ASPEN - The granddaddy of ski mountaineering races - the Grand Traverse - will return with a flair this week.
The annual 40-mile backcountry ski mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen will mark its 16th anniversary when skiers take off from the base of the Mount Crested Butte ski area at midnight Friday.
The first team of two is expected at the finish line at the base of Aspen Mountain about 7 or 7:30 a.m. Saturday.
"We did it in 7:34 last year on the same identical course," said Bryan Wickenhauser, of Crested Butte/Gunnison, who won the 2012 Grand Traverse with partner Brian Smith, also of Crested Butte/Gunnison.
Wickenhauser, also the co-director of the Grand Traverse, said there are 180 teams entered in the 2013 race, including 20 teams who are competing to raise money for charities. That makes the Grand Traverse the largest ski mountaineering race in the United States.
"The forecast is calling for light winds, light snow," Wickenhauser said. "So, we'll probably have an 'ordinary' ground blizzard. No matter what the weather is at the start, it always gets weird up top."
He said the bitterly cold temperatures of last weekend are not expected to torment the ski mountaineers this week as they retrace the route of 1880s mail carriers. The skiers will face nearly 8,000 feet of climbing as they traverse the Elk Mountains in a self-supported backcountry race.
"We are ready; we are healthy," Wickenhauser said of his team.
The Crested Butte tandem of Marshall Thompson and Pat O'Neill finished second to Wickenhauser and Smith last year. They completed the odyssey in 8 hours.
Travis Scheefer and Ethan Passant won the 2011 race in 9:14, slowed by snow conditions and weather.
A year prior, Wickenhauser and Smith won in a blistering time of 6:28. The course, however, has been modified somewhat since then. The race now starts at the Crested Butte ski area instead of in downtown Crested Butte. Additional mileage on the way out of the Crested Butte area was added to accommodate a private property issue, as well.
Vail endurance heavyweights Mike Kloser and Jay Henry won the 2009 Grand Traverse for the second consecutive year.
Kloser, actually, won the race three years in a row. He teamed with Dan Weiland to win the 2007 race in 7:48.
The star-studded field of ski mountaineers is expected again this year, Wickenhauser said.
Two top mountaineers from Aspen who are not entered this year are Max Taam and John Gaston.
The two dominated the regional mountaineering scene this year, and they finished 10th in the world championships.
A month ago, Taam and Gaston teamed to edge Wickenhauser and Smith in the Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race that finished at the base of Ajax. Gaston also won the 2013 America's Uphill.
Taam and Gaston competed in the horrifically cold weather last weekend at the Five Peaks ski mountaineering race in Breckenridge. Several competitors suffered frostbite from the cold temperatures and brutal wind in the Ten Mile Range.
Wickenhauser said several Salt Lake City-area skiers will challenge in the 2013 Grand Traverse.