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Grand Traverse set for midnight in Crested Butte

Tim Mutrie

Wednesday night’s storm left a foot of gloppy snow in downtown Crested Butte, a little less in Aspen, and who knows how much in between.

But as of last night, the sixth-annual running of the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse was on.

The race starts at midnight Friday in Crested Butte and follows a 40-mile overland route through the Elks, topping out at the 12,303-foot Star Pass in between, and down to Aspen.

“The avalanche-safety teams got up on top of Star Pass at probably 11 o’clock [Thursday morning], and pitched a tent up there. And after they started looking around, they were very positive,” said Jan Runge, the race director, from Crested Butte yesterday afternoon.

“The race is scheduled as planned,” she said later on an answering machine announcement after a 6 p.m. report from the field.

Racers compete in teams of two, and the 230-person field sold out Feb. 1. All racers must carry self-rescue equipment and enough gear for 24 hours of winter survival.

Starting at the Crested Butte School, the course, extended slightly this year to include a fireworks parade circling the foot of the ski resort, follows the East River drainage to East Brush Creek. The climbing, about 6,000 feet total, then begins in earnest.

Racers chute the Elks on Star Pass, between Star Peak (13,521) and Crystal Peak (12,776) and then on to Taylor Pass (11,928) before hitting the southern flank of Richmond Ridge. From there, it’s about 20 miles of rolling terrain to the Sundeck on top of Aspen Mountain, and the 3,267-foot descent of Ajax via Spar Gulch on skinny backcountry skis and rightly wobbly legs.

A volunteer avalanche-safety crew some 30 strong has been in the field since Monday, Runge said, based at the Friends Hut on the Crested Butte side and at the Barnard Hut on Richmond Ridge south of the Sundeck.

Dan Ewert, the former snow-safety director of 15 years at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, is the director of snow safety for the race. Crews have been making regular forays to worrisome sections, Runge said.

“It’s as usual. We’re on the line. My poor avalanche guys are up there going, ‘Oh, man, why it is always me.’ But without Dan, I don’t even know if we’d run this race.

“I trust his judgment completely.”

An alternate route has already been established, Runge said, in the event of a “Grand Reverse” scenario like 1999. A final decision about the route will be made Friday at noon. (Check http://www.elkmountaintraverse.org for the latest.)

Volunteers are in place to break trail along the scheduled route on Friday if it’s deemed passable.

Last year’s race blew up the old record and the front-runners are all returning.

Geo Bullock and Dave Penny of Crested Butte cleaved more than an hour off their previous year’s record, finishing in 7 hours, 10 minutes and 24 seconds. That’s 7:10:24 a.m., Aspen time.

Actually, the race was won on the Ajax downhill. Penny and Bullock were stride for stride with Mike Kloser and Dan Weiland of Vail along Richmond Ridge, arriving at the Sundeck simultaneously. But the Crested Butte skiers put it to the Eco-Challenge vets in Spar Gulch, crossing the line 26 seconds ahead.

Also in the field are Crested Butte’s Pat O’Neill and Jimmy Faust, the 1999 and 2000 victors, who were victimized last year by slippery Star Pass.

The brothers Banks of Crested Butte, Jeff and Steve, the bronze medalists last year, are back too.


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