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Grand Traverse: ‘Nothing else out there like it’

Nate Peterson

Mike Kloser of Vail found himself in a quandary shortly after the start of last year’s Elk Mountains Grand Traverse.Ahead of him was 40 miles and some 6,000 vertical feet of unforgiving backcountry terrain linking Crested Butte and Aspen. Behind him, a pack of more than 200 nordic skiers was pushing toward him through the snow and subzero night air. And somewhere in that herd of skiers lay one of Kloser’s pole baskets.To go or not to go back for the missing basket – that was the question.After quickly consulting with partner Dan Weiland, Kloser turned around and headed back into the oncoming headlamps.”We had a spare [basket], but that was the only one we had,” Kloser said. “If we lost that one later on, we would have been screwed. Pole baskets are pretty crucial when you’re in the backcountry.”That wasn’t the only setback for the duo, which won the eighth running of the annual backcountry race in 7 hours, 55 minutes and 50 seconds. Kloser also fell down a rocky embankment while traversing one of the race’s two mountain passes, which left him with some scrapes and bruises.

All things considered, however, Kloser said last year’s Traverse was one of the easiest in years. The sky overhead was clear, there was hardly any wind, and once the sun came up in the morning, it got warm very quickly.As for this year’s traverse, which begins at the Crested Butte Community School at midnight Friday, Kloser said he doesn’t know what to expect. And that’s the appeal.”I think it’s unique because it’s a complete backcountry adventure experience,” Kloser said. “You’re starting the race at midnight, and you don’t ever know what Mother Nature is going to dish out. It changes every year. One year you’re skiing on frozen boilerplate crust. The next year, it might be a warm spring, and you’re literally running through creek crossings at 1:30 in the morning. Another year, it’s subzero temperatures and high winds, and you’re trying to ward off frostbite.”It’s just such a unique experience,” Kloser added. “There’s nothing out there like it.”Unless you go to Europe, where a number of backcountry ski races link small villages.Now in its ninth year, the Grand Traverse – which organizers expect will draw a full field of 125 two-person teams – is a ski race without peers.There is first the history. The course follows the same route that carriers used in the 1880s to get mail between the mining towns of Crested Butte and Aspen.

Secondly, there is the inherent danger. The midnight start time isn’t to make the race tougher but rather safer, since participants will reach the apex of Star Pass (12,303 feet) before the warmth of the day increases the likelihood of avalanches. The wilderness area that competitors will cross is so remote that each team of two must carry enough food and supplies to sustain the two racers for 24 hours. Each team’s packs will be checked before the start for essential gear, including bivvy sacks, stove, fuel, avalanche beacons, rescue gear, and first aid and repair kits. More than 40 support-team members will also be present in the backcountry during the race to ensure skier safety, according to organizers.Finally, and arguably most important, is the scenery.It’s for that reason that Karin Teague of Basalt decided to race for the first time this year. Teague’s husband, Harry, attempted to complete the race last April, but his partner was fighting a nasty cold, and the two had to turn around and head back to Crested Butte. Still, Teague’s husband said the experience was one of the most memorable of his life.This year, when her husband decided to train for the race again, Teague joined him.”For me, the primary motivation is to be out in the beautiful backcountry,” Teague said. “I don’t look at it as a race. It’s an opportunity to ski this unbelievably beautiful but completely remote wilderness area, and under pretty much the safest conditions you can ever have because there is so much support. It’s not something we would ever try to do by ourselves, but because there are so many people out in the backcountry ensuring your safety, it’s something we can do.”

Kloser had similar sentiments. The primary reason for competing, he said, is to win. But, second on that list was to enjoy the experience.”There are a lot of races,” he said. “I guess the thing that keeps bringing me back is that it is such a one-of-a-kind event. I’m one of those guys who is always looking for an adventure, and that’s what you get with this race.”The Grand Traverse:After setting off from Crested Butte Community School in town at midnight, racers catch the old Upper Loop Trail, skirt along Hunter Hill Road and drop into Crested Butte Mountain Resort ski area in Mount Crested Butte. Cheering crowds, torches and a fireworks display greet the racers as they pass through the base area just below the Silver Queen lift.Then, it’s off into the cold darkness. The teams climb up and over Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s terrain, exiting just below the East River lift, cross the East River valley, turn downstream and rejoin the course on Brush Creek Road before climbing over two mountain passes. Several hours later, racers reach the top of Aspen Mountain via Richmond Ridge. Then, they have to ski down through Spar Gulch to the finish line at the bottom of the Silver Queen Gondola.For more information about the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse go to http://www.elkmountaintraverse.org.


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