Most people find it hard enough to walk in ski boots. Ask gear tester Julie Matteau how it feels to run in them, one of a crowd of 40, all bolting out of the start gate with their skis and poles in hand. "Running with ski boots is quite different than in shoes, but I enjoy the adrenaline!"
Julie is the 2009 Canadian Ski Mountaineering Champion, and her sport combines mountaineering skills with backcountry ski techniques, boot-packing and using climbing skins on the ascent, then skiing down a continuous line.
Running is only occasionally part of the program. Last March, The Dogtooth Dash at Kicking Horse Resort in Golden, BC added this fresh twist to a mountaineering race. "Normally you start with your skins on and go uphill first. The faster skiers can put some distance between themselves and the others, so it's more spaced out. This was a little wild, a Le Mans start with everyone setting off together. A whole crowd of people sprinting in their boots, carrying their poles and skis."
Julie discovered the sport while working in the MEC office. She was getting serious about backcountry skiing, and a few of her colleagues suggested she try ski mountaineering. "They introduced me to these skiers from Europe and I thought they were crazy," she says. "Their equipment was so light, skinny little skis and boots like Swiss cheese, all full of holes."
In hindsight, it was a life-changing trip up the mountain, because Julie soon became hooked on the challenge. She rented equipment at first, bought her own gear in 2004, and entered her first race in 2007 – a vertical sprint of 1.2km at Whistler. "It was uphill all the way, and took me about an hour and fifty minutes. After the race, I came down at my own pace and got to enjoy the beautiful views of the glaciers."
Since then, Julie has competed in 15 races internationally, and won first place at 4 events in 2009. The sport is a good one for gear-testing, because skiers heat up during the intense cardio of the uphill sections, and cool down during the descent. Weather extremes can include fierce mountain temperatures, howling winds and snowstorms, so an effective layering strategy is essential to comfort. Julie starts with a light base layer, then adds a thermal piece, and a soft shell as conditions require, shedding the outer layers on the ascent. "You get warm really quickly, even on the coldest days." She generally carries a down sweater for breaks and a shell jacket. "My MEC Kinetic Jacket is key when I tour. I never go out without it." She also carries avalanche gear whenever she goes out. "Some of my friends have had close calls. It's something you have to be prepared for."
One of her goals for the coming season is to get more comfortable in less-than-perfect conditions. "Once in Europe I took a tumble on some ice and lost a ski. It was okay, but it could have been bad. I need more experience on rough, steep, and narrow terrain. I'm also learning to read topo maps. It's fine when I'm following someone but if I want to lead others I need to read maps."
She enjoys the learning process, the people involved in the sport, and the adrenalin during a race. "It's a good challenge and I really like training for it. I'm never in such good shape as when I'm training."
The MEC Kinetic Soft Shell is getting an update in 2010 to refine the fit and style lines. As a layering piece, the fit is crucial. And it certainly doesn't hurt if the jacket looks presentable in town, as well as providing solid function in the field.