Aspen goes uphill quickly

Dale Strode
The Aspen Times

Aspen is going uphill fast.

Summer or winter, day or night, the uphillers in Aspen find the fastest way to the top.

Witness Aspenites Jessica Phillips and John Gaston.

The two were the fastest up Aspen Mountain on Saturday night in the eighth annual Summit for Life uphill race, a benefit for the Chris Klug Foundation to promote organ- and tissue-donor awareness.

“I’ve never done (this race) on skis before,” said Gaston, the decorated Aspen ski-mountaineering racer and previous Summit for Life winner (wearing spikes). “This was good. I think in places, the skis are really faster, … especially on some of the steeper places.”

Gaston, who spent Saturday morning competing in the Irwin Ski Mountaineering Race in Crested Butte, spent Saturday afternoon in a car driving back to Aspen so he could participate in the benefit for the Chris Klug Foundation on Saturday night.

“I didn’t know (how it would go),” Gaston said in the finish area atop Ajax, near the gondola summit station, where a steady, light snow fell and the temperature dropped to 5 degrees.

Gaston said the runners on spikes set a torrid pace at the beginning as they started up Little Nell.

The runners led on around into Bingo Slot, under the Bell Mountain chairlift and up into Spar Gulch.

“About halfway up Spar,” Gaston said of the point where he took the lead in the competitive division.

From there, Gaston skied up through Deer Park and up Silver Bell to the finish at the Sundeck, passing recreational uphillers all along the way. He finished in 47 minutes and change, unofficially.

Gaston, 26, previously won summer uphill races on Aspen Mountain in tennis shoes and on a mountain bike.

He’s now a multiple winter uphill winner, including a skiing winner.

Phillips, an Aspen native and former pro bicycle racer, used the runner’s approach with stabilizer spikes.

“I haven’t really been training,” a modest Phillips said at the summit of Ajax on Saturday night. “We have a really high-energy dog, so I’ve been taking him for hikes every day. Not specific training, just training to make the dog tired.”

Phillips won the women’s competitive division in 58 minutes, relying on some advice from her husband’s cycling coaches.

Phillips, 35, is married to pro cyclist Tejay van Garderen, of BMC, the recent winner of the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado and the Tour of California.

“I was imagining TJ’s coaches … going up through Spar,” Phillips said with a cheerful laugh that belied the fact that she had just raced uphill for 2.5 miles, climbing 3,267 vertical feet.

Earlier Saturday, Phillips and family celebrated her daughter’s eight-month birthday.

“I like to support our local athletes who put a lot of energy into events like this,” said Phillips, who helped organize women’s pro cycling races in Aspen. “I’m here to support Chris’ race.”

She and Gaston were joined by some 200 other participants in the competitive division Saturday. Nearly 400 more registered for the recreational uphill.

Official results are scheduled to be posted at

“There is so much love in this town. It’s incredible,” said organizer Chris Klug, an Olympic bronze medalist (snowboard racing) and a liver-transplant recipient.

“We have almost 600 people out here (participating) and an army of volunteers out here helping, … helping to save lives really,” said Klug, whose live-saving transplant and subsequent Olympic glory are well-documented.

Klug said more than one-third of the participants Saturday came from outside the Roaring Fork Valley, many from out of state.

The various weekend events of Summit for Life, including Saturday night’s uphill, will raise $140,000 for the fight to increase awareness of organ and tissue donorship, he said.

Klug’s cause resonated with John Piampiano, of New York, the first finisher in the recreational division.

“It’s a terrific cause,” said Piampiano, a frequent Aspen visitor. “My wife’s grandfather had a heart transplant. She’s here doing the race, too. She tries to do it every year in his honor.”

The support from everyone, Klug said, “is incredibly humbling.”

“Besides, every time we do Summit for Life here, it snows,” he said. “So we should do it again.”