22nd annual Grand Traverse set to run Friday at midnight

“Honestly, it’s looking to be a perfect set up if all goes according to the forecast”

by Than Acuff

As of press time Tuesday evening, things are looking good for the 22nd annual North Face Grand Traverse to go over to Aspen this year. The race has been turned around three of the last five years due to avalanche hazard but this year things appear to be shaping up for the Full Monty with racers starting out at the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort at midnight on Friday, March 29, bound for Aspen.

More than 220 teams are signed up for the race this year, with a couple teams dropping out and other teams being filtered into the new openings off of the wait list. Their goal, if they so choose, which they have, is to ski for 40 miles through the Elk Mountains in the dark of night to reach the finish line at the base of Aspen Mountain at some time on Saturday, March 30.

There are some new tweaks to the Grand Traverse this year with a new snow safety director and some alterations to the first half of the course.

Veteran Grand Traverse snow safety team member Megan Paden is now at the helm, taking over for Ben Pritchett, and has assembled a crack crew of forecasters and snowpack savants for the job based in the upper Brush Creek/Star Pass area.

“I have full faith that she will carry forth leading the team and assessing the safety of the course,” says race director Andrew Arell. “They’ve already been out there in the past two weeks and are now permanently stationed up there the week leading up to the race, giving daily reports.”

Teams and their significant others can now find reports on the Grand Traverse Facebook page every day of the week.

As is often the case, there is a storm pending, which could have an effect on the call on whether send teams on to Aspen.

“It’s par for the course—we will wait and see,” says Arell. “We will let the field teams do their work and it will probably come down to call made the day of the race. We’d like to announce it at the racer meeting at 1 p.m. on Friday but last year we had to wait until the 11th hour to make the call.”

As for the course, organizers have opted to remove the Death Pass portion, putting teams through a little more mileage and climbing as they make their way to Star Pass. In addition, there may be a small tweak to the course in the Star Pass area to mitigate additional exposure to avalanche hazard.

“They will be going up and around Death Pass and may be staying on the ridge a little more up high so we will be adjusting cutoff times to accommodate that,” says Arell.

Crested Butte Avalanche Center forecaster Ian Havlick has been a part of the Grand Traverse snow safety team the past five years and is keeping an eye on things, such as the weather, from town as well as making trips out onto the lower portions of the course throughout the week. After what he witnessed on Monday, March 25 and in speaking with Paden and the team, he believes things are looking favorable for the race to go through to Aspen.

“We’ve had a pretty record season with an above-average snowpack across the racecourse,” explains Havlick. “It’s been avalanche-prone throughout the season but has begun to transition into a more stable spring-like snowpack the past two weeks. What we are watching right now is monitoring any residual persistent weak layers as well as wet loose and wet slab potential along the lower elevations of the race course, specifically the East River valley and Brush Creek.”

Havlick will continue to talk with the field team twice daily throughout the week. Looking at the snowpack and pending storm earlier this week though, Havlick feels optimistic that the race may go through to Aspen.

“The storm seems to be weakening and slowing down and bringing colder temperatures with it, which is ideal to lock up the snowpack,” says Havlick. “Honestly, it’s looking to be a perfect set up if all goes according to the forecast.”

But, as we all know, Mother Nature can be fickle and anything is possible.

“Worst case scenario is if the storm comes in really warm and we see some rain, which is unlikely,” says Havlick. “Or if it produces over a foot of snow. Then, the race may be impacted.”

If the race is reversed, organizers have a reverse course in mind and are ready to execute that if necessary.

Prior to race night, Crested Butte Nordic is hosting a couple of events open to the racers and the public. All info about the race and a schedule of events leading up to the race can be found at thegrandtraverse.org.

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