Friendly faces smiled at me as I scanned the competition while flutters of nervous anticipation filled my belly. VertFest 2010, and my first randonee race, was about to begin. Held at Alpental, VertFest includes one or two laps depending on your division, each which ascend about 2,400' for one lap over 2.5 miles and about 4,000' for two laps over 4 miles. The race includes sweaty bootpacks, sketchy switchbacks, portions under chair lifts where riders can heckle you well out of snowball reach and a crew of the nicest, most encouraging volunteers. Last minute instructions were given, beacons were checked and before I could say "kick-turn", the gun blasted the madness loose.
The bluebird sky infused the day with electric color; a lucky occurrence on what statistically should've been a gray February day in the Cascades. Minimal snowfall had resulted in a decent but not deep base and it had been days since the last dusting. Ducking into the shadows of the trees, racers surged up the challenging start. Those in my "wave" pulling up the rear struggled for traction. Carnage littered the course; a released ski here, a water bottle sledding downhill there, people slipping this way and that... But before too long, we all found footing and settled into an upward rhythm.
Fffzzt phhushhhh fffzzt phhsushhh... my skins glided in perfectly aligned time to Run DMC, Aerosmith, and the butterflies still dancing in my belly. I hadn't spent much time that season on skis and had never skinned for speed. Calculating these factors with the tough conditions, I kept watch for potential "outs" in case I had to bail. All this and I still had to figure out how to drop into International, a slope with a tough entrance that I'd built into mythical proportions; a terrifyingly steep chute with thousand-foot cliffs all around and only a narrow margin to keep me from falling to a gruesome lump on the slope below. The abominable snowman would probably come chase after me too. Zoiks.
Conversation with fellow racers eased my nerves and I realized many, like me, had never attempted this before. Keeping a steady pace, breathing hard from effort, and in eager anticipation of reaching the first milepost, I closed in on the flat spot that was our checkpoint. As I neared it, the pitch steepened and in a moment of poor balance and over eagerness, I lost it and began to slide! Using my elbow to self arrest (not advised), leaving a bit of DNA along the way, I quickly reversed the progress I'd just made. In an act of mercy, the split boarder behind me stuck out a foot to stop my fall. Thank goodness for friendly competition!
Passing that first gate, I came out from the trees and into the sun-drenched open of softened snow and spring-like conditions. With more grip to my skins and the help of Bryan Adams serenading me with Summer of '69 via my Shuffle, I began the steeper ascent with a renewed spring in my glide.
Sunny peacefulness of the quiet skin track distracted me (nearly every other racer was ahead of me so I had some lovely, unintentional solitude). Before I knew it, skin glistening with a dewy perspiration, a gaggle of patrollers greeted me at the final checkpoint, patched up the wreck of my bloody elbow, helped me into my turkey suit, and gave me encouraging advice on dropping into the dreaded International. Ack.
Sounds of skiers working hard to hold an edge on the icy slope below frazzled my winged self. With glittery ridiculousness and a deep breath, I let go of the grip that pinned my li'l chicken-hearted self to the top and -gasp- I dropped in.
And found unexpected cush! Like a bird in springtime, I hopped from soft spot to soft spot, overflowing with snowy glee. Below International, I zoomed through trees along the twisty course, my sparkly turkey suit catching afternoon light. Popping out at last run, I let it all go, my wings catching the air. The ding of cowbell and cheers of spectators accompanied my own ecstatic whoops of joy as I crossed the finish.
At the post-race festivities, celebration filled the air. Fellow racers shared epic stories of ascent and descent. Race winners claimed prizes and exercised well-deserved bragging rights. Raffle winners took home goodies that would've made any gear-junky jealous. Good brew poured with delicious ease. And the sun set with a golden glow as the great day faded.
In the end, this chick's time was somewhere over three and a half hours which translated to 3rd from the last. My souvenirs included a rosy sunburn, a blobby scrape on my elbow, pretty black bruises on my shins, and memories of spring snow. It was my best day of skiing for the entire 2010 season.
Now, nearly into February 2011, I'm gearing up for attempt #2. If you haven't signed up for VertFest, do it now! The race is February 13th. If you want to add to your fun, or participate without racing, this year features even more fest with clinics including Ski Photography with Grant Gunderson and Jason Hummel, Steep Skiing with Bryce Phillips of evo, and Avalanche Safety with Martin Volken and the crew at ProGuiding. The full list of clinics can be found on our VertFest Facebook events page. Also new for 2011, we'll be hosting a film festival at the North Bend Theater Saturday night. Are you in?!
Now that we have that cleared up, the only question is what do I go as this year? Lady bug, penguin, Ms. Pacman....? Let me know your suggestions and I'll see you there.
This was originally posted on VertiCulture. I have a few more stories posted there if you'd like to find more. VertiCulture is my favorite work project, powered by Outdoor Research, and filled with sport-passion and stoke from athletes and friends who never cease to inspire me. Check it out!