An Especially Grand Traverse |

An Especially Grand Traverse

May Eynon

The sixth annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse occurred over the weekend, wedging its place in the annals of race history with extremely cold conditions.

The 40-mile backcountry ski race between Crested Butte and Aspen began at midnight Friday, March 28, in downtown Crested Butte with 115 teams of two people each lined up at the start outside of the community school.

Following the traditional “blessing of the skis” by the Rev. Tim Clark, the skiers were sent off with a fireworks display that showered the opening section of the course.

In years past, the course headed into the mountains on Brush Creek Road. Almost always, racers were required to remove their skis and run two miles on Brush Creek Road before hitting the snow again.

This year organizers changed the start and took skiers toward the base of Crested Butte Mountain for a torchlit tour, adding more than 1,000 vertical feet of incline. The course circumnavigated the ski area before dropping into the East River Valley behind Crested Butte Mountain.

“The gully’s pretty gnarly,” said race director Jan Runge of the route to the valley floor.

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“I can see that gully being a problem in dry years,” noted racer Charlie MacArthur of Aspen Village.

The new route then joined the traditional course in the Brush Creek drainage by Ambush Ranch before heading up to the Friends Hut, where the first cutoff time was enforced at 7 a.m. The course then climbed to 12,303-foot Star Pass, which racers were required to cross before an 8 a.m. cutoff time. Those who arrived after these mandatory times were turned around and directed back to the Butte.

Because the course was extended, but the cutoff times were not, many teams missed the mark and were forced to drop out.

After Star Pass, racers proceeded to Taylor Pass via a series of switchbacks and snowfields.

“It was a land of frigidness up there,” said Crested Butte resident Jack Hughes as he described Taylor Pass and Gold Hill. Hughes returned for another year to volunteer on the medical team stationed at Taylor Pass.

“This event is fun and awful at the same time. Things always seem to break down out there, and you have to manage. And the conditions this year were brutal.”

High winds and single-digit temperatures made it hard for both racers and course crew to stay warm and nourished. Water and food quickly froze, making it difficult to eat and hydrate.

“Every year I tell myself this is the last time I’ll be volunteering, but then when they call me to work on it again in February, I forget about the hardship and say OK,” Hughes admitted.

“It’s the kind of race that at some point during it, you ask yourself why you signed up for it and then afterward you forget about how hard it really was,” said Ted Macblane, a seasoned veteran of the Traverse, who withdrew because of an injury.

For those who carried on from Taylor Pass, the course continued up Gold Hill toward the Barnard Hut, where a 10-minute mandatory stop was enforced. An accommodating crew of women from Aspen volunteered at the checkpoint along with three Crested Butte nurses, who were on duty for the duration of the traverse. The nurses monitored the racers’ condition as they passed the checkpoint.

“We saw a lot of white spots on people’s faces and fingers and toes, which indicated frost nip,” said nurse Chris Evans of Crested Butte. “It was a bitter cold race.”

Because of the excessively cold conditions, many individuals were forced to withdraw from the race. Approximately 30 of the 115 teams that started the race did not finish. Some teams were turned around for not making cutoff times; a few suffered from equipment failure; many had medical issues such as severe windburn or varying degrees of frostbite.

Several athletes were evacuated by snowmobile to warm up in a hut; a few others were airlifted from the course to treat severe weather-induced injuries.

“It really was a wake-up call for a lot of people with the conditions,” said Andre Wille of Aspen. “You really had to have all of your backcountry equipment and proper clothing and use it this year.”

After a brief respite at the Barnard checkpoint, the racers continued on the seven-mile “home stretch” along the endlessly rolling Richmond Ridge. At the top of Aspen Mountain, a volunteer checked each skier’s safety leashes to ensure they were bound to their boots and bindings. Upon approval, they were sent down Spar Gulch for an extremely steep descent on skinny skis to the base-area finish.

Due to the extended course and inclement weather, finish times were slowed by a least an hour from years past.

“I’m not exactly happy with our 25th-place finish, but I’m happy that we did finish,” quipped Bryan Wickenhauser of the Butte. “We ran into so many brittle battles out there that I knew we weren’t in contention for top 10 or better.”

“The new start was fun, but that was the worst weather yet,” added his partner Jay Pozner.

Brad Yule, who had competed in the Traverse two years ago, teamed up this time with MacArthur, a race veteran. “It was definitely a lot harder this year,” Yule confirmed. “I caught myself thinking about my bed a few times and about going to Mexico sometime in the near future.”

“To sum it all up, it was brutal,” said the succinct Pierre Wille, who raced with his brother Andre.

For race results, log onto later this week.

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