Where the wild things are
January 11, 2007
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN Jon Brown zipped across the finish line at the base of Aspen Mountain, made a half attempt to turn his skis, then gave up and collapsed in the snow. Teammate Brian Smith, flush with excitement, skated over and extended his hand while Brown fought for breath.They’d left at midnight from Crested Butte and traversed some 40 remote miles in just over eight hours, all of it on classic nordic skis, and now the championship trophy for the ninth annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse was theirs. And, as far as both were concerned, it was Gunnison’s and Crested Butte’s, too.”There’s definitely some bragging rights there,” said Smith last April. “It’s nice to have it back in our area, for sure.”Somewhere, still out in the backcountry, Vail adventure racers Mike Kloser and Dan Weiland were slogging their way to the finish. Weiland, fighting the flu, barfed somewhere near the summit of 12,303-foot Star Pass and was unable to keep any food down until reaching the final aid station at Barnard Hut. With no fuel to burn, he struggled to keep up with Kloser.The duo eventually finished fifth, a disappointing follow-up to their win the previous year. They’d lost to rivals who they knew from so many other sufferfests, and now it was their turn to watch the competition celebrate.Kloser didn’t need anyone to tell him the score.On this day, the world’s most successful adventure racer and unquestioned alpha dog of the Eagle Valley’s elite endurance-racing community wasn’t at the front of the pack, as usual.He’d lost to two teams from the Gunnison/Crested Butte area, as well as a pair of virtual unknowns from Summit County, Breckenridge locals Teague Holmes and Brad LaRochelle.Runner-up Dave Penney, a Crested-Butte based mountain guide who teamed with adventure racer Eric Sullivan, a teammate of Brown’s, didn’t hold back when he talked about the significance of the win.”That’s always the mission, to get it back home,” Penney said. “It’s back in the Butte again.”
Take a map of Colorado, fold it in thirds, then throw out everything on the far right. Truly, Kansas and Nebraska might be a better fit for the state’s eastern plains. As for the remaining two folds, dots all over the map mark where you’ll find large tribes of dedicated outdoors athletes – everything from the Mike Klosers of the world to the little-known junkies who do everything form ski and snowboard in the winter and hike, bike, climb and paddle during the warmer months.Among these competitive tribes, loyalty materializes. A group of athletes tends to take pride in its surroundings, naturally. And along with that loyalty, rivalries emerge between athletes from other tribes – namely among mountain-town communities like Vail, Aspen, Crested Butte and Breckenridge.The Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, a race that attracts some of the most hardcore skiers in the state, is just one example – among many – where those rivalries flare up.”There’s always some sort of rivalry with towns that are similar,” Kloser said recently. “Whether it’s rugby, hockey, skiing or backcountry sports, I think everybody is trying to one-up the other guys.”It’s a friendly rivalry, but it’s still a rivalry.”There doesn’t even have to be a set competition, in the traditional sense, to find examples of such divides. Last January, Snowmass Village extreme skier Chris Davenport launched a quest to become the first man to ski all of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks in a 12-month span. After a harrowing descent of the Crestone Needle on Thursday, Davenport only has three peaks remaining.Crested Butte’s Sean Crossen, a full-time painter, had already been working on his own 14ers skiing campaign for years before Davenport, albeit with less fanfare.The two skiers have a mutual appreciation for one another, but in the same breath, the respective communities of each have, in certain instances, taken sides over whose feats deserve more respect.In April, after Davenport skied the first continuous descent of the rock-lined chute dubbed Landry’s Route on Pyramid Peak – a mountain that thwarted Crossen numerous times – Davenport told the Aspen Times that he wouldn’t be surprised if others, including Crossen, were to make attempts on the line.”As soon as some people hear about it, they’ll want to try it,” he said. “It’s sucker tracks. As soon as someone sees tracks out of bounds somewhere, they’ll follow them. Hopefully they’ll be careful.”The article that appeared on the Aspen Times website sparked comment from anonymous readers from Crested Butte.
One reader wrote: “[This] story truly drove home the difference between “the butte” and Aspen. I would have ignored any correspondence were it not for the egotistical comments about people skiing it now that the pro has skied it (and anyone that followed would not be worthy.)The pro has definitely skiied quite a few of his peaks after getting reports of them already being skiied by Crested Butte bro Sean Crossen (such as the b-day chutes on sneffles.) … Sean C is going to ski them all this season but without relentless self promotion, you probably will never hear about it … Just had to set the record straight(sorry red bull.) Bros not pros.”
Aspenite Neal Beidleman, an experienced mountaineer who has climbed Mount Everest and been on numerous other Himalayan expeditions, was with Davenport that day on Pyramid.Having grown up in Aspen, Beidleman, 47, acknowledges the existence of rivalries between certain mountain towns, including Crested Butte and Aspen. In his opinion, it’s a waste of time to argue which place is better or has a more hardcore group of athletes.”I find it quite entertaining, actually,” he said. “I could care less. When you get into these sports, if you want to call them extreme sports, there’s just not that many people doing it, and I think there’s more of a bond there, if anything … For example, when you’re talking about a race like the Grand Traverse, it’s a pretty unique group of people doing it. I’m competing against myself really in something like that.”In his opinion, a majority of the people who spend their time arguing about such things are the ones who usually aren’t putting their reputations on the line.”Chris, he’s got a right to make a living however he wants to do it, and he’s not going to put it in anybody’s face,” Beidleman said. “It’s not like it’s that overt. The other thing that people forget is that he’s out there doing this stuff. He’s not all talk.”
Kloser doesn’t disagree, although he points out that Beidleman himself isn’t exempt from promoting such rivalries.In last year’s Aspen Highlands Inferno, a race that features an 800-foot vertical hike up Highland Ridge and a demanding ski down Ozone, Kloser took a huge lead off the start, but made a wrong turn and finished behind Beidleman.At the finish, Beidleman couldn’t help but give Kloser some good-natured ribbing.”He told me that if you’d just followed me, you wouldn’t have had to worry about getting lost,” Kloser said. “It was made in a friendly manner.”
Beidleman laughed when the story was recounted over the phone.”I was just being honest,” Beidleman said. “That’s part of the local advantage, I guess. It was pretty well-marked, and I thought, pretty hard to get lost on the bottom, so I was just joking with him.”Gunnison’s Dave Wiens, 42, said the same kind of friendly competition emerges among mountain bikers. A legend in the sport who has won the grueling Leadville Trail 100 four times and is a member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, Wiens said he takes pride in representing Gunnison in races around the state. He even said there’s a small rivalry between Gunnison and Crested Butte – a divide that stems from Gunnison athletes feeling overlooked at times.”In particular, if you come from Gunnison, you’re always the underdog,” said Wiens, who grew up in Denver and attended Gunnison’s Western State college for two years, before a year in Durango, then a winter in Jackson, Wyo., before moving back to Gunnison in 1987. “Nobody moves here because it’s the place to be. Crested Butte certainly has that and Durango to a certain extent. Moving here, it’s like moving to Rifle.”For me, there’s really nothing better than beating someone like Mike Kloser from Vail. There’s a certain status to each [mountain-biking] community, and I think you have to put Aspen, Vail, Durango, Boulder and Crested Butte toward the top. I don’t know if you’re ever going to rank Gunnison very high.” In terms of a community that exudes “hardcore,” Wiens said the winter he spent in Jackson in 1985 and 1986 made him feel out of his league, at times. While there, he encountered legendary extreme skier Doug Coombs, who fell to his death in April while skiing a treacherous chute in the French Alps.
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“It was an interesting winter,” he said. “When I met Doug, I was blown away. Other guys, too, like Scott Schmidt and Glenn Plake. That was just an eye-opening experience to see how dangerous that game is. Doug was just in a league all of his own.”When asked the same question, Beidleman said that when arguing something like which ski town in Colorado has the most dedicated group of backcountry skiers, or best terrain, everything is relative.He should know. “You only need to go up to Alaska or Canada for a few days to realize what big mountain skiing is,” he said. “I think that people who get too wrapped up in it are taking it too seriously. Everybody, they want to feel good about where they live and their friends. I think a lot of times people say things that they know are not correct. You just say it out of pride.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org