Midweek Breck Ascent Series brings ski mountaineering to the slopes | SummitDaily.com

Midweek Breck Ascent Series brings ski mountaineering to the slopes

The ski mountaineering scene around here has come a long way in a short time.

About 7 years ago, back when the Breck Ascent Series was just getting started, only a handful of die-hard endurance athletes were willing to brave the early-morning chill for a long, demanding crawl up the side of Peak 8. Now, there's a popular uphill/downhill series at Arapahoe Basin and a brand-new skimo clinic and race series in Frisco, not to mention the statewide Cosmic Series for true skimo fanatics.

The Breck series has also changed over the years. This season is shaping up to be about the same as last season, with the five events spread between January and April. Last year each one drew about 45 racers, give or take a few depending on the conditions, and the level of competition got deeper as the events moved from pre-dawn starts in January and February to dusk finishes in March and April. Either way, racers will be in the dark for the start or finish: 6:15 a.m. for the first two events, 5:30 p.m. for the final three.

The series has also grown to include long (ascent and descent) and short (ascent only) courses — just like the town's trail running series — and separate age divisions. From there, divisions are also split into lightweight gear (think a set of racing skimo skis) and heavyweight gear (a typical alpine-touring setup).

Organizers with the town are hoping that all of these minor tweaks will draw even more people to the Breck series, from never-evers and novices to hardcore racers prepping for big events across the country. That's the evolution of a sport for you: If you host it, they will come.

"You can pick your level of excitement, I like to say," said Brian Schaefer, recreation programs coordinator for the town. "You can change it up from race to race, with a short course and lightweight (setup) one race and a long course with heavyweight the next. We just want people to get involved, whether you've been doing it for 10 years or this is your first year ever."

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Intro on Peak 8

The series kicks off on Jan. 13 with two relatively mellow courses at Peak 8. Schaefer says his department tweaked the courses slightly since last season — the second and fifth races on Peak 9 and Peak 7 are longer than before — but if you're familiar with the series you'll be familiar with the first race. Every event also includes a long and short option, which is another welcome change of pace.

"When it's just up the hill you're just sprinting," said Ram Mikulas, a longtime Breck Ascent competitor and vice president of the local ski mountaineering group, Summit Skimo Club. "That can be challenging because they're just full steam ahead… I like that they started to add descent on some of the courses. That mixes things up."

Beginning bright and early at 6:15 a.m., racers in all divisions on all courses take off from the gondola. The route heads up the Gondola Ski Back trail before meeting with Lower Four O'Clock.

The group stays together on Four O'Clock until long-course racers split off for a descent on Tiger, a short and brutal double black. Short-course racers continue up Four O'Clock to the finish line at Vista Haus. The long-course crazies take Tiger to the SuperConnect midload station before meeting with an access road that leads back to Four O'Clock. From there it's another harsh sprint to the Vista Haus finish.

"It's a great local scene race," Mikulas said. "It's also very accessible, just open to all abilities. You have people on heavy gear going out to have fun and people on race gear out racing."

Like the summer trail series, this one is all about building community and excitement for local athletes. Each event ends with an after party: Coffee and breakfast for the morning events, a beer and apps for the evening ones.

"This gives people a taste of night action, where you're getting up early before dawn and then finishing after sundown," Schaefer says. "The days get longer at the end of the season so we like to take advantage of staying out after work."

Breck Ascent Series — Race One

What: The first event in the Breck Ascent Series, featuring a ski mountaineering race on Peak 8 with options for a long course (ascent and descent) and a short course (ascent only)

When: Wednesday, Jan. 13 at 6:15 a.m.

Where: South gondola parking lot start line in Breckenridge

Cost: $20 pre-registration, $22 day-of

The series is open to athletes 10 years and older, with divisions split by age and gear weight (heavy or light). Races are held between January and April at Breckenridge. Participants can register for individual races or the entire series (five races) for $85. Series registration ends Jan. 12 at noon. Competitors vying for overall division wins must register in the same division at every event. For more information, including online registration, see http://www.townofbreckenridge.com.

Breck Ascent Series schedule

Jan. 13 — 6:15 a.m. at Peak 8

Feb. 10 — 6:15 a.m. at Peak 9

March 2 — 5:30 p.m. course TBD

March 30 — 5:30 p.m. at Peak 10

April 13 — 5:30 p.m. at Peak 7

Courses: Long (ascent and descent) and short (ascent only) for all five races

Divisions: Lightweight and heavyweight gear, male and female, age classes (youth to adult)

Approved gear: Snowshoes, Nordic skis, alpine touring skis, telemark skis, splitboards. Skis or snowboards are required to return to the base area.