Posted by: Ross Leonhart
The USA Skimo National Championships took place over the weekend in Vail, Colorado, as part of the Winter Mountain Games Preview event Feb. 25-27. The top names in one of the fastest growing sports in the country (which will make its Olympic debut in 2026) enjoyed a weekend of world-class competition on the slopes of Vail Mountain.
“It was good to see the atmosphere back in action at the Winter Mountain Games and all of the energy, buzz and excitement was cool to see – and definitely fun to be a part of,” said John Gaston, who said he will “absolutely” be back to defend his titles at the Winter Mountain Games next year. Gaston won the Skimo Individual and Vertical events this weekend.
The weekend featured the crowning of national champions in skimo Individual, Sprint and Vertical races.
“It was really good – there’s a lot of competition,” said 17-year-old Griffin Briley, an Olympic hopeful when Skimo joins the Winter Olympic program in 2026. He took home top honors in all three events in the U18 men’s divisions, and marked a blazing time in the Sprint on Saturday of 4 minutes and 5 seconds which stood as the fastest for much of the day. The Sprint course saw racers skin halfway up Head First, taking their skis off and boot packing up the second half of the ski run. From there, they put their skis back on, traversed over to the top of the iconic Pepi’s Face trail and ski down. (Pepi’s Face was part of the 1989 World Championship women’s downhill course.)
‘I need a lot of oxygen’
Saturday’s Sprint saw an electric crowd with skiers and snowboarders hanging around Gondola One after their ski day to check out the action along with the rest of the spectators.
“It just feels like I need a lot of oxygen. It was challenging with the new snow, but the organizers did a great job,” men’s winner Cam Smith said after the Sprint on Saturday. “It’s been great. I’m really excited for next year.”
Rea Kolbl won the women’s sprint with a time of 4 minutes and 52 seconds.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, but I’ve put in so much hard work this season,” Kolbl said. “It was really fun. I’ve done sprints for the first time this year, and every time I do it I love it more. This one is much steeper than anything I’ve done before.”
Matt Ruta, from Golden, British Columbia, enjoyed a solid weekend of racing as well with multiple Top 5 finishes.
“They’ve been great,” he said of the courses. “It was a really fast individual course with lots of intensity and not super technical so you push hard.”
In Sunday’s Vertical race, U20 athlete Grace Staberg posted the fastest time of any woman that took on the challenging course, finishing the 2.2-mile uphill in just under 34 minutes.
Super-challenging Skimo Individual course
The Individual race on Friday was held after Vail Mountain closed, and kicked off the Winter Mountain Games. The course took racers 13 miles up and down across Vail Mountain before finishing in the dark back at Mountain Plaza as the live music kicked off in Solaris Plaza.
Lucas Hull took second in the U16 Individual race, crossing the finish line with one of his skis snapped in half.
“It was the last downhill [Pepi’s Face] and it was pretty technical. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I started hearing noises on the way down and then right at the end it just snapped in half – I’m glad it didn’t happen at the top,” he said.
For a lot of the athletes and their families, it was their first time in Vail. The Rocco family from the Silverfork Skimo Team from Utah had been to Vail before, but enjoyed coming to town for the Skimo races.
“We go where the team goes, and it’s an incredible group of kids and families,” said Alexandra Rocco, mother of Nicholas who competed in the U18 along with her husband Jeffrey who competed this weekend as well. “The boys have all grown up together, and the families have grown up together.”
For the Roccos, ski mountaineering is about more than the competition.
“It’s more than [uphill ski racing],” Alexandra said. “It really teaches the kids ski mountaineering – backcountry skiing, avalanche preparedness, reading the snow and understanding the conditions. It gives the kids an interest in snow and outdoor sciences and allows the kids to really excel in whatever their particular forte is, whether it’s sprinting or climbing or downhill racing.”
The Roccos enjoy the camaraderie of ski mountaineering.
“That’s one of the great things about skimo is that the parents can do it with the kids,” Jeffrey said. “I mean, we can’t go as fast as them, of course, but it’s a whole family activity.”
Nicholas Rocco competed throughout the weekend.
“I feel like ski mountaineering is sort of the next level of skiing if you’ve been skiing your whole life and looking for something new,” Nicholas said. “It enables you to first of all see things you’ve never seen before and experience things you never get to experience – whether it’s racing with the community or going on long tours in the middle of nowhere by yourself. It’s hard to get that anywhere else.”
Alexandra added, “It’s such a great community.”
In its first year at the Winter Mountain Games, ski mountaineering was a great success.
“I will say that we’ve been to many races before where they did not have their act together and the course was poorly marked. Here, the course was great. It was really well marked, super challenging but really well done,” Jeffrey said.
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