What Is Ski Mountaineering?

ski mountaineering

Ski mountaineering (“skimo”) is an endurance sport in which competitors traverse varied terrain, wearing removable skis which they sometimes carry on their back to ascend steep inclines on foot. The sport combines classic cross-country and downhill skiing with elements of extreme mountaineering, making it one of the world’s most unique sports. In some competitions, skiers may even need to use ice-climbing equipment or other specialized mountaineering tactics like harnesses or ropes. Ski mountaineering is coming to the Winter Olympics in 2026. Read on to learn all about it.

  • Description: A sport in which skiers race to ascend and descend mountains using various skiing and mountaineering techniques
  • Founded By: Wilhelm Paulcke
  • Founded Date: 1897
  • Governing Bodies: USA Skimo, International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF)
  • Countries: Switzerland, France, Italy, USA, Canada, Argentina, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, China, South Korea, and Japan
  • Regions: Asia, Europe, North America, South America
  • Categories: Winter Sports, Ski Sports, Olympic Sports, Endurance Sports


In some ways, ski mountaineering is the closest modern analog to the historical role of skiing as a mode of transportation. From prehistoric times, humans have used skis to move across snow-covered landscapes, but those skiers also had to contend with the reality of topography: they would have to cross mountains too steep to ascend on skis and be prepared to ski down the other side just the same. In most modern ski competitions, an element of this has been lost: in alpine skiing, racers only go downhill, and in cross-country skiing, the racers only contend with very small changes in elevation.

The modern sport of ski mountaineering traces its roots to 1897, when Wilhelm Paulcke, a German, completed the first recorded ski traverse of the Bernese Highlands in Switzerland. Throughout most of the 20th century, other disciplines of skiing took over in popularity, and ski mountaineering was left out of most official ski competitions. While many events were organized by militaries in Europe since at least the 1940s, the first World Championships were not held until 2002. Since then, the sport has continued to grow in popularity in Europe and around the world, leading to it officially being added to the program for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy.

Rules and Competitions

Ski mountaineering races fall into several categories, each with its own unique aspects:

  • Individual: Most popular in the USA, these races have a mass start and usually take around 2-3 hours to complete.
  • Team: Teams of two or three skiers set off on a several-hour course that takes them up and down mountains and involves on-foot ascents.
  • Sprint: An exciting short-course race that takes just a few minutes, individual racers take on a single ascent and descent.
  • Vertical: A single ascent, on skis, of 2,000-3,000 feet, with no downhill portion.
  • Relay: Teams of three or four compete in a relay circuit of about 15 minutes per leg.

Several international competitions are held each year, as well as the multi-stage World Cup organized by the ISMF. When ski mountaineering joins the Olympics in 2026, there will be five events: men’s and women’s sprint, men’s and women’s individual, and a mixed-gender relay.


ski mountaineering equipment

Perhaps the most interesting and unique aspect of ski mountaineering is the wide range of equipment put to use by the competitors. Firstly, the racers use what are known as “telemark” skis, with bindings that are detached at the heels to allow the skiers to “run” uphill and ski down. Also, the skis are outfitted with special skins, which prevent them from sliding backward on the ascent.

In addition to the skis, though, there can be a variety of extra equipment in use depending on the course of the race. Some common extras are ice picks and crampons for courses with steep ice-climbing sections. Ski mountaineers also use poles to help them travel distances across the snow. Also, skiers sometimes must use ropes and harnesses to traverse steep slopes. In longer races, the competitors bring along extra safety equipment, like avalanche beacons and shovels.


How does ski mountaineering work?

Ski mountaineering is a sport where skiers race up and down mountains both on skis and on foot. They sometimes are also required to use other equipment like ice picks, ropes, and harnesses to traverse steep terrain. The most common type of race is the team race, where teams of two to four skiers race up and down several peaks over the course of multiple hours. The winning team is the team that has the lowest combined time.

Who created ski mountaineering?

Modern ski mountaineering was created by Wilhelm Paulcke, a German climber and skier who completed the first known traverse of the Bernese Highlands on skis. After this feat, which took place in 1897, ski mountaineering began to be recognized as a sport of its own rather than just a military training exercise or a hobby for a few crazy mountain climbers. Despite this, it took a long time for official international competitions to begin. Ski mountaineers had to wait until 2002 for the first World Championships to be organized.

Is ski mountaineering an Olympic sport?

Ski mountaineering will be included in the Winter Olympics for the very first time in 2026 at the Milan-Cortina Games in Italy. The sport enjoys great popularity in Italy and neighboring Switzerland, which led to it being considered for inclusion in the Games. After a highly successful trial run at the 2020 Youth Olympics, it was clear that ski mountaineering had the potential to be an exciting and competitive new sport at the 2026 Games. With this in mind, the International Olympic Committee agreed to include the event.