Ski mountaineering: the secrets behind the sport making its Olympic debut at Lausanne 2020

Growing up in the Swiss ski resort of Grindelwald, a small mountain village situated in the shadow of the iconic north face of the Eiger mountain, it was only natural that Werner Marti would become a ski mountaineer.

Picture by Getty Images

As the 29-year-old puts it: “If you grow up in a mountain village, you’re always attached to the mountains. I can’t be without that. If I’m in a city for just one day, I need to return to the mountains.”

Marti, a former cross-country skier who now competes full-time at “skimo”, as it’s known, is one of the sport’s most recognisable faces. In 2019, he won two golds at the skimo World Championships and racked up three World Cup titles.

This coming January, like everyone else involved in the sport, Marti will be an intrigued spectator as skimo makes its Olympic debut at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020. The mountains of Villars-sur-Ollon will serve as the location for the action, with 48 athletes from across the globe looking to win skimo’s first Olympic medals.

“It’s a good chance for the sport and also for the youngsters who will be there,” Marti said. “It’ll be a new experience for them and a chance to see many other sports because, as a small sport, we are usually always around the same people. And it’s also a great chance for us to showcase skimo to a new public.”

Skimo is unique in that it combines the more familiar world of cross-country skiing with some of the extreme aspects of elite mountaineering. Athletes race both uphill and downhill, sometimes requiring specialist climbing equipment to traverse icy ascents on foot, as well as speed and agility on the ski sections. With athletes sometimes gaining up to 1,900m in elevation during races, it is not for the faint-hearted.

Marti understands only too well the gruelling physical nature of the sport.

“The best ski mountaineer is not the most physically strong or the best downhiller, but the one who is the most complete athlete,” he said.

“People often come to it from very different backgrounds because you have to be really strong and skilled in the mountains, as there are often ridges and really technical parts. And then you have to change from skiing to climbing, so you have to be very quick at switching equipment. And then there’s also the downhill too.”

There will be three skimo events at Lausanne 2020 – individual (men’s and women’s), sprint (men’s and women’s) and a mixed-NOC relay. The individual events are the ski mountaineering version of the marathon, typically lasting up to two hours, with athletes setting off in a mass start and completing up to three ascents and descents of 800m to 1,300m.

In contrast, the sprints can be over in three minutes as athletes ascend and descend no more than 100m. To win gold, the Lausanne 2020 skimo sprinters will have to win through a qualifying round followed by a series of heats from quarter-final to final. The three best athletes progress each time. 

The mixed-nationality relay features teams of four athletes (two women and two men) from different nations who take turns to complete two ascents and descents over a course with a total elevation of up to 180m. With each loop taking just 15 minutes, the quick-fire nature of the competition should make for compelling viewing.

For Marti, the relay brings back memories of his own initial forays into the world of skimo, competing alongside his older brother Marcel. “He stopped competing two or three years ago but, before that, we did many team races together over a long period of time,” he said. “He taught me a lot, so if I now have international success, that’s thanks to him.

“He was a very complete athlete, and all the hours we spent together helped shape my skills.”

Like many elite ski mountaineers, Marti hopes Lausanne 2020 will play a role in attracting a new, young audience to the sport, captivated by the extreme elements of the competition.

“Normal Alpine skiing is popular worldwide, and many people follow it and do it, but not as many know about ski mountaineering,” he said.

“Hopefully that will change as it’s very spectacular – the physical strength required, seeing just how fast athletes can go in the uphill sections, all that stuff. With the downhill stuff as well, it’s pretty amazing viewing.”


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