CARRABASSETT VALLEY – Cooper Friend prefers to go in the morning, pre-dawn: Head lamp on, sun rising in the distance, moon over his shoulder.

The Ellsworth skier first learned about randonnee skiing, also called Alpine touring (AT), three years ago when ski buddy Warren Cook introduced him to the skiing discipline.

Now Friend is as addicted to the sport as Cook, who is responsible for helping to start randonnee racing in Maine.

“My son made fun of me. But now he’s in Park City and he just bought a pair of AT bindings. He’s already skied up three mountains this winter,” Friend said.

Alpine touring has been a part of the mountains of Maine for a good century, but only in recent years has it made a resurgence.

“That was how Amos (Winter) skied,” Cook said of Sugarloaf’s founder.

In the past two years, this hard-earned way to get your turns has gained popularity again, with randonnee races held at Saddleback, where Cook started the event, and Sugarloaf, where his daughter, Nina, got it going.

Alpine touring requires an athlete to climb a mountain on skis, using “skins” that hold the skis in place. Skiers climb using an Alpine touring or telemark binding, which allows for a free heel. On the descent, the skins are taken off.

Today, skins and Alpine touring bindings can be found in ski shops in Maine. But when Cook got into it in 2005, the Alpine touring equipment was not common here, if it could be found at all. Telemark skiing had taken off, but Alpine touring was still rare.

Having run Sugarloaf and Steamboat in Colorado, Cook said he loved getting away from the lifts and climbing the mountains, getting closer to them.

His daughter, Nina, who competes for the United States Mountaineering Team, was his inspiration.

So he gathered together a group of Sugarloaf skiers and planned a trip to Europe, to the famed Haute Route that extends across an Alpine traverse from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland.

“We trained all winter,” Cook said. “Even though we loved it, few (of the others) continued to do it the next year.”

But Cook was converted. He returned to Maine hoping to spread the love of randonnee.

Three years ago he started the hill climb race at Saddleback, the same year his daughter directed Sugarloaf’s first randonnee race.

Officials at both mountains say the wild, grueling uphill races are here to stay.

“It’s definitely a growing movement. I think every ski shop now has a set of AT gear, and they all sell skins,” said Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin. “We will hold this race, or some version of it, each year.”

The past two years, Sugarloaf’s event, which includes a 1-mile hill climb, drew about 100 competitors, even for last year’s race, at night in sub-zero temperatures.

At Saddleback, where the race mirrors the true randonnee races of Europe perfectly, with both a hill climb and a ski down, it is 7 miles, more grueling — and already a tradition, said JoAnne Taylor, Saddleback’s director of marketing.

“There is a growing segment of these extreme athletes who really want to push themselves. You see it in the triathlon and our trail running races,” Taylor said.

Cook, who left Saddleback last year, plans to return this year to do the race he started there.

He still goes Alpine touring, and works to inspire others to try this traditional activity.

“Cooper’s really got to experience the touring side of it in Europe, skiing five days, 50 kilometers. I’ve skied great resorts in the United States. But ski touring in Europe is different, the pace is different. It goes back to the basics of skiing,” Cook said.

Across a pub table after their afternoon workout up Sugarloaf, Friend nodded to his pal and agreed.

“All the old ski club guys, they skinned up,” Friend said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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