For the third time in its 17-year history, the Grand Traverse is now the Grand Reverse.
The Elk Mountains Grand Traverse race typically runs through a 40-mile backcountry course between the towns of Crested Butte and Aspen, but due to safety issues concerning snow stability near Star Pass, the course was redirected back toward Crested Butte from Friends Hut before racers reach Star Pass. Instead of finishing in Aspen today, the race will start and finish in Crested Butte.
The event started at midnight from Crested Butte, where racers compete across the Elk Mountains. The race demands that the teams of two climb more than 7,800 vertical feet and compete in the backcountry during the early-morning hours of darkness. To maintain safety, teams are required to carry safety gear and supplies.
Race organizers often tweak the course based on weather, avalanche conditions and other safety concerns. This year, the course officially was rerouted around 2 p.m. on Friday.
The Traverse was inspired by the Patrouille des Glaciers, a ski-mountaineering race run every other year in Switzerland and still organized by the Swiss army.
The first event was held in 1998 with 50 teams competing. The winners that year were Travis Moore and Pierre Wille, of Aspen, the only Aspen pair to win the race. This year, the race was capped at 200 teams for a total of 400 athletes.
The teams are required to carry enough food and supplies to sustain them for 24 hours.
The lack of snow stability on Star Pass is the main reason for the route change. The hazard increases when the racers go from tree line to above tree line, which it does in the Star Pass region.
On Friday morning, reports came from safety crews at Star Pass that said avalanche crowns between 10 and 13 feet were visible.
An avalanche crown is described as the upper fracture surface of a slab avalanche. Once an avalanche occurs, it often leaves a hanging area of packed snow, or a crown, that still represents an area that is susceptible to additional avalanche danger.
The larger the crown, the more snow it can trigger in an avalanche.
Also, the cornice at the top of Star Pass grew by 8 to 10 feet in the past three days due to the high winds. Safety crews reported 24 inches of new snow in the same area during the past 48 hours.
“Reversing the course was a pretty easy decision to make,” said race veteran Bryan Wickenhauser, 41, a two-time winner who also serves on the race committee that helps organize the Traverse.
“The No. 1 goal here is athlete safety,” he said. “Goal No. 2 is the athlete experience. We feel like every year we’ve ratcheted up the athlete experience in a positive way. We keep selling out the event, and that tells us we’re nailing goal No. 2.”
Wickenhauser said there’s a touch of disappointment with the course change, but at the same time, the “B” course is extremely challenging and nearly identical to the vertical climb and distance covered.
Provided there are no more route changes, the race will follow most of the original course up to Friends Hut near Star Pass. At that point, the athletes will turn back toward Crested Butte, maneuver back to Death Pass and then turn onto a summer trail called Ferris Creek. Racers will continue toward Strand Hill before heading back into the outbound course again. From there, the course will gain some vertical before heading back into the Crested Butte ski area for the finish of the race.
Wickenhauser has raced that course before when he won the event in 2010 with current teammate Brian Smith, the last time the race had to be altered away from the Aspen finish. That year, it took the pair 61/2 hours to finish the course.
“As it stands now, the course is around 37 miles and between 7,500 and 8,000 feet in vertical climb,” he said. “The night start, cold, dark, ... that all will still remain for the racers. The challenges will be similar, but the destination isn’t the same. We still get to pull off an outstanding backcountry race at the end of the day. We’ll do it again next year, and the odds are we’ll finish in Aspen in 2015.”
The registration fee is $400 per team. Proceeds from the race benefit the Crested Butte Nordic Center and other local nonprofits.