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The British Women’s Ski Mountaineering Champion Gabriel Lees tells Rab all about the best season she’s ever had.

Gaby is this year’s British Female Ski Mountaineering Champion and she has represented Great Britain in World Championships events in 2009, 2011 and 2013.

Above: Gaby training for the Pierra Menta. (photo Leanne Callaghan)

“Having just started my first ever job as a physio, and not having all the same opportunities to train, I was not expecting a lot from this year of racing. How wrong I was! It was the best season I have ever had.

The season did not get off to the best start as I was ill for the team race at the World Championships and unable to make the start line due to a cherry red complexion and fever. I was very disappointed as I didn’t want to let Leanne down.  My disappointment was soon dispersed when later that week Leanne and I discovered we had got a place in the gnarliest ski mountaineering race of all: the Pierra Menta.

We had 2 more training races together before the big one and a week after the world championships I was back out in the Alps for the Sybelles Villarinche: a long race with 2300m vertical ascent done in a team of 2. It was a great race and we were 4th. It was our second team event together and Leanne and I got to put some of our race tactics to the test, trying out the tow line (which was not a success as our speed was very well matched) however it was a good race to practise and build up confidence with some tricky descents through tight trees.

As a last minute panic I incorporated training into my day with my lunches spent in the gym doing sprints on a bike and lots of squats throughout the day (my new work colleagues put me down as mad!). In preparation for the exposed ridge running on races Ursula and I went up to spend a weekend with Leanne training in Snowdonia, trying to move fast up scrambles and along icy ridges without crampons or axes. It wasn’t at the high altitude that the Alpine races were getting but it was good fun and really sunny and snowy. Another weekend we went training around Samoens ski resort, this had Leanne and I standing at the top of a near-vertical off -piste face with me exclaiming that the gradient was way too steep to be skiable. Leanne assured me this was exactly the kind of steep descents we would ski in the Pierra Menta. She bribed me with hot chocolates and I zoomed down it. Unfortunately the first go I went head first on my back and ended up laughing in a snow drift at the bottom with Leanne looking a bit worried.  The 2nd and 3rd times I had it sorted and had to admit it was definitely side step -able if not skiable.

The Pierra Menta  is a 4 day monster of a race and it was incredible, 25% of the woman’s teams dropped out or didn’t make it. Leanne and I had a fantastic race with a best result on day 2 of 16th. We finished over all in 18th place but had surpassed all our expectations by making it through every day, working as a good efficient team and still having lots of fun.  Our only disappointment of the race was that we didn’t get a Beaufort Cheese on the podium with the top 10 teams but you can’t have everything.

The GB champs was long awaited and guaranteed to be a fun race. I had never raced Ursula, Ali or Janine so it was going to be interesting to see where the places fell. The race played to my strengths with tough crusty snow on steep descents and technical climbs with lots of kick turns. On the day there was an added bonus of zero visibility, which made the careful or less experienced skiers go more slowly. It was a tough first climb with me chasing Janine trying to keep her in sight and working hard. In the end the race had to be stopped due to the poor visibility, wind, snow and an avalanche risk of 4/5. I gained enough of a lead on the descents to win and the placings were Ali Coulshaw 4th, Ursula Moore 3rd, Janine Frost 2nd and me 1st.

The last race was the Supertrophy du Muverans a big 2800 m Swiss race which Ursula and I started at 5 in the morning with the aim to have a good time. There were 2 massive fast descents and huge 500m snow couloir to climb and we had a fantastic race finishing 24th over all and second women’s team. Not bad considering we had a tea break at every food station.

I have really enjoyed my race season. I have been competing in the British team since I was a junior 5 years ago and although I have always enjoyed the after feel of racing I have never enjoyed myself that much during the races. This year was an eye opener and I have had my best results yet but the biggest change is that I have enjoyed every part of the races; hard work and all, and can’t wait for next winter!”

Below: Talented 22 year old Gaby Lees Striding powerfully to success in the Pierra Menta 2013