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2013 Elk Mountain Grand Traverse

Posted on May 01 2013

After a long season of ski mountaineering racing looms the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse the grand daddy of them all. While one of the least technical races in terms of ascending and skiing, the Traverse more than makes up for it in volume of backcountry travel and pure suffering.

In just the few days after as I am just able to move my limbs without pain and almost wrap my mind around putting my feet back in ski boots, wondering if I would ever do this race again, it is certainly a race you have to do at least once.

Along with its 16 year old history making it one of this country’s oldest backcountry ski races, the sheer volume of crazies that come out of the wood work is impressive. The gear check is laborious and intense and somehow with my decade of collecting gear for just such an event wind pants were the one piece that was never acquired. After squeaking our way past the marshals that guard the course from the unprepared, 170 teams for a total of 340 racers lined the insides of the Crested Butte Banquet center to review the course in its most recent iteration. Because weather and avalanche conditions the official course is never made public for fear of racer’s inputting incorrect GPS coordinates on a constantly changing course.  

At 10:30 pm the last of the gear and beacon checks have been preformed leaving substantial time to warm up. Luckily the start of the traverse now coincides with the Soul Train disco party at the base of the mountain giving racers an unconventional way to elevate their heart rates and have massive and enthusiastic audience for the midnight start.

The pace was slightly slower than other ski mountaineering races but still shockingly fast considering the brutal miles that lie ahead, as racers jockey for position. After thundering down a groomer never knowing what was waiting in the shadow of the next roll over the true junk show began.

The race began firing up and down groomed runs at Crested Butte Mountain resort, but slowed to crawl as dozens of racers slammed into the breakable curst that marked the boundary between the resort and the true backcountry.

At this point calling it a race was an overstatement as frantic skiers clambered over the tails of the person in front of them, forming a snaking line of bumper-to-bumper headlights back as far as the eye could see. Frustrated, everyone believe they were waiting for the group of newbies that had somehow snuck their way to the front of the line, but had never made a kick turn in their life. In reality the perceived newbies were actually some of the fasted and most experience racers in the country as they undertook the arduous task of putting in a skin track through the impossible breakable crust.

It was the worst kind of conditions for skinning, not just breakable but deceivingly supportive curst that would give way without warning plunging the skier into feet of rotten sugary snow. However, this stumbling pace was not reserved for the leaders, but could be seen countless times throughout the field, as impatient racers tried to put in their own passing lane. As if none of the other hundreds of people around them had thought of it, one brave soul would come up with the novel idea of gingerly stepping out of the skin track onto the crust. “This is it!” he must thought, and with his initial success a dozen other skiers would fall into the newly formed passing line behind him. Then all at once the crust would give way and tips would dive into snowy quicksand, buried under the crust around them, and a frustrating yet hilarious struggle to scramble back to the single track would ensue.

 This pattern of small failures, which I unquestionably attempted more than most, seemed graceful compared to the true climax of chaos as the race approached the first steep ridge. The lawless scene was lit only by the moon and a hundred headlamps and had all the tumult of a World War II battlefield. The leaders trying to stick to the preset course were throwing in kick turns up the rotten snow and looked like as if it was their first time on skis. To the right a new procession had formed of the brave teams shouldering their skis and plunging up to their waist with each staggering step. Separating the two fronts was a cliff of flakey rock that was still not safe from an onslaught of assailants. As I kicked in tenuous foot holds into the rock more than one unfortunate racer nearby peeled off backward down the rocky slope with a yelp. By sheer luck my partner and I peeled off to the right at the top of the cliff and found that we were one of the first teams to gain the ridge. Victory was brief as dozens of racers piled up behind me, watching as I floundered in the rotten snow to step into my tech fit binding. Comically these heroic efforts were only for the right to be the leader and continue to unceremoniously break trail through a series of face plants all the way to Brush Creek.

From brush creek the field began to spread out, passing was finally possible and the race really began. For many teams the damage had already been done in the form of wasted energy, broken poles and separated partners, but an unusually warm, still and clear night in the rugged Elk Mountains, interrupted only by a very windy ascent of Star pass, gave teams hours to regroup and enjoy the amazing views.

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