“We teamed up with the intention of winning”
by Than Acuff
For the fifth time in the 21-year history of the Grand Traverse race, teams were forced to turn around and come back to Crested Butte due to avalanche concerns along the course, specifically at Star Pass.
Despite the reverse format, 177 teams still headed into the night air at midnight on Friday, March 23 and six and a half hours later, former WSCU Mountain Sports athlete and Crested Butte Nordic Team (CBNT) coach Cam Smith and Sean Vanhorn of Carbondale crossed the finish line back in Crested Butte to take the title.
Smith is now the youngest racer at age 22 to take home the title. Head coach for the CBNT Molly Susla and Crested Butte Nordic Board Member and former Crested Butte Nordic Junior Team athlete Hannah Smith teamed up to take the women’s title finishing 13th place overall and the Larochelles from Carbondale placed fourth overall and won the coed title.
The Grand Traverse is a backcountry ski race connecting Crested Butte to Aspen via the East River Valley, Brush Creek drainage, over Star Pass, over Taylor Pass and along Richmond Ridge before dropping into the Aspen ski area.
Due to the low snow year, conditions were expected to be tricky with a combination of snow, dirt, mud and water along the way, requiring teams to ski, wade or run certain sections of the course. But as race day approached, Mother Nature threw the race another curveball, waiting until the day before the start to bring in a warm winter storm.
Teams piled into the Mountaineer Square ballroom on Friday at noon for the racer meeting and race director Andrew Arell opened by asking the crowd, “Who’s ready for an adventure tonight?” He soon followed that by stating, “As of right now, we don’t know what kind of an adventure we’re in for.”
The teams left the meeting at 2 p.m. that day still wondering whether they were bound for Aspen.
Meanwhile, the snow safety team at the Friends Hut was in the throes of the storm and trying to get into the field to work.
“The forecast sounded horrible,” says Tom Schaefer, who, along with Megan Paden and Matt Steen, was working as the Friends Hut snow safety team. “It got us heads-up for sure.”
The snow safety team made their first attempt at assessing the avalanche hazard at 8:30 a.m. but with the storm in full force, they had to turn around.
“We couldn’t even get to the tent on Star Pass,” says Schaefer. “There were 40 mile per hour winds with gusts up to 60 miles per hour and five feet of visibility. We literally had zero visibility.”
Meanwhile, Ben Pritchett, director and lead forecaster for the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, who has worked as snow safety director for the Grand Traverse for years on course, was in town keeping an eye on the weather and providing weather forecasts for them every 30 minutes.
“Having Ben was huge,” says Schaefer. “He was giving us weather forecasts every half hour. He called us at 10:30 and ordered all snow safety teams off the ridges due to the threat of lightning. We’ve never had that before.”
Finally, a small break in the weather allowed Schaefer, Paden and Steen the chance to get to the tent at Star Pass, but they still had no luck at getting onto any suspect slopes to assess conditions and possibly mitigate the avalanche danger.
“We had decent enough viz to get to the tent but relentless wind on the ridge,” says Schaefer.
One small break in the action showed some avalanche activity already and the team hunkered down in the tent starting at 2:30 p.m., waiting for a chance to poke out into the start zone on the backside of Star Pass and assess the hazard. Unfortunately, that chance never came.
“We never got that opportunity,” says Schaefer. “At 5 p.m. we still had no viz so we had no information and that was the crux and we had to make the call. It was just blowing hard and constantly loading the slope.”
By 6 p.m. the call was made that teams would be returning to Crested Butte. The message had a rippling effect and at 6:05 the phone started ringing off the hook at the Alpineer.
“People started calling, looking to buy running shoes,” says Alpineer manager Kelly Jensen. “We sold a ton of shoes from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and we usually close at 6.”
Nevertheless, teams toed the line at midnight, heading out into a 32-mile odyssey taking them from the base of Crested Butte Mountain up into the hills above the Friends Hut and back to town, finishing with the Upper Upper Loop and back to the base area.
Smith and Vanhorn came into this year’s event with one goal in mind.
“We teamed up with the intention of winning,” says Smith.
Once the reverse call came, Smith and Vanhorn refocused on the new task at hand.
“We were bummed for about 60 seconds and then refocused and got super psyched,” says Smith.
They set the pace early, taking the lead 20 seconds into the race, never looking back the entire way for the win.
“Sean sprinted ahead and I kind of hung back a little to see who else was around and no one else came with us,” says Smith. “We weren’t trying to intimidate anyone or anything like that, we just went out at the pace we were comfortable with and we were alone all night long.”
Even when the opportunity arose to check on the competition behind them, Smith resisted the urge to take a look, as they pushed on.
“Once we got moving and into our rhythm, I didn’t look over my shoulder once,” says Smith.
Aside from experiencing some breakable crust near the start of the race as they skied off of Crested Butte Mountain and into the East River Valley, Smith was surprised with what they found the rest of the way.
“Given the winter we’ve had, I was pretty shocked how good the conditions were,” says Smith. “The two creek crossings were in, the skiing above the Friends Hut was good and the Upper Upper Loop had more snow than we thought it would. We skinned about two-thirds of it and ran what was left, especially the steep descent with rocks and roots poking out. It was a rough one.”
Susla and Hannah Smith had a similar experience in their women’s title run.
“We were totally steady-eddy the whole way,” says Susla.
Susla admits they downplayed their pre-race plans but once the gun went off, they switched modes.
“We didn’t really have a plan and we were just going out for a tour and made sure we ate well,” says Susla. “But we’re both so competitive that we really can’t just go out for a ‘tour.’”
Fueled by adrenaline, the two skiers punched it up Warming House Hill and then settled into race pace for the rest of the way. Aside from some trouble eating for Susla, they remained on pace and in good spirits and then made their move once they passed the Strawberry Creek trail on the way back down Brush Creek.
“We skated from Strawberry Creek trail to Veltri’s and Hannah was pushing the pace while other teams were trying to figure out if they should put their skins on or keep skiing,” explains Susla. “Hannah’s really good at knowing what to do and when. She totally nailed it and we started passing teams.”
Once they got to the Ambush Ranch, they finally found out they were leading the women’s field.
“That totally motivated us to run some of the Upper Upper, even though we didn’t want to, and it hurt,” says Susla. “The most surprising part was running Upper Upper next to Mike Preston and his partner. That was cool and that’s when we knew we were doing really well.”
The two skiers eventually crossed the finish line eight hours and six minutes after starting and while the race went smoothly and they took the title, Susla’s not sure if she’s in for another.
“I always need six months before I think, let’s do it again,” says Susla.
The course did deteriorate as the day continued and several teams finished either still wearing their running shoes from running the Upper Upper Loop section or on their skis, smattered with mud from the knees down.
The win was sweet revenge for Cam Smith. He first jumped into the Grand Traverse race three years ago with his sister and skied to Aspen in a time of 12 hours.
“We were super psyched with that,” says Smith.
Two years ago his race was cut short as he broke a toe piece and wrecked his ankle and ended up having to be evacuated from the course. He passed on the race last year and then came back this year to take the win.
“I got into skimo racing because of the GT and watching Brian Smith and those guys win it and I always hoped that eventually I would be up there finishing top 10 or top five,” says Smith. “It’s the OG valley ski race and to win it is awesome. It’s a big community event and my favorite race and I will make a point of doing this race every year.”
One thing is for sure, you never know until you go. Additionally, Allen Hadley teamed up with Katie Franzman to race and finished in seventh place among coed teams to remain the only person to start and finish every single Grand Traverse race since its inception.