“Course knowledge could be the deciding factor”
Final gear checks are under way and the countdown has officially begun to the start of the 16th Annual GORE-TEX Elk Mountains Grand Traverse presented by Outdoor Research and Dynafit at Midnight Friday, March 29.
As of Tuesday, 180 teams were signed up for the race, which takes teams of two skiers from Crested Butte to Aspen via the Elk Mountains.
The course is the same as last years starting at the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, heading up and over the Painter Boy Lift and down Gold Link area before dropping off the resort and down to the floor of the East River Valley behind Crested Butte Mountain. From there skiers will point it up the East Brush Creek drainage for the first checkpoint at the Friends Hut. The route then heads up over Star Pass, back down below treeline before traversing up to Taylor Pass. They turn onto the Richmond Hill Road to the Barnard Hut and then from the Barnard Hut the course proceeds north on Richmond Ridge until reaching the Aspen Mountain Ski Area. Racers ski down Aspen Mountain on the Spar Gulch Run to the finish line at the bottom of the Aspen Mountain Gondola. Racers will climb more than 7,800’ and travel more than 40 miles to complete the course.
As of Tuesday, conditions were looking good for a successful race to Aspen.
“The weather’s looking good and the snow’s been holding,” says co-race director Jalene Szuba. “At least there will be no running this year.”
Success in the race comes in many forms. For a lot of teams, success comes in just finishing the beast. Teams have seven hours to make it to the first cutoff at the Friends Hut, eight to make it up and over Star Pass. After that, the next cutoff time is 2 p.m. at the typically sunny Barnard Hut. But between Star Pass and the Barnard Hut, anything can happen as teams spend a significant amount of time above treeline working from Taylor Pass to the Barnard Hut. In year’s past, racers have encountered disorienting ground blizzards and sub-zero temperatures.
The final cutoff comes at the top of Aspen Mountain. Make it there by 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, and you get a nice 3,000-foot descent down the ski area to the finish line party at the base of Aspen Mountain.
The lead pack has an entirely different set of circumstances to deal with along the course. Most of the leaders will end up skiing almost the entire course in the dark. Last year’s winners Brian Smith and Bryan Wickenhauser completed the race in seven hours and 34 minutes, meaning they were crossing the finish line at 7:30 a.m.
And with the pace being pushed the entire time, teams can crack under the constant pressure forgetting to eat or drink as they charge through the night.
This years line up of race contenders is stacked in the men’s field though one pre-race favorite was forced to drop out.
“I just heard the Gaston/Taam team got bad frostbite at the Five Peaks race in ‘Breckenfridge’,” says Wickenhauser. “I’m kind of bummed because they’re strong competition and we all like the competition. But, there’s always some dark horse team we don’t know about.”
With several teams in the running, Wickenhauser believes success comes down to a couple things.
“Who has a clean race until Barnard and has the energy level to fight from Barnard to the finish,” says Wickenhauser. “It pays to know what’s coming up mentally and physically between Barnard and the finish. Course knowledge could be the deciding factor.”
The women’s and coed titles are up for grabs as well with a couple of former champions not on the start list this year including Janelle Smiley and Stevie Kremer. This is the first year organizers will have a coed and women’s trophy that stays with the winners until next years’ race.
You can track the efforts of the snow safety team and get up to date course conditions thanks to daily blogs from Kevin Krill at www.elkmountainstraverse.com. All racers will have SPOT trackers on them so you can follow the race online and there will be a new app this year so you can get live results as well.
“I’m looking forward to a safe race with everyone accounted for,” says Szuba.