Tips from those who have done it
Many people make New Year’s resolutions to eat better, drink less or start an exercise program. In case your resolution is to get in shape for the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse—an insane 40-mile ski race that crosses one of Colorado’s most rugged mountain ranges and takes the average competitor about 14 hours to complete—we thought we’d try to give you a little taste of what to expect.
Although the Grand Traverse doesn’t take place until March 29, competitors are busily preparing for one of the area’s most unusual—and perhaps toughest—sporting events. The Grand Traverse, a backcountry ski race that starts in Crested Butte and finishes in Aspen, is more than 40 miles long and climbs over 7,000 feet through the Elk Mountains.
Taking anywhere from seven to 20 hours, the race is so extreme that the organizers require the two-person teams to take full bivy gear—including a sleeping bag and a stove.
“I think people make the mistake of thinking this is just an ordinary ski race,” says race promoter Lisa Cramton, who organizes the event with race director Jan Runge. “There’s nothing like it in the U.S.”
Cramton notes that Himalayan alpinist Neal Beidleman, who participated in the event last year, compared the race to climbing Everest without the altitude. “Be sure to take it for what it is,” she counsels perspective competitors.
Mark Lange, who did the inaugural Traverse in 1998 with San Juan Hut proprietor Joe Ryan, wishes they had heeded such advice.
“We had no clue what the heck we were doing,” he says. “Everything you could do wrong, we did wrong.”
Besides hitting exposed ridge tops with 20-below wind-chill factors and Ryan dressed in only a tank top, Lange says his Camelbak froze, then broke and dumped all his water down his back. “It turned to an icicle,” he laughs. “I was frozen and dehydrated.”
Lange agrees with Cramton that the Traverse is not your typical ski race that requires fitness alone. “I think people underestimate the seriousness of it,” he says. “Just because you have a big aerobic motor doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to do well.”
But strength and endurance is a big part of success since the ordeal includes over 7,000 feet of climbing and takes even the fastest teams more than seven hours to complete in good conditions.
Most competitors, however, are on the trail for over 12 hours, and the experts say the only way to effectively train for the race is to simulate the expected effort as closely as possible. While it may be unrealistic to practice by doing 12-hour-plus backcountry excursions, race veterans agree that prospective competitors should prepare by working up to longer and harder ski touring excursions before the event.
Mark Drucker, a first-time Traverse competitor last year, says he and his teammate Drew Shields trained for months before the race. “We tried to do a long ski at least once a week, and shorter skis during the week,” he says. Their typical long training run would be a six-plus-hour ski to the Friends Hut and back. The Friends Hut is a checkpoint on the race route.
“Some veterans said that would be good training, and it really was,” says Drucker. “It really helped to get to know the first part of the course.”
Professional multi-sport athlete and six-time Traverse participant Brian Smith says he does a variety of training for the race, including lots of ski touring, running and skate skiing. Smith also emphasizes the importance of doing long tours before the event—especially on the actual route. “It’s good to get familiar with the course,” he says.
Like Drucker, Smith recommends the skiing to Friends Hut. According to Smith, the return from the Friends Hut is excellent practice for the difficult descents that a Traverse competitor can expect during the race. “If you can handle the descent from the Friends Hut well, you’ll be ready for all the descents on the course,” he says.
Second-time Traverse competitor Jarral Ryter says he’s already been training hard by doing long tours of four hours or more. He also intends to do the 42-kilometer Alley Loop cross-country ski race in Crested Butte on February 2. “Make sure you’re comfortable doing 20-mile skis,” he counsels.
Besides stints of cross-country ski training near her home in Gunnison, six-time Traverse competitor and former winner Carol Quinn says she tries to get out in the backcountry at least a few times during the lead-up to the event in order to experience similar conditions. “If I’m lucky, I get up Red Lady a couple times a year,” she says of the classic backcountry route on Mt. Emmons just outside of Crested Butte.
Quinn notes that equipment choice and familiarity with it is incredibly important for the Grand Traverse. “Know your skins,” she suggests of the climbing aids that attach to the bottom of the skis for ascending the steeper slopes. “And occasionally go for a night ski,” she recommends, because the event starts at the stroke of midnight, making it possible for racers to negotiate the worst of the avalanche-prone terrain before the sun has a chance to loosen the snow on the steep slopes.
Quinn also says that ill-fitting boots have been her nemesis during several of her Traverses. "I showed up at the finish with bloody heels the first four times. Find boots that don’t give you blisters," she warns.
All Grand Traverse veterans agree with Quinn that equipment choices are integral to the event. "There are big bragging rights to win it and a fair amount of trickery goes into the equipment setup," says Lange.
Most of the top contenders go with ultra-light skis despite the difficult descents. Vail resident Mike Kloser who has been on the winning team in three out of six tries—including last year’s—says his team used normal classic-style cross-country race skis. “We went with kick wax, but changed to skins for the steeper sections,” he says.
But Kloser says since the Gunnison duo of Eric Sullivan and Bryan Wickenhauser nearly pulled off victory last year on light AT gear, the conventional wisdom of using super-light classic cross-country racing equipment may have changed. “If the conditions are crusty or icy, we’ll probably go with AT gear this year,” he says.
Part of last year’s sixth-place duo, Gunnison resident Dave Wiens, agrees. “If the snow is bulletproof, AT gear is probably the way to go,” he says. Wiens says not only is the AT gear faster on the descents, but it is also far more work to negotiate the tricky descents on super-light Nordic race gear.
Kloser says last year’s conditions were some of the worst he has experienced due to high winds and blowing snow. "I had a fair bit of frostbite on the side of my face," he says.
Kloser says last year’s conditions were some of the worst he has experienced due to high winds and blowing snow. “I had a fair bit of frostbite on the side of my face,” he says.
Multi-time Traverse competitor Espresso Bob Woerne, who was part of a high-ranked coed duo until his teammate had to drop out due to frostbite, says the 2007 conditions were among the worst he had seen. “Once you got to the ridge above Taylor Park, it was like being on the inside of a ping-pong ball,” he says.
Woerne says that’s why it’s important to be prepared for any conditions. “You can see the most extreme conditions up there,” he cautions.
Smith says the length of the event favors traveling as light as possible without sacrificing dependability. “Use the lightest equipment you’re comfortable with,” he advises. Smith says competitors should be prepared for variable conditions and he recommends putting plenty of downhill miles on the equipment that will be used in the race. “Try to do some ski area skiing on your equipment,” he suggests.
Nordic ski racing may be the best training for the type of effort the event requires, says Woerne, although Kloser says any of a number of winter endurance events provide the prerequisite intensity for such an effort. “As we get close, I do a few winter triathlons to prepare,” says the ex-pro mountain bike racer.
For neophytes, Drucker recommends an extra pair of warm gloves. “They’re not on the required list, but we were really glad we had them,” he says.
Ryter also emphasizes the importance of being familiar with your equipment. “Make sure you can fix your skins in the dark,” says Ryter.
According to Cramton, the first Elk Mountains Grand Traverse attracted 50 two-person teams and now, 11 years later, the event hosts 125 teams. Registration for the event opened December 1; however, Cramton says the event has already filled up. For those still hoping to compete, Cramton suggests monitoring the event’s website for cancellations.
For competitors wishing to get a taste of the Grand Traverse or some excellent training for the actual event, Cramton recommends participating in the Crested Butte Nordic Center’s Super Tour on March 8. The Super Tour is a 22.5-kilometer backcountry race that traverses the mountains above Gothic before descending to Washington Gulch.