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Ski mountaineering is crossing the pond and taking hold in Bend

So many of life's best things originated in Europe: espresso, beer, Nutella. Add ski mountaineering to the list.

Long popular in Europe, both casually and competitively, ski mountaineering has been slowly gaining traction in the U.S. The winter cousin to mountain biking—you go up, you go down—is an efficient way to cover snowy terrain. Using climbing skins and other lightweight gear, one can ascend all but the steepest snowy slopes. Once at the top, the next descent beckons. Ski mountaineering—or skimo, or alpine touring, or, if you want to sound French, randonnee—is also what Central Oregonians commonly call backcountry skiing. The term "ski mountaineering," though, tends to refer to a more focused pursuit, one that requires traversing rock, ice or other high-altitude obstacles.

Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Vermont already boast robust randonnee race scenes. Central Oregon, home of the impossibly fit and fiercely competitive, seems to be the obvious next hotspot. Bendites will get their shot this weekend at Vertfest, a two-day backcountry ski festival featuring an up-and-down race and numerous clinics at Mt. Bachelor.

"These races are growing across the country," said race director Kevin Grove, who ran the inaugural Mt. Bachelor Vertfest last year. Before that, Grove put on the randonnee race King and Queen of the Cone.

Though Vertfest's main attraction is the randonnee race, which takes competitors up and down Bachelor's snowy flanks, Grove is keen to emphasize the sport is more about fun.

"You don't need to be an ultra competitive racer," Grove said. "It's sort of a backcountry community event."

Vertfest was birthed eight years ago at Washington ski areas Alpental and Crystal, and acted as a fun way to fundraise for the Northwest Avalanche Center. After years of success, the event, featured by Seattle-based Outdoor Research, hit a plateau.

"We got to a point where we felt like we weren't growing the event," said Christian Folk, Outdoor Research's marketing manager. So organizers broadened the scope of the event to reach a new audience. "We thought the best way to do that was through education," Folk added.

This year, Verfest includes clinics on Saturday and Sunday ($10, sign up at outdoorresearch.com/subaruvertfest) as well as a free "know before you go" clinic aimed at familiarizing novices with proper backcountry protocols. Clinics include tips and techniques from industry pros as well as avalanche awareness information. There will also be an opportunity to demo sexy new randonnee ski gear.

Folk said that such race-inspired innovations have helped advance the backcountry ski segment while also helping to fold in athletes from other disciplines.

"I think it's definitely still a bit of a fringe sport, but as endurance athletes find their way in, it should flourish," said Folk. "The gear is getting so good and so light—mountain bikers and road riders [will get involved]—it's just a really good sport for the winter season."

But a healthy backcountry skiing community needs a reliable avalanche-forecasting site to keep its participants safe. Just last weekend an experienced Bend skier was half buried in a slide on Tumalo Mountain, a popular backcountry destination accessible just minutes from the Mt. Bachelor parking lot.

Both Folk and Grove hope that monies generated by Vertfest will help boost Central Oregon Avalanche Association offerings. COAA, unlike the Northwest Avalanche Center, lacks proper forecasting, just like it lacks the sort of big-city funding that Portland and Seattle provide.

"The backcountry information in a community like Bend is kind of limited—not full [avalanche] forecasting," Folk noted. "A lot of that has to do with a lack of funding for COAA. Our hope is through Vertfest, it'll be a big fundraiser for COAA so they can hopefully offer forecasting and an interactive website."

Go here: Vertfest. 8 am Saturday, Feb. 22; 9:30 am Sunday, Feb. 23 at Mt. Bachelor. Randonne race on Saturday, clinics and demos on both days. Recreational racers and juniors (under 18) race up to mid-mountain and back down ($35 entry/$20 for juniors). Elite racers race either to Mt. Bachelor's summit or complete two laps of the recreational course ($35 entry). Clinics are $10. Sign up at outdoorresearch.com/subaruvertfest.

Or here: Luminaria. 5:30-9 pm Saturday, Feb. 22 at Virginia Meissner Sno-Park. Ski by candlelight at Meissner Nordic's annual fundraiser, a family-friendly 1.5-mile Nordic ski (or snowshoe) out to the Meissner Shelter, illuminated by the flicker of flames planted along the trail. Fuel up and stay warm with complimentary hot drinks and treats at the welcome table and don't forget to donate—those 40 kilometers of community ski trails don't groom themselves! Learn more or donate electronically at meissnernordic.org.

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