Getting on a midnight train to Aspen… hopefully
by Than Acuff
Here we go again.
The 2016 GORE-TEX Grand Traverse is set for a midnight start on Friday, March 25 from the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort with 229 teams signed up to ski 40 miles to Aspen. The Grand Traverse provides something for nearly all walks of life. For the hard corps fit teams, it’s a challenge to post their fastest time and perhaps step on top of the podium. For others, it’s a chance to perhaps just beat their previous best time. And for a large portion of the field, it’s on their “bucket list.” It’s something they train all winter for in the hopes of just finishing.
While the meat of the Grand Traverse course remains in tact, the start of the course has been changed numerous times over the 18-year history. The past several years things have remained relatively the same with the start at the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort and a quick tour up and over the Ten Peaks area before bombing down under the Gold Link lift and down a cat road, aka the “Indian Trail,” to the pump house in the East River basin.
This year, the first section has been tweaked a bit as organizers listened to racer feedback, including one team who bailed on the entire race after some frightening encounters down the “Indian Trail.”
“That descent has been troublesome in the past and there were a few close encounters,” says race director Andrew Arell. “So we added roughly another mile to the start to help spread out the field before that descent. We want to ensure more safety at the start.”
From then on the course is relatively the same. They will head up to Friends Hut, over Star Pass, to Taylor Pass, over Gold Hill to the Barnard Hut and then along Richmond Ridge before dropping down to the finish line at the base of Aspen Mountain.
That is, as long as the race is going to Aspen. Snow safety teams are in place this week and once they can get the power up at the Friends Hut, they will start posting daily reports about conditions along the course as well as weather updates that can all be found online at elkmountainstraverse.com or even heard daily on KBUT.
As of press time, weather forecasts are calling for snow this week including another potential weather surge the night of the race, which could either help course conditions or cause organizers to make the unfortunate call to not send the race to Aspen. Remarkably, the race has only been turned around three times in 18 years. If it is turned around this year, the race organizers have an alternate course already in place and on the website rather than waiting until race day to design a course.
“After the reverse in 2014, our race committee has put in more effort to have a standardized reverse route,” says Arell. “Now we’ve got a solid reverse contingency plan.”
The reverse course is on the race website and is 33 and a half miles long with just under 8,000 feet of climbing.
That may or may not matter but teams won’t know for sure until the racer meeting at 1 p.m. on Friday, March 25. And while a reverse is a tough pill to swallow psychologically, the reverse is also tough physically. Bryan Wickenhauser has three Grand Traverse titles to his name, including winning the 2014 reverse, and while a reverse is not a race to Aspen, it is no less strenuous.
“It’s the unknown,” says Wickenhauser. “If you’ve done the race to Aspen a couple of times, you kind of know how it goes. It’s a known entity and there’s that comfort level. You throw in a reverse and it’s not set in stone. You don’t know where to take off your skins, where to put them on.”
Wickenhauser also believes that racers tend not to take the reverse course seriously.
“People go into it with their guard down,” says Wickenhauser.
Reverse or no, pre-race prognosticators believe the podium is there for the taking this year with last year’s winning team not lining up. The heavy favorites heading in are a young duo from Aspen, Max Taam and John Gaston. They are fresh off a win in the Aspen Power of Four and were just in Europe competing in the prestigious ski mountaineering race, the Pierra Menta.
Then there’s last year’s second place team of Marshall Thomson and Rob Krar. And one can’t overlook Team Alpineer/Dynafit racers Pat O’Neill and Bob Woerne. O’Neill has three Grand Traverse titles to his name and a total of 11 podium finishes over 18 years. And who knows what unknown teams are jumping into the race and a lot can happen between Crested Butte and Aspen in the middle of the night.
“It’ll be an interesting year,” says Arell.
The race kicks off from the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort on Friday, March 25 at midnight and the winners should reach Aspen near the six hour, 30 minute mark barring any major issues. Live tracking of the race will be online as always.