Smith and Wickenhauser take the 17th Annual Grand Traverse title

Mother Nature forces reverse

Mother Nature won the battle but Brian Smith and Bryan Wickenhauser won the war crossing the finish line in 7 hours, 53 minutes and 1 second to win the 17th Annual GORE-TEX Elk Mountains Grand Traverse.
Pat O’Neill and Rebecca Dussault placed fourth overall to take the coed title with a time of 8:46:44 and Stevie Kremer and Jari Kirkland won the women’s title in a time of 9:42:22.
Three days before the race, things were looking as good as possible for the race to Aspen. Then Mother Nature roared, as she often does, at the most inopportune time. A storm hit the Central Mountains of Colorado starting Wednesday night, dropping over 20 inches of snow on the course.
The initial burst had race co-director Bryan Wickenhauser and Crested Butte Professional Ski Patrol race liaison Eric “H” Baumm busting the maps out to formulate Plan B.
The new snow, plus sustained winds, made it impossible to send the teams to Aspen safely, and forced race organizers to make the call on Friday at 1 p.m. to switch to Plan B—Reverse. It was only the third time in the 17-year history of the race they’ve had to make the call to turn it around at the Friends Hut.
Wickenhauser, who also doubles as race co-director, broke the news of the reverse format to a packed room at the racer meeting.
“They [the snow safety team] saw 24 inches of snow total and cornices grew to between eight to ten feet on Star Pass,” explained Wickenhauser. “Ninety percent of the course is off-piste so help is a long, long, long way away.”
Baumm then took the microphone to add some wise words for the room of disappointed teams.
“It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey,” said Baumm.
While a reverse may connote easier, this year’s course was far from that with race organizers and course setters opting for a route that equaled, if not exceeded, the mileage and vertical relief of the course to Aspen.
Wickenhauser explained that the course would be similar to the reverse course four years ago, but when the trail breaking crew was done with their job, there were a couple of not-so-subtle nuances thrown in. For starters, rather than turn around at the Friends Hut, the course continued up higher into the basin above the Friends Hut.
“You just kept seeing more glow sticks continuing up,” says Wickenhauser. “That added an extra 30 to 45 minutes.”
“I didn’t expect we going up that high above Friends Hut,” adds Smith. “It was a mental blow.”
In addition, after the descent from the Friends Hut, the course typically follows the Farris Creek drainage on the way out of the valley. This year, course setters decided to take teams to the top of Strand Hill before letting them drop back down to Ambush Ranch checkpoint.
“That added another 30 to 45 minutes again,” says Wickenhauser. “The expectation was that it was going to be a lot shorter, but there was extra vertical thrown in here and there.”
As a result, when teams were finishing up throughout the day on Saturday from the winners to the back of the pack, one word dominated the conversation: “Blown.”
The racers kicked off from the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort at midnight Friday and right from the start a three-way battle was in the works as Smith and Wickenhauser, Marshall Thomson and Benedikt Böhm and Billy Laird and Jon Brown were off the front and duking it out all night long.
Thomson, who was part of the winning team last year, and Böhm, who has a series of speed ski ascent records in the Himalaya, took the lead by the time they turned up Brush Creek, headed for the Friends Hut with the other two teams in hot pursuit.
Smith had his first of several climbing skin issues when they hit Death Pass on the way up and the race title was suddenly creeping away from them.
“They were about a minute up on us,” explains Smith. “I put another skin on and 10 minutes later I asked Wick how he was feeling. He said good so I cranked it up because I felt the race was skiing away from us and I just went all-out to catch up to them and sit on them.”
The difference in front came on the descent as teams were met with cold, soft snow skiing down.
“The descent is where the gaps opened up,” says Wickenhauser. “We waxed green and our skis were running well.”
While Thomson, who had busted the heel piece on one of his skis early in the race, and Boehm were still in the lead, Wickenhauser and Smith caught them as they hit Death Pass on the way down.
Smith’s climbing skins started failing again and with both his sets of skins done, he had to use Wickenhauser’s final set to finish the race. By the time they were turning to get back on the ski resort for the final push to the finish line, their lead was looking shaky.
“Physically we looked in better shape but gear-wise we were down to our last bullet,” explains Wickenhauser. “The only skins that were working were the ones on our skis. Those guys ripped their skins off and started skate skiing at us. We were definitely nervous.”
“When we got back on the groomer we had a minute on them,” says Smith. “Then I look back and they’re skating and 20 to 30 seconds back.”
As a result, Smith and Wickenhauser opted to run their skins through the ups and downs on the ski resort portion of the course, dubbed H Baumm’s rando course, until the top of Columbine Hill when they finally stripped them for good and skied to the finish line for their third title and, in the words of Wickenhauser as he slumped into a fetal heap after finishing, “blown.”
“I could have been done with the race with an hour and a half to go,” says Wickenhauser. “It was the power of being in first and not wanting to lose the race that kept me going. You just push each other and see who says ‘uncle’ first. It’s just wicked racing up front. It was the toughest one I’ve done. Feels good to win but I’m still blown.”
“There was no settling in, no setting pace, it was just go, go, go,” adds Smith. “It just took everything out of you. Knowing the course from four years ago we were confidant going into the race and we were just blown to smithereens.”
Thomson, broken heelpiece and all, and Böhm finished in second place six minutes later with Laird and Brown, whose water had been frozen almost the entire race, taking third place in a time of 8:02:29.

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