The Grand Travail
“So WHY exactly are you doing this?”This was the most common question I heard upon telling people my husband and I were planning to participate in the Ninth Annual Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, the backcountry ski race between Crested Butte and Aspen. Something about the 40-plus miles, the 12,000-foot passes, the avalanche danger, and the midnight start time – especially the midnight start time – led people to believe it wouldn’t be much fun.I suspected they might be right when we walked into registration the morning of the race and saw 200 of the gnarliest, fittest, free-the-heel, nordic gods and goddesses I’ve ever seen in one room. Sure, there were some 40 and 50-somethings milling about, but they were guys like Neil Beidleman and Bob Wade, mountaineering and backcountry legends. My husband, at 61, looked to be the oldest racer in the room, and I the least experienced. Why, indeed, were we doing this?My personal motivation was to spend more time in the backcountry and off the lift-served slopes. On this front, our training, which consisted of at least one long day out on skis per week for 2 months, succeeded beautifully. I have now stayed at or at least skied by all of the 10th Mountain huts in our area.My husband, on the other hand, whose idea it was to do the race, had a different motivation. He saw the Traverse as an opportunity for ordinary people to participate side-by-side with extraordinary athletes in an extreme event. As it turns out, we were side-by-side with these athletes for all of about four seconds, namely at the starting line. But there was no doubt that when we crossed the finish line 14 hours and 54 minutes later, ahead of 25 teams and behind 76 others, we had been through something extreme and extraordinary – if not exactly fun. As advertised, the Grand Traverse begins at midnight in downtown Crested Butte. From there the race heads up to the midpoint of the Mount Crested Butte ski area, descends to the East River, then turns north up through the Brush Creek Valley into the Elk Mountains, crossing over Star and Taylor passes to Richmond Ridge and the top of Aspen Mountain, culminating 40 miles later in a hair-raising descent down Spar Gulch to the finish line at the gondola.
“Hair-raising” because most of the racers are on cross-country gear, which means their skis lack the metal edges that make carving turns down Spar Gulch on alpine or telemark gear a no-brainer. Despite the boldly worded disclaimer on the Traverse info sheet, “THIS IS NOT A NORDIC RACE,” the Traverse has in fact come to be dominated by strong nordic skiers using cross-country gear that is infinitely lighter and more efficient than the usual backcountry gear. On the downside, “skinny skis” are hard to maneuver through cut-up or heavy powder and harder still to control on ice. As a result, my partner and I and many other of the non-top-10 finishers opted for something in between, a slightly wider but still lightweight backcountry ski with a three-quarter metal edge. Choosing a ski, however, is only the beginning. It is not an overstatement to say that the Grand Traverse, especially the first year you do it, is all about the gear. The Traverse has rigorous requirements as to what must be carried by all skiers at all times, from beacons and bivy sacks down to the type of screws you must carry for emergency repairs. Every racer’s equipment is personally inspected by race organizers on the day of the race, with a zero tolerance policy for any omissions (my husband had to return that afternoon with extra long underwear in hand to pass inspection). How much water to carry (a minimum of 100 ounces is required), what food to bring (I opted for the ’70s backpacker special of pb&j sandwiches and gorp; my husband went high-tech with an all-in-one food and drink called Perpetuem), and especially how to lighten your load by a few ounces all become topics of endless debate and discussion among participants, much to the consternation, undoubtedly, of non participating friends and loved ones (an excellent reason to do the Traverse with your spouse). This, however, gets to the crux of the Grand Traverse. When you decide to do the Traverse you join a club. Suddenly, wherever you go you meet other participants and find yourself in deep discussions concerning such oddities as how to design a leash that will keep your skis from careening down Aspen Mountain in the event of a fall but that won’t interfere with your ability to quickly take your skis on and off in order to skin up. All of these gear issues that normally wouldn’t interest me in the least became not merely interesting, but fascinating, engendering hours of discussion. It is no exaggeration to say that the 15 hours we spent on the course represented a mere fraction of the time we spent researching, demoing, debating and ultimately assembling our gear. (I secretly suspect this is the No. 1 reason why most participants return to the event – the initial investment is so enormous.)
This year’s Traverse was graced with a balmy 34-degree night, putting to bed my main fear surrounding the race – the potential for frostbite. At 12 sharp, amidst fireworks and an enthusiastic send-off by locals in various states of inebriation, a sea of headlamps headed off into the night, many crashing to the ground as skis crossed other skis and people jockeyed for position. My husband and I, knowing a fast start could mean a slow doom later, were content to hang back, calling each other’s names constantly so as not to get separated. We soon had to stop to put on our skins in order to get any grip on the iced-over snow that was a product of the previous day’s gorgeous 50-degree weather. An hour later we were taking off our skins to come down the Gunsight Pass and Gallowich runs, which on a moonless night was terrifically exciting. (The second most common question I received after telling people about the midnight start was, “Oh, it’s during the full moon, then?” The answer is no, quite the opposite. The timing is all about avalanche, temperature and snow conditions, and has nothing to do with niceties like moonlight.) At the bottom of the ski area, the race crossed through ranch land, then headed north into the backcountry, where the real challenges began. First was the infamous “Death Canyon.” The trail here is hair-raisingly narrow, with nothing to keep you from sliding down into Brush Creek 100 feet below if you slip. At one point I turned to apologize to the skiers behind me for my glacial pace, when I noticed they had all taken their skis off, a strategy that I immediately and gratefully emulated. Next came a creek crossing. A half-dozen racers who had arrived before us were taking off their boots and socks and preparing to wade across the icy waters. Judging this an unappealing option at 3:30 in the morning, my husband decided to risk jumping across. Finding a relatively narrow section 20 yards upstream, he threw his skis across the creek, planted his poles in the water and deftly catapulted himself across. Against my better instincts I followed his lead, with 50 percent success. Surprisingly, my reaction to having one very cold, very wet foot was primarily one of relief – finally something bad, but not terrible, had happened, and I knew I was going to be OK. In fact, the prospect of changing into one of my spare dry socks (thank you, race organizers), which I determined I would do at daybreak at the Friends Hut, helped me through the next three hours.
The Friends Hut, situated in one of Colorado’s loveliest bowls below Star Peak and Pearl Mountain, marks the beginning of the most technically challenging part of the course. Above us a steady stream of climbers switchbacked their way up a ridge that was alternately loaded and windswept. By the time we reached the top of the ridge we were engulfed in a full-blown snowstorm. It was one of the few times in the race I couldn’t see anyone behind or in front of me – nor, thankfully, could I see the 40-degree slope falling away into the abyss on my right. At 7:15 a.m. I was greeted at Star Pass by the most intrepid volunteers ever, who in the midst of gale-force winds took down our names and bib numbers and congratulated us on making the 8 a.m. cut-off, at which time all remaining skiers are turned back to Crested Butte. (To keep this accomplishment in perspective, the winners at this point were just half an hour shy of beginning their descent down Aspen Mountain.)I will never forget the 10 minutes that followed. With no tracks to guide us owing to the wind and no visibility to speak of, we began our precipitous descent into the Taylor River Basin through deep and heavy powder, skiing on pure faith. At times we were rewarded with long, fast traverses, and at other times the snow gods mocked us with abrupt hollows that sucked us down into bell-ringing face plants. One might have lost heart at this point had it not been for the fact that you could look up toward the pass at any moment and watch skier after skier do the exact same thing.This, in fact, is one of the distinct advantages of being in the bottom quarter of the pack – you have more time to experience everything along the way: To alternately admire and empathize with the other racers’ descents; to chat with the volunteers; to compare provisions on food breaks (Domino’s pizza was my personal No. 1 envy); and even to enjoy the views, especially from Taylor Pass where Castle, Cathedral and Hayden peaks gleamed in the occasional sunshine.The downside of being out for 15 hours is, well, obvious. Fifteen hours is too long to be doing just about anything, let alone skiing over rugged terrain. And the terrain did not get any easier after Star Pass. In fact, the hardest part of the race for us was the realization that Taylor “Pass” was in fact really a series of passes, each one longer and steeper than the next (with racers abandoning their skis altogether to hike up Gold Hill). By the time we reached the Barnard Hut and the seemingly endless snowmobile-generated whoop-de-doos of Richmond Ridge, our minds and bodies began to seriously wear down. With no viable options, however, to simply moving on, we slogged it out to the top of Aspen Mountain, where the sight of the ungainly back side of the gondola building literally brought tears to my eyes.
The race, of course, does not end here. For some, skiing down Aspen Mountain on rubbery legs is the scariest part of the Traverse. Not so for my husband, who has been skiing for more than a half-century and was able to link some nice alpine turns down Spar. I, on the other hand, put my skins on and timidly followed in an ugly but effective wedge. As we neared the bottom of the mountain we were greeted with a cacophony of cheers, whistles and bells led by the same volunteers who had sent us off into the night 15 hours earlier. Also there with big hugs were Robin and John Norton, formerly with the Aspen Skiing Co., who had spent the day encouraging participants on their way down Aspen Mountain and without whose support, moral, technical and otherwise, we would never have done the Traverse at all. So, in the end, was the Grand Traverse fun? The majority of the race could not truthfully be described as fun. The last three hours on Richmond Ridge were grueling. The hour spent ascending and descending Star Pass in a whiteout was harrowing. On the other hand, descending the slopes of Mount Crested Butte in the middle of the night was exhilarating. Seeing the first rays of light near the Friends Hut was magical. And a not insignificant portion of the trip was downright comical. But ultimately the large majority of our 15 hours was composed of the monotonous and ultimately exhausting exercise of sliding one ski in front of the other.So fun, no. Rewarding and unforgettable, yes. As someone whose life is presently consumed with the business of raising small children, a job notoriously short on “mission accomplished” type moments, the Traverse provided a tangible and ultimately doable goal that left me with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The Traverse also rewarded us with new friendships and a lingering sense of camaraderie unlike anything we’ve experienced. Add to that the pride I felt in seeing my 61-year old husband ski for 40-plus miles with a smile on his face and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Thank you, Harry, for bringing me along on the ride.
On a recent trip to Spain, I discovered something that I believe tops the espresso martini. It’s called a barraquito.