World class athletes from teams around the world are gathering in Craftsbury, Vermont for the final event in the Ski Orienteering World Cup this week. Never heard of SkiO? You're not alone.
"To be fair, it is two niche sports combined into something even more specialized," says Alex Jospe, so you are forgiven if you're unfamiliar.
Jospe was a member of the U.S. National ski orienteering team from 2007 to 2015 and was the lead course setter for this week's SkiO events at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. Jospe joined Vermont Edition to explain the sport and its appeal.
"It is, in essence, a ski race," Jospe explains, "only you don't know where you're going until the start, when somebody hands you a map. And on the map are a series of controls. And whoever navigates most quickly to the controls wins the race. They have to do it in the right order. And you can use any form of skiing, but it's usually done in the skate style."
Controls are the checkpoints on the map that skiers must navigate to in specific order. Competitors have electronic timing chips that register when they pass by special flags throughout the course. All that data is sent to a central computer that can make sure racers have hit all the spots they're supposed to.
A network of trails gives skiers lots of options for how to navigate to the controls along the racecourse, but skiers are welcome to go off-trail. Some SkiO racers specialize in speed, others in navigation.
"The beauty of this sport is that it really is a choose-your-own-adventure. You can go any way you want from one control to the next. So if you know you are a very strong skier but maybe not so good at the navigation, you may choose a longer route that's simpler. Whereas if you know you're very good at navigation, you say 'Oh, I can just zig and zag my way to get to the control, and it may be more map reading, but that makes up for the fact that I don't have to go so far.'"
Jospe used to participate in Wold Cup events as a member of the U.S. National Team, but since her retirement from the highest echelons of the sport she's been active in SkiO in other ways, including doing things like setting the course for this week's Vermont racing.
Course-setting is complicated. For one thing, there are several different races all taking place over the course of the week and Jospe has to make sure the course can accommodate all different levels of skiers. "I have to consider the strengths and the situation of the competitors," she says. First up are the World Cup competitors. "Those people are really strong; they're really fast. They can handle all sorts of technical challenges.
"And then we have the World Masters World Championships. And they are all generally very good skiers and very good navigators. But as you get a little older you're less interested in taking some of the risks that a 20-year-old might find fun." So the course setters try to make sure the course is still challenging and fun, but less potentially dangerous. The U.S. Championships are also taking place on the masters courses. But in addition to each set of competitors there are several different races each day. Competitors race in sprints, middle distance and long distance races, plus a relay. The International Orienteering Federation says there are 24 women and 41 men from 15 different countries participating in the World Cup alone.
But Jospe says you don't have to be a world class athlete to enjoy ski orienteering. She says the oldest competitor in the masters events is over 80 years old.
"This sport is the most fun you're ever going to have on skis," Jospe promises. "It mixes really technical fun skiing with an element of a puzzle because you're reading this map as you're going at full speed and you want to make sure you choose the right route. And so it's this mental stimulation mixed with the physical endorphins that is just so much fun."
People who want to try SkiO for themselves can use a practice area called a model event that's mapped the same way the course is. And the races are open to spectators as well. Races start on Tuesday, March 6. The full competition schedule can be found here.
Broadcast Monday, Mar. 5, 2018 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.