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Teams gearing up for 20th Grand Traverse

Weather on the way… as usual

by Than Acuff

Twenty years into the Grand Traverse race and only one thing remains the same: the fickleness of Mother Nature.

Some years racers are met by stellar clear skies, relatively moderate temperatures with a firm snowpack and nothing but smooth sailing from Crested Butte to Aspen when they head into the night at midnight.

Other years have been brutally cold, complete with frostbite, ground blizzards, rescues and a modicum of panic. Three years ago it was so mild, a couple of teams did the race in shorts.

As of press time on Tuesday, it’s looking like winter may make a return to the Elk Mountains this week as racers and race organizers prepare for the start Friday at midnight of the Gore Tex Grand Traverse, presented by Dynafit and Outdoor Research.

“Initial models indicate there’s a trough coming in Thursday and Friday that will close off over southern Colorado on Friday,” explains Crested Butte Avalanche Center director and lead forecaster Zach Guy. “Troughs tend to bring in a lot of moisture but the nice thing about this one is it’s forecasted to close off so we may be spared the wind on Saturday that could hit racers on Taylor Pass.”

Guy adds that the weather forecast will be changing daily as a “closed low” system is hard to predict. Still, as of Tuesday, the race could be spared a massive storm and the possibility of another reverse.

“Right now models are calling for 12 inches at Star Pass, which might be a little generous,” says Guy. “I’m guessing more like four to eight inches. Typically in spring closed lows tend to dive south but their behavior is hard to predict.”

Fortunately, Grand Traverse organizers have a plan in place in an effort to mitigate the potential for another reverse the best they can. Teams headed into the field on Monday, March 20 to get a jump on things.

“We’re bringing in more human resources than ever before to get course marking done so that once the storm hits, our main focus will be monitoring Star Pass to keep the storm slabs from building,” says lead avalanche forecaster for the Grand Traverse Ben Pritchett. “We’ll have enough people up there to give it our best shot.”

Field teams have already issued their first reports as they made their way to Star Pass and the Friends Hut to set up communications and get their first look at the snowpack. Reports included that the Death Pass section was melted out and there’s dirt on top of Star Pass.

“Racers will need to prepare to click out of skis before Star Pass or eat some red dirt,” read one report.

Other than that, there appears to be plenty of snow along the course and daily reports from the field teams can be found online at www.thegrandtraverse.org.

Friday night at midnight, just fewer than 220 teams will take off from the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort bound, hopefully, for Aspen.

The route is the same it has been for the past several years, give or take a few tweaks. This year, the main tweak will be the finish line. While the race has always finished at the base of the gondola on Aspen Mountain, Aspen Ski company gave the space to a private jet company as part of the World Cup races held there last weekend. As a result, the Grand Traverse finish line has been moved to the base of the classic 1A ski lift.

“Routing the perennial contenders to a new finish could be interesting,” says race director Andrew Arell.

But as usual, the racers will head from the base area up and over the Ten Peaks area by Painter Boy, down the back side and to the East River valley floor before climbing part-way up the other side and then head out Brush Creek drainage bound for the Friend’s Hut. From there, they head over Star Pass, down to the valley floor, up to Taylor Pass and then along Richmond Ridge to the top of Aspen Mountain, also known as Ajax, before descending to the base of the 1A lift finish line.

Until then there are plenty of activities for both fans and participants, starting with Legends Night on Thursday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at the Mallardi Cabaret Theatre. Past and present racers and race organizers will be on hand to share personal stories from the past 19 years. In addition there will be a vendor expo in the Mountaineer Square on Thursday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to noon.

As for the chance at a…reverse, plans are in place to accommodate that as well, thanks to the work of the Grand Traverse organizers and Crested Butte Mountain Resort last year.

“Last year we had to call an audible due to intensifying weather,” says Arell. “Our reverse contingency is now standardized and we have the ability to implement a reverse quickly if we have to. Hopefully we won’t, but we will be prepared.”

Arell hopes to have the final call made by the time teams file into the Mountaineer Square Ballroom on Friday, March 24 at 1 p.m. for the mandatory racers’ meeting.

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