Four Aspen-area athletes head to ski mountaineering world championships
There are power couples, and then there are power couples.
Max Taam and Jessie Young definitely qualify as a power couple, Aspen style.
Taam and Young, who are dating, were selected for the U.S. National Ski Mountaineering Team that will compete in the world championships in Verbier, Switzerland, Feb. 5 to 12.
The Roaring Fork Valley is well represented, placing four competitors on the 18-member national team. In addition to Taam and Young, Aspenite John Gaston and Carbondale’s Lindsay Plant qualified for the squad. Gaston is the top-ranked American man and Plant is the top-ranked American woman heading into the world championships.
In addition, Snowmass Village native Rory Kelly, who now lives in Boulder, also made the national team.
All of them earned spots on the team with podium finishes in qualifying races this winter or top standings last winter.
Ski mountaineering falls under the heading of extreme sports — as in extreme endurance. It combines dashing uphill on ultralight skis with climbing skins, bootpacking on lung-searing steep pitches and skiing downhill on some of the most difficult trails of the host venue.
Some of the events at the championships will be sprints that require three minutes or so of all-out effort, while others will be slogs that require physical and mental endurance.
The four Roaring Fork Valley athletes have different levels of experience and different specialties, but a shared quality of being able to push themselves past incredible thresholds of pain and exhaustion.
What makes them do it?
“I ask myself every race — ‘Why am I doing this?’” Plant said.
She enjoys trying to push herself to new levels each race, building her skills and sharing the camaraderie among the small clique of ski mountaineers. “It’s such an endorphin rush,” she explained.
Taam, 32, who participates in all things endurance in the Aspen area, qualified for the U.S. National Team for the fourth time this year. He works on Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol. He keeps adding to his cache of knowledge about the sport and what it takes to be successful. All of the competitors are fit. It takes guile to know when to put your strengths to best use on the course, he said. It takes practice to be able to rip skins off skis and put them on with the least delay possible. And it often takes teamwork.
Taam and Gaston paired up for team competition at the 2013 world championships and finished 10th out of about 40 teams. It was an incredible feat for a U.S. team in a sport dominated by Europeans. Taam is the fifth-ranked man among the 12 members of the U.S. team.
The two-person team course will boast about 7,000 feet of vertical climbing, taking off skis and stowing them on packs while bootpacking up steep couloirs and maneuvering through off-piste terrain. “You could have thigh-deep powder,” Taam said.
The races aren’t a simple slog up, then a rip off of the skins for a kamikaze downhill. They combine bursts of uphill travel with downhill skiing, then more uphill and downhill. The leading teams will complete the course in about three hours.
The gear keeps getting lighter without compromising performance. Taam said his boots weight about 1.5 pounds each while the skis with bindings are only about 2 pounds. Nevertheless, the gear provides the stability to ski well down runs such as those in Highland Bowl.
“You can really rip on it,” Taam said.
A star is born
Young grew up skiing as an Aspen native, but she got into snowboarding and didn’t touch skis for 15 years. She moved back to Aspen after earning her master’s degree and works at Design Workshop as an urban and regional planner. She started dating Taam and went to her first ski-mountaineering event, dubbed “skimo,” as a spectator five years ago. She caught the bug and entered her first race, Aspen’s own Power of Four, in 2011. She finished second to last.
“I wasn’t pushing myself,” Young said. “I just wanted to get through it.”
But she had a secret weapon. Her training partner was among the best in the business. Taam and Young train together several days a week, skinning up Aspen Mountain before the lifts start spinning on weekdays and taking longer trips on weekends. One Saturday they tackle the Power of Four course at Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain. Another day they venture up South Hayden Peak.
Their ventures up Aspen Mountain are different than 99 percent of the trips by casual uphillers. Taam and Young will go up the Lift 1A side a bit, practice ripping off their skins as quickly as possible to skin down a run, stop, re-apply skins and climb some more, repeating it another time or two before reaching the summit.
Young proved to be a quick learner.
“I didn’t expect her to reach the level she reached so fast,” Taam said. “I have to be on my ‘A’ game to stay ahead of her.”
She credits him for sharing his years of experience and teaching her the nuances of ski-mountaineering competition, such as good transitions and strategy. He said she’s learned most of what it takes on her own.
Whatever it is, the chemistry worked. “Last year I finally had a few good races,” Young said. This year she placed well enough to get the second ranking among the six women on the national team. “I’ve been able to build off that base year after year.”
It’s not just fitness
Young said one of her strengths is downhill skiing. “It’s not pretty, but I can get down. I chase Max around quite a bit,” she said.
She also has a very high tolerance for pushing herself — something that can’t be taught.
“A lot of it is being properly trained so you can stick it out for that long,” Young said. “Max tells me, ‘If you’re suffering, so is everybody else.’”
At the World Championships, she will participate in a team event with Plant and she will race the sprint, a short but grueling race that combines skinning uphill, running uphill in boots, then throwing on skis and racing downhill — an all-out effort for three minutes.
When asked what she likes about sprinting, Young quickly fired back with a laugh, “Nothing. I think of myself more of an endurance athlete.”
However, she doesn’t have a choice on competing in the sprint. She won a qualifier racer earlier this winter. “I was pretty shocked to see my name on top of that one,” she said
Plant, 32, a Carbondale native, earned the top rank among U.S. women even though she’s been racing less than three years and had a baby 18 months ago. She juggles family and career in a medical office with her passion for ski mountaineering.
She’s been alpine skiing since she was 3 years old, but just started hiking the backcountry in 2008. She liked it so well she got into racing.
“I’ve always been into endurance sports, pushing hard,” Plant said.
In addition to the team event with Young, Plant will race in an individual event. The lineup is still to be determined for relay teams of men and women.
The four Roaring Fork Valley athletes must cover their own expenses to get to the finals and stay during the week of competition. Fund raising has gone well, Taam said, but they will gratefully accept contributions. For information, contact him at email@example.com.
Plant and Young qualified for their first world championships. Plant said it is humbling and exciting to participate in the event.
Taam and Gaston won’t have the first-time jitters, but they have lofty expectations. They want to top the 10th place finish in team competition from two years ago. It will require putting that veteran experience to work.
“It’s not just a fitness race,” Taam said.
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