PORTRAIT: Kylee Toth Ohler, Canadian Skimo champ
Editor’s note: Most people, including the majority of our 16,000 members, think of the ACC as a club that provides membership services, guides adventures, operates a hut system, and fosters mountain culture.
We’re all that, and we’re also committed to supporting high-end mountain athletics. To that end we’re Canada’s governing body for three competitive mountain sports: sport climbing, ice climbing, and ski mountaineering (skimo) racing.
While representing our country, athletes in these sports inspire us and show the next generation of ACC members what’s possible.
Today, at the start of the ISMF Pan American Championships and Canadian Ski Mountaineering National Championships at the Ken Jones Classic in Lake Louise, AB, enjoy and be inspired by this profile of Kylee Toth Ohler, one of Canada’s top athletes in one of our most exciting mountain sports.
A former internationally ranked speed skater, Calgary’s Kylee Toth Ohler discovered competitive ski mountaineering (skimo) in 2007, and she’s been raising the bar for her own skills and accomplishments, and of the sport in Canada ever since. A wife and mother, she’s been a Canadian National Ski Mountaineering Team member since 2009. She was 2016 North American female sprint champion, and Canadian female champion in 2015/16 and 2016/17. Last year she and teammate Michelle Katchur Roberts were the first female Canadian team to finish France’s Pierra Menta stage race. Competing in Canada for the 2018 season, she’s building toward the 2019 World Championships.
When did you begin skiing?
At 18 months. I was born in Vernon. B.C. and lived there until I was six. I learned to ski at Silver Star.
What attracted you to skiing?
When I was little my dad bought me French fries and hot chocolate. It’s one of my favorite memories. Skiing was a family activity every second weekend and holidays. I liked going fast and was motivated to chase my older brother and his friends around the mountain.
How did you discover skimo?
I had just retired from the National Speed Skating Development Team and a friend, Steve Sellers, suggested I try this cool sport called skimo. I had never backcountry skied but loved skiing and being outside, so gave it a try.
What was your first skimo competition?
My first Skimo race was the 2007 Fernie Mountain Storm. I lost the course and didn't even finish. It was actually my second time on touring gear, so it was a bit of a catastrophe! I liked the challenge of the race and the movement and was determined to improve. Coming from being nationally and internationally ranked in speed skating, it was fun to explore a developing sport with a less competitive, more authentic outdoor culture. The skimo people were extremely friendly and very skilled mountaineers - an impressive group to learn from.
Does gear make a difference?
When I started I was a university student so didn't have a lot of disposable income. I always bought the lightest, cheapest gear I could afford. Over time I realized how important light gear is to improving in the sport and prioritized and budgeted to get high end gear. My race gear now is as light as many cross-country ski setups.
What was your first European race?
It was the 2008 Dachstein Extreme in Austria. I was super underprepared for the race in terms of ability and gear. It felt like going to a speed skating World Championships where the other athletes had team suits, team cars, coaches, support staff, etc. There were helicopters, it was televised, it felt very commercial, professional, polished, like a really developed sport. The competition was elite, and their race gear weighed half as much as mine. It was a great learning experience, very challenging, but I enjoyed being at a competition with no expectations or pressure.
What are the most valuable things you’ve learned from competing?
I did my first speed skating race at five, so have been competing pretty much my entire life. I’ve experienced some of my most gut-wrenching disappointments and some of my biggest highlights at competitions. You learn how to get along with other people, how to win, how to lose, how to deal with disappointment, with anxiety, and things that aren't within your control, how to be focused, how to push yourself.
What was your best comp?
The Pierra Menta in France, 2017, with my teammate and friend, Michelle Katchur Roberts. It’s a four-day stage race where you cover 2500 to 3000 metres of terrain per day. My whole family came to watch including my mom and my husband, Ben Ohler. It was a big culmination of a lot of training and dedication by me and Michelle. We were the first two Canadian women to team up and complete the race, so I am proud of that accomplishment.
What skimo skills are most challenging for you?
One of the most challenging is gliding better on flat sections. I don’t have any Nordic background, so my natural tendency is just to run or stomp around which is inefficient and slow.
Who are your most important mentors?
My biggest skimo role model has been my close friend, Melanie Bernier. Mel paved the way for Canadian girls in skimo. She’s the only Canadian to place top three at a World Championships in sprint racing and has had many top 10 finishes. She’s also very kind and generous with sharing her knowledge. I hope we can continue that culture in our sport as it grows - if we share knowledge, advice and help each other we will all collectively improve. In life, my Mom is hands-down, the most influential person. She is brave, kind, compassionate and the least selfish person I know. I aspire to be like her as a person and a mother.
How do you balance racing, training and being a mom?
My boys are four and six. The balance isn't always easy; it often gets quite out of balance during racing season. I work all my training around my mom duties as my kids are very important to me – which sometimes means being on a treadmill at 10 p.m. From late December to March all energy goes to racing, my boys, and maintaining regular life activities. Outside of those months I pour more energy into family activities, friends, camping and hiking. I am fortunate to have a lot of family support from grandparents, etc. I enjoy competing so much, it’s what gives me energy. My life is very unconventional for a 33-year-old mom with two boys, but that is OK with me.
What are the best things and biggest challenges in skimo?
Skimo has given me the opportunity to see and explore places I hadn't even dreamed of - skiing in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France or summiting a lot of mountains in Alberta or British Columbia. Skimo has opened my eyes to the vast and beautiful natural world that is all around us. My biggest challenge is a constant battle between time away from my family, risk and my desire to push the limits. There are so many objectives and things I would like to try, but I want to be smart and responsible with my time and risk tolerance as a mom.
*This story first appears in the Spring 2018 issue of the ACC Gazette.