Sunday, March 31, 2013

The 2013 Elk Mountain Grand Traverse

Disclaimer: This is a long winded race report full of details to aid me when I'm old and can't remember. For a more succinct report see Jason's write up

I'm laying in a hotel bed outside of Aspen after having slept for 13 hours straight.  Prior to my coma, I had been up for 34 hours and competed with my brother, Jason, in one of the most exciting and unique events in the country.  The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse was held for the 16th time and as always was full of surprises, drama, beauty, and suffering. The main sponsors this year were Gore Tex, Outdoor Research, and Dynafit, who all did a great job with schwag.  Again, Jason and I felt honored to be racing for OR and were determined to do our best to represent them well.

Salt Lake had representation on at least 5 teams (out of over 170!) looking to break up the Colorado dominated race.  Jason and I carpooled with Tom Goth and Teague Holmes with Tom's girlfriend Dominique Maack generously offering to drive the car around to Aspen while we raced.

We pulled into Crested Butte around 11:00 on Thursday night and tried to get as much sleep as possible before heading to the gear check/registration/race briefing/lunch.  While the race starts at midnight and goes till everyone is done on Saturday, this is very much a three day event with a huge party after the race in Aspen as well.  Anyway, after failing our gear check for missing a lighter and waterproof map, we went to the store, picked up some last minute items, passed our check, and went back to the hotel to pack and nap.

I managed a restless hour of sleep and decided I was too amped up to lay in bed anymore.  I strolled down to Teocalli Tamale and made the odd choice to fuel my night with a big Thai burrito.  I figured at least Jon Swain would be proud.  2 pounds heavier, it was time to wake up Jason, get our packs in order, and make our way back to the mountain.

It was Soul Train night as well so a very fitting mix of 70s clad party goers mingled with spandex clad racers with disco beats, smoke, and two stroke exhaust wafting through the air.  And then we were off. 342 racers with headlamps ablaze began their march through the darkness to Aspen.  The first climb is short, maybe 15 minutes, and soon we were flying down the backside of the resort towards the East River Basin.  The groomer was fast and with a nearly full moon, we were skiing recklessly towards the resort boundary when I saw Bryan Smith slam on the brakes as he was launching off a small roller.  A second later, I realized why.  The groomer suddenly had yielded to the most miserable breakable crust imaginable.  With a semi-supportable-screw-you-when-you-least-expect-it surface, falling through the trap door left skiers nearly entombed in rottenness underneath.  Marshall Thompson had just extricated himself after breaking a pole 20 minutes into the race.  I was on my side and quickly realized that three hundred people were about to come raining on my head if I didn't get out of the way.  As our front pack scampered off, I looked back to see dozens of headlamps pouring over the little roller like lemmings all crashing into each other.  It was pandemonium.  It was awesome!

The next surprise came as this hateful crust continued.  Mike Kloser manned up and took the lead, struggling to break trail.  After a few minutes his partner, Scott Simmons yelled at him to quit being stupid and let someone else do some work.  Jon Brown, myself, Marshall, Tom, and others took short pulls but we were moving so slowing that the entire pack of 342 people was all surging at our heels.  Others came running to the front to take their turn and it was great to hear people shout excitedly that they got a chance to lead, even if for a short while, the whole damn race.  It's an awesome feeling.

This continued for two hours until we turned up the brush creek drainage.  Finally, the snow was firm although rather uneven from previous snow mobile and skier traffic.  Here, the pace opened up and the field began to string out.  Mallory and Koons, both on nordic gear were off the front with the rest of us giving chase.  I asked Bryan Smith if he thought they would come back to us and he assured me that the steeper pitches and descents would neutralize their amazing kick and glide technique.  Regardless, I was impressed by the Kiwi Olympian up front.

Jason and I had a plan to go easy for the first half of the race and then push it after that.  We reasoned that after last year's debacle in which we shared the lead early but subsequently got lost, broke gear, and found ourselves moving backwards through the field, it would be wise to exercise early restraint.

We took turns setting the pace and eventually Marshall decided enough was enough and blasted around.  No chance in hell would he continue at that pace we thought.  He only had one pole and would surely tire.  Onward we plodded.

Then Scott Simmons and Mike Kloser went by and settled in just in front.  Then Teague Holmes and Brad LaRochelle showed us their backs.  The pace continued easy and we were happy to let a couple teams smooth out the way.  Just before the Friend's Hut the nordic guys looked to be having skin troubles and Marshall and Tom were well on their way up Star Pass.  I glanced at my watch and was surprised to see that it read four hours as we passed the hut.  This was nearly an hour slower than last year but we were still near the front and feeling great.  Everything was going according to plan.

Near the top of Star Pass, Simmons and Kloser seemed to be hitting a low patch and we put in a good move that opened up a little breathing room.  Along the upper ridge the wind was stirring up any loose snow left, stinging my eyes and freezing the left side of our faces.  Jason asked me to stop and pull out a Buff but with everything so tight, I opted to let him suffer.

Off Star Pass, the skiing was better than expected with some loose "powder" over a supportable surface.  The descent was uneventful and as we transitioned by the big fire, where Teague and Brad were just leaving and Wick and Smith just pulling in.  The hearty volunteer manning the fire offered that the leaders were just a couple minutes ahead.  Everything was still going perfectly.

From Star to Taylor, we were fast and relaxed but couldn't close the gap on Teague and Brad.  This pattern continued all the way to the Barnard Hut where Marshall and Tom were just preparing to leave as we pulled in.  With the mandatory 10 minute stop, I gulped down some hot soup, heckled the guys as they left, and encouraged Teague and Brad, who were having an amazing race.

Last year we made the mistake of trying to skin all the way along Richmond Ridge to the Aspen Sundeck.  This year, we were freaked out with Wick and Smith on our tails and we frantically mixed up skiing, skating, running, and skinning.  I was starting to bonk and Jason just kept screaming, "They're coming! They're coming! Hurry up!"  Mounting the final rise, with cramping quads, I was thrilled that we still in the clear.

The long descent into Aspen was a joy.  Hikers were ascending, cheering and taking pictures.  Skidding to a stop after passing through the big arch, it was great to see our friends who had just taken the first two spots.  High fives and hugs were exchanged and a woman with purple hair put a medal around my neck and gave me a hug offering congratulations.  I'm not sure if it was the relief of being finished after racing all night, scoring a spot on the podium, seeing friends do so well, or just the purple lady hug, but I almost shed a tear of joy.  It was a happy moment for sure.

The rest of the day, we hung around the finish, gorging on food and cheering in the everyone that made the same grand traverse and have their own stories to share.  That evening, the festivities continued with more food and prizes awarded at the Elks Lodge.  Age group winners were given handsome prizes and then the overall winners were rumored to have been brought on stage for more well deserved recognition at a block party concert that was getting started.  I missed that though because by 7:45, I was well asleep.  13 hours later, Jason and I stirred to life, packed our bags, and have rehashed the whole thing with Tom and Dominique all the back to SLC.

The Grand Traverse is a headache, a big time commitment, tiring, expensive, and very very hard.  But, it's awesome!  I really can see why people love it and come back every year.  There's this one guy who has raced and finished all 16 iterations of the event so far and I get it.  I missed the first bunch but I think I might have another couple or maybe couple dozen in me yet!

Lastly, I cannot imagine how much work goes into putting on a race like this.  I know the committee has been planning for months and months and really want to thank them for such a great event.

And now for a couple pictures (most by Dominique Maack).
Jason's pre race fuel

Sorting our kits around 11 PM.  Dominique is smiling like always! 
342 people heading out on a grand traverse just after midnight

Just after my hug from the purple lady that I love. 

6 really happy guys 

Still happy on the podium

Liz and Sarah (both from SLC) also finished 3rd in the Women's division


  1. Nice write up Andy. My partner and I did the race for the first time this year and had a great time. I was already making plans for future years in the midst of the race. I'm hoping to con my wife into doing it with me one year and I'd really love to actually race it another year. The speed you guys cover that ground is really mind-boggling and inspiring. When you have time could you cover the gear you used? The photo shows the obvious stuff, but I was wondering what the top guys are using for all the extra base layers, insulated pants, etc….Congrats on the finish

    PS you left out any mention of that "gully" along the East River. Maybe it wasn't anything special when you guys made it through but by mid-pack it was a belly deep sugar snow wallow, muddy, claw and paw, steeple chase style perfection.

    Jesse in CO

    1. Hey Jesse, good to hear from you. For all the extra layers, we carried the lightest stuff we could find.

      Extra base layer - my wife's tights cause they're small
      Insulated layer - a friends puffy pants and OR Transcendent Hoody
      Outer layer - CAMP (Flash anorak) and Trab wind shells
      Shelter - Brooks Range mini
      Pad - either CAMP or Thermarest XLite, both are well under a pound

      Also, thanks for the reminder of the East River gully. That was amazing! I looked around and it reminded me of a hundred midevil warriors storming a castle. People were running up the dirt, trying to get around putting in a boot track, skinning to the left, and really just scrambling over each other to try to get to the front. The funny thing is that after all that effort, who ever ended up in front was rewarded with just more heinous breakable crust. It was so cool to watch though that I stopped and tried to take a couple pictures with my phone but they didn't really turn out...


  2. Burrito Power, Yea!