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The City Journals

Cottonwood Heights group heading to ski mountaineering world championships

Feb 21, 2019 11:20AM ● By Josh Wood

Ada Fendler racing the vertical race in Arapahoe Basin, Colorado. (Sarah Cookler, with permission)

By Joshua Wood | [email protected]

A team of Cottonwood Heights athletes has taken a major European sport by storm and has earned a trip to Switzerland this March to compete against the world’s best. Ski mountaineering is a little known sport in the United States, but has a major following in Europe. As the sport prepares for its possible Olympic debut in 2026, these local athletes look to climb to its ultimate heights.

Sarah Cookler has raced on the US national tour for years. Three years ago, she decided to form a neighborhood ski mountaineering club with kids in the neighborhood who wanted to do it. Her aim was to keep it fun, but within a few years, members of the team went to Colorado for national qualifiers.

“We went to qualifiers to see how they would do with low expectations,” Cookler said. “Lo and behold, Rush Peterson won the boys’ championship and Ada Fendler, the youngest on the team, finished in the top four. I thought, ‘wow, these kids are good.’”

Now Cookler, Fendler, Peterson and teammate Samantha Paisley head to the world championships in Switzerland.

The competition is grueling and requires supreme fitness. At the world championships, the team will compete in three different races. The vertical race involves a climb of 1,600 vertical feet, usually in under 20 minutes. The individual race involves multiple climbs totaling around 3,000 vertical feet over five miles. Cookler is excited for the sprint race, which involves five to six athletes at a time performing six to eight climbs in under six minutes. They climb, then switch to skis, then climb and ski some more.

In addition to competing herself, Cookler gets to see the neighborhood kids take on the best in the world in their age groups. “Watching their development has been fun, going from grassroots to a national platform,” Cookler said.

Fendler will compete in the 14-to-16-year-old category. “I’m excited for the race and to spend time with my family and friends on the team,” Fendler said. “Here in the US, we don’t really have any spectators, but when you go over to Europe, they all know about it and rows of people line up to watch.”

Fendler joined Cookler’s ski mountaineering group from the start and worked on learning the races and getting better and stronger. In the spring, summer and fall she enjoys mountain biking to keep up her conditioning. This helps her persevere during the intense ski mountaineering races. She uses that conditioning and her focus to excel in competitions.

“I just think, ‘keep going, keep going, keep going. Twenty more minutes of pain and you’ll feel great,’” she said.

Cookler serves as an inspiration for the neighborhood group with her years of experience competing on the world’s biggest stages in the sport. Now each team member has adopted a similar passion for it.

“I really like the aspect of the climbing and meeting other kids,” Fendler said. “Going fast uphill, fast downhill, and getting outside is an adrenaline rush.”

Cookler started the group as a way to share a sport she loves with kids in her neighborhood in Cottonwood Heights. She didn’t think about the great things the kids have already accomplished, let alone the possibilities that could unfold in the future.

“The International Olympic Committee has it as for the 2026 Olympics,” Cookler said. “So these kids could be future Olympians.”

From neighborhood club to Olympic aspirations in a few years is an incredible climb. But climbing is what they do best. Cookler, Fendler and their teammates have spent this year focused on the world championships in Switzerland. Beyond that, the possibilities get even bigger.

“I want to aim for the Olympics,” Fendler said. “I think we have a good chance.”