Haines’ third annual Kat to Koot winter alpine adventure race begins at the Southeast Alaska State Fairgrounds and ends around six mile Lutak Road by way of Mt. Ripinski summit of 1097 metres.
Lindsay Johnson and members of the Haines Alpine Touring Society (HATS) started the race in 2017 as a way to build human-powered backcountry community. “We’d been talking about a competition of some kind and this race idea fit in with the larger Haines Winterfest,” said Johnson, “Anyone who likes having human-powered fun in the mountains. All ages and modes [of transport such as skis, boards, snowshoes] welcome.”
The first competition was held on March 5th, 2017 and only one Yukoner competed, Guillaume Levesque. In 2018, HATS moved the race date to February 22, during Yukon’s Rendezvous long weekend. The change allowed the vast majority of avid Yukon ski-touring and splitboarding enthusiasts to come and compete in the enduring race, to allow for driving to Haines.
“[I was attracted to] being with friends, spending a weekend in Haines and supporting a ‘local’ event from a neighbour community,” said Levesque. “It also happened when snow conditions were relatively bad in the Haines and White Pass the last 2 years, so it was fun to do something different.”
The number of participants from the territory who ventured through the white out conditions of the mountain skyrocketed, from one Yukoner in 2017, to 22 Yukoners out of a total 43 competitors in 2018. The fastest team took three hours and two minutes and the slowest seven hours and 43 minutes. Most racers compete with skis and snowboards, but there is also an alternate option for snowshoeing part of the mountain.
Graham Kraft, owner and craftsman of Fairweather Ski Works, has been a champion of the event both years, and a member of the fastest team in 2018 with team members Bartosz Pieciul & Ray Reeves. However, with larger numbers of Yukoners present, they were closely followed by runners-up Petr Polivka and Miriam Lukszova from Whitehorse three hours and nine minutes.
When asked if Haines residents will always dominate the race, Johnson replied, “Not necessarily, especially if we keep the course the same. The second-place team last year hailed from Whitehorse and were close on the heels of the winning team.”
“We definitely have strong people who could put in a competitive time at the event,” said Levesque, “It won’t be me though! The Haines locals are used to doing that stuff as a quick after work adventure, so I guess it all depends who shows up.”
What will this year bring; will the Haines skiers and snowboarders be beaten by a Yukon team?
I heard about this ski-touring race and I thought this was my opportunity to really push my limits and grow my skills. I had managed to convince Erik Stevens, forecaster and director at the Haines Avalanche Center, to be my ski-touring partner for the race. I’m sure to this day he still regrets the decision.
The group of Haines and Yukon skiers congregated around Fairweather Ski Works shop in the Alaska State Fairgrounds. Most seemed rather intensely focused while some wore unicorn costumes ready to have some fun during the race. As users signed up, it was made clear that you must have avalanche safety equipment, a partner and run over the course details beforehand, to ensure everyone was able to complete the race safely.
The mountain conditions were white out. But the day before the race, in preparation for such a predicated day, Haines locals flagged the entire route.
The race started, some had ski boots on, some had hiking boots on, but everyone was carrying their skis and snowboards as they walked and ran down the roads to Piedad Road, to start the ascent up Mt. Ripinski.
Immediately, I noticed that crampons and spikes were required, as the paths were covered in ice. It was my first time in ski boots and crampons and to summarise politely, it was not a pleasant experience. As we trudged slowly up, I continued to slip and we lost a lot of ground in the race, so much so that the sweepers caught up to us.
“Oh Erik, what are you doing here?” the sweeper asked, shocked to see a Haines resident so far behind. I was embarrassed and frustrated, but we persevered on.
Finally, we could transition from the crampons to skis, and up the mountain we went. First, following through the trees, then into more open alpine terrain. I was unable to see anything. I was following tracks from other racers and entrusting my partner who has skied this mountain multiple times.
By this point, my mental attitude was not in the right place. I felt upset about how terrible I was doing at the race and how embarrassing it was. As we climbed up to the north summit, I looked out to an abyss and a drop off in the white out, and my fear of heights got the better of me. I collapsed on the ground, regressing to the first time I ever went up a mountain. I was filled with sheer terror and erratic fear.
“Are you ok?” Erik asked. “No, I’m not ok, I wailed.
I gathered myself, and my breathing, and we continued onwards up the mountain. We got to the north summit and I was exhausted. I felt that the mountain had beaten me, but it was time to ski down. The snow was amazing, but once you are past the point of pushing your limits, it’s hard to enjoy it.
We got to the treeline and had to transition back to crampons to hike down the ice. I continued to slip upside down and I got stuck under my skis which were wedged between my pack. Eventually, we made it down and I vowed I would never ski again. The slowest time other than ours was four hours 46 minutes. We had come in dead last at seven hours and 34 minutes. (A Yukon group were technically slower, but they were credited with “hot laps”, which were more ski-touring and skiing before finishing the race.)
Every part of my body ached, I had run out of tears to cry, and I was utterly exhausted. But most of all, I was so embarrassed.
I may have had one of my most horrible experiences after such a terrible backcountry ski winter and I may have utterly failed, like many endeavours in 2018. It took me a month to build my self confidence again to go skiing. But that’s part of the challenge, even if you don’t see it straight away.
But now in 2019, I will go do this race again. I’m almost certain to be in last place, but I will complete the race with new skills learned and more confidence. (And not crying. And, hopefully, under seven hours and 34 minutes. Certainly, the bar hasn’t been set too high, right?)
The entry fee gets you an original map and entry to the film festival, while supporting the Haines Alpine Touring Society’s hut fund and the Southeast Alaska State Fair.
The Haines’ Alpine Adventure Ski-Touring Race (aka Kat to Koot) will be held Saturday February 23, 2019. It is a part of Southeast Alaska State Fair Winterfest activities, visit www.SeakFair.org/Winterfest/