Granddaddy of races starts tonight |

Granddaddy of races starts tonight

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

At the stroke of midnight tonight, 105 teams of skiers will set out from Crested Butte bound for Aspen in the fifth annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse.

The 38.5-mile overland tour follows the old mail route between the two mining-towns-turned-ski-resorts, located about 25 miles apart as the crow flies, with Aspen in the foothills to the north of the Elks and Crested Butte to the south. The route climbs more than 6,000 vertical feet, over the 12,400-foot Star Pass and the 11,928-foot Star Pass, and concludes with a descent of Aspen Mountain to the finish line at the base of the gondola.

If history serves as a guide, the leaders are likely to show up in Aspen around 8 a.m. on Saturday.

“There’s this trophy that’s going to go to your town or my town,” said Crested Butte’s Geo Bullock, the Grand Traverse defending champion along with partner Dave Penny. “And we want to bring it back here.”

Teams from Crested Butte have captured the crown three of the four years. In 2001, Bullock and Penny, both 41, unseated the 1999 and 2000 victors (and also their longtime friends from Crested Butte), Jimmy Faust and Pat O’Neil, with a course-record time of 8 hours, 17 minutes.

In the first event in 1998, Aspen’s Pierre Wille and Travis Moore won, effectively opening the friendly rivalry between Aspen and Crested Butte that has helped the Grand Traverse gain recognition as one of the best races in Colorado.

“The first year, you won it,” said Bullock, referring to Wille and Moore, as he admired the trophy on a bench at his woodworking shop in Crested Butte during a phone interview earlier this week, “and we were like, `Let’s get it back.’ And we’ve won it every year since.”

“We’re definitely pushing the pace,” added Penny, who works as an international mountain guide and has several climbing buddies in Aspen, “but it’s very friendly. It’s a pretty neat race for sure, and that’s what’s great about it. There’s a few of us up front racing – and the rest of ’em think we’re nuts – and the rest of ’em are out there for fun.

“Last year, we raced under the northern lights, and afterward we’re like, `Oh, that’s what it was. Good. It’s not just us,'” Penny continued with a laugh.

For the first time in the history of the Grand Traverse, the event sold out well in advance of the March 1 registration deadline. Founder and race director Jan Runge of Crested Butte said the field is comprised of 67 Crested Butte residents, 35 Aspen-area residents, 65 racers from the Front Range and 14 out-of-staters. Men dominate the field, though Runge said about 10 women’s teams and 10 coed teams will be in the mix.

“A group of us who historically skied back and forth for years were looking to put together a fund-raiser for nordic skiing over here,” said Runge, “and we thought it’d be a neat thing to try. We really didn’t think we could pull it off, but it’s taken off. People are liking it.”

Since its founding, the Grand Traverse has raised between $2,000 and $3,000 each year for the Gunnison County Nordic Center, while the event costs about $30,000 annually to stage.

Runge credits a volunteer force numbering about 70 of “mostly EMT types” for establishing the Grand Traverse as one of Colorado’s premier races, skiing or otherwise. On Monday, Runge said four volunteers were already in place along the course to gauge avalanche danger and will remain on course through Saturday.

The snow safety team has flown over the course three times already this winter, visually inspecting the terrain and air-dropping race supplies to various checkpoints along the way.

“The biggest part of it is my volunteers,” Runge said. “They’re out there now. They have everything mapped out, and they keep a close eye on everything by flying over the route. They know what slid and how big. They know the danger zones real well, and they access the situation but they don’t bomb at all. And that’s the reason we start at midnight – we’re basically increasing our odds of getting everybody through the most dangerous zones when it’s safest. And if they don’t make it in time, we turn people around.”

In the four-year history of the event, not a single injury has been reported, Runge said.

“One lady kinda threw up on somebody – I don’t know what happened there – but that’s about it,” she said.

In accordance with fundamental backcountry safety, all racers in the Grand Traverse must carry enough gear to be prepared for the possibility of a 24-hour bivouac. Each racer’s gear amounts to about 20 pounds, including avalanche self-rescue equipment (beacons, probes and shovels), maps and compasses, a stove and fuel, surplus food and water, basic first aid kits, sleeping bags and pads as well as extra warm clothing.

All the racers’ gear is checked before the start, and those who don’t check out are sent on impromptu shopping trips or disqualified. Furthermore, any litter found on the course that can be traced to a specific team can result in disqualification.

“Anything can happen in a whiteout,” Runge said, “and everybody’s got to be able to find their way. Once you’ve got 100 teams out there, the lead guys know where they’re going and everybody follows them, but everybody’s got to be self-sufficient in case something happens.”

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