Summit Daily photographer recounts a chilling and thrilling Grand Traverse ski mountaineering race
My race partner Doug Stenclik’s words of ski mountaineering wisdom became important minutes into the Grand Traverse race Saturday through the snowy backcountry between Crested Butte and Aspen.
“It’s normal when things go wrong in a race,” Doug had told me. “It’s a miracle when everything goes well.”
For me, there were several things that didn’t go right during the race, which began at midnight and covered 37.25 miles via an alpine touring excursion across the Elk Mountains. But that didn’t stop Doug and me from following his advice and persisting through the hurdles, as he and I eventually crossed the finish line in 16th place out of 188 total two-person teams.
To start, there was the issue of my headlamp. Though I had purchased a brand-new Black Diamond Storm headlamp just before the race, one that came with free Duracell batteries, the headlamp refused to stay lit as I climbed the gradual first ascent up Mount Crested Butte’s groomed ski resort trails. The conditions were very cold under the dim, partly cloudy skies. In fact, conditions were so cold that, little did I know, my fuel for the race within a Ziploc bag was in the process of freezing together.
Blobbed together into a sphere the size of a frozen-stiff softball were my three Clif Bars, Clif gels, two Snickers bars and Honey Stinger waffles.
Again, in ski mountaineering races, the conditions can often mangle even the best of preparation. In this case, what was mangled was that bag of snacks, as I had taken my food out of their prepackaged wrapping before the race to put them all into the one Ziploc bag, hoping to save time during the race.
So my headlamp didn’t work at first and my food froze together. But it didn’t stop there. My water supply, namely a 100-ounce CamelBak I’d filled with near-boiling water just before the race began, also froze.
Despite these setbacks and difficulties, Doug and I kept a solid pace through the early portion of the race, as he gave me a backup headlamp to continue with. I began using it after I met back up with Doug at the bottom of the backside of Mount Crested Butte before we then ventured into the open-meadow portion of the course. After we had topped out above 10,000 feet on the north flank of Mount Crested Butte, we bottomed out and met up again at 9,000 feet before beginning the long, gradual climb up the Brush Creek drainage. We reached the 5-mile mark in less than an hour and then got to 10 miles at 2 hours and 10 minutes.
The 10-mile mark came just after traversing near Death Pass at 9,269 feet. Between Mount Crested Butte and Death Pass, I worked through not having water, gnawing at my frozen calorie ball as best I could.
It was near Death Pass where some race organizers and support staff set up a row, maybe 50 yards long, of Tibetan prayer flags that Grand Traverse racers skied through. The flags seemed to commemorate Owen Green and Michael Goerne, a pair of skiers who died at a lower-elevation location near Death Pass in February while both training for the Grand Traverse.
Through the darkness of early Saturday morning, while ascending up Brush Creek, you could see some signs of this winter’s avalanche conditions, such as debris from recent slide paths, broken trees or even smaller trees that remained standing yet were slanted downhill.
We reached the Upper Brush Creek checkpoint, Friends Hut, at just about four hours into the race. Last year, this is where the Grand Traverse “Reverse” race turned around, as conditions weren’t safe enough to continue through to Aspen.
It was at Brush Creek where I was able to fill up my water bottle with warm water, rehydrating for the first time since the race began. Doug and I would reach the top of Star Pass within the hour. It’s here, above tree line at 12,336 feet and 17.25 miles into the race, when we skied what race organizers had warned us would be like an ice field.
It was actually on this east side of Star Pass where I found the best powder skiing I’ve ever seen in a skimo race. The skiing situation was so surreal that it almost felt like I was in a video game or on a different planet. There were no signs of vegetation at all. It was nothing but white at 12,000 feet, navigating around the avalanche debris as if it were an obstacle course. The only thing we had to show us the way were our own headlamps and the strobe lights along the course. Heck, as we all raced in our astronaut-like, skin-tight race suits, it felt like one of the most cosmic sporting experiences you could enjoy.
But this was a race after all, so Doug and I kept our pace after the 1,000-foot ski descent before what would prove to be the toughest parts of the race.
After we bottomed out at Taylor Basin, we had a 512-foot climb in front of us right around the time the sun was coming up to get to Taylor Pass. And after Taylor Pass, the toughest part of the race came during the several high and low points along the 6-plus-mile Richmond Ridge.
Eventually, after about eight hours, we reached the final high point on Richmond Ridge. We then entered the Aspen Mountain ski resort boundary at the Sundeck at 11,264 feet and 34.25 miles into the race. With just 3 more miles and 3,233 feet of elevation loss to go, this was another location in the race where organizers honored Green and Goerne by handing out banana bread, an homage to Green.
Nine hours, 16 minutes and 11 seconds after our race began at midnight in Crested Butte, we skied to the bottom of Aspen Mountain in the famous ski town’s downtown. It was just 1 hour, 53 minutes and 40 seconds behind the winning time of Colorado duo Cam Smith and Rory Kelly.
In the end, given the circumstances of equipment failure, Doug and I were content with our time. The reality is in ski-mountaineering racing, you truly never know what is in store for you. Whether it be a frozen food ball or a malfunctioning headlamp, you need to be ready for everything.
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