Power of Four: Team USA/Aspen celebrates on home snow
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – Racing on home snow and skiing familiar lines, Team Aspen/USA won the third annual Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race on Saturday.
John Gaston and Max Taam, wearing the colors of the U.S. and the smiles of Aspen, skied under the finish arch at the base of Aspen Mountain just 4 hours and 54 minutes after they had started the 25-mile skiing adventure at Snowmass Village.
After climbing more than 11,000 vertical feet of Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain, the unrelenting course ultimately sent the skiers down Walsh’s and Bingo Glades: Welcome to Aspen.
Gaston and Taam edged Team Crested Butte, the legendary pairing of Gunnison/Crested Butte endurance wizards Bryan Wickenhauser and Brian Smith. They finished 5 minutes and a broken ski pole behind.
Both teams finished 40 minutes faster than the winners last year, with brilliant sunshine and high temperatures replacing the bitter cold of 2012.
“It was pretty tight to the top of Highland Bowl,” Taam said of the duel with racing veterans Wickenhauser and Smith. “Then we slowly pulled away.”
With wind whipping after the long haul up to the top of the bowl, Gaston dropped into Ozone first. Taam was right behind.
Then Wickenhauser and Smith.
“It was a good day to be racing. It was perfect weather,” said Taam, 31. “It was blowing really hard in the bowl, but the temperature was warm enough, so it wasn’t a factor.”
The Aspen Mountain ski patrolman teamed with Gaston to finish 10th at the recent Ski Mountaineering World Championships in Pelvoux, France, representing the U.S.
“We’ve raced a lot this year. We raced together two weeks ago in France,” Taam said, adding that the power of two is critical in the Power of Four.
“We had to figure out how we can make each other stronger,” Taam said.
“I think teamwork comes into play more in races this long,” said the 26-year-old Gaston, who teamed with twin brother Pete to win the Power of Four last year.
“There are multiple points where someone’s not feeling that good. I wasn’t feeling that great in the beginning, for example,” he said, adding that a partner can help “you through a rough patch.”
“Then, when your legs come back around, you can do the same for him,” said Gaston, sporting a colorful purple tint to his shock of hair – in fun and in tribute to Seth Morrison.
He said Taam’s knowledge on the descents, such as Highland Bowl, was important.
Spectators there watched Taam and Gaston ski down Ozone. But halfway down, they cut slightly skier’s left into Be One.
The persistent Bryan and Brian stayed on Ozone, falling slightly behind. They slowed again when Smith crashed.
“They are always consistently strong,” Taam said of the Team Crested Butte skiers.
“You can never count them out,” Gaston said. “If you make a mistake, they will catch you.”
No mistakes for Team USA/Aspen in 2013.
Not so for Wickenhauser and Smith.
“I broke a pole after I left Snowmass, about 10 minutes into descending off the ridge,” said the 37-year-Smith. “I clipped a tree, and it broke my pole right in half.”
He struggled along until he picked up an alpine pole from a skier at Highlands – a bent rental pole with half a basket.
“It definitely requires no issues to stay with them (Taam and Gaston),” Smith said. “We had a couple of issues.”
But even after the pole incident, Smith and Wickenhauser scrambled back to stage at the top of Highland Bowl alongside the Aspen leaders.
Taking teamwork to the extreme, Smith and Wickenhauser used tow straps to help each other during the uphills.
“Once I dropped in at Highlands, I took a crash, went over the (handle) bars,” Smith said with a smile under his helmet.
“Brian actually drilled a rock and rag-dolled,” Wickenhauser said of the fall every skier knows all too well. “So, we had to put the brakes on for a little.”
The big fall and a broken pole combined for 5 critical minutes.
“That’s how close the racing is in North America now,” said Wickenhauser, who is the co-director of the Grand Traverse, a ski mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen. It’s scheduled for March 29.
“Any technical bobble is enough for a team to beat you,” Wickenhauser said before turning back to the finish area to watch fellow Team Crested Butte skiers John Brown and Billy Laird finish third in 5:12.
Two more Crested Butte ski mountaineers, Patrick O’Neill and Jesse Rickerts, finished third (6:00).
Eighteen minutes later, Team Spain crossed the line to finish first in the women’s division (6:18). Gemma Arro and Marta Riba, international ski-mountaineering competitors from Spain, added the Power of Four title to their lofty credentials.
“Racing with her (Riba) is always super-fun,” Arro said amid the finish celebration. “In these long races, it is very important to be together and help each other.”
“This was a perfect day for racing,” Arro said, translating the sentiments of her racing partner.
“This was so much fun, I’m sure she (Riba) will come back,” said Arro, who will race in Brighton, Utah, next week.
Riba, then will head to Patrouille des Glaciers, the top ski-mountaineering race in France.
“But we will be back,” Arro said.
A total of 58 two-skier teams entered the full 25-mile Power of Four this year, according to event director Maria Hidalgo, of Aspen Skiing Co. Team times were based on the finish of the second skier.
Fourteen teams this year entered the scaled-down race that included only Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain.
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