Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Elk Mountain Grand Traverse--Crested Butte to Aspen, Colorado--40 miles, two mountain passes

Not many races start at midnight. And if you’re in Colorado the smell of marijuana in the air is to be expected—even with 40 miles of skiing up and down two mountain passes about to commence. After the countdown, 192 teams of two skiers each started racing up the slopes from the Crested Butte Ski Resort.

Julian Smith, my teammate, and I reached the first summit about half an hour later, in the middle of the pack. We were slow on the transition of stripping skins and clipping in for the down ski off the other side, and we were even slower skiing down the icy run. I’m not sure if it was true or not, but I have a feeling we were in last place by the time we reached bottom and the long walk to Brush Creek.

Crested Butte had a low snow year this year and we had to carry our skis over bare ground no short of six times in the broad valley, with the final carry being the feared “Death Pass”, which is not a pass, rather it’s a skinny trail with a 100-foot drop off down to the creek that is terrifying to walk with skis and a heavy pack. Walking a bare trail with skis off is much easier.

After Death Pass the trail climbs steadily along Brush Creek for the next nine or ten miles. Julian and I are both strong climbers and ultra-runners and we steadily passed skiers all the way up to Star Pass about 16 miles into the race. Now we were “back in the game” following our unpropitious start. For the rest of the day we never had to worry about being in last place, though our finish nearly 16 hours later might bely that notion.

The first cut off to worry about was the “Refuge Checkpoint #1”, which we had to reach by 7 AM. We arrived at about 6:10 and after taking our allotted 16 ounces of warm snowmelt water we pressed on for Star Pass. The climb was steep, but we kept skins on until the final push. The pass loomed high above and we could see skiers booting up the steep slope with their skis on the back of their packs. Below the conga line of climbers streaming up the slope a larger group of skiers was removing skis and strapping them to their packs, giving us our near term objective.

Before the race I was frustrated in my efforts to purchase a simple rubber strap to hold my skis together in an a-frame position on my pack. I had visited REI and Mountain Chalet in Colorado Springs to no avail, then two more ski shops in Crested Butte only to find flimsy Velcro straps. As we neared the staging area where we would have to strap our skis on our packs for the final climb to Star Pass, Julian spotted a rubber strap in the snow and retrieved it for my use. Someone’s misfortune became my boon.

The climb was straight forward as previous skiers had kicked solid steps up the snow slope. I forced myself to take at least thirty steps at a time before stopping to catch a breather for a few seconds. At the top of the pass skiers were scattered about removing skis from packs and clipping in for the ski off the top of the pass. The sun just broke over the mountains to the east as we glided slowly over to a steep cornice. I looked at the ski tracks and knew what to do. I steeled myself with a bit of courage and slipped over the drop off, gliding over the edge dropping about five feet before catching the groove for a traverse across the upper slopes—tracks were all over the slopes and the snow was broken up and looked easy to ski, so we hit it. Easy skiing! Almost like skiing down a blue run on the ski slopes. We made it down lickety-split. Glancing at my watch I saw we had made 18 miles and it was 7:30 AM. We were easily ahead of the cutoffs by an hour and a half.

The trail narrowed as it turned into the woods and climbed gradually—meanwhile the day heated up. Seeing how other skiers had dressed at the start (two were in shorts!) I realized that I was probably overdressed. I did, however, fortunately make the decision not to wear long johns under my Gore-Tex pants! Now, as the sun rose in the sky I stripped off my Gore-Tex jacket, tied it to the back of my pack and put on mountaineering sunglasses. The rest of the day was spring skiing under bluebird skies!

We trudged towards Taylor Pass--the miles ticking off slowly. My near term focus was on getting over 26 miles--a nice number, a marathon distance, something to focus on--get to 26 miles then there would be 14 miles to go. I do a lot of math problems when running/skiing/biking these races. This ability to do math would come in handy later when we came to the end game of this endeavor.

A good medium length down ski followed, along which we could see the next up climb—Julian was in the lead but I tucked in for more momentum on the downslope and skittered past him before the next upslope where we had to put on skins again. Steep climb to an aide station of sorts—no water or food, but a set of six snowmobiles and some intent officials with queries. How are you feeling? While looking intently into your eyes. I’m doing fine. I’m in this for the duration. We’re doing this thing. Where is Taylor Pass? This is Taylor Pass! Why are those skiers climbing higher up there? That’s the ridge. Soon we would find that higher along that ridge was bare ground and we would take off our skis again. Julian used this break to take off his ski boot and repair a damaged, shredded foot.

Another good down ski followed by a long uphill trek brought us finally to the Barnard Hut aide station. Here we had a mandatory ten-minute break—much needed. Ramen soup, electrolyte drink, 16 ounces of water for the bladder. Not enough really, but it was appreciated. We pulled out of the aide station at 12:15 PM. The cutoff here was 2 PM, so we thought we had some cushion. Over the next miles I crashed. Bonked. It took us three hours and fifteen minutes to traverse seven miles. Dog slow.

We tried to do as much as possible without putting on skins, because often there would be a slight uphill followed by downhill and the transitions from skins to no skins was killing us. This worked most of the time, but then we encountered a long gradual uphill—finally we put on skins. The problem with transitioning from skins to no skins was the whole production of taking off the pack, putting the skins in the pack, putting the pack back on, putting the skis on, etc. Julian suggested stowing the skins in my shirt. Well, that didn’t work but I was able to stow them in my pants, for a while at least, before they slipped down awkwardly towards my ankles. Later, Julian exasperatedly said, “give me your skins!” I didn’t argue and handed them over.

Long slow climbing—hours went by—miles more slowly—finally a pie plate with 3 miles to Sundeck. Sundeck was the top of the Aspen ski slopes after which we would have three easy miles of blue square ski runs to Aspen. The time was about 2 PM. The finish line cutoff was 4 PM. We needed to make three miles to Sundeck and then the three-mile ski down in two hours. Sounded plausible. The next mile was a long uphill slog—a 45-minute mile!! Crap! We had an hour and fifteen now to finish. Next mile had a lot of uphill—27 minutes. It was 3:13 when we came on the pie plate of one mile to Sundeck, and there was a climb from there! Okay let’s climb. Fortunately the climb ended soon and then it was downhill all the way to Sundeck—a fifteen-minute mile.

We reached Sundeck at 3:31. Now we had only a 3-mile downhill ski to Aspen. Julian insisted that I take back my skins before we skied down. Okay. Stop, take off the pack, stow the skins, put on the pack. Let’s go! We ski down a run, I go right, Julian goes left. I yell down, “He said it finishes at the base of the Gondola, the Gondola goes right!” Julian said he remembered the name of the run going to the left from the race briefing. Okay. I deferred to his memory. Julian was right. We kept skiing down several runs, Aspen was getting nearer. I glanced at my watch: 3:50. We could do this. Focus. We crested a hill and the finish line was in sight. Julian was down first. I followed and we went through the finish line more or less together three minutes before the cutoff—the last official finishers—last asses over the pass as it were. Woohoo!! Let’s have a PBR!

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