My friends, the Audi Power of Four ski mountaineering race took place last Saturday – and it went even better than I expected. My partner, Eric Henderson, and I clocked a time of 7:46:10, nearly an hour and a half shy of my 2015 time of 9:14:53.
Here’s how the grueling 10,000 feet of 24-mile climb unfolded.
After a 4 a.m. breakfast of scrambled eggs and rice, Hende and I picked up our GPS tracking units and went through the material check station at Snowmass’s Base Village. The temperature was an extremely cold degree when the shot rang out. We started flaying slowly, as expected, watching the panicked runners rushing along with the crowds, knowing that we would soon be bringing a few of these guys back.
Our engines gradually warmed up during the three-mile climb of Snowmass (see my GPS data and map here), and we followed the other Old GOAT teams (i.e. teams with a combined age 80 and over). Hende and I joked and chatted as I settled into easy breathing, then we ate our first fuel about 40 minutes later, an energy gel and some date scoops, and I started to feel like it was going to be a good day. Then, in an instant, that was no longer the case.
During the first transition, I tore the skins and pushed on the descent, but my skis did not move. I had skins on my skis while the skis were warm and kept them warm inside the lodge until just before departure. When I started skinning, the snow slid under the sides of my hides, melted and re-frozen. Now the ice was like Velcro in the soft powder that had fallen hours earlier.
I burned valuable energy going down a double pole when I should have been pulling ass, and the runners I had passed earlier passed me. I looked for rough areas in order to scrape the ice and move faster. I felt panicked – I had scuttled my run with a small but consequential oversight. Gradually, however, the skis began to slip and we gained time. Through the up-and-down backcountry terrain between Snowmass and Buttermilk, we caught and passed fellow Old GOATS (including Chris and Nick, editors of a little-known Sante Fe-based outdoor brochure), and when we got to the first big descent, down Buttermilk, we did what we do best: point them downhill.
We carried the speed of this descent across the snowy bridge over Maroon Creek, strapped skis to packs, and hiked Maroon Creek Road to the base of Aspen Highlands. By now our hands, faces and cores had warmed up and we ate more gels and balls to fuel us for the 4,300 foot ascent to 12,392 feet of Highland Peak. The last 700 feet to the summit is a mandatory hike on skis, and also an exercise in patience, as you must tactfully and politely pass members of the ski public, enjoying a leisurely walk to the top.
Highland Bowl is Colorado’s steepest, longest and most exciting entry terrain, and on Saturday it was blessed with 10 inches of fresh powder. Our thin, short, and light racing boards weren’t the ideal powder tools, but the downhill swoop was thrilling. After riding a short cat track at the bottom of the bowl, we entered the most terrifying part of the course – the Conga Trail, a steep, narrow mountain bike route.
Controlling the downhill speed and not hitting the trees and other riders are the trickiest parts here, but I managed with just two crashes – a record for me in my three Conga race runs in the last five years. Hende was using the brand new Salomon X-Alp ski which handled the challenges of the terrain admirably, and it was fun to watch him glide happily down the choppy forest trail.
Sixteen miles into the race, the Conga threw us down the infamous Midnight Mines Road, the mentally and physically crushing final climb of the race, where our friend Ian Anderson still sets up his legendary unofficial aid station, filled with crisps, whiskey and various sundries. After an obligatory shot and a kiss from my wife, we were off, pushing into a brutal five-mile climb up the back side of Aspen Mountain.
Midnight Mines Road is particularly difficult as you smell the barn, and going too hard here can send you into a spiral of depression induced by dehydration and calorie deficit. But Hende and I continued to chat with adjacent riders and smack ski-mo champion Sari Anderson’s famous date balls, and we eventually earned the summit and final transition to the top of the Aspen Gondola. (By the way, Sari won the women’s racing division in an incredible time of 6:35:24.)
As I mentioned in last week’s post, all you want at this point is to send in a gentle groomer to finish, but the course winds through steep off-road terrain that incinerates all the juice leg you have left. And where the crisp slopes of Bingo Glade empty out on the final stretch of groomed trail to the finish, I grabbed an edge and dove uncontrollably on my toes, snapping my left shoulder and head – helmeted, thankfully – in hard snow. , taking my breath away.
Adrenaline kicked in and I surged, knowing the finish line was a fraction of a mile away and a few hundred vertical feet downhill. I followed Hende, who kept looking at me with concern, and we pushed on to the finish, delighted to have finally finished. The arrival did not come without reward. For winning the Old GOAT division, we received silver goat head belt buckles. Overall, we finished 22nd out of 54 men’s teams (see results here).
Take-out? The training works. We completed the Alpine Training Center’s six-week fitness program and emerged in the shape needed to meet the challenges of the race. I regretted having impetuously declared at the start of our training that our goal was eight hours. But somehow – and I’m pretty sure it was about tackling Coach Connie’s well-designed program with a decent aerobic base and being blessed with patience of our families – we ran strong, joyfully and smashed our eight hour goal.
The icing fell on Sunday. I skied Aspen Highlands with my kids, did two rounds of bowl, and browsed a taco meal with old friends before hitting the road back. Tune in next week for my final post in this series, where I’ll cover our favorite ski mountaineering gear and tell you how to get started in this exciting sport.
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