Sometimes you do things that you know are going to hurt….
The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse sends skiers racing roughly 40 miles through the rugged Elk Mountains from Crested Butte to Aspen.
The race, originally founded as a backcountry Nordic event, has been adopted by the skimo community. 20 years ago there were a handful of teams on AT gear and few more on tele; today; speed-weenie skin-suits are a common occurrence and ultralight skimo race set-ups are the norm.
The race starts at Midnight, heading from Mount Crested Butte to the Friends Hut, over Star Pass then Taylor Pass, and finally down Richmond Ridge into Pitkin County. Quick turns down Aspen Mountain to the finish. The race has the distance of an ultra-marathon, plenty of long flat nordic sections, but also a couple of true heads up down-hills.
A war of attrition, only the patient and persistent survive.
Last week was my third finish, but up to now my luck with the GT was abysmal.
A good friend from Aspen convinced me to race with him a few years back now. I thought “sure, that sounds like a ton of fun, I love skiing in the Elks!”
“Good thing my four-buckle boots are ultralight!”
“K2 Coombacks aren’t too heavy!”
“Its long, so we should bring plenty of extra heavy things!”
I had never done a skimo race before….
On top of my lack of understanding, the route was deemed unsafe and we were told the night before the race that we would be doing the ‘Grand Reverse.’ The ‘Reverse’ is an out-and-back from CB that avoids the avalanche terrain on the north side of Star Pass. It is just as hard without the satisfaction of going somewhere.
…I learned a lot that year. I had a total blast with my partner, but took 16 hours to finish–it hurt.
The next year, having learned my lesson, I wanted a shot at the true traverse….
‘Let’s take light skis!’ we thought. ‘Let’s use skimo gear!’ we thought. ‘Let’s train!’ I thought. What ideas! I had moved to Leadville from the Front Range and had a 200+ day season. I felt strong and ready to go fast
….I tried eating my first snack about half an hour into the race and felt a gurgle in my stomach. At first I assumed this was just a bit of exercise induced indigestion. Nope. Full. Blown. Stomach. Flu.
By the time we got to Friends, it was coming out both ends (I know, gross). Frequently dashing into the woods to drop off any internal fluids that my body deemed unnecessary slowed us down considerably. I couldn’t eat or drink at all. It was miserable. My partner Ben’s enthusiasm and my stubbornness got us to the finish.
14:28. We got to Aspen, but I did not get the GT revenge I had hoped for. Instead, the Traverse taught me another dark lesson in the pain cave.
Despite the heuristic experience, I still somehow caught a bit of a skimo bug. It is really fun to take skis that look like Twizzlers and see how far you can go in the mountains.
I took a couple years off from the GT and built up some type-one-fun skimo experience….I found the fun in going fast and light in the mountains (fodder for another post perhaps).
….A couple weeks ago my friend Vince asked me to race with him.
We signed up, the next day Vince bailed….
I called Leadville crusher Andy Mention. Andy had nearly the same GT experience as me – one reverse and one trip to Aspen battling sickness—He was in; revenge was in sight.
With only two weeks notice, we didn’t have time to train. We both ski a lot and occasionally dabble in the race world, but a 40-miler through the Elks is not your normal Wednesday morning pow lap. Too late to do anything about it, we knew it was going to hurt and needed a strategy.
First we agreed on, “fast-casual,” before eventually moving to, “ski fast to Aspen (see what happens.)” Strategy settled!
We drove down to Crested Butte Friday morning, got checked in and hung out for the afternoon with Rohan Roy and Travis Colbert. Earlier in the week, Rohan and Travis had skied from Leadville to CB, and after the race Rohan skied back to Leadville to complete a human powered Grandest of Traverses (I might write a blog post about Rohan sometime soon).
Hard to wine when you’re with hard-guys like that.
The GT involves quite a bit of ‘hurry up and wait.’ After a morning gear check and mid day racers meeting, you have to be back up at the mountain for a beacon check and med tag pick up at 10:30. By the time its getting close to midnight, most folks have been GT-ing in Crested Butte for longer than the race will actually take them. When its finally time to take-off, everyone is decidedly itchy.
The restless mob takes off up Mount Crested Butte. We are underway.
Our first real break came at the Friends hut around 4am. We got a bit of water from the check station, threw on an extra layer and were off. At this point the first couple teams were already more than an hour out – pretty amazing.
Skiing down Star Pass in the dark is a total trip and a super fun respite from the slog up to that point. Once past Star, the route is broken down into much more manageable chunks. The climb to Opas Hut is mellow and quick compared to the climb to Friends. You can see Taylor Pass pretty much as soon as you leave Opas; a stretch mostly above tree line and totally beautiful. From Taylor Pass there are three discrete climbs and descents to get to the Barnard Hut. The sun came out for us along this stretch, and sunrise over the Elks is nothing short of amazing.
I have mixed feelings about Barnard. We got there around 7:50 am and had to stop for a mandatory 10-minute break. They give you Ramen and water and it is a very nice rest, but it is also extremely hard to get moving again.
We stretched our break to 11.5 minutes. I felt stiff. My left hip flexor was killing me after a night of rock hard side-hilling below Friends. We were pretty low energy. After leaving Barnard it was increasingly hard to keep up with the cohort of teams we had been traveling in. Fortunately, after 30 miles, we also couldn’t care less.
We tried skating on the undulating terrain of Richmond ridge, but quickly ran out of gas. We went through three transitions as three teams passed us – this was as inefficient as it gets. Eventually we decided it was worth a quick stop to put on kick wax – magic. From there on we were cruising pretty well again.
At the pre-race meeting the GT crew says that Richmond Ridge to the top of Aspen Mountain is the longest 7 miles of your life, and they aren’t lying. It hurts, bad, but you also finally ‘smell-the-barn.’
Somewhere above McFarlen’s Bowl, Andy turned to me and said, “Hey, if we put in three fast miles, we can come in sub 10.”
We hadn’t had any goals other than to get to Aspen without ruining a pair of underwear or vomiting on the course, but 10 hours sounded like a proud time.
We moved faster for about 5 minutes before our fragility took hold. “What about sub 10:15?” I said. We chuckled as two more teams motored by.
All of a sudden Aspen was in sight.
We stopped to put on leashes (required by the mountain) at the ski area boundary. I asked the check station volunteers what time it was, “9:50.”
Andy and I looked at each other, nodded, and took off.
Rando race skis at speed on icy packed trails are silly. Super fun, surprisingly stiff, terrifying, and awesome. Arcing the biggest turns our Twizzelers would muster down Little Annie’s towards the gondola, we came through the finish all smiles.
Rohan was there with another Leadville friend. He came in 6th with an impressive 8:32 time. “Nice work,” he said, “You guys beat 10 hours.”
9:56 wasn’t breaking any records, but was a time we were certainly happy with. More importantly, we had fun. We had both finally had a healthy and happy traverse to Aspen.
Maybe next year I’ll get around to training and it won’t hurt so bad…