OURAY – Alice and Larry Leeper’s living room was strewn with their daughter’s gear. Skis, boots, skins, crampons, shovel, beacon, probe, backpack, technical clothing, a via ferrata kit and all kinds of other stuff. Most of it brand new, some still sealed in plastic.
Janelle Smiley perched catlike on a chair in the middle of it all, apologizing for the mess, and worrying that it might be too much.
“It’s pretty geeky,” admitted the 31-year old Ouray High School alumna. She was visiting her parents last week before taking off to compete in the biennial World Championship Randonee Races held this weekend in Pelvoux, France. “I remember when I barely had enough gear to even do the sport. It was kind of a junk show. It’s crazy now to be in a full-on speed suit, with the fastest skis, fastest skins, lightest boots.”
Ski mountaineering (commonly known as “skimo” or, if you want to get all European about it, “randonee”) is a gear-intensive sport, which involves skinning and boot-packing up 12,000-plus foot mountains and then schussing back down at speeds of 40 miles per hour and beyond. Because athletes are constantly shifting from one form of self-propulsion to another, it’s important to have lightweight, flexible gear that is super easy to put on, take off and stow until it’s needed again.
Smiley’s featherweight La Sportiva RSR randonee racing skis are completely sport-specific; they serve no purpose except for elite skimo racing. Her La Sportiva Stratos Cube boots, too, are tailor-made for the sport. They are the lightest (and probably most expensive) skimo boots on the market.
Smiley is living in a different world than she was two years ago when she traveled to Claut, Italy, to compete in the World Championships for the first time. Back then, she was a complete unknown, having come out of nowhere just a month earlier to dominate the women’s division at the 2011 National Championships at Jackson Hole for the first time.
Now, she’s a sponsored athlete with a big pile of titles to her name, the most recent of those being a gold medal at the International Ski Mountaineering Federation’s North American Championships in her home town of Crested Butte (one of the sport’s hot-spots in the U.S.) on Jan. 26.
Here, Smiley smoked her competition on a very technical course with 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.
The extravagant mess in her parents’ living room bears witness to the companies that now sponsor her: La Sportiva, Gortex, CAMP. When she traveled to Italy in 2011, it was mostly on her own dime. This time, she said, her sponsors are picking up about 70 percent of the tab.
It’s all pretty nice, but Smiley admits, she misses the carefree attitude she brought to the sport when she first broke into it. “The added pressure of having sponsors backing you, it changes the game a bit,” she said. “I’m actually a little bit apprehensive; I don’t feel my best. But I’m hoping to surprise myself. I have been given a gift of athletic ability. Hopefully I can give God glory through that.”
Smiley is part of a team of six women and eight men from the U.S. who will compete in France Feb. 9-15. The World Championships are comprised of five different events: team racing, sprints, individual, vertical and relay. Smiley will be focusing on winning the individual title. The course, in the rugged heart of the French Alps, with close to 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, will take athletes about 2.5 hours to complete. They will be required to wear crampons and clip into a via ferrata for the most exposed parts of the course.
Smiley is of course hopeful she will do well, but her dominance in the sport in this country doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll earn a spot on the podium in Europe, where randonee racing is a beloved part of the culture, and many athletes are hand-picked and supported by their national governments from a young age.
Smiley’s husband Mark will be there, cheering her on. He is producing a five-part video series about her skimo odyssey for La Sportiva’s website. (Visit www.sportiva.com to see his latest installment from her win at Nationals in Jackson Hole last month.)
After the Championships (hopefully with a world title under her belt), Smiley plans to continue competing on the European randonee racing circuit for the rest of the winter season. The sport is so huge there, she said, that at some of the better-known races, thousands of people line the course with cowbells, cheering the athletes on.
Smiley and her husband, Mark, are embarked 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.
So far, they have completed 40 climbs. If everything aligns perfectly, they will bag six more this summer.
Their project is called “Committed.”
“We are committed to climbing, to each other and to the mountains themselves,” Smiley said. “It’s all incredibly fun, and one big adventure that never seems to end. Mark and I have both learned a lot about how to encourage each other, how to be a team. We hope to inspire other people by what we’re doing.”
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