At midnight on March 23, 2018, my longtime friend Tom and I started the Grand Traverse, a 40-mile backcountry race that starts in Crested Butte, Colorado, and makes its way over Star Pass (among others) to finish in Aspen. This race has been on my bucket list for quite a while, so I was happy when Tom asked if I wanted to be his partner.
You register for this race approximately four months ahead, so you have plenty of time to fixate on all the details of the race. I really thrive on setting a challenging athletic goal and then figuring out how to accomplish it. For me, this doesn’t mean winning the event, but doing everything I can to finish and feel decent about how I did.
This race was kind of a challenge for me to wrap my brain around and prepare for because all the skiers use alpine touring gear, and I had never been in an AT event before this one. The mandatory gear list was enormous! Each competitor had to bring everything from an avalanche shovel, probe, and beacon to an emergency shelter, stove, and down pants. In my mind, I was envisioning a massive blizzard rolling in and having to survive out in the cold mountains for a night.
I never actually weighed my pack, but just to give you an idea of how much racers have to carry, the amount of fluid alone required at the start weighed 6.5 lbs. I even had Zach sew me a special shirt that could hold a water bladder in the front so I could distribute some of the weight off my back. I also bought a front food pack from Function Before Fashion, a small business in Crested Butte.
In the early stages of race prep, I mostly focused on overall fitness. I think the main reason I love to sign up for epically long suffer fests is because these events give me the motivation to get out the door, even when I should be at home working, cleaning, or doing something more productive. As my training progressed, I really started to stress about the gear list and what the race would actually be like.
In August, I finished the Leadville 100 MTB race in 10:04 (which I was very happy about). But that race coincided with our off season, and I had gone out to Colorado several weeks before to acclimatize. I had also either biked or driven most of the course ahead of time. For the Grand Traverse, I was going out just two days before the race, and we had recently finished up our busy season, which usually means working seven days a week, 10+ hours a day, from September on.
As the race drew closer, I started to spend a lot of time scouring the internet for information about the race course to try to get an idea of what I was getting into. I found some helpful articles with low-resolution maps of the course as well as some YouTube videos of previous races.
Probably the most helpful information came from a series of YouTube videos made by Team CB. These videos had a lot of tips about the Grand Traverse itself and what ski mountaineering folks do for training and during the race. They also had an episode dedicated to the gear and food they brought along. It seemed a little crazy to me because they had everything from a Lycra race suit and these little glove covers to a wind poncho that came out of their very small pack and wrapped around them when they needed it.
I wasn’t really sure how my partner and I would fare with our relative speeds, and our goal was to finish, not necessarily place. So I was more concerned about being warm enough and not looking like a total tool with a lot of this super specialized gear.
But I did end up buying the lightest allowable air mattress and two-person emergency shelter. I also bought a lightweight pack from Patagonia that would fit all my gear. In retrospect, I think I planned pretty well but can definitely see how some of the specialized gear would have been helpful. Dynafit in particular makes some amazing shirts and pants to hold a variety of items, such as skins and flexible water carriers. I would definitely consider these items if I were to do this event again.
The day of the race was quite crazy and a bit trying. The race doesn’t start until midnight because of avalanche danger, so you need to sit tight for a very long time. This year, race day also coincided with a fairly significant wet weather event, which dumped snow and rain all day long in Crested Butte, and up to 2 feet of snow up high. As a result, the organizers had to change the course to a Grand Reverse, a route that starts and finishes in Crested Butte.
Some claim this is a harder course, but I can’t really weigh in because I’ve never done the route from Crested Butte to Aspen. The organizers did say a large part of the course in and around Crested Butte would have to be on foot because of low snow. I was a little concerned about this because I have a bum knee, so I packed some extra Advil and running shoes, just in case. My knee has rarely totally stopped working for me, so I was pretty confident I could make it.
The race started at midnight, and we were very fortunate to have clear skies and relatively warm temperatures by then. (I think it was about 26F at the start.) We started out fairly conservatively up the first hill, up and over the Crested Butte Mountain resort.
After the first steep pitch, the course became a lot more gradual. We plugged along at a pretty decent pace until the top of the course where we removed our full skins. At that point, we descended the backside of Crested Butte mountain. There were a few sections of pretty steep alpine terrain along with a good section of flat terrain where skating without skins was the preferred method. I was sort of surprised by how slowly a lot of the AT skiers skated. I guess it helps to be a Nordic skier!
Once we got down to the valley below, everyone was kind of bunched up in a small area putting on skins again. Tom and I were separated for a little while, so we didn’t get to talk about which skins to put on. We had specifically cut down the width of the skins to increase speed. Fortunately, we both put on the wider, ¾-length race skins made by Pomoca and Dynafit.
At this point, the course follows the river valley down to the start of the Star Pass climb. It ended up being a little rollier than I expected, and the skinning track was only one pair of skis wide, with really punchy pole tracks. It was very hard to pass in this section, so we basically just got in line and went at a conservative pace. Near the start of Star Pass, there were some pretty lean snow sections.
We also ran into a couple stream crossings. Based on information from the event Facebook feed ahead of time, we were pretty sure that we would be crossing the streams in our boots. Fortunately, there was a small snow bridge at all locations, so our feet remained dry.
Once we started up to Star Pass, I started to get excited. The field began to spread out a bit, and the course seemed way more gradual than I was expecting. We plugged along really well until the 12-mile point. At this point, Tom’s heart rate was good (around 150 bpm), but it seemed like he was starting to get tired. We slowed down a little, but by 15 miles in, he was hitting a wall and stopping every couple minutes to lean over his poles.
Tom is a former Marine Cobra helicopter pilot and was a Division I collegiate cross-country ski racer. Unfortunately, his very impressive background worked against him this time around because I think he took it for granted that he would be able to finish the race without a lot of training leading up to it.
We kept going up the Pass and hoped to get to the next checkpoint so we could come up with a plan. The location of the next checkpoint wasn’t incredibly clear to us, so we just kept slogging along. I believe the next checkpoint came at about 17 miles into the race, right below Star Pass. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a fire, snowmobiles, or anything else to indicate where it was, and the sun still wasn’t up. The temp was probably in the single digits as well, so we didn’t want to hang around too long. We checked in with the staff and told them we were going to head back down.
I was hoping the descent would give Tom a little rest and rejuvenate him somewhat, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. The descent ended up being fairly technical from all the new snow. By the time we were going down, the descent was fairly narrow, and it was windy out. Tom had to stop a bunch just to catch his breath. And then his legs started cramping.
It took us ages to get back down to Brush Creek, and there was so much more terrain on the way down than I had remembered coming up. By this point, Tom was really hurting. The sun still wasn’t hitting us yet, so I just tried to keep him moving and reminded him to keep eating and drinking.
We finally made it back to Brush Creek, where I figured we would get to an aid station or at least be able to take a solid rest in the sun. When we finally were able to take that break, it was clear my partner was finished. Before I could even jerry-rig a tow system, he had called for help. We waited for about half an hour before a volunteer on a snowmobile arrived and drove Tom to the nearest aid station, which was about 2 miles away. When I got there after skiing back, he seemed relieved and planned to catch a ride back to the start/finish area.
Since he seemed safe and relatively fine, I asked the officials if it was OK to finish the race unofficially on my own. They were very supportive (and more importantly so was my partner, so I headed off). The last 7.5 miles or so were mostly walking or hiking on roads and mountain bike trails. I crossed the line in just under 12 hours.
In retrospect, it’s really hard to put the Grand Traverse into words. It is obviously a very difficult athletic pursuit, and it takes a lifestyle of winter outdoor fanaticism to make it seem easy. All the super slick gear now seems like a good idea, but it’s also a good idea to train a lot with your partner, so you know your paces will be similar. Also, the list of required gear is extensive, so every place you can shave weight is really critical.
As long as the weather is stable, it is sort of like racing a very long XC ski race, and the gear you need is very similar to what you would want in a similar circumstance. (Also, if you are using XC ski poles, put on the biggest poles baskets you have!)
I want to thank the Grand Traverse race organizers and volunteers for putting on such a great event and for making the hard decision to change the course at last minute so the race would be doable and safe.
I also want to thank Tom for giving it his all and staying stoic, even when he was clearly hurting and not feeling well – and for forgiving me after the fact if I pushed him too hard to continue as long as he did. (Some tears and a bloody ass from chafing are a testament to his suffering!) Last, but definitely not least, thank you to my friends, family, and Tom’s fiancée Lilli for putting up with us and supporting us in our quest for punishment.