Many sports involve specialist kit but ski mountaineering truly does stand alone.
Known as skimo, this is not your average pastime. Competitors hit the mountains equipped with, among other things, a survival blanket, snow probe and an avalanche detector.
“Normally the competitions are safe but you can never be completely free of risk so you always need your safety system,” said Switzerland's Thomas Bussard, who won the men's individual event on the first day of the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games.
“It’s particularly vital when you’re training. That can be dangerous.”
Skimo athletes race uphill and downhill, sometimes utilising specialist climbing equipment to traverse icy ascents on foot. Reaching some dizzying heights, many would baulk at the prospect of this competition.
“Maybe you need to be a little bit crazy to do skimo,” Thomas, 17, said. “But it’s all about keeping any risk to a minimum, and you can do that with the right know-how.”
Skimo is making its Olympic debut at Lausanne 2020, with 48 athletes competing from 10-14 January. There are five races: women’s and men’s individual events, women’s and men’s sprints, and a mixed relay.
Thomas's twin brother Robin won silver behind him in the men's individual race, while teammates Caroline Ulrich and Thibe Deseyn took gold and silver respectively in the women's individual.
The individual events are the sport’s endurance contest, mass start races incorporating three gruelling ascents, including a climbing section in which athletes carry their skis, and three descents.
“Endurance is the most important quality for skimo athletes, although for the sprint, you need dynamism,” Robin said. “You have to be able to push yourself mentally above the limit. It’s also a very technical sport, you’re always changing from uphill to downhill. Like in a triathlon, doing transitions quickly is vital.”
The sprint competition is a three-to-four-minute blast, in which skiers have to go through transitions, ascending then descending about 80 metres. They must put skins on their skis to grip uphill, then attach the skis to their rucksack and continue on foot.
At the top, they remove the skins, glide down a giant slalom-like course, then race to the finish in a skating style. It has timed qualifiers then knockout heats and a six-athlete final.
The mixed relay is a mixed-nationality, mixed-gender event featuring 12 teams of four athletes (two women and two men).
The Bussard brothers have marked themselves out as ones to watch in the remaining events. Their father was a Swiss champion in the sport.
“We were always on skis with our dad, and it’s an advantage to compete with your brother,” Thomas said.
“We always both want to win, but we are brothers and friends first.”
OIS nm/pp/sg Thumbnail photo: OIS/Ben Queenborough.