Weather sends racers back to Crested Butte
Gunnison Valley residents Bryan Wickenhauser and Brian Smith held off charges from a couple of race rookies and race veterans to win the 13th Annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse on Saturday. It’s Smith’s second win and a first for Wickenhauser.
Emma Catmur and Emma Lohr, Day-Glo tights and all, were the first women’s team with a time of nine hours and five minutes. Mark and Janelle Smiley took the coed team title in a time of seven hours, 26 minutes.
Weather wreaked havoc on the Grand Traverse course, forcing organizers to turn the race around at the Friends Hut for just the second time in the event’s 13-year history.
Typically the race starts at Midnight sending teams of two on a 40-mile journey joining Crested Butte and Aspen via Crested Butte Mountain Resort, the Friends Hut, Star and Taylor Pass, Gold Hill and Richmond Ridge before dropping down the front of Aspen Mountain.
But at the racers’ meeting on Friday, March 26, race co-director Lisa Cramton announced that weather models indicated a massive storm with winds in the 25-45 mph range was headed directly for the area between Taylor Pass and Aspen Mountain, much of which is above treeline.
The troubling news turned the energy from nervous anticipation to confusion and for some dread.
“I was anticipating a heinous race and just started rounding up as much gear as I could,” says Smith. “I was kind of dreading it.”
With the help of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), Cramton and race organizers stayed in contact throughout the day wondering if the Grand Traverse would play through to Aspen or turn around.
“We had all their (CAIC) big guns helping and we kept hearing up to 15 inches of snow and 45 mph winds on Richmond Ridge,” says Cramton.
Race snow safety director Buck Myall was at the Friends Hut all week checking course conditions from Star Pass to Taylor Pass and remained in contact with the CAIC as well.
“Forecasts kept pointing at this monster storm coming in,” says Myall.
Organizers waited to make the call as late as possible hoping to get a break in the weather but it never came. The storm hit at 4:30 p.m. on Friday and got progressively worse.
Travis Underwood was in charge of the course from Taylor Pass to Aspen and in the thick of the storm up high.
“By 6 p.m. it was a full on blizzard,” says Underwood. “Route finding would have been nearly impossible.”
The official call was made at 6:15 p.m. on Friday that the race would turn around at the Friends Hut and would be delayed until 6 a.m. Saturday morning.
“I wouldn’t be out there in the dark, in a storm like that and I know the route like the back of my hand,” says Myall. “Cold temps, high winds and you die. I’d rather be a chump on this end then finding people frozen out there.”
Ultimately, the storm dropped 15 inches of snow on the course and winds were estimated at approximately 50 miles per hour during the time that teams would be racing to Aspen confirming the call 100-percent.
That left the race officials, race volunteers and Crested Butte Mountain Resort scrambling to come up with plan B.
Race veterans turned race volunteers Dave Scheefer and Colby Deer were set to break a trail on Farris Creek and Strand Bonus for the return trip and resort professional ski patroller Eric Baumm devised a route back onto the ski area finishing at the base that would get the new course mileage and vertical relief as close to the original course specs as possible.
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One hundred twenty-four teams kicked off for the 13th Annual Grand Traverse, a.k.a. the Grand Reverse, Saturday at 6 a.m. from the Community School in Crested Butte bound for the Friends Hut and back.
While some teams looked to make the switch in gear from randonnee skis and boots to a more Nordic set up for the new course, Wickenhauser and Smith stuck with the rando gear and instead they switched strategy for the new course.
“We felt we could charge it even harder to the Friends Hut,” says Wickenhauser. “You can basically take a nap on that gear for 30 minutes coming down from the Friends Hut. That was our tactic, kill it going up and nap on the way down.””
“Once the course got cut, it changed the strategy to a faster pace event,” says Smith. “Definitely a different mind set.”
After climbing out of town, around Crested Butte Mountain and dropping down behind the resort to get to the climb up to the Friends Hut, it became obvious there was a new team in town giving the list of veterans a run for their money up front.
Eben Sargent and Ben Koons both raced Nordic for Dartmouth and Koons competed in the Olympics in Vancouver as a member of the New Zealand cross-country team.
By the Ambush Ranch turn, Koons and Sargent were in front on their Nordic set up skating away from Wickenhauser and Smith who were climbing on skins.
“We didn’t feel compelled to chase those guys,” says Wickenhauser.
“The skins were running so well with the fresh inch of snow,” adds Smith. “The glide was awesome. We basically ate them up on the climb.”
Sargent experienced some skin issues on the final ascent to the Friends Hut and Wickenhauser and Smith took the lead making the turn at the three hour, 24 minute mark and charged back down the course.
“We were pretty stoked at the top,” says Wickenhauser.
By the Farris Creek turn, Wickenhauser and Smith’s lead increased and they cruised through the Strand Bonus trail turning down to the Ambush Ranch with a healthy lead.
That is until they looked up to find Sargent and Koons in front and heading back across the flats in a full skate pace leaving Smith and Wickenhauser confused.
“We started second guessing ourselves at that point,” says Smith.
Upon further consideration, Smith and Wickenhauser concluded that Sargent and Koons must have cut part of the course and it would all flesh out in the end so they let Koons and Sargent go.
As they turned back up onto the mountain for the last section of race, complete with a mini rando race up and down Gold Link, they got another scare when perennial Grand Traverse champions Mike Kloser and Jay Henry showed up out of nowhere.
Henry reeled them in with Kloser not far behind and once again they were in the thick of it.
“Kloser is the most competitive guy out there,” says Smith. “We were neck-and-neck with 10 minutes to go. We both just gave everything we had.”
“I just thought, O’Neill will kill us if we let Kloser and Henry beat us to the finish line,” adds Wickenhauser.
At that point it was a test of equipment as a couple of quick, steep climbs allowed Wickenhauser and Smith to build a slight gap before the final descent down a sun-crusted Columbine Hill.
With 20 seconds between the two teams at the top of Columbine, Smith and Wickenhauser held on to finish ahead of Henry and Kloser in a time of six hours, 28 minutes and 16 seconds.
Koons and Sargent finished four and half minutes ahead of Wickenhauser and Smith but a post-race review determined that both Koons and Sargent and Kloser and Henry missed a sizeable portion of the Strand Hill Bonus section of the course and would be disqualified, taking the win away from Koons and Sargent.
Koons maintains the shortcut was a complete mistake but has no problem with the ruling.
“We were in the open fields and were just kind of following the drainage down,” says Koons. “We thought we were screwed and that even top 10 was out of the question.”
Once they saw the leaders though they made a push for the finish to win and when the conversations started about rulings, Sargent and Koons let it all go.
“We just camped out by the free beer tent and let it run its course,” says Koons.
“It’s a race and we totally support the organizers decision to DQ us as it was the only way to keep it fair,” says Sargent. “The skiing in our ‘shortcut gully’ was some of the best Nordic freeriding ever!”
Travis Scheefer and Ethan Passant finished in second place and Pat O’Neill and Jake Jones ended up in third place
Lohr and Catmur stayed in front for most of their race despite feeling the pain from the start.
“I felt like crap on the first climb to the ski area,” says Catmur.
They gained relief from the suffering coming down from the Friends Hut but felt another pinch on Farris Creek.
“Farris Creek was a little hard,” says Catmur. “You felt like you were walking backwards.”
Baumm’s course through the resort to the finish was one last punch in the gut but Catmur could taste the finish and the two pressed on.
“At that point I knew we were going to finish,” says Catmur.
Sarah Jones and Heather Featherman took second place among women’s teams and Colette Newell and Mary Lewis finished in third.
Alan Hadley continued his streak of doing all 13, and doing well, teaming up with Jari Kirkland to finish in second place among coed teams.
Wickenhauser was psyched on the win but wants one to Aspen as well.
“It’s awesome—now we just have to win one to Aspen,” says Wickenhauser.
For results go to www.crestedbuttenews.com