Our People - Rory Kelly

World-class ski mountaineer loves racing, computational science & service

April 19, 2017 | On weekdays in winter, while most people are still sleeping, Rory Kelly is driving to a ski area in the dark, slipping into his ski mountaineering gear, and training for two hours before heading back to Boulder for his job as a software engineer in NCAR's Computational and Information Systems Laboratory (CISL).

Many outstanding athletes work at NCAR. But Kelly is in somewhat rarified air, literally and figuratively: for the past three years, he's been a member of the U.S. National Team and has twice competed at the Ski Mountaineering World Championships (2015 and 2017).

Rory Kelly going uphill at Pierra Menta

NCAR software engineer Rory Kelly (front) "bootpacking" up a mountain at the four-day Pierra Menta ski mountaineering race in France in March. (Photo courtesy Rory Kelly.)

In March, at this year's world championships in Italy, Team USA finished sixth out of 25 countries, its highest-ever finish. Kelly also was part of a sprint relay team that finished eighth. He went on to compete for the first time in the rigorous four-day Pierra Menta race in France before heading back to Colorado.

Ski mountaineering, or Skimo as it's called, requires lots of specialized equipment, including skis, boots, poles, helmet, goggles, headlamps, crampons, ice axes, and skins — strips of mohair material that attach to the skis to help grip the snow on an ascent.

We caught up with Kelly recently to ask about his racing and his work at NCAR. Kelly and his wife Natasha, who also enjoys outdoor sports, live in Boulder.

Kelly by the way has never lost the bicycle challenge at our annual Up-the-Hill Race, when he's competed. But biking up to NCAR's Mesa Lab wasn't always so easy. The first time he tried, back in 2003? "I had to stop and walk my bike."

You grew up in Snowmass Village and started skiing when you were two years old?
Yes. Mom used to take me out and hold me up between her legs. I thought I was skiing but she was mostly holding me. I took a hiatus into snowboarding, but I always did a winter sport. Skateboarding was my main summer activity growing up, but these days I do a lot of cycling.

When did you get into ski mountaineering?
The winter of 2012–2013. I was at a bike race that September – it was the last race of the year – sitting around and talking to a buddy about what we would do in the winter. And he said, 'We're going to do the Grand Traverse from Crested Butte to Aspen.' It's a 40-mile ski mountaineering race that starts at midnight and finishes in the morning. I bought the gear and really liked the sport. I had done some Nordic ski racing, but ski mountaineering is quite different. The boots and bindings switch modes — when going uphill the boot ankles move, the heel is free, and the boot pivots in the binding at the toe, like Nordic gear. For downhill skiing the boots lock —rigid —and the heel locks into the binding, making them work like traditional alpine skis. The skis have metal edges, and you attach skins to the ski bottoms to get grip for the uphill. Often there are places that are too technical to ski, so you put the skis on your back and run, hike, or climb, and then ski down. There're also some flat sections where you might do some skating like you would as a Nordic skier.

Rory Kelly skiing at Pierra Menta race in France.
Rory Kelly heads downhill at the Pierra Menta race in France in March. (Photo courtesy Rory Kelly.)

What's your typical training week?
I spend 15 to 18 hours a week on the snow. It's a lot of getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. and skiing from 6 to 8 a.m., usually four days during the workweek. On weekends, I race or do four- or five-hour training days. This is the first year that Eldora allowed skinning, so it has become a regular place to train. Otherwise I go backcountry near Nederland, or drive up to Loveland or A-Basin (Arapahoe Basin). I started by thinking that the skiing was a great way to get in shape for bicycle racing in the summer. Now, I think the other way around.

What is it about ski mountaineering that you love?
There's a real sense of adventure. You're out in the wilderness and backcountry. And you can't beat the scenery. When I'm training, there's something about standing on top of a mountain and watching the sun come up. It's pretty addictive.

Is it dangerous?
Sure. A friend and former national team member was killed this year in an avalanche, and people break bones here and there. Training is probably more dangerous than racing.

What's the worst accident you've had?
Broken ribs. In one of my early races, a branch just missed my eye. The race had started at 6 a.m. and I didn't have a light because the sun was starting to come up. I learned after that to keep my goggles on.

What is the most difficult race you've done?
The one I just finished, Pierra Menta in France. It was four days in a row, two to three hours each day, and each day about 3,000 meters in elevation change. As a bicyclist, I'm used to the multi-day format — everyone feels bad. By the fourth day, you feel worse than you did the first day. But you hope to be feeling better relative to the other racers.

What's your favorite race?
Again, the Pierra Menta. This was my first year to do it. It's really cool. It starts and finishes in the same town every day. The town opens the ski lift at 5 a.m. to allow spectators to go up on the mountain. You get 4,000 spectators, ringing cow bells, trying to get you to eat sausage and fondue. In Colorado, we are lucky to have the COSMIC series, which holds around 15 races over the winter. Of those, my favorite is a race down in Irwin (near Crested Butte), which takes place at a beautiful, backcountry venue.

What brought you to NCAR?
I was working at CU (University of Colorado) in a physics group and we did modeling in Fortran. NCAR is always looking for people who know Fortran! I also had done a lot of hiking and running here (on the mesa), and knew the place. Initially I was hired as a software engineer in the Computational Science Section; now I'm part of the Consulting Services Group in CISL. I get to interact with users in all of the other labs, and have collaborated closely with some folks in CGD (Climate and Global Dynamics laboratory). I enjoy that my position gives me a nice view of what everyone is doing, at least in terms of computing.

What do you like most about NCAR?
The environment is really nice. People support flexible schedules and having a life outside of work. I want to thank my group for letting me play pro racer for a while in Europe. A lot of people covered for me. I also love that the work we do at NCAR has a bigger meaning, that you're contributing to something more important than just making people dollars.

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer