Elk Mountains Grand Traverse: the agony and the ecstacy | AspenTimes.com

Elk Mountains Grand Traverse: the agony and the ecstacy

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Ted Mahon inched slowly toward the edge, then dropped into the abyss.

Ahead of Mahon and teammate Ted MacBlane, 1,000 vertical feet of snow as hard as a boilerplate caked the steep slope on the backside of remote Star Pass, which was concealed in utter darkness. With nothing but a faint headlamp to penetrate the black sky and thin cross-country skis to negotiate the unforgiving terrain, both were unsettled.

Mahon couldn’t see this coming. In an instant, after repeated futile attempts to dig edgeless skis into the rock-hard incline, he and MacBlane lost their balance. Soon they were careening out of control, like snowballs barreling downhill ” toward what, they didn’t know.

For 400-500 helpless feet, they skidded across the snow before, mercifully, coming to rest. Disoriented and flustered, they rose to their feet and examined both limbs and equipment.

“There are always a few times when I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing out here?'” Mahon said of his March 2002 ordeal.

Still, he keeps coming back ” seven times to date. The Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, a one-of-a-kind 40-mile endurance race in which teams of two test their grit, equipment and sanity on an arduous trek through the remote Colorado high country between Crested Butte and Aspen, has attracted a loyal following in its 10 years.

An estimated 130 teams of two will line up outside the Crested Butte Community School at midnight March 28 for the 11th annual Traverse, according to race director and event co-founder Jan Runge.

Registration for this year’s event was filled in less than two weeks. For three-time winner Pat O’Neill, the attraction is obvious.

“It motivates me to get out the door, put on a headlamp and go skiing with a 20-year friend,” the 43-year-old Crested Butte schoolteacher said. “All I want to do is have a great time with a bunch of people who really like this stuff.

“It’s totally, ridiculously crazy coming down on breakable crust at 2:30 in the morning,” added Pierre Wille of Basalt who, along with Aspen High School teacher and nordic coach Travis Moore, won the inaugural event in 1998. Fellow participants thought the two were crazy for showing up with cross-country gear ” until they won by nearly 30 minutes. “It’s an intense experience, where you’re focusing for so long on trying to stay alive and go fast. It’s extreme. It makes every other race feel small and petty.”

Extreme is an understatement. The event’s first decade is replete with tales of personal conquest, frostbite, dehydration, equipment failure and injury.

Once competitors leave Crested Butte via the Upper Loop Trail, skate along Hunter Hill Road and hit the Crested Butte Mountain Resort, the true test begins. Depending on the weather, which presents distinct challenges on an annual basis, racers must contend with mud, widely varying snow conditions and waist-high river crossings. There are avalanche risks, fluctuating temperatures and wind gusts that cut through even the toughest clothing, plus exposed mountain passes that are treacherous under even the tamest of conditions.

For Mahon, who teamed with girlfriend Christy Sauer last year to win the co-ed division, the goal is simple: Make it to the Sundeck as quickly as possible.

For those at the front of pack, whose ordeal lasts eight to nine hours, the sight of Spar Gulch’s pristine early-morning corduroy is a welcome treat. For those who don’t arrive at the top of Aspen Mountain until the afternoon, contending with slush and a mountain full of lift-served skiers is just the last in a night’s worth of obstacles and challenges.

“You’re just hammered by the end,” said Pierre Wille, who teamed with his brother Andre to finish second in 2007. “I have a hard time walking for three days afterward.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of hardship. You have to sacrifice the last four days of spring break, and everyone wants to go to Mexico. But we can’t.”

Neither can others who return year after year. Mahon calls it a rite of spring. The Willes call it the culmination of a season’s worth of intense outdoor activity. O’Neill calls it the perfect test of skiing and his spiritual fitness.

Such comments are music to the ears of Jan Runge. In 1998 the longtime Crested Butte resident had a hunch that the idea she hatched with co-founder Mike Martin ” a high-mountain adventure race to support the area’s nordic skiing community ” would strike a chord at a time when such races were cropping up faster than high-priced condominiums.

She was right.

“It seemed like the out-there event to do, and it’s worked, despite the fact that it takes basically two ski areas, two counties and two sheriff’s departments,” Runge said.

The race, which mimics mining-era mail routes and covers some 6,000 vertical feet, is also proof that opposites attract.

“It is Crested Butte. It’s funky and pagan, and there’s no glitz about it, which is funny because Aspen kind of embraces it in an Aspen kind of way,” Runge said. “The whole town is stoked about this race. … it’s always such an oddity over there. In Aspen, sometimes people walk by and look at us, then kind of scurry on. Sometimes people come by in their Gucci suits and eat our cookies. It’s classic.”

While the Traverse has maintained a devout and enthusiastic following among Aspen athletes, Crested Butte has embraced the Traverse as its own.

“It started in Crested Butte, and it’s natural that you see more interest here,” O’Neill said. “There are so many races on the calendar, so people in Aspen have to pick their parties. … Knowing you can get to the start by leaving the house and showing up behind the school [in Crested Butte] is easier than driving or being flown over [from Aspen].”

At the midnight start in the Butte, fireworks light up the late-night sky. Rowdy spectators filter through the start area, and curious onlookers spill out of local bars to follow the action.

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:

“I think the initial idea behind the race, like the Friends Hut [a backcountry cabin near Pearl Pass], was to bring the people of Aspen and Crested Butte together,” O’Neill said. “That’s great. Hopefully, the essence of what Jan was looking for is what stays important.”

Runge’s objectives were simple: To create an event that would generate community support and showcase the Elk Mountains. She also wanted to stress the importance of teamwork in an environment where quick thinking and adaptability are crucial.

“Everybody has the most incredible experiences,” Runge said. “The teamwork, the people getting out there, going that far and that long with a team member is huge. A lot of meltdowns happen, but there are a lot of huge bonding experiences.”

After multiple Traverses spent with different partners, Mahon and Sauer teamed up in the co-ed division in 2007, and the seventh time for each was the charm. They were the first co-ed team to finish, and Sauer was the first female to reach the gondola building. They completed the course in 10 hours, 59 minutes, 10 seconds.

“It was a good relationship stress test,” Mahon joked, grinning at Sauer. “We were able to get through the night without yelling and screaming at each other.”

“It wasn’t our first time out together,” Sauer chimed in. “After a few years, you wise up to how it all works, and that removes the drama sometimes.”

Brothers Pierre and Andre Wille have things down to a science, so much that they follow each other’s lead and often execute everything from equipment and clothing changes to hydration and meals with little or no verbal communication.

“We know what’s going on, and we’re used to each other,” Andre said. “When you have a girlfriend or a wife out there, you have to be nice. That’s not always the case when it’s just your brother, but we do pretty good.”

“An unequal partner would be a heinous experience,” Pierre Wille added. “It was nice to have someone like Travis Moore do it with me that first year. You need someone tougher than you are.”

O’Neill is often asked how it feels to be a three-time winner ” his last victory came in 2004 ” and what it’s like to have some of the region’s top endurance racers in hot pursuit. But O’Neill says he spends more time trying to keep pace with partner Jimmy Faust than he does worrying about his competitors.

“He’s kind of an aerobic mutant,” O’Neill said. “I’m sure a chest X-ray would show a third lung. To me, I’ve got to hang on his pace, so I’m not really hanging onto any other team. … Jimmy’s just dying to get to Aspen.”

Things haven’t always gone according to plan. The nights spent traversing the backcountry after putting their children to sleep ” O’Neill, who has 3-year-old twin girls, refers to himself and Faust as nocturnal creatures in winter ” could not prepare them for 2003’s now-infamous “slide for life.”

Faust attempted to tackle the hard-snow conditions on Star Pass and wound up losing a ski; he slid an estimated 1,000 vertical feet.

“I think Jimmy is sick of people hearing about that,” O’Neill said. Faust did not return calls seeking comment. “You want to talk about teamwork ” we were able to find the ski, replace the binding, get back in the race and finish 11th.

“I know certain racers want to go and have this be individual, but Jan’s thought was when you go into the backcountry in this kind of exposure, do you go by yourself? … Everybody has stories like ours.”

No matter how much teams prepare for the Traverse, uncertainty is inevitable.

Andre Wille’s headlamp went dark at the start a few years back, his batteries were useless, and he had no replacement. In 2006, he leaned hard on one of his cross-country skis while descending Star Pass and broke it in half; he and his brother nearly froze to death trying to repair the problem before ultimately opting to push onward. Luckily, after slogging for nearly four miles, they met a man on Taylor Pass who had an extra ski stashed in his 30-pound pack.

“It was a total epic for us just to get out,” Pierre Wille said.

Last year, a ground blizzard caught competitors off guard near Taylor Pass, pounding them with gusts in excess of 50 mph and causing multiple cases of frostbite and hypothermia. Of the 121 teams that started in Crested Butte, 30 dropped out.

Pierre Wille remembers that he and his brother were bundled in down jackets, balaclavas, wind pants and heavy gloves, hunched on their hands and knees in a whiteout searching for stray snowmobile tracks.

“You’ve got to just keep moving,” Pierre Wille said. “Things became very desperate. We went from racing to surviving. We had no idea where to go, and it was getting really cold.”

Andrew Kastning’s ordeal started long before he confronted the blizzard. He fell on his face, partially dislocated his shoulder, hit a fence post and landed on his face again, then his teammate lost a ski ” all in the first 20 miles ” according to a personal account on elkmountaintraverse.org.

The distinction between friendly competition and real-life consequence hit close to home for Sauer a few years back. She still remembers seeing frostbite for the first time when her then-teammate pulled off a sock to reveal a severely discolored big toe.

“We were out there having fun, but you’re also dealing with a real-life tragedy,” Sauer said. “She took her sock off, and her toe was burned and black. I remember being shocked.”

Similar emotions overtook Mahon during his 2002 slide down Star Pass. Although the tumble left him and MacBlane virtually unscathed, Mahon contemplated pulling out of the race. But something kept coaxing him forward. Maybe it was his partner, maybe it was a common goal every competitor shares: Just make it to Aspen.

Nearly every participant lights up when discussing the home stretch, of reaching the Barnard Hut on Richmond Ridge (where racers must stop for 10 minutes and undergo a brief medical check), of knowing just a few hours remain.

“You get a mandatory 10-minute break, get some hot soup, and know you’ve got another hour or two,” Andre Wille said. “It goes by like 15 minutes. Time moves differently. Another hour of skiing is nothing.”

Upon reaching the Barnard Hut, the suffering is miles behind, Mahon said. In its place are adrenaline and an elevated spirit as bright as the sun now looming overhead. It’s the kind of feeling that makes broken bindings, frozen CamelBaks and teeth-chattering temperatures worthwhile. Soon, the undulations and haphazard snowmobile tracks of Richmond Ridge begin, and later the Sundeck rounds into view.

A few tense turns with tired legs remain, as do looks from perplexed skiers wondering why anyone would tackle Little Nell on cross-country skis.

It’s on to the finish and a sense of accomplishment that the entire field, from tenured endurance junkies to schoolteachers, ski instructors and waiters, can share.

Aspen is a welcome sight for all participants, but Aspenites especially.

“We get to ski home. Literally,” Sauer said. “I think we have the better end of that deal.”

Why do they keep coming back? It’s not for the prizes, Runge joked. Most, it seems, are intrigued by the challenge, the experience, the camaraderie.

“Even the winners share as much respect for the people that finish at 4 or 6 p.m.,” Mahon said. “I feel like we all accomplished the same thing.”

“It’s really cool to see the father and son [teams], to see the brothers, to see the excitement of the people making it in,” O’Neill added. “I’ve seen a guy do it with an artificial arm, one with an artificial leg. I’ve seen volunteers out there every single year. They’re the unsung heroes. … In a way, we have an easy job. We just put on the gear and punch it as hard as we can.”