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Cam Smith, Rory Kelly win North Face Grand Traverse

Allen Hadley keeps streak alive, 22 finished and counting

by Than Acuff

Nearly 200 teams headed into the midnight air on Friday, March 29 bound for Aspen, and seven hours, 22 minutes and 30 seconds later, local Cam Smith and teammate Rory Kelly crossed the finish line for the title.

Nikki LaRochelle and Kate Zander from Breckenridge won the women’s title in a time of eight hours, 24 minutes and 14 seconds. Ryan Herr and Kim Seager from Silverthorne took the coed title in a time of seven hours, 57 minutes and 52 seconds.

The winter provided plenty of snow, almost too much snow at times, with a harrowing season of avalanche activity. And with warm temperatures creeping into the valley and a storm forecasted the week before the race, there was concern the race might get turned around.

Fortunately, the storm’s intensity tapered, temperatures dropped and when the teams filed into the Lodge at Mountaineer Square on Friday, March 29 for their pre-race meeting at 1 p.m., race director Andrew Arell shared some good news.

“We’re 98 percent sure the race will go through,” said Arell, and the room erupted with enthusiasm.

Lead forecaster for the Grand Traverse Megan Paden and members Tom Schaefer, Ben Ammon and Zach Kinler of the Star Pass team spent the better part of the three weeks prior to the race gathering information. Excursions included an initial flyover in a plane, several trips on skis and snowmobiles from Crested Butte to Star Pass for two weeks and then heading into the field for the entire week leading up to the race.

“When we got out on course, we saw that a lot of the big paths in the high alpine had run,” says Paden. “The next day though, our comfort level decreased along the lower sections of the course as paths that aren’t typically on our radar soon came into play and were garnering more attention than the high alpine areas.”

As a result of the snowpack and subsequent warm temperatures the week leading up to race day, Paden and the team advised race organizers of the situation, one that was unique in the 22 years of the race.

“Because of the amount of overhead volume still remaining on the lower Brush Creek portion of the race and increased potential for wet slab and wet loose avalanche activity, the reverse was taken off the table,” says Paden. “It was all or nothing to Aspen.”

Overall concerns were soon laid to rest as they continued working in the field and they liked what they were seeing on race day, making the final call to send the race through at 5 p.m. on Friday.

“In the end, it was amazing,” says Paden. “It stayed cold at alpine and we had great stable conditions. Of course, Mother Nature gave us a little storm but it was dealable and actually made conditions better. There was eight inches of fresh for the racers dropping into the basin off Star Pass.”

Teams were met with cold temperatures, but not too cold, a little wind, fresh snow and relatively clear skies with fog shrouding the Gold Hill portion of the race. Racers spoke of great skiing off of the top of Star Pass and relatively smooth sailing for the entire 40 miles, with the exception of blisters, fatigue and everything else associated with a 40-mile ski race.

Smith won the race last year in its reverse format and once placed 88th racing with his sister, so this was his first win in the race in its full format. He and partner Mike Foote had plans to try to break the course record of six hours, 40 minutes this year but Foote got hurt when the two were in Europe for the ski mountaineering world championships. Fortunately, Smith found a familiar replacement in Kelly and plans for a course record were still on the table.

“Rory and I are good buddies from racing and we’ve raced together over in Europe,” says Smith.

They opened the race with a little gamesmanship knowing that fresh snow waited for teams on the course.

“We intended to stay back a little so we wouldn’t be breaking trail,” says Smith.

A bottleneck of 10 teams soon ensued at the Ambush Ranch bonfire in Brush Creek. They bided their time making a move at the first creek crossing and took the lead for good for a relatively smooth night of skiing all the way to the finish.

“It was a beautiful night and we stayed on course and paced ourselves,” says Smith. “We were pretty stoked about it.”

In the end, the only goal they missed was setting a new course record.

“Conditions were fast, but not the fastest,” says Smith. “There was some new snow so we were trail breaking a little and we had some navigation issues in the East River valley. Plus, neither Rory nor I were feeling 100 percent.”

Following the race, Arell was ecstatic with how everything went in its 22nd year.

“This year’s Grand Traverse was an exalted achievement on so many levels,” says Arell. “Every season manifests new sets of challenges in carrying out this event. Nonetheless, every March a devoted group of professionals and an army of volunteers band together to bring the GT to fruition. The Grand Traverse endures each year, standing as a testament to our community commitment in collectively sustaining our most treasured traditions.”

After a successful winter Grand Traverse, Crested Butte Nordic and Arell now look forward to the next two parts of the Grand Traverse Triple Crown series—the North Face Grand Traverse Mountain Run and North Face Grand Traverse Mountain Bike races August 31-September 1.

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