Five Peaks ski-mo event takes racers to almost every summit at Breckenridge Ski Resort (with podcast)
To top out at the true summits of all five of Breckenridge Ski Resort’s peaks during a ski mountaineering race — it’s a brazen concept that Summit County local Pete Swenson cooked up nine years ago when he launched The Five Peaks ski mountaineering race.
That first year, the race reached the 13,633-foot summit of Peak 10 and the other Tenmile Range summits within and above the resort, achieving its bold goal in the truest sense. But, in the years since, with Summit County’s fickle winter and early-spring weather, the race never again came close to reaching all five summits due to inclement conditions. Reaching all five summits became particularly difficult when the race was moved up to full-on winter dates in the events fourth year, such as the originally-scheduled March 9 race this year.
The 2019 race was postponed from March 9 to Saturday, April 27, due to the extreme avalanche danger that existed along the Tenmile Range race course during the thick of March’s record-setting snowfall. In the end, though, the change provided the Five Peaks, its racers and race director Jeff Westcott with two things.
This year’s race enabled skiers to top out on Peaks 6 through 9 while also nearly reaching the summit of Peak 10. This specific course, different than that of years past, meant the race came as close to accomplishing its conceptual essence as it has since 2010.
Westcott said the course was altered at the eleventh hour to skirt off of Peak 10’s south ridge and into the Fourth of July Bowl about 100 yards beneath Peak 10’s summit. Westcott said this decision to go no further than Peak 10’s weather station was made due to the presence of the inclement, low-visibility conditions on Saturday. It was dangerous weather that the event’s course checker and race marshal estimated to include 60-to-70 mph winds along the south ridge. Swenson, the race’s founder who competed this year, agreed with that description of just how gnarly the winds were.
“I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been up Peak 10,” Swenson said, “but this was the absolute windiest I have ever seen it. You really needed an 8,000-meter suit if you were going to summit. … It’s hard to believe how strong a 60 mph wind is until you’re in it. And, then, it’s too late. So it was the right call. The leaders traversed into Fourth of July Bowl, and we all followed.”
Westcott, his event team and racers all left Saturday’s race feeling like this time of year —late April — makes more sense for the race moving forward. In fact, Westcott said there have already been some conversations with the ski resort to change the date. It’s a move that Westcott said, going by initial indications, the ski area would prefer.
“The main reason is that so much of the course is above tree line,” Westcott said. “And, on ridge line, that the exposure is significant. So much so that, even on a day like Saturday it was tolerable, but tough. But, imagine that kind of sustained wind exposure in subzero temps. No way we would have gone up there. So, from that perspective, it fits in very well with the European high-alpine ski mountaineering race model. This is when they do all of their big above-tree line events, a more spring-like timeframe and after the snowpack has stabilized. So that is when we are looking moving forward.”
Saturday’s race was a special one, even within a ski mountaineering competition scene where such events as the Grand Traverse and Power of Four in Aspen take racers to some of the state and country’s most revered in-bounds and backcountry skiing destinations. Breckenridge local and U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association team member Nikki LaRochelle described the Five Peaks as a kind of mid-distance race that requires you to push the entire time. Due to the initial 4,000-foot ascent up Peak 10 followed by a traverse along the Tenmile Range’s ridge, there is never a chance to settle into a pace or rest, unlike other ski mountaineering races, LaRochelle said. But that element, something almost of a super-long sprint, is also what makes this event special.
What made it more special and spicy for LaRochelle and other racers on Saturday were those windy conditions atop Peak 10. After ascending up the protected Lehman Gulch, LaRochelle said she first noticed the wind at the top of the resort’s Mercury Superchair on Peak 9. Exiting the ski resort’s boundaries near the Peak 9 road, the winds picked up before LaRochelle and other top racers reached gusts she described as “alarming” near the summit of Peak 10. The winds were so strong LaRochelle said they ripped her sunglasses off and another racer’s helmet off.
Once down in the Fourth of July Bowl, though, conditions tempered. From there, racers skied along the resort’s high-alpine terrain, which, early in the day, had more winter-like snow than the wet spring conditions you’d find near the bottom of the ski resort.
The race continued through to Peak 6, where LaRochelle said the slushy conditions later in the day required skiers to herringbone over patches of high-alpine terrain. That led up to what she and Swenson described as a “pretty big” cornice to ski off of the Peak 6 ridge and down into the resort’s Beyond Bowl. The race concluded with skiing over into Intuition Bowl before skiing down to the base of Peak 7. This was different from years past when the race concluded with a skate-ski along the Breckenridge Nordic Center’s Gluteus Maximus trail.
Putting this year into historical context, Swenson said that — gusty winds and all — this race will go down as one of the greatest in the Five Peaks decade-long history.
“We had years with bitter cold, real frost bite issues,” he said, “years where there was not very much snow. But, as a whole, I’d say it’s definitely one of the better years in terms of how much vertical we got to skin and ski. It wasn’t terribly cold, and it was really special being on (Peaks) 10 and 9 and 8 when it’s closed to the public, most of it. So it really felt like a high-alpine ski mountaineering race — like you’re on the glacier or something.”
Long course duo men
1. Doug Stenclik/Paul Hamilton 03:10:58
2. Jon Brown/Rory Kelly 03:16:16
Long course duo coed
1. Niki LaRochelle/David Glennon 03:17:18
2. Michael Hagen/Eva Hagen 03:29:10
Long course duo women
1. Fanny Toorenburg/Kate Zander 04:05:09
2. Elsa Bates/Grace Staberg 04:34:54
Long course duo The 101
1. Michael Glass/James Kahoska 04:31:03
2. Eric Black/Dawes Wilson 04:48:43
Short course solo men
1. Daniel Chapman 01:29:21
2. Darren Nakos 01:32:01
Short course solo women
1. Erin Boland 01:55:47
2. Julia Ordog 02:14:31
Short course solo junior men 18 & under
1. Connor Albin 01:28:59
2. Sam Burke 01:33:02
Short course solo junior women 18 & under
1. Helen Desmond 02:41:39
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