Reigning Grand Traverse winners triumph in inaugural Aspen Power of Four race
March 6, 2011
ASPEN – Brian Smith did not bother shedding most of his equipment.
Mere moments after crossing the finish line in Saturday’s inaugural Power of Four Mountaineering Race, the 35-year-old slumped onto a nearby pile of packs.
He exhaled deeply, grinned and shut his eyes.
After a more than six-hour ordeal – a mentally and physically taxing one covering in excess of 25 miles across four ski areas, that included technical descents and more than 11,000 punishing feet of vertical gain – Smith savored the long-awaited opportunity to rest.
“This is one of the biggest challenges on skis,” he said later, after being roused when a phone in a backpack near his head started ringing. “I can’t imagine anything tougher than this.”
“We knew what we were getting into,” added partner and fellow Gunnison resident Bryan Wickenhauser, “and we still signed up.”
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The duo, who last year triumphed in the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, were up to the challenge on this overcast day in the Roaring Fork Valley. They vaulted to the front of a field of 74 teams of two shortly after the start in Snowmass and extended their advantage to about 10 minutes at the top of Highland Bowl.
With hands clasped and raised toward the sky, they skied across the finish, at the base of Aspen Mountain’s Lift 1A, to post a time of 6 hours, 13 minutes, 7 seconds.
Jared Inouye and Brian Harder finished second, about 18 minutes later. U.S. Ski Mountaineering Team members Max Taam (Aspen) and Chris Kroger (Jackson Hole, Wyo.) overtook Jan Koles and Jon Brown on the final descent to take third in 6:31:55.
Thirty-seven teams failed to finish.
“My body is cooked. … I was ready for it to be over an hour earlier,” Smith joked. “Mentally, I didn’t think it was going to be that hard. I would say it was every bit as tough as the Grand Traverse.”
Smith and Wickenhauser settled in at the front of the pack on the ascent from Snowmass’ Base Village to the top of the Alpine Springs lift, then the traverse from Elk Camp to Buttermilk.
After a quick jaunt down Tiehack, the duo prepared for the long slog up Aspen Highlands.
“It was a good march, a good pace. We never went too hard, but you really can’t,” Smith said. “I was ready to be done at the top of the [Loge Peak] lift – I had no idea how much further out on the ridge you have to go since I had never seen it. For me, that was tough to kind of mentally grasp that.”
Taam said he was only about 3 minutes behind the leaders when he entered the base of Highlands.
Things took a turn for the worse for the Ajax patroller from there, however.
“I blew up. I kind of felt like I was going backward,” Taam said. “My legs just felt like when you’re on a bike and you can’t put any power into the pedals. I was just walking really slowly and couldn’t go any faster. For how I felt, I was just happy to finish basically.”
Smith likely shares that sentiment – particularly after a harrowing descent of the Highland Bowl.
“You have gravity helping you, but you don’t have the strength in your legs to stay up. … I could feel myself just rocking, and I knew it was only a matter of time,” Smith recounted. “I couldn’t sit back and just flow through it because I didn’t have the strength in my quads. I went down, double ejected and both heels were out. And I lost my sunglasses – luckily, the sun went behind the clouds at that point.”
Smith had little time to regroup. The narrow Congo Trail, which stretches from the ski area to Castle Creek Road, awaited.
“There are 90-degree corners and straight shots where you can’t get a full wedge in there and it’s hard to throw [your skis] sideways,” Smith said. “There weren’t a lot of places to slow down. … You kind of just had to point it and hope you don’t go into a tree.”
The leaders emerged unscathed, then methodically made their way to the base of Midnight Mine Road on the backside of Ajax.
“Midnight Mine comes at hour five, and it’s long and gradual and you’re burnt at that point mentally,” said Wickenhauser, 39. “You can see the top, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. … I was like, ‘Oh, my god, let’s skip a couple of these switchbacks and go straight up.’ … I knew we had a lead, so I just stared at my partner in front of me and tried to carry my end of the bargain and not let my mind wander.”
Fellow competitor Mike Kloser was hoping to do just the opposite as he negotiated the road.
Instead, the Vail endurance-race veteran could think about nothing but the throbbing hotspots on his feet.
“I know how long that road is – my in-laws have a cabin near the top and we’ve snowshoed and tobogganed down a bit. I didn’t know if I could tough it out,” said Kloser, who teamed with Monique Merrill to win the mixed division with a time of 6:46:45. “I laid down two or three times to shake out my boots and my feet.
“That’s a long climb, and I think people underestimated it. If you haven’t been preparing for it – eating, drinking and preserving energy – you can pay the price.”
After what Wickenhauser estimated was 80 minutes – and after being spurred on by a well-wisher on a snowmobile – the leaders finally reached the Sundeck.
It was all downhill from there.
Down Buckhorn, Midway Traverse, International, Silver Queen and Lower Ten Road before sliding across the finish.
Then, it was time for a well-earned respite.
“What a great feeling,” Wickenhauser said. “You tend not to feel the pain as much when you win.”