What it Takes to Win the Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race ... Four Years in a Row

by Catherine Lutz

For most mere humans, hiking the 800 vertical feet up Highland Bowl and then skiing its steep, challenging lines is a triumph, the centerpiece of their day. But for superhumans like Max Taam — an accomplished ski-mo (ski mountaineering) racer — it’s all in a day’s training for one of the more grueling competitions in Aspen Snowmass.

In the Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race, taking place this year on February 24, pairs of competitors skin up and ski down all four Aspen Snowmass resorts, totaling 11,600 vertical feet of uphill over 25 miles. Taam, who with partner John Gaston has won the race four consecutive times, can cover all that territory in under five hours on race day — most of the field will finish in well over six.

What does it take to not only accomplish this, but to win repeatedly?

Lots and lots of practice, according to Taam.

Taam mostly skins on the ski areas, partly to mimic race day and because it allows for a long stretches of vertical. He’ll pace himself depending on how much time he has: longer days are on the easier side, while on shorter days he’ll challenge himself with high-intensity intervals.

Highland Bowl is where Taam and Gaston (who are not competing in this year’s Power of Four due to a scheduling conflict with the world championships in Europe) usually pull away from the field, says Taam. He’ll focus time training on Highlands’ more technical sections, practicing kick turns and skinning up icy side hills, but when it comes to skiing down, “that’s where John and I really excel.” After about an hour and a half of climbing from the base of Highlands to the 12,400-foot peak, they can ski to the bottom of Deep Temerity in three minutes.

Power of Four Ski Mountaineering
Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race

“For me, the more challenging the terrain — whether up or down — the better,” says Taam.

Perhaps it comes with living in Aspen and spending a lot of time on skis, but Taam points out that plenty of ski-mo racers suffer on the descents. That’s partly because of the lightweight race gear, which is more optimized for going up, and partly because many athletes focus almost exclusively on the uphill aspect.

As such, Taam says that the most important factor in winning a ski-mo race like the Power of Four is to be “a really well-rounded ski-mo racer. You have to have the fitness, because there’s a lot of vertical and you’ll be racing a really long time. You have to have the technical skills for climbing, like kicky turning or navigating icy skin tracks. And you have to be able to ski well, in different conditions, on race skis.”

Simple and sage advice for just about any athlete.

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