Ski mountaineering field picks up speed

Dale Strode
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Susan Jackson/Special to The Aspen TimesBryan Mazaika and Alex Stevenson, of the Two Pinheads team, exchange high fives at the finish line Saturday in Aspen.

ASPEN – The conditions forecast slower times.

But the ski mountaineers had other ideas.

The participants in Saturday’s 16th annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen had to deal with a major section of breakable crust – post-holing on skis.

In spite of the slow, rotten snow, the overall finish times were comparable to last year.

“It shows how developed these athletes are,” said defending champion Bryan Wickenhauser, of Crested Butte. He finished fourth this year with partner Brian Smith.

Earlier this season, Wickenhauser and Smith teamed to finish second in the Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race in Aspen.

“It really shows, that on any given Saturday, anybody can beat anybody,” Wickenhauser said of the elite ski mountaineers who challenge to win on the regional race circuit.

“There’s good gear; people are doing great training,” Wickenhauser said, marveling at the increasing depth of field each year in the Grand Traverse.

“There’s always been high quality athletes in this, now there are just more and more,” said Grand Traverse ironman Pat O’Neill, of Crested Butte.

The most decorated Grand Traverse skier, with more podium finishes than anyone, finished eighth Saturday with partner Jesse Rikert.

“From the whole mountaineering scene, you can see it getting better,” said O’Neill, who will turn 49 next month.

“Like Marshall (Thomson) and Tom (Goth), they skied in Europe together as a team,” O’Neill said of Saturday’s winners, who also hail from Crested Butte.

“I finished second with Marshall last year. And I couldn’t have been more thrilled when I heard he was in the lead (this year),” said O’Neill, a three-time Grand Traverse winner.

He said partners are training better and training together, which is improving the performances in ski mountaineering races.

He and Rikert ran rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon as part of their preparation for the 2013 Grand Traverse.

“You do some cool things leading up to this with your partner,” O’Neill said.

Smith, who won the race last year with Wickenhauser, said the influx of talented ski mountaineers is elevating a sport he helped nurture from its infancy.

“The bar has been raised, big time,” Smith said. “There were five or six teams that had a real chance to win this race.”

Though disappointed with his team’s finish, Smith said he wasn’t disappointed with the team’s effort.

There are just more skiers going faster.

Even though the slog through the breakable crust outside of Crested Butte was a struggle, Smith said it also left him with an indelible visual memory.

“That was some of the most challenging snow conditions I’ve seen,” Smith said.

“But when everyone was all trained up, it was incredible to look back and see the line of headlamps. It was really cool.”


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