Kloser and Henry take 2008 Grand Traverse title
One hundred and twenty-three teams were met with warm midnight temperatures and spitting snow on Friday, March 28 as they headed out into the night for the 11th Annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, a 40-mile backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen.
Nine hours later, the race ended with four teams pushing hard along Richmond Ridge to the final descent of Aspen Mountain to the finish line.
The top four teams finished within six minutes of each other. Team Beaver Creek/Nike Mike Kloser and Jay Henry won in a time of nine hours, four minutes and five seconds.
Locally born and bred Andrew Kastning teamed up with Paige Brady to take the coed title, 10th place overall, with a time of 10 hours, three minutes and 40 seconds. A Gunnison Valley team of Jari Kirkland and Rebecca Dussault were the first women’s team, finishing 15th overall, in 10 hours, 58 minutes and 10 seconds.
Ian Hatchett and Allen Hadley each found partners for the 2008 race to continue their streaks of 11 straight finishes, the only two competitors with a 100 percent success rate in the event.
Three-time Grand Traverse winners Pat O’Neill and Jimmy Faust of Crested Butte finished in second place with a time of nine hours, seven minutes and 30 seconds.
The Team Salomon/Crested Butte duo of Bryan Wickenhauser and Eric Sullivan came in third place, two minutes and 20 seconds behind O’Neill and Faust. The lead pack was capped by 2006 Grand Traverse champions Jon Brown and Brian Smith, who finished in fourth place, 25 seconds behind Wickenhauser and Sullivan, in nine hours, 10 minutes and 15 seconds.
Local skiers Billy Laird and Josh Shifferly, who finished the race in nine hours, 28 minutes and 10 seconds, filled the fifth-place spot.
“From Star (Pass) to the finish it was a train of eight people,” says O’Neill. “That’s pretty brutal when a race that’s nine hours long gets down to three minutes.”
The race didn’t start out well for O’Neill and Faust though, as they fell back early in the race. Once they hit Ambush Ranch at the mouth of Brush Creek, they locked the hubs and gunned for Star Pass, pushing through packs of teams to reach the lead group.
“We were able to catch the leaders by the top of Star Pass,” says O’Neill. “We got our mojo working big-time.”
Every year it seems there’s a weather-related twist to the race. Either there’s high winds, or arctic temperatures, or dumping snow, or all three.
This year, Mother Nature threw snow and wind at the racers along the highest points of the route but seemed to cooperate, relative to past years.
“I kept on my True Value gloves, polypro t-shirt and a shell,” says O’Neill.
Yet the lead pack still had trouble with the course despite their vast experience.
The lead pack descended off Star Pass in near perfect backcountry conditions to locate the trail from below Star Pass back up to Taylor Pass.
“It was probably the best conditions that I’ve ever seen,” says Kloser. “It made for a fantastic ski down.”
The teams found the turn back up through the trees but the winds and new snow had wiped out the course set by course marshals, leaving route-finding up to the competitors in the pitch-black dark of 5 a.m.
“Within 100 yards, the trail had been blown over and vanished,” explains Kloser. “We were wandering in the general direction but uncertain of where we were. In the end we got to some steep exposure that was unfamiliar.”
“We missed the most nectar trail that they’ve put in,” says O’Neill. “The compass card was spinning. At one point I was wondering if we were going to climb Taylor Peak.”
“You couldn’t see the Dog Star,” adds Wickenhauser. “We got above tree line and had a group huddle.”
The Crested Butte team of Dave Penney and Todd Malzhan joined the other four teams searching for the trail, putting the race aside temporarily as they all joined forces to get back on track.
“I was like, ‘Look guys, let’s get the map out’” says Kloser. “It was classic adventure race pace.”
Eventually the five teams dispersed to find the trail and Kloser and Henry found it first, with O’Neill and Faust right behind them.
“Once we got on the trail it was game on,” says Kloser.
“When we found the trail we were ecstatic and family time was over,” says O’Neill.
Unfortunately, as many as 30 other teams followed the tracks of the lead pack and were subjected to an estimated extra 800 vertical feet of climbing in an already brutally long race.
Course marshals were alerted to the “reroute” and remedied the situation for the remaining teams, sparing them the same demise.
Remarkably, the miscue did nothing to change the line-up of leaders, as they pointed it for Taylor Pass with Kloser and Henry leading the way.
Kloser and Henry carried their lead out of the Taylor Pass checkpoint with the four local teams on the chase looking to keep the title in the Gunnison Valley.
“I said to Sulli, ‘Are we just going to let Kloser run away with it?’” explains O’Neill. “Sulli said, ‘If we’re going to catch Kloser and Henry, we’re going to have to get medieval with it.’”
By the time Kloser and Henry hit the final checkpoint at the Barnard Hut, O’Neill and Faust were three and half minutes behind them and closing in fast. Sullivan and Wickenhauser joined the party, as did Smith and Brown.
“It was a full-house at the Barnard Hut,” explains O’Neill.
Kloser admits that he was fully aware of the teams hunting them down and kept looking back to check on their status.
“Within 20 minutes I could see those guys and from then on it was bite the bullet and grit your teeth,” says Kloser.
O’Neill explains that while he and Faust had taken a more relaxed approach to this year’s race, once they saw that they could reel Kloser and Henry in, they finally decided to go for it.
“Jimmy and I really had no expectations—that was the first time we really kicked into go mode,” says O’Neill. “We also knew Bryan, Sulli, Brian Smith and Jon Brown were behind us. Here we were trying to catch Team Nike and we’ve got some of the best athletes behind us. It was a testosterone sandwich.”
While Kloser and Henry opted to use skins along Richmond Ridge, O’Neill and Faust applied kick wax and eventually took the lead, gaining ground on the flats and downhills.
Kloser and Henry retook the lead on the final hill and reached the top of Aspen Mountain in first place, skiing down to the 2008 title.
“It transitioned into an uphill and we weren’t giving in,” says Kloser. “We just put our heads down and got a little gap on them.”
“From the Barnard Hut to the top of Aspen Mountain was really exciting,” says O’Neill.
“We felt psyched in a race of this caliber just to get in the top three.”
Kirkland and Dussault entered the race with one goal in mind.
“Rebecca and I went into the race thinking we wanted to be top 10,” says Kirkland.
As the race progressed, Kirkland struggled with where they were on the course in relation to the break of dawn.
“It started getting light when we got to Taylor Pass and I felt like we should be further along but I was giving it my all,” says Kirkland. “It was definitely mentally challenging.”
The team received some good news though when they found out they were in seventh place overall, just 11 minutes behind the leaders.
Yet, all hopes for a top 10 finish were dashed when the medical team at the Barnard Hut suspected Kirkland was hypothermic and required her and Dussault to wait an hour before returning to the race.
“They were like, ‘You can’t argue, get in the tent’,” explains Kirkland. “It was a little frustrating for sure.”
Kirkland vows to return though to hit the goal of a top ten finish overall.
“I’ll have to check with Rebecca’s schedule but I would love to try again next year and be top ten,” says Kirkland.
It was the fourth Grand Traverse title for Kloser, his first with Henry. While Kloser is an internationally known and heavily decorated professional adventure racer, he seems to return to the Grand Traverse each year despite the lack of a massive cash purse and pile of prizes.
“There’s something that lures me back year after year,” says Kloser. “It’s a true adventure race and it can be epic. I like the challenge of it and the fact that there are some strong teams.”