Skiing mountaineering 21 March 2017 Back to list
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Joe Risi: COSMIC Skimo Extraordinaire

Joe Risi: COSMIC Skimo Extraordinaire

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer


With the final COSMIC Series race cemmencing this weekend, we thought we'd pull Joe aside and take up a bit more of his time to talk all things American ski mountaineering.


What is the COSMIC Skimo Series, how did it get started and how did you come about taking over its reigns?


The COSMIC Series is in it’s 10th winter of serving up lung searing ski mountaineering races. Originally the series was conceived by Pete Swenson, known as the Godfather of Ski mountaineering in the US, to grow the sport in America. 


Pete was in the midst of starting his own crew of homegrown rando racers (his sons Max & Sam) and the prospect of driving 40,000+ miles in the winter to organize ski races on top of managing his rep business (Pete is the Dynafit rep in Colorado) across the state would be totally overwhelming. I stepped in his skintrack a few years ago to take over the reigns fueled by my ambitions, lusts of sleep deprivation, and love of ski touring. 


Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer

Can you tell us a bit about what goes into managing the Series and what kind of thought goes into course development? Are there requirements for each race?


For myself the first few years of managing this series was a bit of an experiment and crash course in real life video game development. 


Firstly it’s touching base with the resort operator/owner or guide service to outline the goals of the event, expectations, and necessary permits in the summer/fall months. 


Then we move into the promotion, marketing, insurance, & registration side of the events which can last for months. Sometimes I’m only given the green light a few weeks before an event at a place I have no local knowledge of.


The week leading up to the event it’s beer orders, prize/raffle coordination, and course marking materials. 


Two to three days before the event I wrap up my obligations at SCARPA, where I’m the Event Manager for North America which includes coordinating all of our obligations in the ski touring, rock climbing, ice climbing, and trail running event world, then move into the course setting mode. 


For me the course setting point is where the fun begins. It’s the point at which we take all the maps or ideas in our heads (I say “our” because 9 out of 10 times I’m working with a local of a resort – ski patroller, avalanche forecaster, event staff, or even ski shop owners) and put them to snow. It’s easy to look at a ski area and imagine skiing down lines, because someone took a chainsaw to trees and Voila! you have a trail. We look at the ski area completely differently. From the uphill skiing perspective a ski area or permitted terrain is a new and fresh. 


Using 27” green marking flags, touring skis, and several pairs of climbing skins we can create a course for the minions to follow. 


Setting consists of grafting skin tracks on slopes no higher then 18 degrees on fresh snow and 22-24 degrees on hardpack/groomed, the latter of which I avoid as much as possible. I’m trying to create the most realistic backcountry/touring skiing experience within a resorts boundary and there is nothing worse then skiing uphill on a groomed run! 


Aiming to create a skin track that has sections of technical aspects, areas to kick n’ glide, mandatory kick turns on steeper slopes, and bootpacks when necessary are all in the mix. 


Once setting is done through the days and very frequently well into the night under headlamps. It’s time to get timing equipment in order for the weekend’s event. 


Come morning, 3:30am, wake up call it’s GO time! Last minute weather checks & avalanche condition report. Starting area prep with windflags, sound equipment, and then registration/bib hand out. 


Race start usually rolls out around 7-8am before the area is open to the general public or later if we’re on permitted backcountry terrain. 


A flare gun goes off for the start and then race management begins. Controlling racers, managing cut-off times, directing public skiers, and changing weather conditions. 


Capturing timing results then moving into the awards ceremony. 


Post results online and the ever important blasting photos on social media. 


With a few sips of beer and announcing results the fun isn’t over just yet. 


Course cleanup still looms. On a good quick race we can clean up the skin tracks and downhill tracks on race day. With bigger races it can take two whole days with separate teams to clean up 1,000’s of flags. 


Usually I’m back in my truck by Sunday night or Monday morning off to work my “desk job” and do a bit of recovering for the next weekend ahead.


Welcome to “my winter”…


Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer

If there were skimo cards, like there are baseball cards, who would be your favorite racer on the skimo card, male and female? There should totally be skimo cards....


We’re totally going to bust out skimo cards!!! I’ve always wanted to have a calendar with the top racers in their spandex doing their “real” job. We have teachers, scientists, ski patrollers, real estate agents, brewery owners, and CEO’s it would only be fitting to get them in a collectable calendar. Although I see enough spandex on my weekends I’m not sure I could handle seeing it 365 days a year!


Some collectable ones would be Jessie Young, Janelle Smiley, Sari Anderson, Nikki LaRochelle, Clare Gallagher, Lindsay Plant, Kristi Knecht, Najeeby Quinn, Michela Adrian, Jaime Brede, Meredith Edwards, and a few wildcards for the ladies. 


For the blokes it would have to be John Gaston, Max Taam, Billy Laird, Brian Smith, Brian “Wick” Wickenhauser, Jon Brown, Eric “Sully” Sullivan, Rory Kelly, Scott Simmons, Mike Foote, Tom Goth, Teague Holmes, Scott Archer, Paul Hamilton, and the addition of few wildcards that are emerging. 



Worlds recently finished. Did you been following along? How pumped are you on how Team USA did?


The US just placed 6th! It was totally unexpected and awesome! The underlying story here was the youth racers & all the support the team had from family, friends, and people like you and me cheering from home. It means more than ever that this is a legitimate sport for athletes based in the US. 


Skimo racing seems to be on the up, and since you've been involved with the COSMIC Series, how much have you seen it grow?


From the old guard (relatively) of ski racers that are now focused on coaching, running clinics, and giving back to the sport it’s evident through participation at every evident. This year more so as I’ve been able to host races at a mountain nearest the fitness epicenter of Boulder at Eldora and the amount of triathletes, ultra runners, and cyclists that are “cross-training” by participating in ski mountaineering races is simply off the charts. 


When they compare a carbon wheelset for a performance bicycle to a competitive race outfit in the skimo world the costs are the same! 


What are your thoughts on it being in the Olympics? Do you think it has a good chance of being accepted as a winter sport?


It’s a great stage for the sport to have a spotlight on it! That being said it’s been at the Olympics before in 1928, 1936, and 1948 at that time it resembled what is now known as the biathlon. 


Today I believe the focus of the Olympics would be on a spectator & media friendly event such as a sprint race. Think 400 vertical feet up several kick turns, 100-150 ft boot pack into a few more kick turns and then down a slope to finish. Not the sort of races that the average person today associates with ski mountaineering racing but it’s a foot in the door and unbelievable exposure to a sport which is great!


Lets back up a minute and fill those in that don't know what skimo is. What is skimo, Joe?


Skimo = Rando = Randonee = Ski mountaineering racing 


Us silly Americans love to shorten every other word. Thus you get skimo. In my understanding skimo is now known to be associated with ski mountaineering racing. In my mind whatever you call it is fine. The act of skiing uphill and getting around mountains fast is what we’re all after. 


Skimo racing allows athletes and mountaineers to gain fitness, experience, and improve techniques that they can then apply to conquering their goals in the mountains come Spring.


What does it take to get involved in a race, any advice for first timers?


A pair of skis with touring bindings, comfortable boots, clothing made to sweat through(if you walk outside and are cold that’s the perfect outfit to wear as you will warm up) remember 80% of ski touring is aerobic, for many the downhill is a chance to rest, a pack made to hold skis, longer poles(think 120-130 cross country skiing poles) , a helmet(bike or climbing will do) climbing skins (at least 2 pairs) and your favorite pair of Julbo’s! 


The Zephyr’s or Stunt’s in Zebra Light lenses are perfect for day or night! Then a pair of Aerospace for storm days or descents. 


Depending on the race or venue several shops in the area can help out first timers with ski touring gear. I always bring lots of demo gear to try out at each race free of charge. 


Anything you want to add?


The most important aspect of ski mountaineering racing is the community! You’re never alone in this sport. From online forums to groups that skin uphill daily to the circus of people that follow around the COSMIC series as we jump from state to state. 

I don’t know how to play golf but for me ski touring is my golf. I get to spend hours in the mountains talking to my friends, building new connections with others, and all the while enjoying what Ullr has given us in the form of snow! 

I’d like to thank the 157th Infantry First Battalion of the 10th Mountain for their help in setting and supporting races throughout these last few years. In addition to my friends at Cripple Creek Backcountry for creating a community of the light and fast movement through their retail stores. 

Of course I have to thank Julbo for the support and allowing me to see day and night via some amazing eyewear.

Can’t ask for much more then to hope to see some new faces at COSMIC Races in the future! 

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