OURAY - Ouray High School alumna Janelle (Leeper) Smiley continues her winning ways in the world of randonée, or “skimo” racing, otherwise known as competitive ski mountaineering.
fgWith the 2011 Randonee National Championship and the 2012 International Ski Mountaineering Federation’s (ISMF) North American Championship safely stowed in her uber-geeky lightweight backpack, the 30-year-old from Crested Butte took the Sneffels Half Loop by storm on March 10, coming in first among women competitors and fourth overall.
“The race was fantastic,” said Smiley, a La Sportiva-sponsored athlete who spent much of her childhood in Ouray; she is the daughter of Larry and Alice Leeper, former owners of the Wright Opera House. “I was up there racing with the fast guys. I just decided, I’m going to push myself, and the next thing I knew, I was still hanging on.”
Her smokin’ finish time of 5:45:36 put her well below the six-hour bar that race organizer and San Juan Hut System creator Joe Ryan had set for the fastest cats on the challenging 30.5 mile course that laces together four back-country huts skirting the snowy flanks of the Sneffels Range along the Alder Creek/Dallas trails from Telluride to Elk Meadows near Ouray.
The course is fast and technical, whipping through fast nordic trails in the woods and big powder bowls.
Brian Smith of Gunnison and Scott Simmons of Durango split first and second place by just five seconds, skating across the finish line on County Road 5 at Elk Meadows at 5:25:39 and 5:25:44 respectively.
Third place went to Billy Laird of Crested Butte, who finished about six minutes ahead of Smiley at 5:39:56.
Pat O’Neil of Crested Butte, the half-Iroquois, half-Irish madman who won the Sneffels Half Loop in both of its previous incarnations in 2002 and 2003 and was on the short list of “really fast guys” Ryan had predicted would do well on the course this year, came in four minutes after Smiley at 5:49:30, the last in the field of 34 long-course competitors to break the six-hour mark.
To put things in perspective, Smiley’s closest female competitor, Jaimie Palmer of Telluride, came in at 7:37:20, and the last skier to finish the long course came in at 11:12:00.
(Six additional skiers including Joanie Gibbs and Taylor Chase of Ouray opted for a slightly shorter course, skiing out at the Blue Lakes Hut.)
Smiley reckons she could have had an even stronger finish, but when she got to the last big, punishing climb up toward the Ridgway Hut, her skins started balling up.
“I switched to different, shorter skins, which was a big mistake,” she said. “I started slipping out and lost a bunch of time.”
Nevertheless, Smiley is characteristically chipper about the ordeal.
“I would highly recommend the race to anyone considering getting into the sport,” she said. “It’s really casual. It’s not this crazy, agro scene that you often see in randonée racing. Everyone was having a really good time.”
Smiley was in good company; a huge chunk of her fellow competitors came from Crested Butte (Ryan affectionately calls them the Butte Mutants) where they’ve got over 55 km’s of groomed Nordic trails to train on all winter long, and where skimo racing is a really big deal.
In fact Crested Butte Mountain Resort hosted the ISMF North American Ski Mountaineering Championships on Jan. 28-29, where Smiley demonstrated both her climbing prowess and her skiing ability with a victory on a very technical course. The course had over 5,000 feet of vertical elevation gain and loss, including a class-five boot pack ascent along a via ferrata up The Guides Ridge on Mt. Crested Butte.
It was basically rock climbing with snow over it – which was just fine with Smiley. She spends her summers with her husband Mark on a quest to become the first couple to climb all 164,000 vertical feet of the technical terrain made famous by a book published in 1979, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.
“I was able to pass around a dozen people on the Ridge,” Smiley said. “It was so fun. This sport just requires so many sets of skills. Over the last five years, it’s amazing how much this sport has grown.”
What’s next for Smiley? Come the end of May, she and hubby Mark take off for Alaska for more climbing. “We have, to date, finished 35 of the 50 classic climbs,” she said. “If the mountains and weather cooperate, we hope to get another ten of them this summer. This is our third summer doing it, and we’ve both learned a lot about how to encourage each other, how to be a team.”
Next winter, she hopes to earn a chance to return to Claut, Italy, for the biennial World Championship Randonee Races, in which she competed in 2011.
“My defining moment that makes me realize I am a skier for life happens over and over again,” she writes in her La Sportiva athlete’s bio. “Each time I click into my bindings pure joy runs though my body. As long as that keeps happening, I'm in!”