KALISPELL - In the unique sport of skiing up - and then down - mountains, Brandon French is at the top.
French, a Kalispell firefighter, won the 2011 U.S. championships in Jackson, Wyo., early in January. He added that title to his 2008 national championship in randonee skiing, also known as ski mountaineering.
In the words of the Aspen Times, "Ski mountaineering races are brutal affairs that sear the lungs, sap the legs and test the endurance of the athletes. Racers alternate between climbing uphill with skins on their skis and skiing down gnarly slopes on lightweight gear."
French, 30, started racing more than five years ago.
The Jackson race consisted of climbing 7,700 feet in five different climbs and there were 91 skiers competing, French said.
French finished 10th in his first national competition in 2007, was fourth in 2009 and second in 2010.
French's wife, Katie, 28, a part-time kindergarten teacher at Peterson Elementary School, also competes in ski mountaineering.
She was second in the women's race category at Big Mountain on Jan. 22. She also finished third at a race in Bozeman on Jan. 29 and sixth at nationals last month.
"A lot of alpine skiers don't even know about" randonee skiing, Brandon French said.
"It's becoming more and more popular," he added, noting it attracts several hundred skiers in the Salt Lake Valley every day. Ski mountaineers also flood the area near Teton Pass near Jackson, he said.
"We're pretty fortunate around here that there's not as many people," French said. "It's easier to find untracked snow."
Brandon's favorite place to ski and climb is south of Glacier National Park near the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. He also climbs Mount Aeneas above Jewel Basin.
Brandon began skiing when he was 2 1/2 after his parents, Bob and Dawnita, taught him. He got into ski mountaineering because he loved skiing and climbed a lot, even approaching ice climbs.
Ski mountaineering consists of climbing a mountain on skis and then skiing down.
Skiers use alpine equipment and add skins to the bottom of the skis so the skis can only go forward.
"With the skins you can go straight up Big Mountain," French said.
The "skin" consists of a mohair, goat hair or synthetic hair that is laminated to a fabric. It can be subsequently removed from the ski.
In ski mountaineering, the skier's heels can be free to climb or cross flat terrain.
The Frenches also have competed in world competition in Switzerland in 2008 and Andorra in 2010.
The world competitions normally are held every two years, but the next event was moved to last week so they are on odd-numbered years and will not conflict with the Winter Olympics.
Due to economic constraints, the Frenches did not compete in this year's world event. Instead they went to Hawaii for some rest and relaxation.
In addition to the world competitions, the Frenches competed twice at the Pierra Menta race in France. Brandon calls it the "Tour de France" of the sport. It lasts four days.
Traveling to Europe has given the Frenches the opportunity to meet a lot of new people.
"I have friends all over who I can ski with," Brandon said.
As a firefighter/paramedic with the Kalispell Fire Department, Brandon French works one 24-hour day followed by two days off. This schedule allows him to compete in ski mountaineering since he can have five consecutive days off if he takes one day off work.
Katie French works two days one week and three days the next as part of a "job share" with another teacher at Peterson.
Together the Frenches enjoy randonee skiing, which they hope will become an Olympic sport in 2018.