Elk Mountain Traverse Adventure!

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11 PM on Friday, March 30th was a raucous time at the base of Crested Butte Mountain. Half of the hundreds of people gathered were decked out in 80's garb, big hair and shiny pants glittering in the crescent moonlight, ready for what seemed to be the biggest party of the year. The other half of the people were wearing ski clothes – ranging from skin tight rando suits to ski pants and sweaters – getting ready to embark on a 40 mile, 7,000’ elevation gaining slog from Crested Butte to Aspen. This was the culmination of Dan and my winter – the reason we had pulled ourselves out of bed in the early hours of the morning in howling winds and negative temps to go skiing, the reason we had skied every chance we got, discovering hidden gems along the way (as an aside, this winter was the best ski winter ever, a direct result of signing up for this race).

I was nervous, but there wasn’t much time to dwell on it. As Dan fixed his pole seconds before the start, I shifted my weight uneasily from foot-to-foot. There was really no reason for me to be nervous – after all, we were going to be nowhere near the front of the pack, but it was a daunting task, all the same.

Before I had real time to work myself into a frenzy, we were going. The skin up Crested Butte Mountain was short, so short that Dan and I were confused when we got to the top and found, as we squinted through pale headlamp beams at the other racers, everybody ripping skins.

And then the nordic carnage began. On the way up, I had begun to doubt our decision to do this race on AT gear, as quite a few were on nordic touring gear, and easily passing us. However , on the downhill, a steep, icy chute down to the East River, nordic skis offered little control. Soon Dan and I found ourselves in a gripping decent, swerving around cursing racers caught in free falls down the slope. We must have passed 40 or 50 nordic skiers on this section, flailing on the snow like shot ducks on a lake.

And then the excitement came to an abrupt end as we all slammed into a crowd of people trying to funnel across the East River with a makeshift "bridge" – which was in reality a 50 foot plank -  over it, as the snowbridge had melted out. Dan and I sat down in line, pulled out our hiking shoes, and put those on instead of ski boots. We had miles of hiking ahead of us, thanks to the warm weather and dry winter, and hiking would be much easier on the feet in shoes than in ski boots.

Finally, we crossed the river, and were off into the night across a heinous sidehill of sagebrush.

The chaos continued as the terrain became more and more uneven, footing became hazardous, and people continued to try to pass each other. For a while, Dan and I found ourselves in the middle-lead of the pack, chatting with some girls who claimed to have seen us at the Power of Four (must have been at the very start), and a couple of Norwegians who surged past us, jabbering away in Norwegian. Dan sang part of the Norwegian national anthem as they passed, and they took it up as they continued.

The dark was disorienting, with what seemed like hundreds of headlamps bobbing through the dark. Then, I looked up and saw the outline of one of the racers taking his ski and throwing it, cussing.

I thought it was a bit early on to be having this type of temper tantrum, until I came upon what had so upset him. A creek, too wide for me to jump, and no make shift bridge. Everybody was throwing their things across and leaping after them – most landing in the creek as the did so. Dan and I threw our stuff across, one of my ski boots landing in the creek, and then attempted to jump across. I might as well have waded across, for all the good jumping did me.

On the other side, Dan and I changed into our ski boots again, me placing toe warmers on my wet socks, and being extremely thankful that the night was going to be a warm one.

As the night wore on, everything became more and more surreal. I found myself stumbling forward because forward was a direction I could understand. My skis sliding in front of me often doubled, my vision blurred. I found I thought I was wasting energy trying to keep my eyes focused, and ended up doing most of the skiing accepting that I just plain was not going to be seeing anything.

We reached Friends Hut at 5 AM, beating the cut off point by two hours. I was not doing so well, my vision sliding in and out of focus, my thoughts pretty much only capable of thinking “forward”. Looking up, I saw a range of headlamps trailing up and over Star Pass, and a trail of headlamps falling away down the mountain from Friends Hut.

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After a quick break, Dan and I threw our skis back on, but only for a bit, as before long, we were booting up the remaining elevation of Star Pass. Being much better at booting than skinning, I found myself feeling slightly relieved to be booting, something, that though difficult, I could do. We reached the top of Star Pass at 6:30 AM, in time to catch the faint beginnings of sunrise, traces of rich orange clouds highlighting and lowlighting the range of peaks in front, behind, and on all sides of us. A quick breakfast before the ski down, which was a glazed mess, and we were in the valley, where one of Dan’s friends had camped out, and was serving coffee to racers as they came down the mountain. It was a very random moment on the trail. The friend, Geo, was the person who taught Dan how to mountain bike twenty years ago in Vermont. Dan hadn't seen him in about a decade, and there he was, in the woods, with a crackling fire, making coffee for racers. It only added to the surreal nature of the event.

We stopped, and I changed my toe warmers (or so I thought, I was so delirious at the time that I actually just added toe warmers to my boots, rather than taking out the previous ones), and then headed on towards Taylor Pass. As dawn gave way to full blown daylight, I realized that the darkness had been a boon for me. In the intangible surrealness of darkness, I had not been aware of what my body was feeling, but it seemed as though the sun was casting my pain in light as well. As I noticed other racers getting a boost from the sun, I found myself slogging more and more.

I entered a world of exercise-induced nausea, fatigue, and grumpiness as the climb up Taylor’s Pass seemed to go on and on and on. And on and on and on. As the race had originally started as more of a nordic race, most of the climbs are gradual and slow, with Taylor Pass being the second worst of them all. When we finally reached Taylor Pass, we found Aspen ski patrol at the top, asking us how we were doing, and offering encouragement.  They directed us to the top of a peak, which required hiking up because there was no snow, and then, they said, we could ski the rest of the course. They told us it was 4.5 miles to Barnard Hut, another cut-off point, and then 7 to the top of Aspen. The 4.5 miles to Barnard Hut was enough to make Dan and I want to scream. Slight uphills, requiring skins, as it was too warm to wax, and slight downhills during which we got little to no rest, as it was a jumbled mess of ice, dirt and who-knows-what.

We were about to lose it, when we pulled off our skins one  last time, raced down a nice downhill, breezed around a courner and saw Barnard Hut. We skated in strong, receiving a second wind from the sight of a check point three hours before our cut-off time. We were required to take a 10 minute break at the hut, where we both drank a most awful electrolyte drink.

Then, it was back on with the skis, and on to the part I had been dreading – Richmond Ridge. During the Power of Four, I had hated Richmond Ridge, and it was no different now. The rolling hills from Taylor Pass to Barnard continued, a constant stream of skins on, skins off, skins on, skins off, until I found myself at one point skinning with tears on my face because I was so frustrated with everything. I was tired enough that I could not skate, but my will still wanted to go faster, so skinning made me angry at the slow pace.

After moments of my own temper tantrums, and slogging, and skins on and skins off, and one point where I think I remember I skinned through mud because I was too exhausted to take my skins off yet again, Dan and I finally stood at the top of Aspen Mountain. We had almost done it. A 3,000’ decent lay in front of us, and then we would be done.

And so we were off, me stopping to shake out my shaking legs as Dan waited patiently. It was the exact same decent from the Power of Four, and I knew it would hurt, but I knew I could do it. Turn, turn, turn, stop and shake. Repeat. Then there was the beconing finish banner.

As we neared the last roll, we saw two other racers waiting for us.  We had been leapfrogging with them for most of the course, but they had surged in front when I lost myself on Richmond Ridge. As soon as they saw Dan and myself, they turned and started racing down the last roll towards the finish line. Dan dropped into huge, arching GS turns, and I attempted my best slolom turns, not trusting my legs to GS. Dan and I crossed the finish line seconds in front of the other team, and we were all laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. A woman rushed over, hanging medals around our necks, hugging us, and telling us that we had the most exciting finish of all the racers so far.

A huge swell of satisfaction welled up inside me, and I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry or throw up, but I contented myself with the first two as the realization of it hit: we had finished the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse. It was a fantastic culmination of winter, and I was even pleasantly surprised when, at the awards ceremony, I won a prize – a CAMP avalanche shovel – for being the youngest competitor in the entire event.

If you'd asked us on Richmond Ridge if we wanted to do it again, we would have said "no way." But just a few hours after the race, we were already strategizing for next year. On Monday a guy brought a brouchure for the Five Peaks challenge in, a rando race in Breckenridge, and if we could find somebody to work our shift we absolutely would do it. It's weird – the endorphins from the race are addicting, and there is something so satisfying about going up mountains and skiing down them. The only thing better is doing it with somebody you love.

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2 thoughts on “Elk Mountain Traverse Adventure!

  1. Great recap – congrats on finishing that beast. Very similar experience – I did the GT ten years ago with my spouse (wife) of +/- a year in what was a year with lots of hiking on dirt (2002). My memories are much like yours – the dark climb to Friends (the relentless bobbing of LED headlamps all around you enough to make you barf); the endless rollers from Taylor Pass to the top of Aspen; finally making (fun) groomer turns to the finish. Also like you, we cursed ourselves for doing the race during much of it – but with a beer in hand at the finish, starting discussing the next time we’d do it. Well 2003 brought kid #1 – and 2005 brought kid #2 – 10 years later there is no way we could find time to train sufficiently…sadly, not sure when/if we’ll do the GT again. So if YOU have any thoughts of doing it again – make it happen soon – because then life happens, and the years fly by, and as close as you get to doing it again is reading the yearly results and others’ accounts of doing it. Take care and keep shredding it – a regular reader from Durango.

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