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Race links Aspen, the Butte

Tim Mutrie
2003 Elk Mountain Grand Traverse competitiors trudge up a hill on course to the finish line at the base of Aspen Mountain. Photo courtesy Alex Fenlon/ Crested Butte Daily News.
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As ski towns go – not as crows fly – Aspen and Crested Butte couldn’t be farther apart.

Here in the northern Elk Mountains, local residents roll around in Hummers and Range Rovers and like-sized grocery-getters.

Down in the southern Elks, the favored mode of transport is bicycle, usually genuine vintage jobs like ’70s Schwinns with banana seats and three-speed, stick-shift gearing.

Skiing is the common denominator.

For the seventh year, starting at midnight tonight, the 40-mile Elk Mountains Grand Traverse will link the two towns.

Following the overland mail route that bound the towns in the mining era of the late 1800s, 115 teams of two will traverse the Elk Range from south to north, starting at the Crested Butte Mountain Resort and finishing at the base of the Aspen Mountain gondola.

The journey will take racers over 12,303-foot Star Pass and 11,929-foot Taylor Pass, as well as the muddied goat-walk cliffs of “Death Pass” and at least one creek crossing that promises to soak a few souls.

Avalanche safety crews have been in place along the route since Monday, assessing dangers, but on Thursday afternoon the biggest threat to the race was still something of an unknown.

“We’re all watching the forecasts,” said Jan Runge of Crested Butte, one of the Traverse’s founders and the seven-year race director.

“We’re talking 1 to 3 or 4 inches, supposed to be mostly wet and gloppy, not huge accumulations,” Runge said, “but there may be locally concentrated bursts of up to 2 feet.”

But curveballs from Mother Nature are just part of the Grand Traverse.

Last year during the race, which saw the highest rate of attrition with almost 50 percent of the teams not finishing, temperatures plunged to minus 15 at Star Pass, even lower elsewhere with the wind-chill factor. Reports of frostbite and frost nip were widespread among competitors – who tend to be the very-experienced, wholly prepared sort – and two racers had to be airlifted from the Friends Hut, a checkpoint closer to Crested Butte, with frostbite on their feet.

And in 1998, the Grand Traverse became the “Grand Reverse” when 3 feet of snow barred safe passage through the high passes. Instead of calling the race, though, race organizers set a different course impromptu-style that even surpassed the regular route in distance.

“Every year, it’s another epic,” Runge said with a chuckle.

“There’s always something happening, but we always manage to pull it off.”

The field includes 24 Aspen-based teams and 30 Crested Butte/Gunnison-area teams. The Front Range, Breckenridge and Wyoming also have athletes in the field.

Mike Kloser and Dan Wieland of Vail, the 2003 men’s champs, will be back to defend their title, Runge said. The pair finished in 8 hours, 32 minutes last year, almost an hour ahead of the Crested Butte duo of Jimmy Faust and Pat O’Neil, the 1999 and 2000 victors, in 9:24.

One of only four women’s teams to finish last year, Crested Butticians Elizabeth Becker and Susan Sherman won the women’s title in 12:49. (The duo will not defend their crown together, Runge said, as Sherman is battling cancer.)

In the coed division last year, Aspen husband-and-wife duo Bob and Ruth Wade of the Ute Mountaineer took the title in 11:41. They will be back again this year.

Aspen brothers Andre and Pierre Wille have reportedly been training hard for the event, Runge said. “They’re going after it,” she said.

The 2001 and 2002 men’s champs, Dave Penny and Geo Bullock of Crested Butte, were not expected to be in the field, Runge said. However, the pair promised Runge they would forerun the course, instead.

Due to warm temperatures in the Butte, the start has been shifted for the first time in the history of the Traverse from Crested Butte High School to the ski resort, about a mile-and-a-half away. To make up for it, she said, the course will now climb higher on the resort’s slopes before it links up with Brush Creek north to the Friends Hut and Star Pass.

“We do have some pretty significant sections of mud, and the river crossing could be dicey – bring a beach towel. But once you get up to ‘Block and Tackle,’ it’s clear sailing all the way to Aspen on snow,” said Runge said, who flew over the course this week in a door-less airplane, dropping food and supplies at checkpoints.

“As far as avalanche danger, [the crews] are way comfortable right now,” she added. “The only thing that could make a difference is if we see a lot of new accumulation on top of this frozen surface.”


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