When the snow flies in the Alps, trail runners here put away their trail running shoes, and pull out their ski mountaineering gear. “Skimo,” or Ski Alpinisme as it’s known here, takes center stage. The races come in rapid fire, too – evening vertical events at ski areas, internationally-organized ISMF World Cup races, and no shortage of epic day-long and multi-day stage races through the mountains.
Switzerland’s Patrouille des Glaciers, organized every other year, is the most legendary of the events. Pierra Menta, however, wins hands down when it comes to spirit. The race, which has taken place every year for the past 33 years, starts in the quiet village of Arèches in the Beaufort region of the French Alps, not far from Albertville, Megeve, and Chamonix.
Pierra Menta is much adored: It attracts the strongest skiers from around the world, and passes up, down and around the dramatic mountains in the region. Thanks to thousands of cheering onlookers, it has a jubilant atmosphere. Cowbells, it seems, never stop ringing.
Imagine skiing up to a beautiful peak in the Alps, and inviting a few hundred other backcountry skiing friends, to cheer on Kilian Jornet and dozens of other skimo and trail running athletes, and you start to have a sense for Pierra Menta. Oh, and it goes on for four days!
Jerimy Arnold, from Westford, Massachusetts, teamed up this year with Josh Flanagan from Alton, New Hampshire, to take part. They were one of just two teams from the US in the race. Tom Goth and John Gaston finished 10th, the best ever for a US team at Pierra Menta. (Congrats, guys!)
(Run the Alps is exploring offering a guided skimo trip in 2019, including spectating at Pierra Menta, ski mo training in Chamonix, and a chance to take part in a vertical race in the Alps. If you’re interested in hearing more, drop us a note.)
Run the Alps recently visited with Jerimy Arnold. Here’s what the 2018 Pierra Menta was like, from his vantage point.
Run the Alps: What about Pierra Menta inspired you to make the trip over to the French Alps?
Jerimy: There are a few characteristics that make Pierra Menta a desirable destination race. First, it is the premiere skimo race in the world. Many refer to it as the Tour du France of ski alpinism and it therefore attracts the highest level of competition. Also, the race tests all disciplines of ski alpinism: skinning, skiing, climbing bootpacks and technical ridges.
Run the Alps: How would you describe the Pierra Menta scene?
Jerimy: The scene is unparalleled to anything I have experienced as a participant in a sporting event. The crowds at major marathons like Boston or New York might be bigger, but the fans at the Pierra Menta really are next level. They haul cowbells up to the top of the climbs and then ring them for hours on end. These bells aren’t your standard bell you can ring with one hand. They must weigh 30lbs or more and have a huge leather strap they strap around their waist. You also see air raid sirens, people playing bugles, and accordions. I even saw a few spectators who found quiet spots in the forest to play their harmonicas.
Run the Alps: So, how did it go? What were the highlights and inevitable low moments during the four days?
Jerimy: With four days of racing, plenty can go wrong. My partner’s gear didn’t make it on his flight and arrived at 11:30 PM the night before the start of Day 1. Day 2 we had a mechanical issue with a binding that we were able to temporarily fix at one of the checkpoints but slowed us a bit. The biggest disappointment was not being able to do the traditional Grand Mont stage on day 4. Poor visability along with falling snow made the decision pretty obvious, however.
The high point was the spectators cheering at the top of the climbs. On day 3 at the highest point on the course the crowd saw we were from the US, started chanting “USA!, USA!” and then hummed the Star Spangled Banner.
Run the Alps: What advice would you give someone who wanted to come take part in Pierra Menta?
Jerimy: Practice kick-turns and skiing downhill on your race setup in chopped-up snow and moguls. Don’t fly in the day before the start of the race.
Run the Alps: Feel like skinning up a few thousand more meters today? 🙂
Jerimy: It snowed all day and a bit overnight so I did already get in a 900 meter tour of powder skiing!