When it comes to skiing, Eric Carter may be making up for lost time.
Growing up in Minnesota, Carter was introduced to Nordic skiing at a young age, but it wasn’t until he was a graduate student in western Canada that he found skiing up a mountain to be a lot more fun than traversing horizontal groomed trails. Carter was hooked — and in the relatively short time since that revelation, he has established himself as one of the best at climbing, skiing and descending mountains in North America.
In 2015, as a member of the U.S. team in the sport, Carter was the top American finisher in the vertical event at the International Ski Mountaineering Federation world championships in Switzerland, and was the body’s highest-ranked American ski mountaineer.
Earlier this month, he qualified for the 2017 U.S. team that will compete in the world championships in February in Italy, again earning a spot in the vertical event but also qualifying for individual competition, an honor that eluded him last time around. Carter, 30, also hopes to earn a slot in the team competition during the next qualifier in January.
Carter was reached at his home in Squamish, British Columbia, where the Minneapolis Southwest High School graduate juggles ski training with studies for his doctorate in kinesiology and work as a fitness coach. In remaining spare time, Carter likes to attempt setting Fastest Known Time records on both running and skiing routes.
Here are edited excerpts from a conversation:
Defining ski mountaineering
Ski touring, or backcountry skiing, is really any skiing off the groomed trails, sometimes in the trees, and it’s one of the fastest-growing segments of the ski industry. Ski mountaineering is a subset of that, the competitive side of it. It’s a bit more specific in that you’re combining climbing and skiing.
Ski mountaineering is definitely more of a niche sport, but growing quickly, as well. In the U.S., it’s done mostly in Colorado and Utah, with a small circuit out East in Vermont and New Hampshire. In Canada, it’s both in the coast mountains where I am and in the Rockies.
The sport is fairly new in North America, but has been around a long time in Europe, and was included in the Olympics in the 1920s. It started in the alpine nations because of their military patrols in the mountains, and just evolved into racing.
How he got started
My dad, Rick Carter, got me started in Nordic skiing when I was very young. I remember it well because he always seemed to pick the coldest and windiest days he could. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like it so well then (laughing). I went to the University of Vermont and was on the Nordic ski team there. When I was wrapping up my undergraduate degree (in exercise physiology), I applied to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for graduate school. Once I got here, in 2009, I realized that while Nordic skiing is great and it’s fun to compete, what I really like to do is get out into the wilderness and the mountains.
About the world championships
Two qualifying events in December and January are used to choose the members of the U.S. team that will go to Italy for the world championships. There will probably be eight men and eight women on the team, competing in five events. The U.S. team is mostly designed to send people to the world championships, which happen every two years.
The World Cup circuit
The ISMF sponsors a World Cup circuit that takes place on both sides of the world championships: 11 races in five locations in Europe. I’ll be taking part in part in that from January to April. I was able to do that circuit in 2015 as well. (Editor’s note: In 2015, Carter and his racing partner, Nick Elson, were the top American finishers in the circuit’s premier race, the Pierra Menta, considered the ski mountaineering version of cycling’s Tour de France, as much for its difficulty as for the fact that it also is held in France.)
I do have some sponsors, but that covers only a small chunk of the overall cost to do the world championships and the World Cup circuit. I get lots of help with gear but very little monetary support. In North America, no one is making any money off it. Coaching is how I support myself. Along with another local athlete, I have a business called Ridgeline Athletics providing high-level coaching for ultra-runners and skiers. When I am not training or competing, about half my time is spent on the business, the other half working on my doctorate.
About Fastest Known Time
Fastest Known Time is a phrase used by mountain runners, ski mountaineers and climbers to refer to the known speed record for a given peak or route. That’s the kind of skiing I really enjoy. Moving fast is a really good way to get out and see things. Cruising around and climbing fast is really what led me to (ski mountaineering) competition. We were using our skis to access climbs and to get places we wanted to go, and people said, “Hey, you should try ski mountaineering.” The big appeal is you’re all on your own, you don’t have to be at a specific starting point at a specific time, and you can wait for the conditions to be right. You choose what you want to do — you can be the one who has the FKT on some random route in the middle of nowhere, or you can try to compete against the best in the world on a popular route.
On the mild Canadian accent he has developed
Being from Minnesota, I guess I was already halfway there, right?
Jeff Moravec is a writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.