Keel, Berino take surprise Grand Traverse skimo race win as overall records hold

Smith, Gaston won men’s race over Hamilton, Koons

Katherine Keel, middle right, and Jenya Berino, far right, stand on the podium after winning the women's side of the annual Grand Traverse ski mountaineering race on Sunday, April 3, 2022, from the base of Aspen Mountain. At left are second-place finishers Alyssa Wendt and Fanny Toorenburg.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Four races over five years is all it took for Katherine Keel to go from last to legend in the annual Grand Traverse ski mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen.

Partnering with Jenya Berino for the first time, the duo from Basalt finished the roughly 40-mile trek in 10 hours, 29.3 seconds on Sunday to take the women’s crown in a surprise performance by the relatively green skimo athletes.

“We were like, ‘That must be a mistake.’ This was her second skimo race, first Grand Traverse, and she was like, ‘No, that doesn’t make sense,'” Keel recalled her partner saying when they were told they were the leading female team at the Friends Hut, located near the midway point of the race close to Pearl Pass. “We both were like, ‘I think they are lying.’ And they kept saying, ‘You are the first girls we’ve seen.’ And we are like, ‘OK.’ And now we have to continue being the first girls.”

Keel, a native of Tennessee who took over as the head coach of the Aspen High School girls swim team in 2019, is far from being a skimo veteran. She made her Grand Traverse debut in 2018 when, competing in the co-ed division, she finished dead last (30th place) among the finishing teams in 15:42:42.5 on the modified out-and-back “reverse” course.

They were a good hour faster and finished four spots higher in 2019 on the traditional route to Aspen before the 2020 race was canceled amid the pandemic. Keel competed in the women’s race for the first time in 2021, finishing ninth with a different partner in 12:29:01.

Keel and Berino, who recently moved to the Roaring Fork Valley from Vail, partnered up only a few weeks ago and had no podium aspirations coming into Sunday’s race.

“A lot of swapping around and whatnot, but it worked out great. I was like, ‘Can we do more of this together?'” Keel said of pairing with Berino. “This is an amazing community of athletes and I think it’s really inspiring to watch these races. Quite honestly, I didn’t know this was a sport to start with. But also, the length of distance and the fact that people pay to do this, I was like, ‘They’re crazy.’ Then of course I started thinking about it a little more, and maybe I’m a little crazy, too.”

Warm weather and fresh snowfall made the race challenging at times. Athletes began right at midnight from Crested Butte and traveled overnight to the finish at the base of Aspen Mountain. Keel said the battery on her headlamp went out not long after the start and not wanting to replace it right away, she let Berino guide her through the dark for some time.

Katherine Keel, left, and Jenya Berino stand on the podium after winning the women's side of the annual Grand Traverse ski mountaineering race on Sunday, April 3, 2022, from the base of Aspen Mountain.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

It paid off as they held off Crested Butte’s Alyssa Wendt and Fanny Toorenburg (10:07:24.5) for the win. Gunnison’s Erin Kelly and Jari Hiatt finished third in 10:15:19.3.

“They were literally taking down the flags and being like, ‘You need to continue moving.’ That was quite a difference to today,” Keel said, comparing her 2018 finish to her win on Sunday. “It’s been a lot of learning in the last couple of years.”

Smith, Gaston take men’s title, come up short in record bid

With the course record seemingly out of reach, Crested Butte’s Cam Smith and Aspen’s John Gaston still knew they couldn’t let off the gas pedal if they wanted to win the race.

The 2026 Olympic hopefuls in skimo had a couple of been there, done that cross-country skiing Olympians in Aspen’s Simi Hamilton and New Zealand native Ben Koons keeping up the pressure right behind them.

“We had no choice but to ski hard anyway because Simi and Ben were taking it out the way they did,” Smith said. “We were really at that point racing to win when we realized the record wasn’t in the cards, which required us to ski close to the record anyway to make sure we stayed ahead of those guys.”

For Smith, an Illinois native who has become one of the premier skimo athletes in the country, this was his fourth straight Grand Traverse win and with his fourth different partner. He and U.S. national team teammate Tom Goth of Utah set the course record only last winter with a time of 6:06:24, a mark Smith and Gaston were hoping to take down on Sunday. That same duo currently holds the Power of Four skimo course record, also set last winter.

Cam Smith, middle right, and John Gaston, far right, stand on the podium after winning the men's division of the annual Grand Traverse ski mountaineering race on Sunday, April 3, 2022, from the base of Aspen Mountain. At left are second-place finishers Simi Hamilton and Ben Koons.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

However, the temperatures and fresh snow made breaking the Grand Traverse record this year too much of a challenge, although Gaston claimed it was there for the taking had he been able to keep pace with his teammate.

“The conditions weren’t perfect for a record attempt, but that being said, if I had better legs and had not bonked so incredibly badly, I think we still probably could have gotten it,” said Gaston, who also won this year’s Power of Four skimo race alongside his brother, Pete, who was a late fill-in for Smith. “It was not my best day and Cam was very gracious and babysat me all throughout the night and shepherded me home nice and safely. So, I’m actually kind of shocked at how fast we were able to go given how poorly I was moving on course.”

Hamilton and Koons stood out from the crowd not just because of their Olympian status, but because they chose to compete on standard cross-country skate skis, opposed to the skimo-specific skis that are better suited for steeper pitches. The skate skis might have paid off more had the temperatures been a bit colder, leading to more freezing on the flats.

Smith and Gaston finished Sunday’s race in 6 hours, 13 minutes, 15.4 seconds, about seven minutes slower than last year’s record time. Still, it’s the second-fastest time ever recorded on the full Crested Butte to Aspen course. Gaston and Aspen’s Max Taam set a then-blistering mark of 6:37:38.6 back in 2017 when they paired to win, a record that held up until last winter.

“When you team with John, you are always going for something special,” Smith said. “We were hoping a record, but it comes down to conditions so much in this race, when there are sections you can skate some years and can’t others. It just makes a huge difference what the snow is actually doing.”

Nikki LaRochelle, left, and Brad LaRochelle stand on the podium after winning the co-ed division of the annual Grand Traverse ski mountaineering race on Sunday, April 3, 2022, in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Hamilton and Koons finished in 6:50:12.6. Finishing third in the men’s division on Sunday were Lakewood’s Logan Greydanus and Eric Poore in 7:10:14.7.

Winning the co-ed division and finishing fourth overall were the husband and wife duo of Brad and Nikki LaRochelle, who have a 6-month old child at home. The Breckenridge pair had a time of 7:56:25.1, faster than everyone but the men’s podium finishers.