Aspen Times Weekly: Grand Expectations
Trail of Tears, Triumphs
“It’s a bucket list thing. You want the win in Aspen. This is the one that everyone talks about and remembers. I used to get asked about it so many times.”
John Gaston, winner with fellow Aspenite Max Taam
Once again, the course for the annual ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen was changed because of the extreme avalanche conditions generated by a massive snowstorm. Instead of the Grand Traverse 40-mile trip from Crested Butte to Aspen, the race became the ”Grand Reverse,” using an alternative course of the same distance set up as an annual backup.
“(The course) was about as fast as it could be. We probably wore our skins out it was so fast.”
Scott Simmons, winner with Paul Hamilton, both from Durango
“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.”
Bryan Wickenhauser, a several-time winner who also served on the race committee that helps organize the Traverse, on the change of course due to dangerous conditions.
Because of hard, packed snow, Bryan Wickenhauser said most teams donned running shoes for as many as 8 miles. “Many teams stopped to change into running shoes after crossing the river, but we ran in our ski boots,” he said.
A first was established as two co-ed teams finished in the top three. Aspen’s Peter Gaston and Carbondale’s Sari Anderson wound up third in 9:17:20, 50 seconds behind Crested Butte’s Marshall Thomson and Stevie Kremer.
“It’s unprecedented, it’s incredible, it’s awesome. It’s like the best thing that has ever happened,” race director Jan Runge exclaimed. “Women are beating some of these top professional racers. I have no idea how they did it.”
The three lead groups found themselves together and slightly disoriented near 12,303-foot Star Pass. Moments earlier, Jimmy Faust and Pat O’Neill had been breaking trail through dense trees when they came face to face with a steep side hill caked with hard snow.
“It was game off all of a sudden. We’re all in a situation here,” Faust said. “Everyone shined their headlamps (in one direction), there’d be a cliff and we’d say, ‘OK, we’re not going up there.’ Then we’d shine them over there.
“We spent about 45 minutes chasing our tails. We were out there in the dark, it was dumping snow. You could barely see your hand in front of your face.”
The sense of desperation was not lost on Pierre Wille.
“There was so much snow, you couldn’t see the summer trail,” said the Basalt resident. “You could barely miss it and be in a forest. ... We were lucky to make it home.”
Once the teams found their bearings, it was “game on,” Faust said.
The same year, Zeke Tiernan and Sean Shehan, both of the Aspen area, spent the night by a fire under some trees in the Difficult Creek drainage after becoming disoriented and lost on Richmond Ridge late Sunday.
“We had to just sit by the fire and take turns stoking it,” Tiernan said. “Bottom line: If you don’t have a sleeping bag or a down suit, you’re not going to do well out in the winter.”
Their plans derailed, however, when a hefty snowstorm rolled into the Aspen area Sunday night and dumped 13 inches on Aspen Mountain.
“We were going the opposite direction we thought we were going; it was such a whiteout,” Tiernan said. “The mountains are fierce in the winter. It just humbles you. It humbles you big time.”
Bryan Wickenhauser was among those caught off guard by a ground blizzard in 2007 near Taylor Pass that pelted competitors with winds in excess of 50 mph and caused multiple cases of hypothermia. Thirty teams wound up dropping out.
“We were ill-dressed, in skin suits basically. Our mantra was to keep moving,” Wickenhauser recalled. “We did not know where we were going, and we were frozen. There was nowhere to hide. To put on our down jackets, we would’ve had to hide behind a rock or tree.”
Defending champions Mike Kloser and Dan Weiland, both adventure racers from Vail, finished a disappointing fifth in 8:11:10, behind Chris Clark and Trond Flagstad (7:54:25) and the Breckenridge duo of Teague Holmes and Brad LaRochelle (8:11:00).
Weiland became ill midway through the race and after vomiting was unable to keep down any food until the duo reached the Barnard Hut checkpoint.
With nothing in his stomach, it was impossible to keep up with the leaders, he said.
“Everything was fine, then all the sudden, it was like, ‘I know I’m getting sick,’” Weiland said. “Literally 20 seconds later I pulled off to the side and barfed. I didn’t really feel good the rest of the way. ... It was not the best day. We knew going in that it’s hard to defend here.”
Local clergyman and race participant Tim Clark, in a quirky and distinctly Crested Butte performance, wishes participants well with a short poem. In 2000, it went like this:
Maddy Fones wanted to compete in the Grand Traverse before she really knew what ski mountaineering was all about. So it’s a good thing she’s a glutton for punishment.
“Turns out I really like endurance sports and being in pain,” the Basalt resident said. “The reason I first wanted to do it is because it’s this iconic race in Aspen that people talk about and you hear about.”
Fones enjoyed the sufferfest so much last winter she decided to come back for seconds this weekend when the popular skimo race returns for the 21st time. Beginning at midnight Saturday in Crested Butte, more than 200 teams of two will set out on the 40-mile trek over the Elk Mountains to the finish in Aspen.
Nothing short of tremendous willpower will be needed to conquer one of ski mountaineering’s most iconic American races.
“There is definitely an allure about racing through the night. I think that’s a unique aspect of this event,” race director Andrew Arell said. “And of course the iconic towns, the mountain culture that connects Crested Butte and Aspen, we draw in a lot of folks from around the country and even internationally. It’s a bucket list event to complete in every skier’s lifetime.”
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Conceived by Jan Runge in the 1990s, the Grand Traverse made its debut in 1998. In 2012, event ownership moved over to the Crested Butte Nordic Council. The nonprofit uses the North Face-sponsored race as a major fundraiser for the organization that manages 50 kilometers of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails around Crested Butte.
The last two races have been won by Aspen’s dynamic duo of John Gaston and Max Taam, both members of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association’s national team. In 2017, the pair destroyed the competition and set a new course record with a time of 6 hours, 37 minutes, 38.6 seconds. The second-place team finished more than 90 minutes later.
“When you are out there longer that just means you are suffering more,” Taam said earlier this week. “I’ve always said it’s the perfect sport. It combines all those different elements that a lot of people love — sort of the endurance endorphins to ski racing. It just has some of everything.”
In what should be relatively good news for this year’s athletes, Taam and Gaston don’t plan to go for a third straight title. Gaston is currently in Europe competing in the final World Cup-level events of the season, while Taam is coming off a brutal stretch of races while also awaiting the birth of his first child.
Most recently, Taam won the Shedhorn Skimo Race at Big Sky Resort in Montana on Saturday.
“I’m sure I’ll miss out on it, yeah. I enjoy racing. It’s hard to sit out of any race, particularly a unique one like that,” Taam said of the Grand Traverse. “A traverse is definitely a key part of the description. You are traversing from one town to another and it doesn’t have that much climbing. The skill set is a bit different than a lot of the races I do.”
NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS
On paper, the Grand Traverse might not seem so intimidating compared to other races. Aspen’s other iconic ski mountaineering event, Aspen Skiing Co.’s Power of Four, is a mere 24 miles compared with the 40 of the GT, but features more than 10,000 feet of vertical climbing compared with the meager 6,800 feet of climbing in the Grand Traverse.
By those numbers, the Grand Traverse is basically flat compared with the much younger Power of Four, which was held for only the eighth time earlier this month. Not surprisingly, Gaston and Taam also won that race in record time.
But when all the elements are factored, like the GT’s midnight start as opposed to the 6 a.m. sendoff of the Power of Four, and the iconic Crested Butte to Aspen race becomes anything but easy.
“They are completely different in my mind. There are a lot of factors in the Grand Traverse that make it harder, none of which is involved with how much climbing there is,” said Fones, who has also competed in the Power of Four skimo race twice. “Obviously the climbing makes the Power of Four completely miserable. But the Grand Traverse has a whole different mix of challenges that is so different. Your stomach and your body isn’t use to starting your race at midnight and not having enough sleep.”
ONE WILD RACE
Unlike many other skimo races, the Grand Traverse spends little time in the safe confines of a ski resort. Much of the 40 miles between Crested Butte and Aspen is pure backcountry, meaning Mother Nature is really in charge of the race.
“The GT may not be as technical in terms of portions of the course, but it truly is a backcountry ski race,” Arell said. “We are unable to mitigate the avalanche hazards with explosives there in the backcountry. We are not permitted to do so. So it really comes down to what Mother Nature throws at us leading up to the event.”
With this winter being relatively warm and dry, Arell said racers can certainly expect a curveball or two out on the course. But it’s all part of what makes the Grand Traverse so unique.
“The experience on any given year has a lot to do with the weather and the conditions,” Taam said. “If it’s a clear night and not too cold, that’s totally different than if it’s a cold, stormy night with poor visibility.”
GOING FOR GLORY
With Gaston and Taam out, the door is wide open for a new champion. Taam’s pick? He said to watch out for Cam Smith and Sean Van Horn. Smith, a recent Western State University grad, is one of the youngest members of the U.S. national team. Van Horn, who lives in Carbondale, frequently factors into the local races. He finished second in the 2017 Grand Traverse alongside teammate Benjamin Johnson and was the 2017 Power of Four Triple Crown champion, which goes to the top athlete to compete in all three Power of Four races: the winter’s skimo event and the summer’s mountain biking and foot races.
Fones was the women’s 2017 Power of Four Triple Crown winner and was part of the women’s seventh-placed team in the winter Grand Traverse last year. She’ll compete this weekend alongside Aspen’s Tyler Newton in the co-ed division.
“I’ve been skinning for my whole life, but I basically started (skimo) last year because I wanted to do the Grand Traverse. That was my goal,” Fones said. “I enjoy the challenge and everything. I’m just going to sleep like I usually do and do what I can. I’m pretty high-functioning on low sleep, so that tends to be OK for me.”
Teams will trickle into the finish at the base of Aspen Mountain beginning early Saturday morning and go through the afternoon. A short flower ceremony for the winners is scheduled for 2 p.m., with the post-race banquet scheduled for later that evening.
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