Think Out Loud

If you like a grueling uphill race on skis, skimo may be the sport for you

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Feb. 25, 2022 3:06 p.m. Updated: March 11, 2022 7:24 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Feb. 25

Ski mountaineering, or skimo, enthusiasts race during the 2022 Wy'easter Race Series which featured three skimo races that took place at Mt. Hood near Government Camp on Feb. 26 and 27.

Ski mountaineering, or skimo, enthusiasts race during the 2022 Wy'easter Race Series which featured three skimo races that took place at Mt. Hood near Government Camp on Feb. 26 and 27.

Steven Mortinson


The Winter Olympics may be over but some skiing enthusiasts are already eagerly anticipating 2026 when ski mountaineering, or skimo, will make its Olympics debut. But you don’t have to book a trip to the Italian Alps to experience the adrenaline rush and endurance contest of a skimo race, which typically consists of sprinting uphill on skis and then quickly adjusting skis and boots to race downhill to the finish line. Skimo is growing in popularity in the Northwest with races taking place in Washington and Oregon that can take hours to complete. Joining us is Matt Hasenohr who is helping organize a series of skimo races kicking off at Mt. Hood near Government Camp this weekend, and Sarah Burke, an amateur skimo enthusiast who is competing in one of those races.

Update: Sara Burke finished first among women in the vertical skimo race held on Saturday, Feb. 26, crossing the finish line at the Timberline Ski Area in 44 minutes and 34 seconds. According to the race organizers, the race course was over three and a half miles long with 2,000 feet of elevation gain.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The 2022 Winter Olympics may have just ended, but some skiers are already looking forward to 2026. That’s when ski mountaineering or skimo will make its Olympics debut. Skimo typically consists of climbing uphill on skis, and then quickly adjusting your bindings before you race downhill to the finish line. It is already a big deal in Europe and Colorado and Utah. It’s gaining popularity in the Northwest as well. A series of races is happening this weekend on Mount Hood. Matt Hasenohr is one of the organizers of the Wy’easter race series. He joins us now along with Sarah Burke, an amateur skimo racer who is competing this weekend. Welcome to you both.

Guests: Hi, Dave

Miller: Matt Hasenohr first. How do you describe skimo?

Matt Hasenohr: So skimo or ski mountaineering, consists of climbing mountains and then skiing down them. And skimo racing is really taking that sport and doing it in a competitive sense.

Miller: In the past, when I have heard about, or done in very truly amateurish ways, people skinning up mountains and skiing down, I’ve always heard that described as alpine touring or this great old fun French word randonnée. Is skimo something different?

Hasenohr: No, I’d say those terms are definitely used. Similarly, I think a lot of times ski mountaineering may be referred to when you have a specific mountain or objective that you’re shooting for, and may do some climbing as well. But I’d say randonnée ski touring [and] ski mountaineering are often used as synonyms.

Miller: Then skimo is sort of the clearly race-focused version of this.

Hasenohr: Typically, yep.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the specialist gear that you need to do this?

Hasenohr: Yeah. Essentially, you need to have skis, you need to have climbing skins that attach to the bottom of them and that allows us to go up steeper slopes than you might be able to go on nordic skis or cross country skis. And then you need ski boots that ideally have some range of motion in them, that allow you to comfortably move your ankle uphill as you ascend the slope. If anyone’s walked in alpine ski boots or resort ski boots, it’s quite uncomfortable. So they have special boots that allow the ankle to be free when you’re in the uphill. And then you need bindings that can have the heel be free, but then also lock in on the downhill. Similar to what telemark skis do, how the heel releases. But oftentimes with skimo racing, we are using bindings [where] the heel is free on the uphill, much like a cross country ski, but then locks in on the downhill to give you that alpine ski feel.

Miller: You mentioned skins which [is] the term for this fabric with a little bit of sticky glue on the underside of it that attaches to the skis? They’re not actually made of skin now, but can you describe how the fabric works to let people essentially walk up slippery snow?

Hasenohr: So the skins have hair on them which some are mohair. I think historically they’ve used different animal hairs. And currently you see nylon used sometimes as well. But what that does is all of those hairs are facing one direction. So when you move your ski forward, all of those hairs lay down flat because they’re going in the same direction as you are and then when you stop your foot and put pressure in the downhill direction, all of those hairs grab the snow and stick to the snow, so you don’t slide backwards, so you slide forward but not backwards.

Miller: Sarah Burke, I mentioned you’re gonna be racing this weekend. My understanding is you’re relatively new to skimo. That last year was your first year. What was your own path to this sport?


Sarah Burke: So I am very new to it, despite growing up in New Hampshire where there were plenty of mountains to ski on. I could count on maybe one hand the amount of times that I actually skied downhill and had never skied uphill, never even heard of ski mountaineering before. But since I’ve been living in Oregon now for about two years, last year I picked it up just because it’s a very kind of, I guess easy or just natural transition from like mountain running. So I do a lot of mountain running and hiking in the fall and summer, in spring. So a lot of people who do that sport also do ski mountaineering. So I saw that and I live very close to Mount Bachelor here in Bend. So I just bought myself a set of skis, put some skins on and tracked up the mountain. And learned how to ski downhill too, of course, gotta come down! But I really enjoyed just the whole – and I still enjoy because there’s so much to learn – just the whole newness of this sport and the fact that there are so many elements to it. It’s not just about being strong going uphill or being good on technical terrain descending. It’s about managing your gear too, and it’s a really dynamic sport. And then when I found out that there was such a thing as skimo or ski mountaineer racing, I’m very competitive in everything, so of course I had to try out ski racing. I absolutely love it and plan to do more of it.

Miller: How much did ultramarathon trail running prepare you for the climbing part of skimo?

Burke: Oh it prepared me a lot. I would say my strength, because it’s just my favorite thing in the world to do, is just moving uphill efficiently. So with ski mountaineering it’s another means of moving uphill efficiently. It still has that same power and kind of similar movement, if you’re running uphill or even power hiking as it’s called. So very similar muscle groups, a little bit more gliding in ski mountaineering, going uphill then running. But that definitely proved to serve me well.

Miller: I don’t think a guest on the show has ever said their favorite thing in the world is moving up mountains efficiently. But you’ve zeroed in on what by far takes the majority of the time in a race in a race like this: the downhill part is a lot faster for obvious reasons. But what do you love about moving up a mountain efficiently?

Burke: That’s a good question because I think it is maybe not a very popular opinion, depending on who you’re talking with. But what I love about it is just I like the pain of it. [Chuckles] That is so that’s kind of messed up. But I do. I really like the pain of moving uphill efficiently. I like being able to find little ways to make things a bit easier and move faster. So whether that’s working at a lower heart rate while going uphill, or just being able to practice like day in and day out, and develop the musculature and the technique to be able to move quickly. You can see that progress if you work on it a lot. That’s really gratifying. And I think one of the best things about it too is, who doesn’t love being in the mountains and just being in a beautiful area, exploring new terrain? That’s one of the funnest things, and movement really is just on my two feet, or on skis is just the vehicle that allows me to do that.

Miller: You know, it’s really interesting, your focus on the word efficiency. Because the fastest route, or the most efficient in terms of human effort up a mountain on skis, is not necessarily always obvious. Going straight up a really steep section may actually take more time [and] more work than zigzagging a bit, even if the line is longer. How do you think about an ascent?

Burke: That’s a really good question, especially with ski mountaineering. Because a lot of times if it’s so steep you can either choose to use your arms more with your poles, digging into the slope and really leaning into the climb and kind of muscling it up that way. But it can also be a lot more slippery. If it’s so steep, sometimes your skins and your skis won’t really hold going up. So you have to assess based on how slippery the slope is, like the angle of the slope, whether you want to zigzag up, like you said, or even take your skis off, strap them to your backpack and just what we call it boot packing. You could boot pack up the mountain if it gets to be really steep and technical.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the sport of skimo, ski mountaineering, ski races where people climb one or more mountains and then ski down. The Wy’easter ski mountaineering series is happening this weekend, tomorrow and Sunday at Mount Hood. Matt Hasenohr is one of the organizers of the series of races and Sarah Burke is going to be taking part. Matt, climbing is a huge part of skimo. Transitioning between going up and down is another big part as well. Can you describe what people have to do and how that works in a race setting?

Hasenohr: That’s a major piece of the race, and Sarah talked about that efficiency piece of practicing transitions, and trying to save time during those transitions is one of the keys to the sport. So when you’re, like we described, climbing the slope, you have the skins on the bottom of your skis, and your boots are in what we call walk mode or touring mode, and your heel is free. So in order to go downhill, when you get to the top of the climb, there’s going to be a sectioned off area that says to racers ‘This is the transition zone’. At that point you’d take your ski poles, put them on the ground, so you’re not stabbing anyone as you’re flailing around, trying to transition. And you will basically lock your boots into ski mode, there’s usually a lever or some type of buckle system that is used to do so. So lock them in downhill mode, prepare your bindings to be able to lock the heel in, and then you’ll remove the skins off of your skis and then lock your heels into the skis. You stash your skins inside of a jacket or in your backpack, and then grab your poles and you’re ready to go. So at the transitions it can definitely be a bit a bit chaotic with all the people. So that’s why you try and find a space that will give you enough room to do the transition. When you get to the bottom of the hill, if you are returning back uphill,  like you mentioned, the race formats may combine a number of climbs and ski descents. So when you get to the bottom of the climb, you need to essentially do the opposite of what you did at the top. So you need to release the boots back into walker/tour mode. You have that flexibility, you need to release the heel from the binding and then reattach those climbing skins to the bottom of your skis.

Miller: On some level, we’re talking about a sport that brings cross country and downhill or alpine skiing together again in ways that they haven’t been for a while, and also could mean fewer people buying lift tickets if they’re powering themselves up a mountain. Do you think that skimo could change the culture of skiing?

Hasenohr: That’s a really interesting question. I think we’re seeing the last couple of years we’ve seen skiing in general become increasingly popular and ski resorts becoming quite busy. And I think through the pandemic as well, them changing their policies. You saw a huge increase in the number of folks looking to do a human powered version of skiing, backcountry skiing, and ski touring. and finding ways to do that. So I do think from that increase in interest in ski touring, we will see kind of an increase in this competitive version of the sport.

Miller: And Sarah Burke, before we say goodbye, what are your hopes for this weekend?

Burke: I hope to have a good time, which I know will happen. It’ll be a new place I’ve never skied at Hood. So that’s exciting too. And my goal is to do as best as I can, beat as many people as I can. That’s always the goal.

MIller: [Chuckles] You are a competitor: ‘beat as many people as you can’. Matt, briefly, are you going to be wearing a costume this weekend, sometimes that’s a part of competitions?

Hasenohr: Well, I’ll be kind of on the sidelines there, cheering folks on and getting people going at the start line, between a giraffe costume and a hot dog costume. So over two days.

Miller: Combine them maybe?

Hasenohr: There you go.

Miller: Matt Hasenohr and Sarah Burke, thanks very much for joining us. I appreciate it.

Guests: Thank you.

Miller: Sarah Burke is an amateur ski mountaineering enthusiast based in Bend. She’s going to be taking part in the UAE Easter series of skimo races at Mount Hood this weekend. Matt Hasenohr is the race organizer based in Portland for that series. When he’s not doing that he is a mechanical engineer.

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