Equinox Snow Challenge a unique experience
By Molly Absolon, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
March 14, 2012
It started off feeling like a race to me, though the promotion for the event emphasized fun, camaraderie and pushing oneself rather than racing. But I found myself watching the girls from Team Toko and trying to match my pace with theirs. I don’t do that well being noncompetitive.
If there’s a starting line, a crowd, some kind of athletic activity and a goal, I tend to push hard to win — or at least place respectably.
Racing just to finish has never been my style.
But this was different. I was part of a team of three, and we were going to be skate-skiing, one person at a time, for 12 hours, trying to see how many laps we could complete before time ran out.
I took off fast on my first loop, skiing hard, trying to pass and not get passed. Around me, there was a skier in a fat suit, a woman in a tutu and an older man with a long gray beard and knickers, classic skiing. I saw groups of people gliding along chatting and kids with fairy wings and superhero costumes. And, of course, there were the women from Team Toko in their one-piece Lycra suits with advertising slogans plastered down the arms and legs.
People were out to ski for 24 minutes or for three, six, 12 or 24 hours. There was a kids event and a costume competition. Skiers didn’t have their age or race category marked on their calves (the way you do in triathlons), so you couldn’t tell who was doing what.
It soon became clear the challenge really was personal, even for me.
I’m talking about the Equinox Ski Challenge — now known as the Equinox Snow Challenge — a unique winter event held in West Yellowstone, Mont., each spring. This year’s challenge is March 24 and 25.
100 or so participants
The Equinox Snow Challenge started in 2007 after founder Sam Newberry, fresh from competing in the 24 Hours of Moab mountain bike race, decided it would be fun to run a similar kind of event in his neighborhood. (He lives in Bozeman, Mont.) He wanted an event that blended fun and personal challenge and gave something back to the community. An endurance ski event seemed to fit the bill.
That first year, 30-some skiers — both classic and skate — showed up. This year, Newberry anticipates 100 or so participants. All proceeds from the event are donated to local charities, and participants are encouraged to bring canned food to give to the West Yellowstone food bank.
Here’s how it works: You ski as part of a team or solo, trying to complete as many laps of a 9-kilometer course as you can or want in a set amount of time. My team started out skiing one lap each, one after another, but by midafternoon, we were ready for longer breaks in between loops, so we switched things up and skied two laps before passing off the imaginary baton to the next skier. In between, we hung out. And, as Newberry predicted, that hangout time quickly became the charm of the event.
March in West Yellowstone can be balmy and springlike or bitter cold. Our day was a bit of both. While the sun was out, we lounged around in our ski clothes, not bothering to change between laps.
But as the sun sank, the temperatures dropped, and we layered up in insulated pants and parkas, or crawled into sleeping bags and lay around waiting our turn to ski. People rewaxed skis, ate and chatted. We found commonalities: love for skiing, exercise, winter and the fun of participating in a different kind of sporting event. And we found support as people began to tire and waver.
By late afternoon, the event had fallen into a rhythm. Skiers came and went, logging their circuits with the ever-smiling volunteers who kept track of everyone’s progress. People began to finish up as three hours passed, then six.
In the early evening, Newberry and the volunteers lit a bonfire and laid out a potluck dinner in the warming hut for everyone to share.
Some skiers plugged away relentlessly, eating on the go. Others stopped for a nap, or to eat and recharge before heading out again ... and again and again. Darkness fell, and we began skiing by headlamp.
The night skiing was surreal. Our world shrank to a small cone of light; the skate track narrowed to a blue-white path surrounded by blackness. I found myself bending low, trying to relax to absorb unseen bumps. Skiers were strung out by this stage, and our numbers reduced, so I skied long stretches alone, listening to the scratch of my skis and the deep, rhythmic rasp of my breath.
Overhead, the moon was full, but the woods were dark and mysterious. At times, it felt lonely, but then I’d see a distant bobbing glow from someone’s headlamp and know others were out there. Others like me, marking the hours, checking off their loops, adding kilometers.
We ended at 10 p.m., but the 24-hour skiers kept going. Todd Cedarholm, of Jackson, says the hours between 11 p.m. and dawn are the hardest to stay motivated. He listens to music and keeps plugging along. The sun helps to restore his psyche.
Fun time, personal challenge
Cedarholm has completed the 24-hour solo event three times and is headed up to West Yellowstone again this year. He says his favorite part of the Equinox Ski Challenge is definitely the people, but then he goes on to say he skis by himself, driven by his desire to clock at least 100 miles.
“This is my 10th time running or skiing for 24 hours,” he said. “I ask myself why I’m doing it every time. I don’t really have an answer. It does feel really good to stop.”
For Newberry, the best part of the event is “the balance between personal challenge and folks just out there having fun, supporting each other.
“I see the event as an invitation for people to do something difficult, to learn that hard things can be good and fun,” he said.
He seems to have been successful in achieving this balance, because when I asked others who have participated in the event over the years, they all mention the camaraderie and personal challenge.
“Motivation was pretty easy, because the other participants and volunteers were fantastic,” says Kathy Browning, of Lander, who skied in the 12-hour event last year and plans to do it again later this month. “Everyone is so supportive of one another. I can’t say enough about the sense of camaraderie there is at this event.”
Her feelings are echoed by another Lander skier, Shelli Johnson.
“I love the festive atmosphere,” Johnson said. “The event organizers and participants were all really fun and stoked and excited for one another. It’s more of an event and a festival than a race. My favorite part was being able to do something I love, pushing myself physically and being with friends. Plus, it was a girlfriend road trip. To be honest, the skiing may be secondary.”
This year, the Equinox Snow Challenge has expanded to include snowbikes and snowshoes. Athletes can mix it up and try any of the disciplines — skiing, biking or snowshoeing — or stick to their personal favorite.
Newberry stresses the bikers will be on a different route from the skiers to alleviate concerns about user conflicts. He knows skiers have reservations about bikes but hopes the event will help dispel those differences.
Browning is excited to try snow bikes.
“It will actually be my first time on a snow bike, and I’m psyched,” she said. “Since I’m only competing against myself and the vibe of the event is so low-key, I thought, why not? It’s not like I have to be a super biker. I’m just out to have fun.”
It’s not too late to sign up for this year’s challenge. Visit http://www.equinoxskichallenge.com for details.
Molly Absolon, a News&Guide copy editor, started backcountry skiing 20 years ago. Her column runs here every other week through the end of the month.