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Skiers climbing up Aspen Highlands' famous Highland Bowl during the Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race.

The Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race at Aspen Snowmass

A look into what it takes to host and compete in one of North America’s most grueling ski races.

Jessi Hackett

The Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race spans across all four mountains of Aspen Snowmass through the White River National Forest in the Elk Mountains. Every year, teams of two start in the dark in Snowmass and end in the spotlight at Gondola Plaza at the base of Aspen Mountain—what happens in between can be summed up with a season’s worth of training, thousands of calories, and a certain level of insanity.

One of the only races of its size held at a resort in North America, the Power of Four (PO4) crosses Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands (including a descent down the infamous Highland Bowl), and Aspen Mountain, covering more than 11,000 vertical feet across 24 miles. For those not wanting to bite off quite so much in one day, there is the Power of Two, which tackles the Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain portion of the course, covering more than 8,000 vertical feet and roughly 17 miles.

Two skiers in the woods between Snowmass and Aspen Highlands
Facing the challenge of the Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race

The first Power of Four Ski Mountaineering or “SkiMo,” race took place on March 5, 2011. At the time, there were only four female teams and 46 male teams—and of those men’s teams, 16 didn’t finish. Today, the race sells out with at a maximum of 200 teams, equating to 400 racers.

While the number of competitors has grown, the logistics of hosting such an event have always been tricky. “It’s a massive, spread-out race with participants covering a lot of distance through the resort and National Forest land, and we have to make sure we’re keeping track of every racer,” says Aspen Snowmass events director, Deric Gunshor. His team must be strategic about where they place staff and checkpoints throughout the course. “It’s a big lift because it starts very early in the morning and some racers need 10 hours to finish, while others only need five.”

Monitoring backcountry terrain and safety also requires massive help from ski patrol and operation teams across all four mountains, truly making it a cross-resort event. Some races are blessed with bluebird conditions, while others have had to be rerouted due to snowfall and winter weather. Safety is a big reason why all competitors are expected to have a partner while participating in the race, the idea being that the buddy system allows racers to keep an eye on each other. As the rules state, teammates must always be within 10 seconds of each other on the uphill and five seconds of each other when descending.

Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering racers in action

2024 Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race

Learn about the Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race, an annual event of endurance and skill, held across all four mountains of Aspen Snowmass.

From the sponsored, spandex-glad professional to the bike helmet-wearing recreationalist, the Audi Power of Four has seen its range of athletes out on the course. But, with the growth of the sport over the years, the competition has stiffened, and the event has become more serious.

“The overall competitiveness of the event has grown, with people approaching it with full training regimens and the lightest equipment,” says Gunshor, “whereas when it first started, people were just trying to figure out what gear to use.” When the first race took place in 2011, the winning team finished at 6 hours and 13 minutes. In 2023, the winning finish time was 4 hours and 58 minutes—clocked by John Gaston and his partner Max Taam. Gaston, originally from the east coast, competed in (and won) his first Power of Four in 2012, when he and his brother Pete barely beat another team by two seconds.

“Even though it was twelve years ago, that first race with Pete is etched in my brain forever,” says Gaston. “Neither of us were experienced racers at that point, and the level of suffering we endured closing the gap up Midnight Mine Road on the backside of Aspen Mountain, the final climb, was so far out of our wheelhouse it was ridiculous.” Today, Gaston has won 11 Power of Four races out of the 11 he’s competed in with a few different partners, though many have come close to taking his crown.

When the Power of Four kicked off in 2011, it was part of the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup (COSMIC) race series. Aspen Snowmass had already been hosting the Summit for Life uphill fundraising event for a few years, and the popularity of uphilling was starting to take off. Names like the “Ute Mountain Tour” and the “Four Peak Muscle Hustle” were thrown around before the Power of Four was chosen. Since then, the sport has seen a boom with more resorts hosting race events and uphilling gear becoming more accessible and mainstream. Today, Aspen Snowmass has an extremely active uphilling community and is one of the few major resorts that allows uphill traffic before, during, and after hours of operation.

Climbing the steeps during the Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race
Ski racers in the woods at Aspen Highlands

“The heritage of the sport is rooted in long days with athletes moving through the mountains and resorts,” says Anthony Armstrong, Executive Director of U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association. “Roughly translated from French, these kinds of races are known as “Grand Course Events,” known for being lively, festive, and pulling in the towns and communities hosting them. The Power of Four is one of North America’s best examples of a Grand Course Event.”

With so much growth in the sport, it was no surprise when the Olympic Committee announced that there will be a Ski Mountaineering event in the 2026 Winter Olympics. Armstrong notes that this inaugural inclusion in the Olympic Games will only have speed events, which are shorter and speed-focused than Individual events, like the Power of Four, which cover more distance. “Longterm, the ski mountaineering community has full expectations that the Olympics will include a full range of SkiMo disciplines—this is just a starting point.”

“Aspen Snowmass was an early supporter of the emerging sport and I think it’s been monumental for them to plant their flag with an event like Power of Four,” says Gaston. It's become the cornerstone for many peoples’ winter training and planning, and a chance for a range of athletes to come out and give it their best. Like 27-year-old Jill Thomas, who will compete in the event for the first time in 2024, a year out from ACL surgery; or a mother-son duo who are conquering the race while she battles cancer; or a pair of snowboarders who plan to complete the four-mountain trek on splitboards. For some, it’s a bucket list goal or a chance for a fun, yet challenging day moving through the mountains. For others, there are higher stakes and more competition. Regardless, anyone who makes it past the starting line always has a story to tell.

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