the 2016 elk mountains grand traverse

by bran

march - 2016
elk mountains, colorado

the elk mountains grand traverse is the oldest and perhaps most famous ski mountaineering race in north america.  the race is based on the historical route used to deliver mail between the then mining towns (now ski resorts) of crested butte and aspen.  in the winter, travel between these towns requires almost two hundred miles of driving.  as the crow flies and as the skier skis the distance is only 40 miles.  the route travels over the heart of the elk mountains via some truly amazing alpine terrain, demanding many difficult climbs and descents.  

the race requires a two person team, and is rather strict about the team aspect of the race.  because equipment failure, injury, and navigation issues are par for the course on such a long, technical, and night-bound race, the rules stipulate that you remain together with your partner at all times.  this rule is enforced at a half dozen or so bonfire-side checkpoints along the route. for this race, I would have the perfect partner in my dad, Guy.  his love of ultramarathon running and long distance cycling, my love of mountaineering and backcountry travel, and our shared love of skiing meant the race's physical requirements would fall somewhere between our separate interests and skill levels.  

dad finishing up a climb high on vail pass. just one of dozens and dozens of grand traverse training days.

with the registration complete and the team decided, my dad and I began training in earnest when I arrived in colorado in early january.  we hammered out uphill laps at our local ski area, arapahoe basin.  we slogged out long days touring at backyard backcountry stomping grounds, vail pass and mayflower gulch.  we competed in small ski mountaineering races at the local resorts, breckenridge and a-basin.  we nerded out endlessly about every nuance of the race's technical aspects: gear, navigation, and transitions.

at the pre-race gear check. because of the difficult nature of the race, we were required to carry specific gear to survive up to 24 hours marooned at extreme temperature and altitude.

the day before the race, bnna and I drove to the starting location, crested butte, where we would meet up with my mom and dad.  the atmosphere in the town was festive and buzzing with nervous energy.  racers from points near and far filled every cafe and restaurant, and were conspicuous on the streets with their obligatory lightweight running shoes and bright technical jackets.  the pre-race gear checks, safety meetings, meals, and nervous failed attempts at napping went by in a blur.    

racers gathering for a pre-race meeting

at 11:50pm hundreds of racers stood under an inflatable arch at the base of crested butte mountain resort.  a guy in a bishop costume recited a traditional amusing prayer about the race.  a countdown began.  midnight struck.  fireworks rocketed into the air.  the race was on.  

racers gathering for the start

the first mile of the race was absolute chaos with hundreds of headlamps surging up the groomer at the center of the resort.  this would be the only groomed terrain for the next 35 miles.  in the chaos of racers jockeying for position in the first transition my dad and I lost sight of each other in the dark.  fortunately we had a plan prepared for this occurrence.  we knew the first downhill ended at a creek crossing, so we planned to wait for each other on the left side of the trail at this junction.  after some difficult skating on rolling terrain, I savored the last of the groomed trail, carving giant slalom turns down the steep track to the meet-up point.  up the drainage a half mile or so, I could see the front-runners sprinting uphill, their headlamps bobbing up and down.

about 30 people were at the creek crossing, navigating a tricky roll.  I aimed left.  "Guy!" I hollered at the bunch of headlamps.  no reply.  I shouted again.  nothing.  for the first five minutes of waiting, I assumed he had maybe tripped up during the skating section, or perhaps he crossed his tips on the first descent.  after 10 minutes, I figured something else must have gone on.  there was a transition point a quarter of a mile up, a cluster of headlamps where people were putting on their climbing skins to head up the drainage. perhaps he was waiting there instead of at the creek?  at a full sprint I headed up to the transition point, shouting "Guy!" at the top of my lungs ever minute or so to see if any of the headlamps would turn my way.  

nothing.  no one was waiting at the transition, each team there was merely slapping the glue side of their climbing skins on the bases of their skis and heading off up the trail in a hurry.  I skated back to the creek crossing starting to feel desperate. dark thoughts began in earnest.  I was going to get disqualified from the race within the first hour.  my dad was in a twisted pile of skis somewhere on the first descent.  maybe he had experienced a massive equipment malfunction a mile back during the skating section.  this was bad, very bad.  the sense of dread of disqualification or worse was mounting.  all the training, all the money spent on gear, all the sacrifices made by bnna and my mom to enable us to pursue this silly goal, everything was starting a spiral descent down the toilet.  

I saw the very last pair of headlamps finishing the first downhill ski and heading for the creek.  as a last ditch effort, I headed in a sprint for the first checkpoint, maybe my dad was accidentally waiting there?  I knew there was no chance of him being allowed to pass thru the checkpoint without a partner, so finding him here seemed like truly the last chance to find him and continue the race.  the last 20 teams or so were passing thru the checkpoint.  they would shout their team number to the marshals to confirm they were together.  "124!", "23!", "19!", they shouted in unison, before getting permission to continue.  I found the first marshal.  

"has '63' passed thru this way?"  I asked desperately.  he checked his list.  "oh yeah, we figured his partner accidentally passed thru without being seen".  "FUCK!".  how was this possible?  my dad somehow had passed the creek crossing, the first transition, and the first checkpoint without regrouping!  I was frantic and furious.  he was somewhere ahead of me, 30 minutes ahead.  hundreds of racers had passed me.  I broke into a full spring, skiing as fast as I could uphill towards the endless stream of headlamps snaking up the drainage for miles.  I passed team after team.  redlining and on the edge of control.  45 minutes passed.  a bonfire appeared, the second checkpoint!  I came within shouting distance.  

racers regrouping at a bonfire checkpoint.


"Brian!".  the shout came from a headlamp by the bonfire.  we were back in business!

I couldn't stay mad at my dad for more than a minute or two, I was so flooded with relief that we wouldn't be disqualified, and we had work to do.  I was relieved to hear that despite spending twenty minutes or more frantically searching at the first creek crossing, we were sill on a good pace.  we put our heads down and passed team after team.  winding thru the forest, gaining elevation, heading for the star basin.  

heading up into the star basin, above treeline. the racers ahead are climbing to the high point.

because of extreme weather in the forecast and potential avalanche danger, the race would turn around at the star basin (rather than continuing as it traditionally does to finish in aspen).  after the turnaround, we would head back down the drainage we had climbed, before breaking off to tour up and down the mountains north of crested butte.  then would would do a traverse of the south side of mt. crested butte, before rejoining the resort to ski down to the finish.  


dad at the high point of the race, above the star basin.

dad at the high point of the race, above the star basin.

we made great time up to the star basin, where we would pass a checkpoint at the friends hut, continue up above treeline, reach our high point, rip off our climbing skins, and begin the long ski down in the direction of the resort.  our spirits were soaring as we passed teams above the friends hut.  we had been out for five hours, it was still completely dark out, with a faint full moon partially obscured by the clouds of the building storm.  we started down from the highpoint, skiing really fun fresh powder illuminated by the cones of our headlamps.  we dropped below treeline, slaloming between trees at speed.  the field was spread out now, so we navigated down the drainage on our own, enjoying the comparative comfort of downhill travel.  as we descended, daylight arrived.  

we began climbing again, heading up strand hill north of crested butte.  we were twenty-ish miles in and feeling great.  after passing a team, we found ourselves in a huge gap with no one behind or in front of us.  with no team to pace with, we set our pace as fast as we could muster, and charged uphill.  nearing the top of the hill, we had closed the gap and started passing again.  we cruised up the forested skin track, with huge snowflakes laying down a beautiful new coat on the trees.  it felt like we were flying!  yet another transition and we were zigzagging down a snow-covered jeep trail.  all the way down to a creek crossing and the last checkpoint.  

"5 more miles to go!" said a friendly volunteer at the checkpoint. it was around 8 in the morning.  we were 30 miles into the race.  we could see mt crested butte.  this was happening.  if we kept our shit together for two more hours we would finish, and in a respectable time!  

struggling up hill in the last half of the race

the traverse of the south side of mt crested butte started innocuously enough, but as the last handful of miles ticked by the real struggling began.  until this point the climbing had felt great, without any need to stop for a break.  now, the last steep climbs were battles.  the difficult uphills were compounded by low-tide conditions that necessitated dealing with exposed rocks, tree stumps, and roots.  to add to the challenge the climbs were punctuated by short but relatively steep descents.  the descents were short enough to not warrant transitioning, which meant skiing tight trees with skins on skis and unlocked boots.  descending in this manner is extremely fatiguing, so unlike the earlier long sustained descents, these offered no rest.  the south flank of mt crested butte crawled by at a snails pace.  I silently begged for each steep technical climb to be the last.  I finished the last of my slushy water.  the race continued.  

finally, at the top of the most difficult section yet, the course yielded.  we heard the sound of a ski lift.  we were back to the resort!  we joyfully ripped our skins at the top of the ski lift, and, with extremely wobbly legs carved down to the base area.  the finish line came into view.  bnna and my mom were there at the finish line cheering along with the rest of the crowd.  my dad and I matched our pace, joined our hands, and raised them together as we crossed the line.  

the intense relief, joy, fatigue, and gratitude for the moment was completely overwhelming.  my eyes were brimming with tears as we received hugs and kisses from our amazing support team.  months of training, planning, and preparing had come together to make an incredible moment.  an incredible experience.