Sugarloaf Inferno Race Report

The Stowe Derby is pretty insane, but 500 people do it, so it can't be that bad.

Well, 30 people did the Sugarloaf Inferno, because it is that bad.

The day before the race Sugarloaf got over an inch of rain. The day of the race, it was so windy that all but 3 of the lowest lifts at the alpine area were closed -- including the lift we needed to ride to get to the start line.

Thus, 9:45 found me standing outside, in a 30mph wind, waiting in line to board a snowcat, to go up on a mountain that had just been turned to a sheet of ice -- with my freaking cross-country skis! The mood among the racers was a mixture of apprehension and impatience. Let's get up there and get this thing done -- am I gonna die?

The start line dwarfed the highest open lift, so we were alone on the mountain. The course had been rerouted down a trail I'd never skied (foreshadow!) that had actually been groomed that morning. Unfortunately, when there's an inch of rain in your snow, you can till it and pack it all you want, but it will still set up icy and hard. And you know what doesn't work very well descending on icy and hard snow? Cross country skis. Well, shit.

One by one racers skated off across the opening flat and around the corner toward the King Pine chair. No one looked very comfortable on the first, slowest, flattest corner -- and then it was my turn.

20 yards out of the start the 30mph tailwind caught you. I cut the first corner across the ungroomed ice and grabbed my tuck. The King Pine chair and the first real turn were a quarter-mile away; it looked pretty flat. Only one choice -- straight down. If I'm going to beat the college skiers it has to happen up top.

Long before making it to the chair I was scared. I was probably crossing the 40mph barrier when I stood up to put the air brakes on. Nothing happened -- the screaming tailwind ferried me straight toward the corner, where a ski patroller was pointing left with increasing urgency.

I snowplowed. Nothing happened, my edges slipping pathetically across the rock-hard corduroy.

After attempting to hockey-stop for another 50yards, it was time to try to make the turn, sliding and stepping to the outside around ruts and crash marks on the inside. It worked, barely, and I just barely stayed out on the trail. Suddenly there was a right turn in front of me that I was not expecting. There were more ruts and crash-divots. I tried to head outside, start sliding, but by the time I got my skis on edge I could see just how sharp the corner was. And I knew I was pretty much f'ed.

I fell down, more as an attempt to stop myself than due to slipping. I didn't stop, though, I went sliding across the trail on my hip, tearing up my forearm on ice as I tried to stop before going into the woods. It didn't work.

I hit a tree feet-first, almost. The tree hit my ski just in front of my toe, slamming the tip into my knee and cutting it. My legs started to fold, until they ran out of travel and my full body weight slammed my shin into the tree.

I lay there in shock for a moment, wondering how the hell I lost the race in the first 60 seconds, until the pain hit me. Then I started an inventory. Poles -- still attached, not broken. Skis -- also attached, somehow not broken. My leg -- still attached, not broken, extremely painful. I got up and gingerly checked to see if it could hold weight. It could. Race on?

Well, I gave it my best shot. Adrenaline is pretty amazing -- after 20 more seconds I couldn't even feel that I had just peeled several square inches of skin off my shin, through my race suit -- but it couldn't overcome my brain. And my brain knew it that it had just made a really bad decision, and was lucky to still be able to ski. It wasn't going to go too fast again.

I skied tentatively hard down to the bottom, but I would've had to have had an amazing run to make up for the crash. The margin for error in an 11 minute race is a lot narrower than spending 30 seconds crashing and putting yourself back together; the eventual winner beat me by 25 seconds.

More importantly, I can still walk today and plan on another (final) 50k next weekend. I might have failed at defending my title, but Linnea took the women's title by nearly 2 minutes -- proving that she is several deviations crazier than the average woman on skis.


Unknown said…
not that you could have anticipated such conditions, but would it have been against the rules to use some lightweight back country skis with metal edges?
Colin R said…
metal edges were against the rules, believe it or not!
Alex said…
It sucks when you last-resort option (falling) doesn't work. Glad you didn't break your neck...
Ditto'ing Alex's comment, and asking, "Why not ski UP hill?" like she did?
Luke S said…
Why not ski uphill? Because on a nice day skiing down mountains is sweet, especially on cross country skis.

Neck breaking ice is much better to ski up than down however.
JB said…
Reading your race report makes me think of a term my instructor in a wilderness first responder course used years ago: "Testosterone toxicity". Don't kill yourself out there, hear?

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