Granddaddy of ski races shoves off midnight Friday | AspenTimes.com
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Granddaddy of ski races shoves off midnight Friday

Tim Mutrie

At the stroke of midnight Friday, 200 skiers will begin a 38.6-mile overland journey from Crested Butte to Aspen as part of the 4th annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse.

Following the overland mail route that connected the two towns during the 1880s mining boom, the course leads the two-man teams north from CB over two 11,900-foot-plus passes and onto Richmond Ridge, finishing at the Lift 1A base of Aspen Mountain.

By car in the wintertime, the trip takes about four hours. Race director Jan Runge thinks it’ll take the top skiers about twice that, meaning the winners will ski down Ajax – most likely on lightweight, cross country skis – at about 8 a.m.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Runge said. “The top teams are going to put up some blazing times, maybe under eight hours. But winning is the focus for just the top five or six teams; everyone else is out there for personal satisfaction and fun. That makes it pretty unique and special.”

All the previous winning men’s teams are back this year, including the Wille brothers of Aspen, Pierre and Andre, who won the first-ever event in 1998, and Jimmy Faust and Pat O’Neil of Crested Butte, who have won the last two years (once on an alternate route, as avalanche dangers forced officials to realign the course).

“There’s quite a few teams of very experienced skiers,” Runge said, “but there’s also a bunch of kids out there that might show these older guys up.”

Runge, a Crested Butte-based nature photographer, said volunteer avalanche crews from Aspen and Crested Butte have been camped along dangerous sections of the route all week, in order to assess the snowpack.

“I talked to them by satellite phone” yesterday, she said. “They said it was 19 degrees, two inches of fresh and that the course was looking good and safe.”

Starting in Crested Butte, the course winds up East Brush Creek to Star Pass (12,303 feet), then over a cirque down into Taylor Basin. Skiers then ascend Taylor Pass (11,929 feet) to Richmond Ridge for the 18-mile push to the Sundeck and the downhill finish at the base of Ajax. All told, the course gains more than 6,000 feet in elevation.

“In the start, up the valley and on the flats, the top guys gain so much time on everybody,” Runge said, “and they’re doing the same thing on Richmond Ridge. They also know their equipment perfectly – what wax to use, when to skin up – so they’re dialed in. But they’re also doing almost the whole thing just with headlamps.”

All racers must carry about 15 to 20 pounds of self-rescue gear, including avalanche beacons, shovels and probes, stoves, bivy sacks, food and other essentials.

“They’ll cut it down,” Runge noted. “You wouldn’t believe what they’ll try to get away with.”

For the first time in the four-year history of the event, the Grand Traverse is booked to capacity: 200 skiers, 100 teams. About 15 teams are women, Runge said.

“The field is an even split between Crested Butte and Aspen” people, she said. “But there’s also a lot of Front Rangers involved this year, and people from other states. We’re getting a broader participation base it seems.”

“I probably have 60 volunteers who are in the backcountry supporting the racers,” she added. “They themselves are winter camping, checking avalanche danger, hauling water, you name it. We couldn’t pull it off otherwise, and that’s a tribute to both towns.”

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