In her very first ski mountaineering race, Melanie Bernier landed on the podium.
Even more impressive: she had only just learned to backcountry ski. Now, eight years later, Bernier hasn’t been beaten by another Canadian woman since 2009, is one of the fastest ski mountaineering racers on the planet and is the first Canadian to podium at the World Cup level. This winter, she’s aiming for a victory in a sport owned by Europeans.
“It’s amazing, what she’s achieved,” says Dave Dornian, national team coach. “To get herself in a position to podium at a World Cup is nothing short of miraculous. It’s a testament to her focus, talent and love of the sport.”
Ski mountaineering racing (also known as randonee or upski) is essentially backcountry skiing in Spandex. Athletes wear the lightest-weight gear and skin-tight suits to race up and down mountains, switching between skiing, skinning and bootpacking multiple times. Dominated by Europeans — 800 racers enter big races while 50 is a big race in Canada — only two North Americans have ever stood on a podium on the World Cup race circuit. These races include two disciplines: sprint and long courses, with the short events lasting only a few minutes and the distance events covering about 10 km and 1,500 metres of elevation gain.
“It’s an aerobic sport,” says Dornian. “But races are won and lost in the transitions. There’s a lot of technique involved.”
Bernier can switch from skiing to skinning in 45 seconds and from skinning to skiing in 15.
It took her years to get there. She first started ski-touring in 2006 after moving to Whistler from Quebec City. At the end of that winter, she entered a ski mountaineering race around the Spearhead Traverse (between Whistler and Blackcomb), placing second in the Citizen Class. She was hooked and started training and amassing the specialized equipment, including the Spandex race suit ubiquitous in the sport.
“A lot of people think Spandex is weird, but I love it,” she says. “I would wear it everyday if I could.”
She was soon winning races and landed on the national team. She took the leap forward to Europe, where all the World Cup races are held, in 2011, and has spent several winters away from her current Revelstoke, BC, home, racing almost every week. Steady improvements led to a third place finish at a World Cup sprint in Italy last winter.
“Stepping onto the podium was a dream come true,” she says. “I was finally seeing all my hard work pay off and it reinforced that I was doing the right thing.”
She finished the season with an overall fifth-place ranking and renewed determination to return to Europe this winter even more mentally and physically prepared. That the biannual world championships will happen in Verbier, Switzerland, in 2015, only adds more incentive.
“I want to podium in sprint and individual races this year,” she says. “An overall win is possible but it’s going to be really tough. Two girls have won everything for the last two years. I’m going to need the perfect race.”
Dornian think it is only a matter of time. “If she stays healthy it will happen for her,” he says. “She’s ready and she deserves it.”
This article originally appeared in our Winter 2014 issue.