Butte team wins Traverse in epic winds
At 1:20 a.m. Saturday, a slumbering Jan Runge of Crested Butte was rousted in her Aspen hotel room by a phone call.
Though muddled by howling winds, a voice told the race director of the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse that high winds – gusting an estimated 50 or 60 mph on the high passes between Aspen and Crested Butte – might force safety-crew volunteers in the field, such as the one on the other end of the line, to call off the seventh annual running of the 40-mile backcountry ski race between the two towns.
“The wind’s blowing so hard on Star Pass [12,303 feet] that my aid station workers cannot stand up,” Runge recalled of the conversion.
“Also, it was a total whiteout up on Taylor [Pass, 11,929 feet]; they had no visuals. They were hunkered down in their tents hoping their tents didn’t blow away. And at the same time, we had a call saying the racers were on their way up.”
Runge, as usual, took the news in stride.
“Ride it out,” she told her volunteers, “hope for the best, and see what happens.”
Last year, after all, it was stinging 20-below temperatures that dogged the race. In 1999, it was a blizzard that dumped 36 inches of snow, prompting the “Grand Reverse.” In both extreme instances, Runge & Co. managed to make it happen.
So they stuck with it once more, and among the first racers to reach the two apexes were the 1999 and 2000 champions from Crested Butte, Jimmy Faust and Pat O’Neill, and the 2003 defending champs from Vail, Mike Kloser and Dan Weiland.
Together mostly, the foursome skied through the night. And it had been epic.
The early arrival of spring melted away snow bridges that usually make for seamless crossings of three creeks closer to Crested Butte, and mud and dirt greeted racers at lower elevations elsewhere. Instead of extra gloves and layers this year, most racers brought surplus socks to swap out after the wading sections.
Faust and O’Neill tagged the final checkpoint first – the Barnard Hut, located seven miles south of the Aspen Mountain Sundeck and the beginning of the downhill descent to the finish – but only by about two minutes. Kloser and Weiland were right with them.
“I probably fell more tonight than I’ve fallen in all the other racers combined,” said Faust, who has finished all seven. “You’d have re-frozen and all of a sudden you’d hit powder and you’d just stack. It was classic. Coming into the Barnard Hut, I was leading this downhill and I crash. Then I look up and I see Kloser go down, I see Dan go down and I see Pat go down. We were all down at one point. It was a great sight. And we didn’t just fall, we like stuffed it in, everyone one of us.”
At some point near the Barnard Hut, Weiland, a Vail nordic coach, partially broke one of his ski boots, limiting his ability to skate.
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“But it really didn’t affect him,” Faust continued, “so we literally skied to the Sundeck, all as a foursome, the whole time.”
The Crested Butte duo managed to gain a slight advantage at the Sundeck, when the cross-country race becomes a downhill on cross-country skis, but Kloser and Weiland would not go away.
“We dropped in and we’re skiing down and I look back and they’re almost catching up,” Faust said. “We didn’t have that comfortable a lead.”
Soon, though, Weiland’s equipment problems caught up with him, and Faust and O’Neill pulled away. The pair skied down Spar Gulch to Little Nell and then across the finish line in 7 hours, 55 minutes and 50 seconds, for their third Grand Traverse title. Kloser and Weiland (who had to come down on one ski due to a now-broken binding) took second in 8:08:30.
International mountain guide Dave Penney of Crested Butte, the 2001 and 2002 champ (with Geo Bullock), was third across the line with new partner Todd Malzhan, also of the Butte, in 8:21:0.
The first Aspen-area finishers, brothers Andre and Pierre Wille of Basalt, took fifth in 8:50:10. With Pierre, the 1998 champ (with Travis Moore), all the former men’s champion teams were represented at the finish area by the gondola base.
“Every year’s different and this year it was the creek crossings and the wind,” said Andre Wille.
“We used trash bags [for the crossings] but it didn’t work. … Everybody got wet pretty much. Then you head up into the wind zone. Star Pass is always windy and it wasn’t too bad but Taylor Pass was just horrendous. Some people were saying it had to be gusts up to 100 [mph], but that’s pretty unrealistic. But it would blow you over. You had to hit the deck or hunker down low; people got knocked over.
“It was radical, tell you what.”
O’Neill with a cigarillo and Faust with his infant girl Quincy, the two hung around the base well into the afternoon to cheer on the rest of the field.
“That’s the thing about this race,” said O’Neill, “it’s about sucking it up. You have to change your strategy each year with the changing conditions. There were some super, super gusty stiff winds, with ground blizzards because of it, but you know what? I had a blast. Look, I’m here in Aspen, man. I was in Crested Butte midnight last night.”
A Vail team of Ellen Miller and Billy Mattison came across in 9:40:0 to win the coed title, some 11 minutes head of the Aspen husband-wife team of Bob and Ruth Wade, the defending coed champs.
At 10:26:20 in the morning, three-time Olympian Ingrid Butts of Gunnison and partner Carol Quinn of Gunnison shushed down Little Nell to win the women’s division. The 2002 champs had a little veteran knowledge at work, too. Instead of getting soaked in the creek crossing, the pair fashioned some “super galooshes” out of plastic Western State book bags. And they worked, so well in fact they skied the entire 40 miles with the book bags duct taped to their boots and legs.
“It’s such an endurance event,” said Butts, who skied for the U.S. at the 1988, ’92 and ’94 Olympics. “You go through so many trials and problem solving situations that it’s very different than just a regular cross-country ski race that I used to do.
“It’s intense in many, many different ways, with way more elements: creek crossings and 60 mile an hour winds and ice and slush and flat-out geographical distance.”
The second place women’s team, more Crested Butticians, Janae Deverell and Sarah Fuld, finished in 11:57:50. Lena Wilensky and Michelle Albert, of Crested Butte and Gunnison, took third (13:12:10).
All told, 83 teams finished the seventh running of The Traverse; 27 teams did not.
David Stapleton is the development officer for the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club. A product of the club, AVSC sat down with Stapleton for a Q&A session in this week’s Clubhouse Chronicles.