Times Staff Writer
“Dipping a toe.”
The phrase can be used in a variety of ways — including most commonly when checking the temperature of a body of water.
In this case, however, it refers to Cam Smith — a Western Colorado University alum and current coach of the school’s ski-mountaineering team — who went from being an 18-year-old wanting to dip his toe into the sport to becoming a world-class ski mountaineer.
“I never intended to race at this level,” said Smith. “I wanted to start skiing to take a break from focused competition, but it turns out I loved it too much to not dive in head first once given the opportunity.”
Smith ran with that opportunity, competing this month on the ski mountaineering, or “ski-mo,” world stage for the second year in a row in a sport that tests athletes for their speed in both climbing up a mountain and skiing down.
This year, Smith has continued to dominate on the slopes, qualifying for the World Championships and World Cup — both taking place in Switzerland — and resulting in Smith having a busy month of March.
“When I started racing internationally, I was not even in the same stratosphere as the front pack,” said Smith. “Two years later, I feel myself inching closer and can visualize a path to get here.”
Busy month unfolds
On Saturday, March 2, Smith began a full month of ski-mo racing and adventure — beginning with the Power of Four in Aspen, before flying to Switzerland on March 5 to compete in the World Championships at Villars sur Ollon from the March 9-16.
The Power of Four is a team event which includes climbing the four peaks of Aspen: Snowmass, Buttermilk, Highlands and Ajax. Smith partnered with Tom Goth from Salt Lake City, and the duo got off to a strong start, leading fellow racers before Smith crashed on the first descent of the race.
Unfortunately, the crash dislocated Smith’s shoulder. Yet, that didn’t stop him from finishing the race.
“We continued on for the next few hours racing our best,” said Smith. “I gritted my teeth through the pain, and we were able to finish second overall behind our friends Max (Taam) and John (Gaston).”
After a stop to see friends and family in Granby and Denver, Smith was off to Zurich, Switzerland.
Once Smith touched down in Switzerland, he went straight to Villars with Jacob Dewey — a freshman on the Western ski-mo team — to begin familiarizing themselves with the courses. While Smith is an avid ski mountaineer, he decided to take on another challenge this year — coaching the team at Western.
“It’s been really fun and rewarding to coach at Western,” said Smith. “It feels good to bring everything full circle. We are currently the only organized competitive collegiate team in the United States, and we take pride in setting the bar.”
When Smith wasn’t checking out the course, he was making friends with competitors from 31 nations at Villars sur Ollon.
The World Championships included five days of racing, with two days off after the first and fourth races.
Perennial contenders such as Italy, France and the host nation of Switzerland set their sights on gold medals, while somewhere in the middle, emerging contenders like Russia, Norway and the United States look to claim their status as countries not to be overlooked.
“Sprinting on the first day ensured that there would be no ‘easing into it’ here at Worlds,” said Smith, who qualified for a spot in the sprint race quarterfinals. “I found myself climbing into third place among some extremely accomplished racers. While I eventually faded into sixth in a very tight race, I was proud of how hard I went and how well I executed.”
Top among North Americans
Smith finished 27th in the sprint — the top finisher among North American men — with four more races to go.
“The rest day was much welcomed, and we refocused on the individual (race),” said Smith.
For that, a unique course of low-angle climbs, steep boot packing, and tricky skiing was on tap. Abnormal heat of 40-plus degrees Fahrenheit added to the challenge. Smith came out strong, mixing it up around 30th place with a group of about 10 other athletes.
A small mistake of losing a skin set Smith back and resulted in a finish of 33rd overall. Four minutes after finishing, Smith collapsed — but recovered in time for the vertical race the next day.
With that race being only uphill, it becomes a challenge of mental and physical strength more than skill and execution.
“The feelings beforehand are a unique type of nervous,” stated Smith. “Just line up and climb as hard as you can.”
However, due to weather — heavy rain and snowfall — the course was modified, meaning it was flatter and more of a gliding climb than normal. The field took off fast and Smith did all he could to keep up in the long, low-angle sections — hovering in the mid to high 20s.
“I liked where I was at and was doing all I could just to keep in contact,” said Smith.
A few minutes before the finish, the grade turned slightly steeper, and Smith gave all he had until the finish line, making a big move to finish 18th overall — second among north American men behind Aspen’s Gaston, who finished 13th.
Two to go
After a much-needed rest day, Smith prepared for the final two races — the team race and team relay.
Smith was paired with Gaston on what looked to be another rough day for weather. Heavy rains pushed the start into the afternoon. Once on the course, Smith and Gaston utilized teamwork, resulting in the best finish by a North American men’s team.
“After battling with some Austrians and (Spaniards), we had another great last surge to push ourselves into eighth on the final climb,” said Smith. “We descended hard to the line and celebrated the best-ever finish by a North American men’s team.”
The relay wasn’t much to speak of. In the final leg, Smith waited his turn and got tagged off in sixth place with nobody near, ahead or behind. Wanting to finish on a high note, Smith skied as hard as he could. The last day moved the U.S. into seventh among all countries.
“Looking back on the week brings up a plethora of reactions,” said Smith. “There were moments I was totally over my head and realized I had lots of work to do to catch up to the best in the world. There were also moments where I found myself going toe-to-toe with the top racers on Earth.”
Smith’s month of racing will continue in Switzerland on Saturday, March 23, when he competes in the World Cup in Disentis. From there, Smith will fly back to Gunnison next Tuesday — just in time to race the Grand Traverse March 30. Last year, Smith won the 40-mile competition from Crested Butte to Aspen alongside partner Sean Vanhorn.
(Brandon Warr can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)