Vail team repeats as Grand Traverse champions

The Vail team of Mike Kloser and Jay Henry held off an attack from locals Travis Scheefer and Ethan Passant to win the 2009 Elk Mountains Grand Traverse covering the 40-mile course in a time of nine hours, 17 minutes and 40 seconds. It was the second win in a row for the Vail duo, Kloser’s third in a row and his fifth title in the 12-year history of the race.
Maile Wade and Jenny Hamilton from Aspen were the first women’s team to cross, finishing in a time of 11 hours, 12 minutes and 10 seconds. Homegrown skier Andrew Kastning, broken hand and all, and teammate Grethe Haggensen took the coed title with a time of 11 hours, two minutes and 30 seconds.
Questions swirled prior to the start of this year’s Grand Traverse.
First, there was the weather. According to reports from Buck Myall, snow safety director for the Grand Traverse, a storm hit the course hard the week leading up to the race.
“We recorded 27 inches with spots of up to 30 inches,” says Myall. “There were lots of concerns.”
On Thursday night, the wind kicked in, for better or worse.
“The winds came in east-northeast, which tend to strip the starting zones,” says Myall.
Then there was the question of gear. Two years ago Bryan Wickenhauser and Eric Sullivan broke from the mold, opting to race on lightweight AT gear rather than the typical Nordic setup that winners donned the previous nine years.
The idea caught on, as several teams switched to AT equipment for the race last year.
Yet, as this year’s race approached, teams considered making the return to the lighter Nordic setup in an effort to deny Kloser and Henry another title.
While a majority of the teams that typically vie for first place opted to remain on the lightweight AT equipment, Kloser and Henry remained committed to the classic waxable ski setup.
“I got some pieces of junk skis but in this race it doesn’t matter,” says Kloser. “They serve one purpose—not to break.”
Then, there was the weather again.
Race volunteers Ben Pritchett and Robin Jones set the course from Star Pass to Taylor Pass using a compass and markers on Friday and then headed back out that night to give Myall a report on conditions at Taylor Pass.
While it was windy, with winds between 20 and 40 miles per hour, both Pritchett and Myall surmised that wind was nothing new to the race or its participants.
“It always blows and stirs up a little ground blizzard up there,” explains Myall.
Kloser concurs.
“It was definitely one of those epic years again, with Mother Nature dishing out her best,” says Kloser. “But it wasn’t as brutal as it can be.”
As 127 teams filled the Crested Butte Community School the evening of the race on Friday, March 27 for the last equipment check by race officials, stories of the ground blizzard on Taylor Pass circulated, as did rumors of a delayed start.
“What the f—— is a ground blizzard?” queried one racer who was in town from Alabama to compete.
Despite the winds up high, the call was made and competitors were given the green light to Aspen.
Racers headed off into the night air from the school at the stroke of midnight, Friday night.
The usual cast of characters took off from the start, making use of the groomed Nordic track across the Town Ranch before hitting the Upper Loop section, bound for the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
Once the course headed up toward the Friends Hut, two teams were trading off in the lead, Kloser/Henry and Passant/Scheefer. Kloser averted a close call in the infamous Death Pass area on the way to the Friends Hut when he lost an edge and fell, dropping one of his poles.
“I jumped on my skis and gingerly stepped down to get my pole,” says Kloser.
Passant and Scheefer took over in front again but their gap was soon eliminated and the two teams came into the Friends Hut neck and neck.
At this point, Kloser/Henry made their first move putting a gap on Passant/Scheefer, charging to Star Pass through pummeling winds.
In fact, every team was met with high winds at the Friends Hut checkpoint and as they stopped to refuel and add layers, they looked above to Star Pass at an impending maelstrom.
While Kloser and Henry managed to make their way up to Star Pass, Passant and Scheefer battled with their frozen hands making their way to the top of Star Pass without use of their poles, as they both tried to get their hands warm.
“The wind was just howling at that checkpoint,” says Scheefer. “It was just nuking and all I wanted to do was just drop off the backside of Star Pass out of the wind.”
Yet, once again, the lead was exchanged as Kloser and Henry struggled on their classic skis in variable conditions coming off of Star Pass.
“We were kind of floundering around in the bowl in our classic gear and the breakable crust,” says Kloser.
Racers were met with a welcome sight on the backside of Star Pass as Geo Bullock and Dave Monty built a bonfire in the trees where the course starts to climb up to Taylor Pass.
The bonfire proved beneficial to numerous teams as they managed to stop out of the wind, refuel by a fire, thaw out their water and warm their skins back up for better adhesion.
For the leaders, though, the bonfire was a quick blip on the whole course and the two leading teams turned back into the ground blizzard, looking for the way to Taylor Pass.
The teams pulled together to find the way through the dark, ultimately deciding to make the ridge first and then work their way to the Taylor Pass checkpoint. In the meantime several other teams started to reel in the leaders.
“As we were figuring out where to go, headlamps started showing up behind us,” says Scheefer.
“It was getting to be a crowd,” says Kloser.
Once the group figured out the way back on course, the two teams of Kloser/Henry and Passant/Scheefer made another move to regain their initial lead.
“When we hit the Taylor checkpoint it was game on,” says Scheefer.
Kloser feels one quick decision leaving Taylor Pass checkpoint made all the difference in the world as they opted to follow a slightly different course in the Taylor Pass area.
“That’s where we got our first gap,” says Kloser. “We gained 30 seconds to a minute, but a gap is a gap.”
By the time the two teams hit the final checkpoint at the Barnard Hut, Kloser and Henry were in the lead with Passant and Scheefer one minute behind.
At that point, Kloser and Henry kicked into gear, utilizing their Nordic set up to its full advantage to pull away from Scheefer and Passant for good.
“We saw Jay and Mike one last time in an opening on Richmond Ridge but that was the last time we saw them,” says Scheefer. “From there we just pushed it to the finish.”
“The race really begins at the Barnard Hut,” says Kloser. “I was determined to maintain the margin. Out of sight out of mind can play a lot. I felt like Jay and I had a great race. We were both having a good day.”
With five titles to his name, including the last three, Kloser continues to look ahead to the next Grand Traverse.
“The race is such an epic event and a one-of-a-kind event, which is motivating,” says Kloser. “The fact that I’m turning 50 next year is a motivating factor as well.”
One final note: Allen Hadley and Ian Hatchett continued their streak as the only two racers to complete all 12 Grand Traverse races, with Hadley teaming up with Todd Malzhan to post yet another top ten finish, coming in sixth place overall.

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