Summit duo wins Power of Four ski mountaineering race in Aspen, joins fellow locals on the podium
25-mile ski mountaineering race doubles as US Team National Championship
ASPEN — After racing mile upon mile and several thousand feet of elevation gain Saturday, six of the world’s best female ski mountaineers found themselves together in the same precarious spot: atop the 12,382-foot iconic summit of Highland Bowl.
Hours into the grueling 25-mile, 11,600-foot-elevation-gain Audi Power of Four ski mountaineering race, the group of six — including Summit County locals Nikki LaRochelle, Jill Seager, Grace Staberg and Kate Zander — reached the top of Highland Bowl essentially tied. From there, they each pulled off their racing skins and dropped in, plunging into the race’s next phase: thousands of feet of rip-roaring steep bowl skiing in the middle of one of the country’s grandest and gnarliest skimo competitions.
“It’s something to be said for the level of competition in terms of us all being there right together,” said Seager, a Silverthorne resident.
In Highland Bowl, it was the team of Seager and Zander — dubbed “Girls on the Run” — who distanced themselves from the defending champs LaRochelle of Breckenridge and Jessie Young of Aspen as well as Silverthorne’s Staberg and her partner Lindsay Plant of Carbondale.
Seager and Zander skied to the bottom of the bowl first and followed that up with fast and furious skiing on what they described as a “lugey” and “spicy” in-the-trees downhill portion of the race known as “the Congo.” Zander said a race organizer told her just the night before that he was still clearing downed trees in the Congo.
After exiting the Congo with a lead they felt confident about, Seager and Zander powered through the final uphill of the race, nearly 3,000 feet of climbing terrain known as “Midnight Mine” to the top of Aspen Mountain’s resort before speeding down in-bounds terrain.
“The first mile and a half of Midnight Mine was ice — frozen crud,” Zander said. “Then it was good snow toward the top. Super variable but could have been a lot worse.”
By the time they reached the base of Ajax in downtown Aspen — 6 hours, 3 minutes and 24.37 seconds after they began — the Summit County duo not only won the Power of Four women’s team title, it also won the 2020 U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association Women’s Team Championship, as Saturday’s race doubled as the association team title event.
“Going down Highland Bowl was the pinnacle of the race,” Seager said. “Kate and I, luckily, we skied it well and confidently. Then the Congo is just this very narrow type run, and Kate and I kind of borderline recklessly managed to hold on downhill. And truly the turning point in that race where we were able to separate from the rest of the field was the final climb. At Midnight Mine, Kate and I switched to our super short, fast racing skins and just looked at each other and said, ‘We gotta go.’”
Though Girls on the Run finished about seven minutes ahead of LaRochelle and Young (6:10:06.87) and Staberg and Plant (6:14:33.58), at that late stage in the race, they still were afraid to look over their shoulders. The duo said that throughout the race, just when they thought they had created a gap between them and the reigning champs LaRochelle and Young, they’d turn around and there LaRochelle and Young were at the transition, gearing up for the next phase right behind Seager and Zander.
“We are all friends and also really competitive people,” Zander said. “It could have been anyone’s day. It depends on a multitude of factors, and I think all of those went our way. Also, the pure grit and determination at the end — I really wanted a national championship.”
All that said, it was almost a race that didn’t happen, in terms of Seager and Zander teaming up. For years, the two standout Summit County athletes have raced against each other at local ski mountaineering series, such as Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s Rise and Shine Rando Series and the Breck Ascent at Breckenridge Ski Resort. But Zander, a mother of two young children, says the hardest part of ski mountaineer racing for an athlete-mom like her is often just getting to the start line. Busy with raising her kids, helping to coach the Summit High School Nordic ski team and other responsibilities, Zander said “no” to Seager’s requests to team up the first few times.
Ultimately, Zander decided to join. A Summit High graduate and a member of the 2019 U.S. Ski Mountaineering National Team that competed at the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships in Switzerland, Zander said the duo’s within-the-rules strategy of towing each other at times was teamwork that helped lead to the win.
“I told Jill at one point, if we don’t break anything — ourselves or our skis — I think we’ll do well,” Zander said. “It was one of those days: If you have a mechanical (problem), you’re out. The reason why I keep doing it, it’s such a technical sport. You’re always waiting to have a great technical race, and this was pretty near perfect.”
Other top Summit County finishers at the Power of Four included national champion Tim Faia of Breckenridge, who with Dirk Friel of Boulder won the master’s men (45 and older) race in a time of 6:20:49.37. In the senior coed race, Summit High senior Elsa Bates teamed with Elliott Bates to take second with a time of 6:35:01.37. And in the senior men’s race, Ross Herr of Silverthorne teamed with Eric Poore of Boulder for a third-place finish (5:34:32.87).
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