Lori Anne Donald still knows the song by heart.
When she was young and learning how to ski, Donald’s older brother Shaun would sing to her: “Bend your knees and turn, bend your knees and turn, when you’re going down a hill, bend your knees and turn.”
Shaun was doing more than just teasing his little sister — he was giving her a vital ski lesson.
“Because I would just stand straight like a zombie and then not turn at all and just scream,” says Donald.
The Nelson skier still screams down hills, but only at top speed. Donald, now 29 years old, was selected in January to represent Canada at the ski mountaineering world championships next week in Venice, Italy.
Ski mountaineering has probably been happening in one form or another since the invention of skis.
The sport, now formally run by the International Ski Mountaineering Federation, requires competitors to climb a mountain either on boots or skis, depending on the course, then to ski down a slope before scaling up another incline for more descents.
Elite races run anywhere from 15-to-20 kilometres with 1,300-to-2,200 metres of climbing, and can take up to two hours to complete.
Donald has only been ski mountaineering two years.
A race at Golden’s Kicking Horse Mountain caught her eye because registration included lift tickets and dinner.
“So that’s how I first entered the sport,” she says, “to save money.”
Donald enjoyed herself during the race. She took it easy, stopping to have her picture taken, but to Donald’s surprise she finished just 10 minutes off the podium and wondered what would have happened if she actually tried.
“I liked the challenge of the climb,” she says. “The first descent I was just shattered. My legs had worked so hard in the climb that to ski down, which I thought I was really strong at, I had no strength.”
Originally from Midland, Ont., Donald skied as a child but gave it up early to pursue ballet. She trained until she was 19, at which point she decided dance wasn’t the right career option. It wasn’t an easy decision.
“It’s most hard when I go and see the ballet and see the level that they’re at,” says Donald, who still dances casually. “If I try to do that now, my mind remembers but my body cannot do it. That’s hard.”
Instead, Donald went to university and left with a Masters in physiotherapy.
She moved to Alberta and fell back in love with mountains as a whitewater kayaking instructor. Her husband, Cliff Howard, had previously skied at Whitewater, which put Nelson on the couple’s radar when they decided to buy a house.
When they relocated four years ago, Donald started skiing again. She developed a love for flying down the hill, knees bent this time, which she says led to her eventual inclusion on the national team — no one else is as fast as Donald when gravity is on her side.
That much was clear during the Canadian team trials.
Donald spent a year competing at the elite level and finished fifth overall, one spot out of a national team berth. She was given a developmental spot so she could train with the team, which currently includes six men and three women. Then last month at the trials she finished second in a sprint event, or a race distilled down to four minutes, and third in the individual race.
During the final event, Donald flipped three times on the last downhill section but luckily landed in powder.
She gathered her equipment, got back on her skis and managed to pass the next athlete with 500 metres left to finish on the podium and make the team.
“You could tell at the bottom I’d had an adventure. I still had snow stuck everywhere,” she says.
Ski mountaineering demands more than just a pair of skis and poles. Donald takes food and water, wears two base layers and is required to carry an extra jacket and pants for peaks. Some races require avalanche gear like a small shovel and survival blanket, or even an ice axe. Then there’s her skis.
Donald uses custom skis that are like a mix of alpine and cross-country.
She has what are called skins to put on the skis, which let her slide forward but not backward as she makes her way up a mountain.
Removing the skins takes about 30 seconds, which is done before a downhill section.
Donald says all the hard climbing is usually worth it for the view. But once that’s done, look out below.
“I try to take a moment if I can, either in the last bit of my climb or as I start ski down, to just take in how amazing it is to be there,” she says.
“I’m so glad I live out in the mountains here in the West. It’s where I feel like my soul belongs in a way because I just feel at home climbing up and down.”