Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Charting the darkness of the Grand Traverse |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Charting the darkness of the Grand Traverse

Amanda Charles
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo by Alex FenlonCover by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – Some call it the ‘Grand Reverse’; others call it ‘Nature’s Race.’ Those who have gone before swear it’s a race not like any other. It’s cold, it’s long, it’s dark – it’s no man’s land. It’s after midnight, and contrary to what Jerry Garcia says, it’s far from peaches and cream.

With an origin dating back to the old mail routes connecting the towns of Crested Butte and Aspen in the 1880s, the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse began in 1998 as a 40-mile, unsupported backcountry ski race to test the toughness of the area’s most elite skiers and mountaineers. Now in its 15th year, the Grand Traverse continues to challenge the reputation of any mountain race of its kind by a course so daunting it leaves even the best athletes wandering off route with trembling extremities and fleeting hopes for the finish line.

“It’s like skiing on the moon,” four-time race participant and local physical trainer Thomas Ray said of the unpredictability of the race. “When you’re out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but darkness, it really dawns on you. … You start asking yourself, ‘What the hell have I got myself into?'”

Unlike mountain races that begin at sunrise, the Grand Traverse unleashes teams of two from Crested Butte into the ungroomed backcountry of the Elk Mountain Range at midnight; a mere compass, headlamp and highlighted terrain map serve as the teams’ only means of direction for the entirety of the race. Equipped with climbing skins, free-heel ski systems and poles, ski suits, avalanche rescue tools, a two-person shelter, at least 100 ounces of water and enough food to sustain each team member for 24 hours, the traverse will lead racers through 40 miles of avalanche-prone terrain with an elevation gain of 7,800 feet before the final push down Aspen Mountain. If teams fail to make it to any of the mandatory checkpoints within the cutoff time, or if a racer arrives at any checkpoint without their partner, they will be disqualified and must immediately turn around.

A team of more than 100 volunteers including snow safety marshals will be positioned along the course and at the checkpoints to provide water, medical aid and evacuation options in case of an emergency; however, the help from volunteers is minimal, for a reason.

“The goal was to make it as unsupportive as possible,” said newly appointed race director and 14-time finisher Bryan Wickenhauser, noting how each checkpoint offers limited aid to participants. “Teams must rely on each other out there and be able to self-rescue. If one goes down, it’s the other’s responsibility to pull him. If teams lose their way, they have to find a way back. If their water freezes or their gear breaks, they have to fix it.”

Recalling prior years when below-zero temperatures, 70-mph winds and ground blizzards left him and several other racers off-route with cases of frostbite and extreme hypothermia, Wickenhauser stressed that because the race is so multifaceted, having functioning gear across all areas is crucial.

But according to Eric Sullivan, nine-time finisher of the traverse (and creative mind behind the addition of a chest pocket to hold the bladder of a Camelback so that it won’t freeze), this year’s conditions seem more than favorable.

“There’s a lot of melting going on out there,” Sullivan said. “I won’t be surprised if people switch out skins for tennis shoes to run through mud and stream crossings.”

With race day coming up the night of March 30, 160 teams – from Florida to Washington to New England – will meet in Crested Butte during the next two days for a mandatory gear check and meeting. New to the lineup this year, each team is required to carry a GPS tracking device on the outside of their pack so judges and spectators alike can follow their positions throughout the race.

“Gear check is probably the most self-humbling aspect of the whole experience,” Thomas Ray said. “You see all these guys around you with one-piece race suits and Randonnee AT gear who are truly in it to win. … Meanwhile all you’re praying for is a healthy finish.”

In the mind of Wickenhauser, the best part about the Grand Traverse is the participants.

“We love to see new athletes finish,” said Wickenhauser, who believes everyone involved shares an interest for the complexity of the race and the combination of climbing and skiing in the backcountry. “This race is an incredible test of physical and mental strength, and just to finish is quite an accomplishment.”

Among those who are in it just to finish will be first-time competitors and father-daughter duo Kevin and Kylie Collins. Traveling from his permanent home in Connecticut to meet up with his 22-year-old daughter, who lives full time in Aspen, the 54-year-old father claims altitude is his biggest fear going into the race.

“While I do travel to Snowmass three weeks out of the year, living in (Connecticut) limits my ability to stimulate Grand Traverse conditions,” Kevin Collins said. “I spend a lot of time on the treadmill and StairMaster with the incline cranked all the way up.”

Kevin, who has plans to compete in an Iron Man triathlon shortly after the Grand Traverse, says this race was his daughter’s idea. She came to Aspen with the hopes of becoming a ski patroller.

With a rigorous seven-day-per-week workout routine of running, biking and swimming, a diet free of red meat and plans to arrive in Aspen a week before to train with his daughter and become acclimated, Kevin Collins looks to the traverse as being more of an experience than a race.

“Our goal is to move slow but efficiently and finish within the allotted time frame,” he said. His primary concern is not his daughter but his own ability to safely navigate on narrow ridges at high altitudes in the middle of the night.

“My mental strength is like Jell-O, and Kylie’s like granite, so I’m not sure what her strategy is if I go down,” he said. “Kylie is the most laid-back person I know, so I think as long as we communicate we can work well as a team.”

In the meantime, Kylie prepares herself by skinning and trail running, while she obtains helpful advice from a co-worker who competed in the traverse last year.

“I was told as long as I have warm mittens I should be OK,” she said. “I already invested in warm mittens, so I feel pretty optimistic about a successful finish.”

Following the meeting on the afternoon of March 30, racers will have the remainder of the day to get their packs and gear ready, fuel their bodies with food and drink and come up with any last-minute race strategies.

Then as the sun sets and the mountain peaks cast dark shadows over a cold night sky, 160 teams will line up at the base of the Crested Butte ski area, their poles digging into the hard earth and their headlamps serving as the only source of light for the next seven hours.

Among them, the amateur family team of Kevin and Kylie Collins confidently moves forward with only a cursory awareness of what’s to come.

“When I reach the moment in the race where my legs feel like jelly, my body is shivering, I’m mentally drained, my breath is short and my eyes are slowly fading into the darkness in front of me, I will likely be thinking that the next time Kylie suggests something like this, I should opt to be a spectator and cheer her on,” Kevin Collins said. “Oh, and a glass of Zinfandel and some chocolate would be a nice touch, too.”

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