The 16th annual Elk Mountain Grand Traverse on Saturday attracted over 160 teams for the nearly 40-mile endurance race between Crested Butte and Aspen, and a majority of the racers were rookies.
The backcountry traverse began at midnight at the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Mt. Crested Butte, where hundreds of racers set out in freezing temperatures to trek through the Elk Mountains under the cover of darkness.
The race, toward which Aspen City Council contributed $1,800 this year, is a fundraiser for the Crested Butte Nordic Council. Over the years, the race has raised about $40,000 for the council. In some years, donations have been made to the Crested Butte avalanche center and other nonprofits. Prior to the Nordic council taking over the race last year from founder Jan Runge, the event gave upwards of $50,000 to nonprofits in the Gunnison Valley, said co-race director Jalene Szuba.
The course is based on the mail routes of the 1880s, connecting the two towns. Racers climbed more than 7,800 vertical feet and navigated through the backcountry with no support, testing them physically and mentally.
Held annually since 1998, it’s earned a reputation as a true test of toughness for elite local, national and international athletes.
“It always turns out to be some kind of struggle,” said Ted Mahon, who has competed 11 times and raced this year with his wife, Christy Mahon.
“The thing with this race is there’s a lot of time out there in the dark,” Ted Mahon said last week before the race. “People get really disoriented out there and delirium sets in.”
The unusual start time is scheduled so entrants will reach the high point of Star Pass at 12,303 feet before the warmth of the day increases the likelihood of avalanches. Because of the remote route through the Elk Mountains, each team of two is required to carry enough food and supplies to sustain themselves for 24 hours.
The only Aspenites to ever win the race were Pierre Wille and Travis Moore in its inaugural year. They caught everyone off guard, coming in at 8 hours, 31 minutes and 50 seconds — a full hour faster than the predicted winning time. The final team that year finished in 17 hours. Forty-nine teams participated.
Back then and only up until recently, the gear used by competitors made for some hairy situations. Nordic and skate skis made the descents on Star and Taylor passes beyond dangerous. Equipment malfunctions, lost skis, ground blizzards and sub-zero temperatures all come into play. But with the advent of lightweight alpine touring gear, racers are able to make better time.
“You would flail around. ...The downhills are so much faster,” Mahon said of using new gear. “It used to be hard to get under 11 hours.”
Camelbacks freeze, racers bonk and often they get lost since the route is not officially marked.
Conditions in 2003, for instance, forced some of the strongest skiers out of the race, including Aspen resident and Mount Everest climber Neal Beidelman. Forty of the 102 teams called it quits as temperatures turned the first checkpoint at Friends Hut into a “freezing flesh-mass of humanity,” racer Geo Bullock told Powder magazine.
A safety team of ski patrollers from Crested Butte went to the Friends Hut on Monday and another set of four were based at the Barnard Hut. They spent the week assessing the conditions, route and weather reports. They convened halfway between at the Opus Hut near Taylor Pass to debrief each other before the race.
Due to weather and snow safety considerations, the exact course didn’t get finalized until race day. Race organizers change the course based on snow conditions, weather and other safety concerns.
The route is never the same each year because of snow conditions. The course was altered a couple of times to the “Grand Reverse” when conditions didn’t allow racers to go over the passes. Competitors would go to the Friends Hut and come back to Crested Butte in some wild way.
Last year racers had to run 6 to 9 miles at the beginning of the course due to a lack of snow. Some brought running shoes, while others ran in their ski boots to save time from changing out.
Racers have to meet certain cut-off points on the course or they are turned around. If they are too far back to make it to Aspen safely, they’ll get support to get back to Crested Butte.
“Most of the people are so haggard they don’t mind the ride,” Szuba said.
During the race’s early days, things were a bit looser. Traverse veteran Ian Hatchett recalled that a co-ed team got lost on Richmond Ridge late in the day. They got benighted, broke into a cabin and spent the night. In the morning they set out to ski down Aspen Mountain. Hatchett was having breakfast at the Weinerstube, along with race officials, when someone ran in and said team 53 had just finished — but no one knew that there was a team missing.
The inaugural event drew mostly Crested Butte and Aspen people, Hatchett recalled.
“There was a lot of suffering that first race,” he told race officials, who shared his story with the Aspen Daily News. “It was a beautiful sunny afternoon when we arrived in Aspen. As teams arrived in Aspen, they collapsed on that big concrete base and laid there in the sun. I remember there was a silver-haired man (owner of one of the papers, don’t know which) talking on his phone telling a photographer to get there — ‘I want photos of this, I don’t care if it’s your day off, this is what Aspen used to be.’”
Szuba said all teams last year were accounted for by 4:30 p.m.
The race is modeled after the long-held Patrouille des Glaciers, a backcountry endurance race in the Alps organized by the Swiss Army.
And in true military fashion, the traverse has its die-hard competitors: Pat O’Neil and Wouter van Tiel have competed every year but got a DNF one year for binding issues; Allen Hadley has participated since the beginning and last year’s winner and co-race director, Bryan Wickenhauser, has completed the majority of races.
Glo Cunningham, a volunteer and a fan of the race since 1998, was on hand at the finish in Gondola Plaza on Saturday morning. She watched the racers take off in Crested Butte, drove to Aspen and waited for the teams to descend Aspen Mountain.
“I love this race, I love the stories and I love what happens,” she said. “It’s the epitome of ... people rising to the occasion.”