“Every participant truly won on Saturday night”
[ by Than Acuff ]
The stars aligned and a full moon hung high in the sky Saturday night, March 27 as 165 teams headed up from the base of Crested Butte Mountain at midnight for a magnificent night of skiing, for most, bound for Aspen for the 23rd edition of the Grand Traverse presented by Dynafit and Crested Butte Nordic.
In the end 143 teams finished the race with Cam Smith and Tom Goth setting a new course record time of 6:06:24 to win. Stevie Kremer and Chris Edmonds took the coed title in a time of 9:02:12 and the Canadian sister team of Caroline and Sarah Tory took the women’s title covering the course in nine hours, 29 minutes and 44 seconds. The final team based out of Winter Park, Colorado came across the finish line in Aspen after 18 hours and eight minutes on their skis.
While COVID protocols forced the race into a wave start format, the energy was plenty high at the start line with disco light dancers keeping the stoke and teams lining up at the appropriate times to head up and over.
“I’m really happy and impressed, it really worked as designed,” says race director Andrew Arell. “I think we still had a really fun and anticipatory atmosphere at the start, even without the mass start.”
Snow safety teams headed into the field earlier last week to get a sense for the snow and watch the weather and things were quite different high in the mountains.
“Even though it was like May in Crested Butte, it was like February up there,” says head of the snow safety team Megan Paden. “It was quite intense.”
In fact, portions of the course received as much as 19 inches over the week leading up to race day and Paden and her team of Zach Kinler, Ben Ammon and Mark Gober were in and out of the field daily dodging squalls, orographic snow showers and everything else Mother Nature could throw at them.
“By no means was it a gimme for the snow safety team,” says Paden.
“As scheduled, every year weather rolls in the week of the Grand Traverse,” adds Arell. “It kept us on our toes right down to the wire.”
Daily sojourns in and out of the field, cornice cutting, reports from teams stationed further along the course and multiple snow pits over the four days had the team on point for four days straight. Eventually, the snow safety team saw what they liked and with a few course adjustments, what they needed to send the word down on Saturday at 2 p.m. that the race to Aspen was a go and the teams and volunteers were treated to something very unique up high.
“It was the most beautiful GT I’ve ever participated in,” says Paden. “It was something special.”
Pre-race buzz was mostly consumed with two-time Grand Traverse champion Cam Smith’s quest to set a new record time. He had already smashed the course records at both the Gothic Mountain Tour and the Power of Four races and he and his Power of Four partner John Gaston were lined up for another record-setting performance, until three days before the race.
“John had an old injury flare up on Tuesday so we scrambled to find Tom (Goth) and he filled in admirably,” says Smith.
The two encountered another glitch as they were late to the start and charged up Warming House Hill in the middle of the pack.
“We were 10 minutes late to the start but it was cool to see people and weave through them before spending the entire rest of the night alone,” says Smith.
They eventually took the lead at the East River crossing behind Crested Butte Mountain and cruised the entire way to the win, Smith’s third win, making the most of the near-perfect course conditions.
“You couldn’t realistically have hoped for conditions any better than they were,” says Smith.
They did have one more hiccup though, but after racing in so many races, they were both experienced enough to manage it.
“Tom soaked his gloves at Geo’s bonfire right before going into the coldest section of the race,” says Cam. “We had to thread the needle between self care and going as fast as we could but he put his puffy jacket on and grinded it out.”
Now that Smith and Goth flirted with the six-hour mark, there’s talk of breaking the six-hour mark in the future.
“Can we go sub-six in the future? Why not?” says Arell.
“Before this year I thought going under six hours was too far off,” adds Smith. “But, with the right conditions, I think sub-six is going to happen.”
Meanwhile, the remainder of the field enjoyed the slings and arrows of the Grand Traverse. While course conditions were top notch, there were still winds at Taylor Pass and along Gold Hill and the usual succession of whups along Richmond Ridge but overall the race was as good as most could have hoped for.
“Despite all the suffering that takes place in the race, there was a lot of cathartic joy at the finish line,” says Arell.
“In my 23 years of racing the winter GT, I have never seen a night of such soul-inspiring, ego-shattering natural beauty and wonder,” adds veteran racer and three-time winner Pat O’Neill. “Every participant truly won on Saturday night. I’m pretty sure Dan Escalante painted the entire scene.”