You’re 17 miles in — almost midway. A heat glow is simply barely creeping over the icy japanese horizon, and 1,200 vertical ft of snowboarding lie in entrance of you.
Take pleasure in it. As a result of it’s the very best snowboarding you’ll get in the course of the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse.
By this level, on high of Star Go, you’ve been sweating in below-freezing temperatures for the reason that race began at midnight. You and your teammate have been skinning at the hours of darkness. Blisters and fatigue are setting in. Your headlamp’s battery is beginning to run low and your water could also be frozen.
However for a couple of moments on high of Star Go, there’s peace. You’ll make it to Aspen.
The Elk Mountains Grand Traverse has been pushing athletes’ ft and our bodies to absolutely the breaking level since 1998. It’s the hardest point-to-point ski race in North America. It’s a self-supported backcountry ski journey that begins on the base of Crested Butte, Colo., and finishes 40 miles away on the backside of Aspen Mountain.
What lies between these two factors is a blur to most racers. In actuality, it’s a crossing of the Elk Mountains demanding almost 8,000 ft of vertical acquire as much as a excessive level of over 12,400 ft.
Limitless undulations and transitions, from the Brush Creek drainage to Taylor Flats to Richmond Ridge, push the boundaries of racers’ bodily, psychological, and emotional capability. Gear’s limitations are examined and infrequently exceeded.
If the wintertime masochism wasn’t sufficient, Crested Butte Nordic, the occasion organizer and nonprofit beneficiary, expanded the traverse in 2014 to a summertime back-to-back run and bike of the identical route. The three-race sequence, when accomplished in a single 12 months, is called the “Triple Crown,” the last word mountain athlete’s trifecta. Nikki LaRochelle holds the 2022 crown. And he or she’s out to defend it with a 2023 ski race win below her belt.
My ski companion, Clayton, and I took a stab on the twenty fifth annual Grand Traverse this 12 months; his first and my third. The primary installment of a Triple Crown endeavor after finishing the winter and summer time legs in several years.
Getting ready for the Traverse: Gear and Technique
In some methods, the ready and anticipation are the toughest components in regards to the ski. 5 days out and the situations have been sketchy at greatest — appreciable avalanche hazard, with one other 10-12 inches within the forecast. The protection groups winter camp alongside the course the previous week — they’re those who need to make the decision if the snowpack is secure sufficient to ship all 400 racers by. If it’s not, that might imply a heartbreaking “reverse” or cancellation altogether.
That might imply that months of coaching and equipment prep have been for naught.
I checked out our gear unfold neatly throughout the ground. Immaculate group and preparation are required to make it by to Aspen. Your water goes to freeze. The climate will most likely be excessive. Your skins will probably cease sticking to your skis sooner or later. One thing will break. You should be ready to get you and your companion to the end line.
The highest racers go ultralight. Not a gram of extra weight of their packs or on their ft. Each counts once you’re pushing for the entrance of the pack and a sub-7-hour time. For a lot of the racers on the market, it’s not in regards to the time. It’s about surviving all 40 miles.
The highest rivals are well-known within the skimo world. Cam Smith, 11-time US Nationwide Skimo Champion and world cup challenger, frequents the highest step and persistently nudges the document end time decrease, together with an eye-watering 6:06:24 in 2021. Smith was out for harm this 12 months, so the highest podium step was up for grabs by one other pair of skimo prodigies.
The elite racers, usually sponsored, are kitted in state-of-the-art, hand-crafted skimo gear. Specialised skinsuits, minimalist carbon fiber race boots just like the La Sportiva Stratos V, and light-weight skis that simply barely meet the minimal dimension necessities of the Worldwide Ski Mountaineering Federation — just like the Dynafit DNA Professional at a scant 690 g per ski — are normal equipment.
For different racers simply hoping to complete, it’s an amalgamation of typical backcountry snowboarding, telemark, or Nordic methods with few alternatives for weight financial savings. They’ve proved again and again that you simply don’t want light-weight gear to ship the Grand Traverse — so long as you’re prepared to endure.
Our crew’s equipment? Someplace within the center. I selected my La Sportiva Skorpius CR II boot — overkill by way of energy, however its consolation and heel lock is hard to beat. For skis, I selected the Black Crows Mentis, an 80mm underfoot ski mountaineering ski simply shy of 1kg.
Dialing in your equipment is the primary hurdle. The obligatory gear listing is in depth and unwavering. Earlier than you get the inexperienced mild to race, you first should current your crew’s equipment to a race official. Every thing will get laid out and inspected. Three ft of baling wire? Further pair of skins? Sleeping pads with an R-value of not less than 2? Don’t overlook the puffy pants — something much less gained’t suffice.
Clayton and I poured over the gear listing the week main into the race. Water technique is among the make-or-breaks for newer groups — 100 ounces per individual is required to start out the race, as there’s no assure of water at checkpoints. The trick is making it accessible so that you’re not pulling it out of your pack to sip, whereas additionally preserving it from freezing.
Most years, the route is lots chilly to freeze your water strong. Hydration bladder hoses will freeze except you’ve bought a method — preserve it near your physique and blow the water again into the reservoir after every sip. Neglect as soon as, and also you’ll be carrying kilos of inaccessible water or ice each final mile.
I relied on a bladder with a 6-inch cut-down hose stashed in a home-sewn pocket on the chest of my base layer. I had a smaller Nalgene wide-mouth mounted to my shoulder strap and a full-size bottle in my pack — each saved the other way up so the lids don’t freeze — inside a pair of insulating socks.
Skins are the opposite piece of drugs certain to fail. You’re required to hold 4 pairs per crew. However even the gram-counting medal contenders contemplate a fifth. You find yourself transitioning loads over 40 miles. Rotating and preserving them heat is crucial.
There are sections the place a significant pores and skin slip might ship you tumbling. Each downside you could remedy out there’s time and power wasted.
The Grand Traverse Skimo Race
It’s much less of a beginning line than a mob of anxious skiers standing within the chilly prepared to start out transferring. All 400 racers, roughly 200 groups of two, collect on the base of Crested Butte resort pointed uphill. Headlamps click on on. Frozen breath and nervous heckles abound.
I scanned my equipment one final time — after all, I made two or three last-minute changes.
A neighborhood reverend reads “The Blessing of the Freeheelers,” as is custom.
“… Go ye with resolve that thy coaching was adequate. Making all thy pole crops, kick, and glide best. With the urging of Ullr, son of Thor by thy facet. Might ye be discovered worthy for thy perseverance shall be tried. Take coronary heart for this blessing accompanies thee on thy route. Now let the racers affirm thus with an amazing Grand Traverse shout!”
The gun fires and the beginning line dash commences as groups vie for pores and skin observe place. It’s 1.3 miles uphill to the primary transition. Rip skins and begin skating towards a couple of icy descents and infamous rollers to clear the resort boundary. By mile 4, you’ve made it to the backcountry, and it’s time to stay the skins again on for the following 13 miles.
Within the Thick of It
The checkpoint cutoffs aren’t beneficiant. A gear malfunction or blister mitigation break is all that it takes to knock out groups yearly. The course is basically two sections: earlier than Star Go and after Star Go. Racers have till 7 a.m. on the dot to make it 17 miles and climb 5,000 vertical ft or they get circled to self-extricate. No exceptions.
From there, it’s one other 23 miles and a couple of,000 vertical ft of limitless rolling wind-exposed alpine terrain to the highest of Aspen Mountain on the northeast facet of the Elk Mountains till one remaining wonderful resort descent with no matter your legs have left.
The final checkpoint of the Grand Traverse, Barnard Hut, appears like a lure. The arguably hardest 7 miles lie forward. However the siren music of sizzling ramen soup and basking within the morning daylight lures cautious racers to sit down and relaxation. Linger too lengthy, or sit in any respect, and your joints and muscular tissues may lock up from fatigue. It’s greatest to push previous it.
In any given 12 months, 10-20% of groups DNF. Of people who do end, occasions vary from 6:06, the present course document, to over 18 hours. Regardless, finishers are greeted with a cheering crowd and a sizzling meal on the base of Aspen Mountain. There’s no sweeter reduction than eradicating these boots — irrespective of how effectively they match — after a protracted night time within the ache cave.
That finish-line beer hits completely different once you haven’t slept in 24 hours.
The Grand Traverse Run
As your common maybe-top-third athlete, I’ve a tough time describing which is “more durable” — the Grand Traverse ski or the run. Each damage in a Kind III enjoyable sort of method.
The place the ski race’s issue lies within the technical problem, ski touring abilities, and equipment technique, the run is extra like a typical — albeit extremely technical — path working ultramarathon.
Racers are confronted with 40 miles of rocky trails and 7K vert. A lot of it’s above treeline, in no matter situations late summer time brings. Smoky, scorching, or dumping rain are all inside the realm of chance.
The path has a few of all the pieces; loads of filth roads and doubletrack, but additionally ankle-snapping rutted singletrack and rocky descents.
The gear technique is minimalist in comparison with the ski portion given the help stations sprinkled (calmly) all through the course. The required gear listing is three easy gadgets — a water-proof shell with a hood, heat gloves, and a heat hat or buff.
You should carry sufficient water and diet to get to the following one, about 5 to 10 miles. Most racers, even the quickest on the course, put on some sort of light-weight working vest that carries comfortable water flasks on the shoulder straps.
Apart from that, racers are inspired to hold thermal layers, an emergency blanket, and a headlamp. As with the ski portion, the highest racers are carrying the naked necessities. I, however, tossed in an additional pair of socks, a solar hoodie, additional leukotape, and a burrito (I work more durable for a meal I don’t must squeeze out of a tube).
The make-or-break for the run? Footwear. The incorrect sneakers will finish your day slowly and painfully. And it’s not a very straightforward resolution.
I had been waffling between my two favourite path sneakers earlier than the race — the La Sportiva Jackal and the La Sportiva Mutant. The Jackal is plush, roomy, and comfy. The Mutant is stiff, aggressive, and protecting. Go too comfortable on footwear and the rocky alpine zones will eat your ft. Go too stiff and your joints will take the brunt of the limitless impacts.
Each racer finally makes their very own name knowledgeable by their coaching. I selected the Mutant and solely cried as soon as.
The Grand Traverse Bike Race
The Grand Traverse bike race isn’t any cakewalk. Racers delight in vital mechanical benefit. However the trials are technical. Mechanical malfunctions and crashes are larger consequence than the opposite two races. Bonking (aka blood sugar depletion) is extra frequent with the punchy nature of climbs and the high-intensity effort required to muscle a motorbike up technical terrain.
However the mechanical benefit means much less time on the course. 4 to 9 hours is the standard vary. For the run, it’s between Cam Smith’s course document of 5:57:49 to 14 hours — much less time being overwhelmed down by the weather.
However right here’s the kicker: The run and bike are back-to-back. So these on the lookout for a triple crown end, or perhaps a dual-sport end, begin the bike race totally depleted from an ultra-marathon the day earlier than.
I awakened the day of the race to a pair of ft that had swelled a full dimension in a single day. Seven of 10 toenails have been black and one was oozing. I scrambled to borrow a pal’s a lot bigger bike sneakers earlier than stumbling to the beginning line.
The required gear listing is similar because the run. However bikes are susceptible to mechanicals, and meaning most racers carry additional equipment. A tube, multitool, and pump are in regards to the minimal you will get away with.
The highest racers pilot light-weight cross-country dream machines. The remainder of the pack, as with the ski portion, crosses the Elks on all kinds of setups, from light-weight hardtails to burly enduro rigs.
I discovered myself on the far finish of the spectrum this time round. And never the tip you’d need for this race. My trusty Transition Sentinel bought the nod by advantage of my proudly owning a single mountain bike. I can guarantee you that 35 kilos of hard-hitting aluminum rolling on meaty dual-ply Maxxis Minion tires was overkill by an order of magnitude.
It was mild sufficient to complete, not less than.
Conquering the Crown
The Grand Traverse races are not any completely different than different ultra-distance endeavors. The months of coaching and psychological preparation, the limitless lonely miles, and preventing by accidents is the toughest half. When you’ve made it to the beginning line — ski, run, or bike — it’s all execution.
Sure, the physique will damage. And self-doubt will creep in. Your gear technique will crumble and your ft will burst. Pulling every Grand Traverse race off, a lot much less in the identical calendar 12 months, is hard. However that’s what makes it value it. It’s what makes the Grand Traverse Triple Crown a preeminent mountain multisport, multiseason problem.
Heed thy Reverend’s blessing, “… The spirit soars above thee as an eagle on the wing. Comforting thy torment and tempering its sting. Summon all thy vigilance and put together to depart. For this epic competitors would require all thou artwork.”
The Grand Traverse is made potential by help from Montane, Dynafit, Pomoca, Cripple Creek Backcountry, CAMP USA, Pinnacle Orthopedics, Crested Butte Mountain Resort, and Aspen Ski Co.