Posted on March 03 2014
Looking at the forecast late Friday night all I could think was “is there anything worse than racing for 6 hours in a blizzard with winds over 40 mph?” At 4am when my alarm went off and I look outside the answer was obvious that “yes, pouring rain would be worse”. Thankfully as we took a left onto the road towards Snowmass the pouring rain gave way to giant wet white snowflakes.
This year’s Audi sponsored Power of Four Skimo Race was record setting. 111 teams of two for a total of 222 racers made it the largest North American skimo race to date. At 6:00 am, 160 of those competitors were huddle inside the race checkin on a half our delay as ski patrollers worked in the dark snowy hours of the morning to get the course safe. The Power of 4 is also the hardest race in North America, with a course of almost 12,000 vertical feet and over 26 miles, and looking at the snow coming down outside it was going to be a really long and wet race.
The race begins on what is usually a drag race up a groomer to far skier’s left of Snowmass Mountain. With 6 inches of new snow already piled up on what was a groomed run the racers were funneled into a side by side skin track that eventually gave way into a long single track precession to the top of Burnt Mountain. Minutes into the race the first weather related difficulties were already apparent as the wet snow began glopping up on many pairs of skins. It is never a good sign when you are switching skins 10 minutes into a race, but as the racers entered the first downhill ski the new powder became worth the mess.
The second phase of the race covers a ridge of true backcountry between Snowmass and Buttermilk. Although the steep pitch is very short, the entire traverse is my favorite part of the course. Full single track skinning louge course style skiing through tight trees and variety of side stepping, heron boning and furious poling, lead you to the top and then to an extremely fast decent of Buttermilk.
The descent of Buttermilk is a fast groomer every year except this one as the new snow became increasingly sloppy as the elevation dropped. Ridding my tails as hard as I could and constantly gaining speed, I narrowly escaped this section without facing planting with the dozens of other racers that weren’t so lucky.
The snow blanketed the bike path from Buttermilk to the base of Highlands. Usually much of this course has to be jogged, but this year it was able to be skated at the cost of your base and edges in the thin snow. As we started to climb Thunderbowl, an incredibly long and steep pitch up Highlands, the field started to thin out. Marshall Thomson and Scott Simmons lead the field and this was the last time I was able to spot the leaders as they were obscured by the 30+ teams in the Short Course Division that just began their race.
The creak to peak of Highlands Mountain is an intimidating climb with well over 4000 vertical feet of climbing. Although most of this section is on a groomer their was some interesting single track and kick turns in the middle section up Wine Ridge.
To the base of the bowl the weather had only been a small nuisance, but as the boot pack began conditions got real. I have been to the top of the bowl a hundred times and I have never seen conditions so heinous. The wind literally knock me to my knees several times and the visibility was so bad you could not see the footprints of racers that pass there just moments before. Mike Hagen actually walked off the edge of the ridge and had to be helped back up a vertical wall of snow. I have been on the summit of many peaks and I have never been in wind that bad and sustained, but that might be the lycra suit talking. When I caught up to my partner Brian he told me he was certain they would call that section of the race.
For the teams that made it to the top they were greeted by a back filled bowl of incredible snow and surprisingly good visibility. Powder skiing on super skinny skis is actually quite fun when you have a pitch as steep as Highlands Bowl to keep you moving. As fun as the turns were, I don’t believe I have ever set off slough slides that large inbounds and the skiing had a true backcountry feel.
At the transition at the base of temerity we saw other teams there that had been turned around at the base of the boot pack and it was clear we had just made it through. On the verge of hypothermia, but excited that we had survived we began a the short climb to the top of the Congo Trail, a single track mountain biking trail known to be a heinous ski decent. Being one of the first few teams through the skiing was soft and even powdering. If you are towards the back of the pack i have no doubt the skiing is icy and heroic once 200+ skiers have been funneled through it.
Reaching the bottom of the Congo Trail puts you at the junction of Castle Creek Road and Midnight Mine Road, an old dirt road that slowly meanders its way to the top of the Ajax from the back side. The base of the road is fully functional through the year and would be a melted out jog in ski boots if not for the new snow. This year it was a tuck to a transition and the best aid station I have been to in a skimo race. Ava Hagen and her daughter were there with the help of Ian Anderson, passing out everything from Coke to Whiskey shots. This is just the kind of courage I needed to take on Midnight Mine, a climb of well over 3000 vertical feet, but is worse is the 6 miles it takes to get to the top. There is no way around it, this could be the most arduous climb in any race in North America. All I would tell myself, is this is a beautiful tour through the woods and someday it will end.
When the Sun Deck came into sight it feels like waking up to Christmas Morning and a foot of new snow. With wobbly legs the brutal descent down Walsh's into Bingo Glade began. The thousands of feet of bump runs was comforted by the fresh snow and the knowledge that the end was in sight. We crossed the finish line at the Gondola in 7th place almost an hour faster than the previous year in slow conditions. It turns out that training does make a difference for this race.
If you are into suffering in beautiful places this is the race for you. Every time I drive through the roundabout outside Aspen you can see the 4 mountains impossibly far away from each other, but I know it can be linked by my own power on one very long and full valued day.