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Grand Traverse race set to take off Friday

Guess what? There’s a storm a-brewin’

by Than Acuff

The countdown is on for the North Face Grand Traverse ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen as 223 teams are set to start Friday, March 23 at midnight. And, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a storm in the forecast. Wouldn’t be the first time and won’t be the last.

The North Face Grand Traverse is a backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen. Competitors travel 40 miles over the Elk Mountains, climbing over 6,800 vertical feet including over both Star Pass and Taylor Pass. To ensure their safety, racers must have a partner, carry mandatory gear, and start at midnight when avalanche danger is typically low.

Snow safety teams are at the Friends Hut, the Opa’s Hut and the Barnard Hut currently, keeping an eye on the course and any potential for avalanche hazard.

“Things are coming together,” says Crested Butte Nordic events director Andrew Arell.

Of course, being way out in the mountains, there was a hiccup as the team at the Friends Hut was having power issues. But, of course, the Grand Traverse organizers have a back-up to keep the line of information open.

“Not having power hobbled our ability to put out daily updates earlier this week,” says Arell. “We still had radio communications, though.”

Fortunately, Geo Bullock was on the job and headed up to the Friends Hut Tuesday and the power is on, so updates will be provided about the course and conditions daily.

As for the course, teams have been out from Crested Butte to the Friends, getting some last-minute training and information, and the course is holding in there.

“Death Pass is melted out and there is a narrow crossing at the first creek crossing that is holding in there,” says Arell. “But that could all change with the weather.”

As for the weather, there is a storm that is predicted to hit the area but models are still in flux about the track, timing and strength of the storm. Ben Pritchett, director and lead forecaster for the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, has worked as snow safety director for the Grand Traverse for years on course. This year, he is working for the Grand Traverse from town, coordinating the field teams and providing weather forecasts for them daily.

“It’s looking like we have a storm coming in Thursday afternoon, ramping up Thursday night, continuing Friday and finishing up completely by midnight Friday,” says Pritchett. “As of Wednesday morning, models were predicting snowfall totals of four inches in town, 12 inches at Star Pass and 10 inches at Taylor Pass. But that’s almost guaranteed to change.”

According to Pritchett, the snow safety team at the Friends Hut of Tom Schaeffer, Megan Paden and Matt Steen have set up a way to measure total snowfall in a key spot along the course to keep tabs on the storm.

“They inserted a height of snow stake on the back of Star Pass so they’ll be watching the accumulated load in that start zone,” says Pritchett.

Pritchett points out that the weather forecast will change every day up until race day, so stay tuned as the day approaches.

“Really, we’re not going to know anything for sure until midday Friday,” says Pritchett. “We will be watching the trajectory of the storm and projected snowfall totals very closely. Keep an eye on the CBAC forecast and we’ll be providing a one- or two-sentence update every day about how the storm is tracking.”

Going over to Aspen or heading out and coming back, nothing will be for sure until Friday evening. Either way, there is a race plan in place for both possibilities.

“It’s just going to come down to what the next weather cycle brings and if we’re able to manage what it delivers,” says Arell.

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