example, the former downhill skier and distance runner was confident in her ability when on skis or skins during races, like the several she competed in at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and Breckenridge Ski Resort this year. But it was in her race stage transitions and in-race nutrition and planning where she knew she needed to learn more.
Looking back on this ski-mo season after finishing in seventh place in the men’s vertical race at the Pan-Am championships, U.S. Ski Mountaineering coach and Breckenridge resident Joe Howdyshell said it was Anderson’s composure and quiet confidence in anxiety-filled, pressure-packed risky backcountry situations that allowed her to go from ski-mo newbie to Pan-Am champion in just one season.
To Howdyshell, she possessed the mental fortitude of a ski-mo veteran, not a rookie.
And right before Anderson set off to win her second Pan-Am race in three days, the biggest race of the weekend, the 12.5-mile, 6,000 feet of vertical gain individual race, Howdyshell was there in the pre-race corral to remind her of that all important ingredient.
“‘If you have a really smooth race, you’ll win this,’” Anderson recalled Howdyshell telling her.
“So I thought to myself: ‘Be smooth, smart and calm,’” Anderson said.
By the end of that Pan-Am individual race, the final race of the three-race weekend, Anderson didn’t only have blistered, bloody heels from her four races in fewer than 10 days, she also had three championships and one third place finish to her name.
What a difference a year makes.
“You know, it’s kind of fun to come into a sport feeling like a freshman in college. To not know, to have no expectations, to just have fun,” Anderson said.
“And 50 percent is growing a mental confidence in it too,” she added. “I’m not going to lie, there is a little bit of a pecking order in this sport. Being a newcomer, you don’t really know where you stack up until you do it and keep doing it. And the more races you do, the more confident you become in your abilities.”
Anderson’s stunning success at the Pan Am championships also had a strong local Summit County flavor to it. Because when she won her first race, the vertical race, at Lake Louise, there to greet her was her friend, ski-mo mentor and Dillon resident Ram Mikulas — the president of U.S. Ski-Mo.
The mentor and mentee locked eyes and both smiled out of Summit County ski-mo pride. Enduring through one of the world’s most competitive races near the highest level of one of the world’s most grueling of sports, the underdog had done it.
“He was so proud,” Anderson described of Mikulas at the finish line. “He made me more excited on how I did, to see someone else that I look up to, and has been a mentor to me, as being proud. It’s just fun to be the underdog.”
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