Jake Brown has got some range. Last month, the Craftsbury biathlete won his first cross-country skiing national title in the skate sprint at Spring Series. Last week, Brown served as a volunteer teacher in the small northwestern Alaskan villages of Kobuk and Shungnak, working with Skiku to perform skiing outreach and instruction in Bush Alaska. Saturday morning, Brown won the 2023 Alyeska Hill Climb at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska, to close out the American domestic ski race season.
Rosie Brennan of APU and the U.S. Ski Team, who has had no shortage of recent on-snow adventures herself, was the fastest woman in the field. 16 men and 17 women completed Saturday’s race. No one’s womb fell out from the exertion.
Saturday marked the second annual-ish Alyeska Nordic Hill Climb. The race was first held in the middle of April 2021, when a Covid-era pent up demand for racing led to a high-level overall podium of David Norris–Scott Patterson–Gus Schumacher for the men, and Rosie Frankowski–Anna Darnell–Astrid Stav for the women. The second rendition of the race was first scheduled for late April of 2022, then was pushed out to early May amidst weather forecasts falling somewhere between unsafe and truly raunchy, then was canceled altogether. This year’s race returned to mid-April on a perfect spring day, with clear skies and morning temperatures at or slightly below freezing.
The race is not easy, being, well, a hill climb. Here is the Strava segment, and here is the course profile:
Athletes leave the start near the base of the tram; head up beneath Chair 7 on Blueberry Hill, a green run; then turn left and take blues all the way up to the top of the tram. The starting line, at the base of the tram, is at roughly 330 feet above sea level; Alyeska is said to have the lowest base elevation of any alpine resort in the world. The finish line is at 2,350 feet.
Note the elevation gain here of 616 meters over less than 3.5 kilometers. That’s a non–FIS-legal gain of 178 m/km. That’s pretty steep!
For perspective, the final climb in the Tour de Ski involves an ascent of 418 meters, over what this Strava post suggests is is 3km. That would mean that the Alyeska hill climb contains about 50 percent more elevation gain, and is 25 percent steeper while it does so, than the climb up Alpe Cermis.
It’s easy for me to sit in front of my computer, run the numbers, and conclude that Alyeska is harder, but let’s hear some actual analysis on this point from a World Cup athlete who has done both, not some rank speculation from a non–World Cup athlete who sat out yesterday’s race because he was run down following a long season of skiing and parenting and didn’t want to wake up that early.
Here’s Rosie Brennan, who was sixth in Val di Fiemme in January and first in Girdwood yesterday:
“That’s interesting to read the stats,” Brennan wrote to Nordic Insights in response to an email setting forth much of the above.
“I would have guessed that Alyeska is less steep, but I think the flatter start of Cermis is probably skewing things a bit. From my own perspective, I felt that Cermis is quite a bit steeper once you get onto the climb, but as you suggest, is shorter. I quite enjoyed the climb of Alyeska; I felt it was a grade that you could still V1 with just a hair of glide for basically the whole thing. Cermis has some very steep pitches in which there is definitely no glide.
“The other big difference is the gates on Cermis. Some people like them as they feel they can get a breather, but I just find them cumbersome and annoying so personally, I would choose Alyeska over Cermis.”
Saturday’s race was held in an interval-start format. The men went out first, mostly, except that Brennan and Hailey Swirbul were seeded near the front of the men’s field.
With all due respect to the rest of the women’s field, this seeding was well-founded. APU/USST skiers Brennan and Swirbul set the pace for the women, wending their way to the top in 29:58.7 and 31:28.2, respectively.
Third place, the ageless Alison Arians (Alaska Winter Stars, or AWS), 52, was some distance back in 38:11.5, while also ahead of one-third of the men’s field. Fourth and fifth were local junior skiers Olivia Soderstrom (39:04.2) and Merridy Littell (39:58.0), who ski for AWS and APU, respectively. Sixth place went to Anna Engel (40:25.8) of APU Masters.
Things were closer in the men’s field, where Brown set the day’s top time of 26:53.3. Garrett Butts (APU) was second in 27:20.2, and Gus Schumacher (AWS) third in 28:34.9. There was a bit of a gap back to Brandon Brewster (UAA, ret.), fourth, 31:29.5; Hatcher Menkens (APU juniors), fifth, 32:11.5; and Justin Lucas (APU juniors), sixth, 33:10.5.
Conditions appear to have been generally slower this year than in 2021, with most athletes who competed in both years posting times this year that were several minutes slower than they had skied in 2021. At the sharp end of the field, David Norris and Rosie Frankowski’s (frankly obscene) course records of 24:23 and 27:44 from the event’s inaugural year remained unthreatened, as no one came within two minutes of either mark yesterday.
Overall titles in the Alaska Skimeister competition, and truly stunning bedazzled skis therefor, went to Hailey Swirbul for the women and Gus Schumacher for the men. Skimeister standings were determined based on athletes’ times from Saturday plus their fastest heat time from last weekend’s NordicX. Hatcher Menkens and Olivia Soderstrom had the lowest combined times among junior men and junior women, respectively, to take home the sparkling skis there.
Saturday’s race appears to have brought to a close the 2022/2023 American cross-country race season. There is currently, in round numbers, two-plus feet of snow on the ground in sea-level Anchorage, four-plus feet of snow in sea-level Girdwood, and six feet of snow at 3,000-foot Hatcher Pass, but no more ski races scheduled locally. The NENSA calendar has come to a close. There’s nothing left on the SkinnySki calendar for the Midwest. There is currently, and I’m gonna use a technical term here so bear with me, a sh*t ton of snow in California and across much of the Mountain West, but no more races there that I am aware of.
So I think this is the end. Everyone go crust skiing now, and don’t blow out your knees as you transition back to running. Racing will presumptively return with the Race to the Outhouse #1 somewhere in the Matanuska–Susitna Valley, above Palmer, Alaska, slightly less than seven months from now.
Click on photos below for embiggening and for captions.
— Gavin Kentch