Grand Traverse returns in March
Winter travel between Aspen and Crested Butte wasn’t easy in the 1880s. It still isn’t for competitors in the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, an annual backcountry ski race that follows mail routes that connected the mining towns more than a century ago.The ninth annual traverse kicks off at midnight on March 31, presenting a one-of-a-kind test of endurance and smarts that requires avalanche awareness, backcountry athleticism, winter camping knowledge and map-reading skills. Insanity, oddly, is not a prerequisite.The Grand Traverse is neither a nordic nor a downhill race, but instead tests skiers’ overall skills as they travel from town to town, covering 40 miles of rugged trails in the Elk Mountains. “When Grand Traverse began nine years ago, it was fashioned after similar events in Europe that connect various villages,” said race organizer Jan Runge. “The snowpack is excellent so far, better than it has been many years,” she added.Organizers expect 250 racers – 125 teams of two – to depart from the traditional starting line at the Crested Butte Community School in town, 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, on April 1, 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.The unusual start time is scheduled so that entrants will reach the high point of Star Pass, at 12,303 feet, before the warmth of the day increases the likelihood of avalanches.Last year, Mike Kloser and Dan Weiland of Vail won the men’s division with a time of 7 hours 55 minutes and 50 seconds, beating the prior year’s finish time by 7 minutes and 20 seconds. Pete Swenson and Monique Merrill of Boulder and Breckenridge, respectively, captured the co-ed division crown in 9:33.05. The duo of Sarah Fuld and Janae Pritchett of Crested Butte finished at 11:41:25 to lead the women’s division.Because of the remoteness of the route through the Elk Mountains, each team of two must carry enough food and supplies to sustain both racers for 24 hours. Before the race start, participants’ packs are checked for essential gear, including bivy sacks, stove, fuel, avalanche beacons, rescue gear, and first aid and repair kits.More than 40 support team members are present in the backcountry during the race to ensure skier safety, according to organizers. Some crews are out in the backcountry for a week before the event, assessing avalanche conditions and moving supplies into remote camps. Local pilots also assist by airdropping supplies into alpine basins.The 2006 Grand Traverse is dedicated to Mike Martin, assistant race director and one of the event’s original founders, who died recently in a plane crash. Martin was owner of the Alpineer in Crested Butte.The entry fee is $250 per team, with a registration limit of 125 teams. Organizers advise registering early, as the quota fills quickly. For more information about the race, visit http://www.elkmountaintraverse.org.
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.