Q&A with British ski mountaineer Ursula Moore
We talk to the 26-year-old British ski mountaineering champion and member of the British Women's Ski Mountaineering Team
What is ski mountaineering?
‘It involves climbing up mountains with skins on the bottom of your skis, then taking them off when you get to the top and skiing down. Sometimes you have to scramble along a rocky ridge, so you may have to take your skis off and strap them to your backpack and do that bit on foot. Some team races require you to rope yourselves together on tricky bits, for safety. Competitions have different disciplines: there are sprint ones lasting just a few minutes, individual ones that last about two and a half to three hours, and team events that can last from three to twenty hours. Individual races have around 2,000-2,500m of vertical ascent, while team races tend to have more.’
How did you get into ski mountaineering?
‘I’ve skied from a young age with family. In my teens, I started doing ski mountaineering and ski touring trips where you ski across the mountains from hut to hut. This gave access to a lot more fresh snow, stunning dawn views and quirky mountain huts. On one of these trips, I met a British mountain guide who was in the Men’s Ski Mountaineering Team. I was very fit from rowing and triathlon training at university and he saw someone who enjoyed pushing themselves in not-so-perfect weather conditions! He suggested I contact the women’s team captain to discuss getting involved in racing, so I did.
The next season, in 2013, the women’s team were short of people for the World Championships in France and it was on this big stage that I did my first race – with some second-hand kit and no idea about fuelling and pacing for a race at altitude. I can’t say I enjoyed it – I was completely exhausted and out of my depth, but the atmosphere and support from others was amazing. Through the week, I gained confidence with tips and practice from the team and left near the bottom of the rankings, but hooked. Each season has built from there.
The race season runs from January to late April, with the longer races tending to come at the end of the season. Each season offers a different challenge, with a World Championships every other year and the ‘Grand Course’ races [the most important team races in the ski mountaineering series] to pick off, along with as many smaller local races as you can afford to fly out to.’
Tell us about a typical day’s racing
‘When I’m competing in a race such as the Pierra Menta in France [see pierramenta.com – a four-day staged two-person team race, with four to five hours of racing each day, in the beautiful Areches-Beaufort area of the Savoie region of France; areches-beaufort.com], I wake up at around 5am as the race starts are early, and often while it’s still dark. The four days of racing are fully catered, so we can focus on racing and sleeping. I always have breakfast at least two hours before the start, around 5.30 or 6am. At the Pierra Menta, they have amazing muesli that they’ve soaked in yoghurt overnight – it’s delicious and surprisingly easy to eat on a nervous stomach. After breakfast, we sort our kit and check that we have all the necessary bits, including avalanche rescue gear, transceiver, harness, obligatory spare layers and lots of jelly babies! Then we make a final decision on how many layers to wear and how much water to take, depending on the weather forecast. We have little pockets in the front of our suits where we stuff snacks that we can get at with gloves on when we’re on the go.
Then we head to the start line to get there about 30 minutes before the race starts. You need time to warm up but don’t want to tire yourself out or get cold waiting, so it’s a fine balance. About 15 minutes before the race, I’ll share an energy bar with my team mate. After eating lots in the morning and feeling nervous, I often need to use the loo several times!’
What are your race tactics?
‘The Pierra Menta is particularly tough for women because the time cut-offs apply to men and women alike and are not a set time, but are a percentage of the fastest men’s team time. This means that there are far fewer women’s than men’s teams competing. The race start is always nerve-wracking. You can lose a lot of time here if you get stuck behind someone or your skins get knocked off in the mass start. The team soon settles into a rhythm we can sustain for the next two to eight hours, though.
You go through ups and downs in how you feel, energy levels and perspective. Stunning surroundings help take your mind off your legs. The downhill is my favourite bit – and the section where the Brits tend to pick up places.
Once the race is underway, I eat and drink about 100 calories-worth of food every half an hour (three to four jelly babies/an energy gel/nuts and chocolate chips) alternating between solid slower-release food such as nuts/dried fruit and “liquid” quick-release food such as energy gels. Most people find that if they don’t eat any solid food, they get terrible stomach upsets. I’ve learnt from my first race, where I didn’t manage to eat because I couldn’t access my food without stopping, and my water tube froze. I have food in a front pocket and water in a rucksack hydration system. We run the water tube inside our suits to keep it from freezing.’
Can you tell us more about the kit you use?
‘To allow you to walk uphill on skis, you stick skins on the bottom of them. These are synthetic strips of material that allow you to slide forwards, but help stop your skis going backwards. You then peel these off when you get to the top of your climb so you can ski downhill. Ski mountaineering boots are very light and are flexible for going uphill, but you can then ‘lock’ them into a more rigid mode to give you more support for going downhill. The skis are also very thin and light and don’t feel as stable as on-piste downhill skis. You unlock the back of the binding for going uphill, then lock your heel in for going downhill.’
Is teamwork very important?
‘Yes – extremely. This is the start of my fourth season racing and, with no World Championships this year, our big target is the Patroilles des Glaciers [one of the Grand Course races where you have to cover 53km from Zermatt to Verbier in Switzerland in one day] which has been described as the toughest team race in the world! I’ll be racing with two other women from the British team. We have multiple “training” races – both skiing and adventure races – planned to help us to work out our individual strengths and weaknesses and how to support each other. In each season, these weaknesses may vary depending on base fitness, injury or even who has the newest kit! The fastest person uphill is allowed to carry more weight for the team or to use a ‘bungee’ rope to help pull the others up behind them. This has to be worked out carefully so as not to tire out the ‘strong one’. On the way down, especially if roped together, the order of the skiers is important to allow a smooth descent.’
Are you an amateur or a professional?
‘Unfortunately, I’m not a full-time athlete and have to fit training around my job as a junior doctor in Newcastle. This can mean an erratic schedule based on my shifts, but I train at least six days a week, including with my local running and triathlon clubs, and do fell running and adventure races at weekends. I hate gyms and have a turbo trainer in the garage for a late night cycle in front of a movie. If I have a thirteen-hour shift, I’ll either fit in something in the morning before I go or choose to run to work and back to get the time in. Using my commute like this gives me more time in the day, leaving me a crucial eight hours of sleep! I prefer evening training as it tends to be with other people, making it easier to push yourself – but the social aspect does take up more time.’
What happens at the end of the races?
‘By the time you finish, you’ve been racing for several hours and are shattered. There’s usually a lot of food at the finish line – nuts, chocolate squares, cakes, fruit gels and hot fruit tea, but you have to be careful not to eat too much as your body’s not ready for it yet. Then there’s normally a carb-heavy lunch and prize-giving – which on weekend races sets us up for our dash back to the airport to get back for work!’
How do you fuel yourself when training?
‘I’m hungry all the time. For breakfast, I’ll have a big bowel of porridge with half milk, half water and raisins and nuts mixed through. I always take my own lunch and snacks to work. These include a slice of toasted malt loaf with peanut butter; banana on crackerbreads with honey or peanut butter; or nuts. I like making my own vegetable soups from whatever veg is in the fridge and also have a bread roll, apple and a yoghurt for lunch. I usually have two veggie evening meals a week (with nuts or pulses for the protein – things like stuffed peppers or aubergine bake) and the rest are mostly chicken- or fish-based, such as chicken curry. I cook sauces from scratch so I know what I’m eating and can make sure I’m getting enough protein, but I’m not a label watcher.’
Tips for those who want to give ski mountaineering a try
Why not go and watch the hugely inspiring Pierra Menta race and soak up the amazing atmosphere? It’s on from March 9-12, 2016. Stay in nearby Areches or, for a bit more seclusion, try the beautiful chalet-style hotel La Ferme du Chozal in Hauteluce (both are around two hours from Geneva) and have a go at ski touring yourself – book with a local ski instructor (esf-areches-beaufort.com). For more information on the area, visit savoie-mont-blanc.com.
Ursula and her team compete in the Scottish skimo race series (skimoscotland.co.uk), which is going from strength to strength and is a great way into the sport for aspiring racers – you don’t need dedicated race kit to give it a go.
For more information, check out Team GB’s Facebook page: GBskimo and thebmc.co.uk.