Summit Daily photographer recounts spooky and thrilling ski mountaineering race on the Grand Traverse

The words of wisdom from my ski mountaineering race partner Doug Stenclik became important minutes in the Grand Traverse race on Saturday through the snowy backcountry between Crested Butte and Aspen.

“It’s okay when things go wrong in a race,” Doug told me. “It’s a miracle when everything is going well.

For me there were several things that didn’t go well during the run, which started at midnight and covered 37.25 miles via an alpine hiking excursion through the Elk Mountains. But that didn’t stop Doug and I to follow his advice and persevere through the obstacles, as he and I finally crossed the finish line in 16th place out of 188 two-person teams in total that finished the race.

To start with, there was the problem with my headlamp. Although I bought a brand new Black Diamond Storm headlamp just before the race that came with free Duracell batteries, the headlamp refused to stay on as I climbed the first gradual ascent of the groomed ski slopes of Mount Crested Butte. The conditions were very cold under a dark and partly cloudy sky. In fact, the conditions were so cold that, I had no idea that my race fuel in a Ziploc bag was freezing together.

My three Clif bars, Clif gels, two Snickers bars, and Honey Stinger waffles came together in a sphere the size of a frozen, stiff softball.

Again, in ski mountaineering races, conditions can often cripple even the best preparation. In this case, what got mutilated was that bag of snacks, as I had taken my food out of its prepackaged packaging before the race and put them all in one Ziploc bag, hoping to save time. during the race.

So my headlamp didn’t work at first and my food froze. But it didn’t stop there. My water supply, namely a 100 ounce CamelBak that I had filled with almost boiling water just before the start of the race, also froze.

Relive ‘Grande Traversée 2019’

Despite these setbacks and struggles, Doug and I maintained a solid pace throughout the first part of the race as he gave me an emergency headlamp to keep going. I started using it after finding Doug at the bottom of the back of Mount Crested Butte before venturing into the open prairie portion of the course. After passing 10,000 feet on the north flank of Mount Crested Butte, we bottomed out and ended up at 9,000 feet before beginning the long and gradual ascent of the Brush Creek drainage. We hit the 5 mile mark in under an hour, then hit the 10 mile mark in 2 hours and 10 minutes.

The 10 mile mark came just after crossing near Death Pass at 9,269 feet. Between Mount Crested Butte and Death Pass, I worked on having no water, gnawing at my frozen calorie scoop as best I could.

It was near Death Pass where some race organizers and support staff set up a row, perhaps 50 meters long, of Tibetan prayer flags that Grand Traverse runners skied across. The flags appeared to commemorate Owen Green and Michael Goerne, two skiers who died at a lower elevation near Death Pass in February while they were both training for the Grand Traverse.

In the darkness of Saturday morning, walking up Brush Creek, you could see signs of this winter’s avalanche conditions, such as debris from recent slide tracks, broken trees, or even smaller trees that remained. standing, but which were inclined towards the descent.

We reached the Upper Brush Creek checkpoint, Friends Hut, about a four hour run. Last year, this is where the Grand Traverse “Reverse” race turned around as conditions weren’t safe enough to continue on to Aspen.

It was at Brush Creek that I was able to fill my bottle with lukewarm water, rehydrating myself for the first time since the start of the race. Doug and I would reach the top of the Star Pass within an hour. It was here, above the tree line at 12,336 feet and 17.25 miles after the start of the race, when we skied what the race organizers warned us would be like an ice field.

It was actually on this east side of Star Pass that I found the best powder ski I have ever seen in a skimo race. The skiing situation was so surreal it almost felt like I was in a video game or on another planet. There was no sign of vegetation. It was nothing but white at 12,000 feet, cruising around the avalanche debris as if it were an obstacle course. The only thing we had to show each other were our own headlamps and strobe lights along the course. Heck, as we all ran in our figure-hugging astronaut-like racing suits, it felt like one of the most cosmic athletic experiences you could ever have.

But it was a race after all, so Doug and I kept our pace after the 1,000-foot ski descent before what was going to be the toughest parts of the race.

After hitting bottom at Taylor Basin, we had a climb of 512 feet ahead of us just as the sun was rising to get to Taylor Pass. And after Taylor Pass, the hardest part of the race was along the many highs and lows along the over 6 mile long Richmond Ridge.

Finally, after about eight hours, we reached the last highest point in Richmond Ridge. We then entered the limit of the Aspen Mountain ski resort at what is known as the “Sun Deck” at 11,264 feet and 34.25 miles after the start of the race. With just 3 more miles and 3,233 feet of vertical drop to cover, it was another part of the race where organizers honored Green and Goerne by handing out banana bread, a tribute to Green.

Nine hours, 16 minutes, and 11 seconds after starting our midnight run at Crested Butte, we skied to the base of Aspen Mountain in the downtown area of ​​the famous ski resort. There was only one hour, 53 minutes and 40 seconds behind the winning time of Colorado duo Cam Smith and Rory Kelly.

In the end, given the circumstances of the equipment failure, Doug and I were happy with our time. The reality is in ski mountaineering races, you really never know what to expect. Whether it’s a frozen food ball or a faulty headlamp, you need to be prepared for anything.