After asking for several years, Eric was finally successful in talking me into signing up for the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse… a 40 miles ski race between Crested Butte and Aspen that starts at midnight and climbs up and over two mountain passes. It has to start at midnight to get everyone though the avy danger before the sun bakes the slopes, and the teams of two are required to carry enough gear and food to be able to spend 24 hours in the snow buried wilderness.
Throughout the winter we each got in some good long backcountry ski tours, though we were never able to match schedules to get out together. No worries though, we’ve done enough to know each other real well and having fun would be our top priority, as always. My biggest concern was blisters, as the breaking in process for my backcountry boots was a slow and painful one. Fortunately I had most of the required gear already and just needed to get a couple small things and borrow a couple others. Eric, on the other hand, now has a ton of new gear that he didn’t have previously!
Logistically this race is a pain in the ass. You’ve got to get there Thursday night for the early Friday check-in, and you’ve got to get a support person or transportation to/from Aspen the following day, then home. Fortunately, Stinger was up for an adventure and more than happy to come along to possibly ski and/or check out the bars in each town.
Eric, Stinger, and I met up in Denver Thursday evening and did the 3.5hr drive out to Gunnison where we had a hotel reserved. Friday morning we drove the 30 miles up to Crested Butte and found the place to register. There were skis and gear as far as the eyes could see, and a giant line of people waiting to check in. Right after getting in the end of the line we found out that we could skip ahead to the front if we had our COSAR cards with us. Eric had his fishing license (which includes the COSAR card) and I had my card that’s been in my wallet for 4 years and never taken out, sweet! Check-in was a breeze then we had to wait for the mandatory pre-race meeting, and then wait around for the mandatory gear-check. They said the course was in good shape, but the weather was not. You have to carry a ton of stuff for this race including avy gear, bivy sack, stove, food/water for 24hrs, and extra everything. Ends up our packs were around 25lbs each, Eric refused to carry my "30lb good luck rock". Back to the hotel in Gunnison to try to get some sleep, eat some dinner, and then head back up to the start. Of course, by the evening it was snowing pretty damn hard. Stinger’s buddy Mikey came up to Crested Butte to hang out for the weekend and they decided to get a slope-side suite and check out all the local bars.
Midnight approaches and I start getting nervous as the snow is not letting up and its wet heavy flakes since the temps were right on the border of freezing. A short bus ride and a walk to the Crested Butte School for the final avy beacon check, medical card check, and the midnight start. It’s obvious who the pro’s in this race are….. they’ve got tiny packs, everything super-lightweight, and some weird looking Terminator-esque ski suits! Stinger gave us the best drunken pep-talk that he could muster up and out we went to the start with 268 other racers. We couldn’t hear a word the race director was saying (bullhorn anyone?) and at the stroke of midnight the pack surged forward. We started, and stayed, at a pretty relaxed pace just trying to get the feel of things. Tiki torches light the way for the first several hundred yards and it didn’t take long for the pack to get pretty strung out. Plenty of teams passing us and we kept a slow and steady pace. From my skis being warm and the temps right around freezing, I had snow clumped up on my bases and wasn’t gliding at all. I went with BC skis with fish-scales while Eric went with wax-able skis. Once the course started climbing up Crested Butte ski area we put our skins on and the chilly wind was blasting any exposed skin. Traversing a slope while gradually climbing, through some trees then dropping down to the base of the ski area at the Silver Queen lift. We kept leap-frogging with the same teams and I was starting to think that E-Bomb (Eric decided we should call each other E-Bomb and J-Bomb the entire night) wasn’t quite feeling up to par. He’s an endurance animal and it’s typically me that’s crying for him to slow down while I wish for death, not tonight though.
A string of headlamps stretched for as far as we could see letting us know we had a loooong climb up one of the blue or green runs. Up and up and up forever, but a good groove and the wind wasn’t as bad in the trees. At the top as Eric was taking off his skins the metal clip on the front snapped in half. Not good. It was a fast and treacherous descent in fresh powder down to the backside of Crested Butte ski area. I wiped out three times coming up completely covered in snow each time. I got to witness a classic face plant performed by Eric down a steep short section followed by a sharp turn, sure beats hitting a tree though!
This put us down near the East River which we followed to Brush Creek Road. It was pretty peaceful and serene along this section. Some stars were coming out and the only sound was the crunching of snow below your skis. Eric got tangled up crossing a barbed wire fence and let out a good long string of kind words. Turning onto Brush Creek Road eventually and starting the long climb towards the Friends Hut. Things got interesting along here as the trail traversed a slope with a steep drop-off down into a river below. Being smart for once, we just took off our skis and walked this section. A couple stream crossing had snow bridges over them, but it didn’t take much for a pole to punch through and almost send us into a swim.
Eric was feeling worse and worse by the minute and it didn’t help that he had one skin on while his other ski was flailing all around when the wax wouldn’t grip. The first team to bail started skiing down the trail and we started to question whether or not we would make the 7am cutoff at Friends Hut. Given the pace we were going and the ~4 more miles to go, we weren’t going to make it. Seeing Eric this beat-up was torture too, since we’re usually laughing our way through pain and sleepless nights. Around 5am he made to executive decision to bail and turn around since nothing was getting better. This was about 13 miles into the course. Since there is no easy way out, we had to ski all the way back down Brush Creek Road. It was getting pretty chilly in the pre-dawn hour and of course, it seemed like there was as much uphill on the way down. Taking our skis off again for the treacherous crossing, I dropped one of my skis and figured it was take off at light speed down into the river. Luckily it stopped a few feet down and it was retrievable. The coolest part was seeing our headlamps reflecting on the snow behind the trees, making it look like every tree had Christmas lights on it.
Passing by the turn off back to Crested Butte Resort we figured we would ski out to the highway and hitchhike back to town. The first sign said 5 miles to go, D’oh! The sun was out now and our mood was much better swapping the usual “your mom” and “I banged your sister” jokes. After what seemed like hours, we got to the highway at 8:40am and a pickup truck was more than happy to take our sorry beaten asses back to town. Luckily Stinger was just waking up and after a beer and shower we were on our way out of town. While Eric and I nodded off most of the ride, we drove west then north through Carbondale to drop Eric off in Glenwood where he would meet his family. Stinger and I continued back to Denver then onto Colo Spgs for me, where I promptly feel asleep minutes after walking inside.
We ended up skiing 23.4miles and just under 3000ft. Hard to believe the top teams were close to finishing while we weren’t even close to halfway! I think I had the gear dialed-in (except have $2K worth of brand new lightweight AT skis/boots) and was already used to the cold, bad weather, and altitude. Would I try it again….. probably! I’m already thinking about next year and just wishing it wasn’t such a commitment or logistical nightmare.