John Gaston, 25, won first place last week in the U.S. Ski Mountaineering National Championship at Jackson Hole, Wyo. The next day, he woke up to do it all over again in a similarly intense competition in Grand Targhee, where he took his second gold in just two days.
Gaston’s wins assured him a spot on the eight-member U.S. National Team, which will go on to compete in the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF) World Championship in Pelvoux, France this February.
When Gaston entered the championship race, he had no expectations of medaling, he said. He was a relative newcomer to the sport and although he had a handful of wins under his belt, including Aspen Skiing Co.’s Power of Four race and America’s Uphill, he was still taking tips from fellow competitors, he said.
On the morning of the championship race, it was minus 18 degrees. Gaston had boiled the water in his bottles with the hope that they wouldn’t freeze in the middle of the two-and-half-hour race — another tip he had recently picked up. If the bottles froze, which is a common occurrence during these types of races, Gaston could risk becoming dehydrated in the middle of the competition.
The course Gaston was about to undertake included five climbs and five descents for a total gain of about 8,000 vertical feet. Due to the lack of snowfall in the area, most of the uphill skinning was not going to be on groomed, steep runs but over icy, slippery moguls.
Just two years ago, Gaston would have never been caught in the lycra body suit he was wearing because of its style and his unfamiliarity with the sport. But with the need to be as efficient as possible in between climbs and descents, the suit proved invaluable. It had individualized pockets for all three skins that he would use during the race and slots for energy gel, which he also was hoping wouldn’t freeze over the course of the competition.
As the race began, there was a mad sprint up the first climb. Gaston stayed behind a few experienced racers during the first two ascents as they created a path up steep mogul runs. Climbing bumps was never one of Gaston’s strengths, despite the days he spent practicing climbing mogul runs at Highlands, he said. He was better at gaining vertical feet quickly on groomed or bootpacked trails. Luckily, the third ascent was made up of those, which allowed Gaston to jump into second place.
Soon after, he took the lead, which he held until the last climb. His final ascent consisted of more steep bump runs and he lost nearly all of his two-minute lead. Fortunately, he could make up for lost time on the final descent.
One of the biggest changes in ski mountaineering races over the past year is that competitors need to be able to ski downhill fast, Gaston said.
“Now you can’t just be fast on the uphill and kind of squirm your way down or slide your way down like it used to be,” he said. “You have to be able to ski up and down and transition really fast.”
While most experienced ski mountaineering racers enter the sport after careers in trail running and Nordic racing, the young Gaston grew up as a downhill skier before he was introduced to ski mountaineering. He could ski fast down a variety of terrain including the crud, iced bumps that he just spent two hours going up.
That’s exactly what Gaston did as he came across the finish line at 2:30:09, which earned him his first national championship medal. Just 46 seconds later, Utah resident Jason Dorais came speeding in behind him to take silver.
Gaston and his twin brother Pete are the owners of the locally-based Strafe Outerwear, which has a showroom at the base of Highlands Ski Area. The brothers founded Strafe in 2009 and it has grown steadily, landing features in industry magazines. In Aspen, Strafe’s brightly colored bib pants, sickbird suits and nomad jackets are quickly becoming a symbol of young local freestyle skiers who shred Ajax and Highlands on a daily basis.
Although Strafe doesn’t make lycra suits yet, Gaston spends most of his time in Strafe Outerwear while he trains for the ski mountaineering races. The company has a new clothing line specific for ski mountaineering in progress that is due to come out in the fall of 2014, Gaston said.
In general, ski mountaineering has taken off over the past five years, both in terms of the competitiveness and exposure, Gaston said. During the championship race, the top nine racers were within two minutes of each other at the two-hour mark, which is unprecedented in long endurance races, and that goes to show how intense the competition is becoming, he said.
The gear has become more advanced, he said. One day Gaston would like Strafe to design equipment and accessories for the sport, he said.
“The more that I do this kind of racing, the more I’m trying to find ways to build products that are capable of that level of activity but that would appeal to a younger crowd,” he said.
Gaston acknowledged that some may consider ski mountaineering a strange sport because most people would rather spend time skiing down a mountain than climbing up it, he said.
“I love the premise behind it,” Gaston said. “It’s traveling efficiently and quickly up and down big mountains and anyone can relate to that. If you’ve ever climbed up a mountain and skied down a peak you can relate to that.”
Sunlight Ski Area outside of Glenwood Springs is hosting the final qualifying race — dubbed the “Heathen Challenge” — for the ISMF World Championship today. Despite already making the team, Gaston is competing in the race.