Climbing the Olympic summit: Everything you need to know about ski mountaineering

With ski mountaineering set to become the eighth sport on the programme of the Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Lausanne 2020, picks out some fun facts about the sport.

Picture by ISMF Press Office

New kids on the block

In July this year, the IOC announced that ski mountaineering would become the eighth sport on the programme of the Winter YOG Lausanne 2020, joining the other seven exciting Olympic winter sports. The YOG will feature individual, sprint and relay events, with 48 young athletes aged 17-18 set to take part.

ISMF Press Office

What’s it all about?

Ski mountaineering – commonly referred to as “skimo” for short – is a winter sport in which athletes race over snow-covered terrain using both skiing and mountaineering techniques. The courses require competitors to ski uphill and downhill, often gaining up to 1,900m in elevation, as they pass through a series of checkpoints, and the first racer to cross the finish line wins. Some sections of the course also require athletes to travel on foot, carrying their skis on their rucksacks, and they may even need to use crampons or other specialist equipment for steeper, icier ascents.

Different disciplines

The Winter YOG Lausanne 2020 will feature individual, sprint and relay events. Individual races are similar to a marathon, with athletes setting off in a mass start over a course with at least three ascents and descents and up to 1,900m of elevation gain. Races typically last between one-and-a-half and two hours, with at least one ascent where athletes need to remove their skis and climb on foot. As the name suggests, sprint races are much shorter and faster than individual races. The total ascent and descent is usually around 100m, with the fastest athletes completing the course in approximately three minutes. Relay races, meanwhile, feature a team of three or four athletes, with each member of the team completing a short circuit one after the other. Like the sprint, the relay is quite a fast event, with each circuit lasting about 15 minutes and including two ascents and descents.

ISMF Press Office

Kitted out

Athletes use a range of specialist equipment when competing in ski mountaineering events. Their skis are usually very light, so they don't weigh the athlete down when they are strapped to the backpack, while their boots are designed to be easy to wear when ascending on skis or on foot, with quick-opening fastenings to adapt the boot to the right situation. The bindings also have to be able to switch between uphill and downhill use. The skis themselves feature detachable “skins” on the bottom, which allow athletes to ski uphill without sliding backwards. Some races also require athletes to use ice axes, harnesses, ropes and crampons.

Going global

There are currently 32 member associations of the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF), which administers the sport, with races taking place across the world, including in Switzerland, France, North America, South America, Russia, Scandinavia, China, Korea and Japan, to name a few. The ISMF calendar features an annual World Cup circuit, with Continental and World Championships taking place in alternate years.

ISMF Press Office

Host with the most

Villars-sur-Ollon – a ski resort less than an hour southeast of Lausanne – has been chosen to host the ski mountaineering events in 2020. Sitting at an altitude of 1,300m in the heart of the Vaud Alps, Villars offers stunning views of the Rhône Valley below, as well as the Dents-du-Midi and the Mont Blanc massif, with views even stretching as far as Lake Geneva. The surrounding ski area is linked to nearby Gryon and Les Diablerets, and includes around 125km of slopes as well as three snowparks, 44km of cross-country skiing trails, sledging runs and numerous walking routes. The area also hosted the Swiss Ski Mountaineering Championships in 2015 and 2017.