Colorado’s randonee king: Pete Swenson |

Colorado’s randonee king: Pete Swenson

Many folks unwind on the weekends by kicking back with a frothy cold one.

Pete Swenson likes to calm down by maxing out his heart rate while skinning anywhere from four to 10,000 vertical feet up mountain summits with a hundred or so fellow competitors, then cranking out survival turns while negotiating steep, windblown, icy bumps and headwalls on the way back down.

“Honestly, racing is the most relaxing thing I do,” the Breckenridge local said with a laugh.

Next week, Swenson will get another colossal chance to relax when he travels to Europe for the 2011 International Ski Mountaineering Federation’s (ISMF) World Championships in Claut, Italy, Feb.17-25.

He’ll be one of two locals set to represent the U.S.

When you consider that the races in his chosen sport of randonee skiing necessitate navigating this dicey, often off-piste terrain on the skimpy lightweight AT gear preferred by elite racers (Swenson’s boots, bindings and skis, together, weigh in at a mere 4.2 pounds) it’s easy to be skeptical of Swenson’s assertion.

Even for an athlete of his caliber – he’s a former professional mountain biker who also raced Nordic and alpine downhill much of his life – the prospect of randonee races can be daunting.

But Swenson’s adamant that competition’s far more restful than the rest of his current life, which could aptly be titled an “Improbable Juggle of All Things Randonee.”

“The Juggle” includes directing the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup (COSMIC), a season-long randonee race series he created four years ago. He also works part-time in the marketing department for Dynafit North America, a major U.S. distributor of randonee gear. He sells randonee gear to aspiring racers at another job he maintains at Breckenridge’s Mountain Outfitters, currently one of the few North American outdoor shops to demo the lightweight setups used by elite competitors. And, along with Breck local Monique Merrill, he’s also spent the past several years creating the sport’s first governing body, the United Skates Ski Mountaineering Association (USSMA).

Swenson and Merrill estimate they’ve each logged thousands of hours the past four years to get COSMIC and USSMA up and running, most of them unpaid and behind the scenes. Both became truly smitten with the sport after being exposed to the European racing scene several years ago. Their growing passion for randonee, which at the time was an obscure, subculture sport in the U.S., motivated them to introduce it to more Americans.

“It was kind of a ‘right place at the right time thing,” Swenson said. “You see a need, and you realize: ‘I’m a person who can help fill that need.’ There weren’t that many other Americans who had raced in Europe or knew much about randonee. It wasn’t hard to decide to jump in and decide to help move the sport along in the states.”

It will be Swenson’s third trip to the world championships and, this year, fellow Breck resident Greg Ruckman – a two-time Olympic rower – will be joining him.

Merrill also qualified, her third straight time. Though she holds the honor of the highest American placing ever at the ISMF’s Ski Mountaineering World Championships (eighth in 2010), she’s elected not to compete this year in order to focus on her small business, Amazing Grace.

The relatively novice U.S. Team will face stiff competition in Italy, where they’ll be going head-to-head against Europeans who’ve been racing since childhood.

Swenson concedes his expectations for his own success are not as high as last year.

“I’m hoping to just to be there, uninjured and healthy, and do the best I can on that day,” he said. “This past year, USSMA and COSMIC have taken more of my time. I also cracked or bruised a rib in early December. But, there’s just a good energy in the team this year. It’s helped motivate me to get inspired.”

In many ways, Swenson’s just fine with stepping down from the podium’s spotlight.

Last year, he was nearly unbeatable on American soil. This year, he’s equally excited about his growing role as coach and his work creating development programs to bring young racers to the sport under the banner of USSMA. He’s also begun to explore more non-racing adventures, including a ski attempt on Pakistan’s Broad Peak last summer with fellow Dynafit athlete Benedikt Bohm.

“Ski touring offers so much variety and opportunities to explore and summit. Locally, I do a lot of tours in the Gore Range,” he said. “I find it one of Colorado’s most beautiful ranges, and there’s nobody there. But the more ranges I visit in the world, the more the Alps and Dolomites always surface as the best mix of big skiing, long tours, huts, easy access, culture and food. The vertical in the Alps is hard to beat. The weather in the Dolomites is incredible.”

“This is a sport that I’ll do into my 60s,” the ever-optimistic Swenson said. “It’s a great workout, and you can always continue to do it at whatever speed you can sustain. And I’ve developed some great friendships around the world as a result of it.”

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