Spandex and Bacon
The M.W. Otto Rhode Memorial Skin and Ski
Photos by Cait Bourgault
Words by Ian Ferguson
At noon on Saturday, a crowd of skiers gathered at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road for the start of the first-ever organized alpine ski tour up the historic route. Many were eager to embark on a mellow tour, while others were mentally preparing for a grueling race. They were all there to take part in the M.W. Otto Rhode Memorial Skin and Ski, named for a character of historical significance (or the road itself – no one really knows).
The experience level ranged from first-timers to some of the best skimo racers in New England, and the wardrobe was eclectic, ranging from spandex racing suits to a two-piece suit covered in a deliciously realistic bacon graphic. Fairy wings, bat wings and even a baby backpack (complete with real baby) rounded out some of the more notable outfits. The equipment on people’s feet ranged from ultra-light carbon setups resembling Nordic skis and boots, to wide powder skis with frame bindings and more than a few splitboards.
The gathering of this curious tribe was organized by Granite Backcountry Alliance as a fundraiser and a way to bring together the backcountry community in the Northeast. Great Glen Trails and the Mt. Washington Auto Road opened the road to downhill skiers, a move so rare that it attracted skiers from as far as Boston, Bangor, Burlington and Quebec.
Granite Backcountry Alliance is a non-profit whose goal is to promote and expand backcountry skiing opportunities in the White Mountains. Mount Washington, as the epicenter of the Granite territory and arguably of the East Coast backcountry scene, served as a perfect venue for this gathering, and the crowd buzzed with anticipation as they made their way to the starting line.
When the cannon fired, the first wave of recreational skiers took off up the road at a leisurely pace, merrily striding up the ribbon of white until they disappeared around a corner. It has been an awful January for snow, but the auto road was one of the few routes up Mt. Washington that was still skiable, at least to the turnaround point at the three-mile mark.
A few minutes later, the cannon fired again and the second wave took off. These were the racers, and they sprinted off the starting line until they found their cadence, with only the elite maintaining the pace of a steady jog.
Before long the racers were passing the recreational skiers.
The three-mile mark was the turnaround spot, the top of the climb. A snow coach full of volunteers offered cookies, bars and water. The leading racers soon began arriving. They quickly ripped skins and transitioned to downhill mode, speeding past those still climbing, with the occasional cheer egging them on.
Tristan Williams was the first to cross the finish line, arriving at the bottom 41 minutes and seven seconds after starting the 6-mile race. Hilary McCloy led the women with a time of 49:51. A crowd formed at the finish line as each racer ended their three-mile run.
The aprés party featured free-flowing beer, live music, a delicious meal and a raffle; a fantastic way to round out the day’s activities. Spontaneous party games broke out in the crowd as Granite Chief Tyler Ray thanked everyone for coming.
“It’s great to see the enthusiasm for the sport,” Ray said. “This event was a huge success and we’re grateful to the people at Great Glen Trails for making it happen. We’ll be back next year.”
Similar races have been growing in popularity at places like Black Mountain in nearby Jackson and Burke Mountain in Vermont. Andrew Drummond, who kept time for the Otto race and operates a race series at Black Mountain, encouraged participants to shoot for the triple crown – all three races in one weekend.
Races and events like these have helped skiers cope with a lackluster snow season. It’s been a bad snow month across the whole country. In the Northeast, deep cold followed by torrential rains have all but obliterated the snowpack beyond the reach of heroic snowmaking efforts. When conditions are bad, gatherings like the M.W. Otto Rhode Memorial are especially important. They bring out the indomitable Yankee spirit, and they remind us why we ski in the first place:
Uphill, downhill, inbounds or off-piste, we ski because it’s fun.
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