Monday, April 2, 2012

The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse

Whoa, Jason and I are back in SLC after a rough first go at the EMGT.  This 40 mile backcountry ski race from the town of Crested Butte to Aspen, CO has a reputation as being gear intensive, strategy intensive, and not for the weak souled.  Although only gaining around 8000 vertical, the race is often plagued by winter storms and the darkness of night can turn simple mishaps into demoralizing catastrophes.  Sounds like just the thing we would like to do with our few days off for the month.

Outdoor Research has stepped up this year as a major sponsor for many great ski mountaineering events and this race was no different.  Not only were they providing the event T-shirts, they also threw in a great pair of gloves for every participant.  They also decided to sponsor a team at this year's traverse and Jason and I were lucky enough to be able to represent this skier friendly brand.

Just getting to Crested Butte to start the race and then finding a way to shuttle our car around to Aspen proved to be a logistical nightmare.  Enter the Viking.  Lars is the namesake of my boy Lars and has always been willing to jump in a car for some adventure (we've driven together from Utah down the Baja Peninsula and north to the Arctic).  This weekend, he flew from Denver to SLC, jumped in a car with us, drove to CB, and then shuttled our car to Aspen where his wife picked him up.  This was crazy and much appreciated.

Once in CB, we were amazed by the number of racers and the energy that permeated the staging area during the gear check.  We said hi to friends we've met from other races, ate a quick lunch, endured a pre pre race meeting, and then were off to the hotel to try and get some rest before we had to check back in at 9PM.  At the hotel, Jared (Samurai and Wasatch Skimo leader who partnered with CB local Jon Brown), busted out a rice maker and worked on some tasty treats that he was taking along for the race.  I tossed restlessly as my heart raced, nervous for the suffering ahead.  Jason, who can sleep anywhere and anytime, caught a couple hours before we started to think about dinner.  Our pre race meal turned out to be cold cereal and bagels at the hotel before we stuffed heaps of mandatory "survival equipment" into our small CAMP packs and returned to the resort for final check in.

Hundreds of racers were milling about making last minute preparations.  Outside, the air was still and warm with temps in the upper 20s/low 30s.  A spotlight illuminated the summit of Mount Crested Butte, and music by Soul Train filled the darkness.  An annual concert was going on at the resort base and added to the festive atmosphere with hundreds of folks dressed as disco loving hippies intermingled with spandex clad racers.  We warmed up for about ten minutes before a priest (not sure if real or not) blessed the race.  Then the whole crowd counted down from ten and we were off.

Starting at a pace more suitable for a 2 hour rando race, the field was strung out after just minutes of climbing.  Two highlights from the whole trip were watching Scott Simmons' two boys (<10 years old?), run shirtless up the groomed start along side their dad as they yelled him on in the night.  Hopefully baby Lars will get that excited.  The second was looking back as we neared the top of the first climb and seeing 300 headlamps rolling forward like a flock of fireflies.

After a screaming descent along a groomed run and out a cat track, we reached the resort boundary we were crossed a rudimentary bridge and then skated through manky partially refrozen snow that was dotted with sage brush and dirt.  Eventually the dirt and brush overwhelmed the snow and we transitioned to running shoes.  At this point, Jason and I were in 4th or 5th having taken a bit longer than the others to get into our shoes.  But, we found the running to our liking and began to pick people off one team at a time until we found ourselves out front.  Occasionally, we had to slow and wait for the next team to ask directions but we were pretty psyched to be leading the race and feeling good.  After 8 miles of this and a couple more stream crossings, the patches of snow overwhelmed the stretches of dirt and putting skis on seemed prudent.

Skinning along the poorly covered Brush Creek Road, we alternated between gliding smoothly and duck walking on dirt with our skins on.  At this point we had been passed by two other teams while we were transitioning and were back in 3rd.  Jon and Jared joined us for a bit but soon faded into the darkness.  Just as quickly, we saw two headlamps up ahead and minutes later were passing Marshall and Pat (eventual 2nd place finishers).  Then Wick and Smith appeared and we commented that we were in perfect position.  Our plan was to follow the leaders as long as possible and then try to go hard to the finish once in the daylight.  The pace was easy and stupidly, I started to allow myself to dream of a nice podium finish, which was our goal at the outset.

At 2AM, 3 hours into the race, we passed the Friend's Hut, where again, a transition snafu (I tried to switch out for betting climbing skins) put us back into third with Simmons and Kroger on our heels.  Moving quickly but in total control, we closed the gap back to the leaders as we climbed to Star Pass.  Making the descent off the steep pass, we were 20 seconds behind Wick and Smith and maybe 20 ahead of Marshall and Pat. The descent was icy, steep, and surely a nightmare for those on nordic gear.  For us, it was going smoothly until I suddenly fell on the run out to the next transition.  Surprised, I looked down and realized my boot had broken in a such a way that it would be impossible to be locked into ski mode. Worried but with the leaders/tour guides starting to skin away, we rallied to the transition zone to begin the climb up to Taylor Pass.

Here, the way seemed obvious.  We would just ski out the gully until we caught sight of Wick/Smith or until Marshall/Pat caught us.  Then we'd stick to the game plan of follow the leader.  A few minutes in, things didn't feel right and we decided to wait for confirmation.  Impatient, I began yelling, "MARSHALL!!!!"  Up the hill, in the trees came a faint, "up here".  Hmmm, realizing we missed the track, we switch backed up the treed hillside until back on the skin track.  A steady pace saw us closing the gap and after half an hour or so, we had rejoined Marshall/Pat, who were currently in second.

We talked for a minute before they put the gas down and absolutely dropped us.  I'm not sure if it was my broken boot, the onset of fatigue, or the irregular frozen skin track, but I was feeling uncoordinated and didn't want to work that hard to stay with them that early in the race.  As we traversed to Taylor, two sets of headlamps bobbed in the not-so-distant darkness and we were still in the race.  Looking back frequently, another set of lights was closing the gap and for the first time I felt like we were the ones being hunted.

Ripping skins and cautiously descending from Taylor with my broken boot over frozen snowmobile tracks, Kroger and Simmons went ripping by and were soon gone while I fought to stay up right.  Joining Jason some minutes later as he waited patiently, we now realized 4th would be our best possible finish.  A pattern of short climbs and frustrating descents ensued until we stood at the cusp of another descent where we could look into three different drainages.  The sliver of a moon was just enough to reveal dark forests below without any sign of the correct path.  Not wanting to really ruin the race, we basically sat down and waited for the next racers to come through and show the way.

The Hagan/Laird team appeared some minutes later and shouted encouragement and yelling that the Barnard Hut was just below.  Kicking ourselves, we thanked them and skated off and then descended to the hut.  They caught me on the descent and we arrived together for the mandatory 10 min medical check/break.  As I was thoroughly enjoying some hot Raman broth, Jared and Jon suddenly pulled in.  Jon was giggling and Jared was cursing about how long this race was turning out to be.  I too was cursing at the unexpected appearance of two other teams.  I cursed some more when the Sully/Haney team pulled in as we were getting up to leave.

Toeing the line, Jason and I realized that Hagan and Laird were going to skate away from the hut.  Ha.  Stupid move.  As we skinned down hill for what felt like miles we realized we were the stupid ones as their lights disappeared.  More cursing ensued when Jared/Jon skated by and then even more when Sully/Haney passed as well.  Finally learning our lesson, we transitioned to skiing/skating the down/flat and hiking the ups.

These last 7 miles of mostly up hill travel along Richmond Ridge were tortuous.  We felt like we'd blown the race but still wanted to salvage a respectable finish.  Trying to stave off cramps, I watched the sun rise over the Rockies and contemplated the last 8 hours.  We had experienced our own highs and lows, watched our friends put on impressive performances, and were lucky enough to enjoy nearly 40 miles made efficient and relatively fast by skis through breathtaking terrain (of which we saw almost none in the dark).  

As we skied down the entirety of Aspen Mountain to the finish I started thinking toward the future, how to go faster, and how to limit mistakes.  At the finish, Wick came up and shook our hands and said, "that's the Grand Traverse for you."  He could say that factually and with understanding having both won and lost badly in the past after taking what the the Traverse offered and then done his best.  With the misfortune that befell us and our strategic mistakes, I feel that on that day, I did my best.  On another long night in the coming years, my best may result in a different outcome which is one of the countless reasons to return.


  1. Nice write up. Almost seems mandatory to put your time in and learn the race before expecting to do well?

  2. Thanks guys. Yeah, I think that to be competitive, it is huge to know the course and what to expect. Still a fun experience though. I think I'll be back in a couple years when I have more time.