To say that signing up for the Grand Traverse was the dumbest idea I’ve had to date is actually a travesty to my long list of really, truly bad ideas. More accurately, registering for the 40-mile point-to-point backcountry ski race that starts at midnight in Crested Butte and finishes—if all things go as planned—in Aspen was merely one single peanut in what turned out to be quite the shitshow. You see, I am not a skier.
Sure, I’ve been known to sneak in a mellow cross-country tour here and there, and last year’s acquisition of an AT setup did propel me on a couple of hut trips before trading it in for a splitboard (that saw two days of use). But, most of my snow experience comes in short spurts of nano-hucks and micro-jibs between long rests on the chairlift with a snowboard dangling from my big, comfy left boot.
I’m also not a runner. I do ride mountain bikes quite a bit, but even that cardio-centric exercise is riddled with shuttle runs to the tops of climbs in order to keep me safely above the 200-pound mark of emaciation.
So, why would a snowboarding shuttle monkey line up at one of the most difficult endurance events in North America alongside a bunch of highly focused skimo racers in onesies? Thanks mostly to a decade-long relationship with a job that slowly sucked my soul, this winter marked a time long enough away to start feeling somewhat human again and I wanted to push into uncomfortable arenas that didn’t offer easy bail-outs. What better way to stoke that new glow than backflip right into the deep end of an event that’d most likely crush me.
My original race partner woke up smart on the Monday morning before Friday night’s start—he told me he was sick. In some ways this was a relief( he’s a much fitter, younger and possibly better skier than me) but it left me in a bit of a rushed dilemma as there were only a handful of days to find someone stupid enough, patient enough, and/or slow enough to attempt such an event with me, which was going to drastically dig into my effort to find boots that weren’t going to rub my ankles raw like the demo boots I’d tried over the weekend.
Yes, less than a week before the Grand Traverse, and instead of training with an easy few days leading up to the big effort, I was trying to get random boots I’d just picked up and skied in for a few miles to fit. Factor in that half of a day was spent saving a few bucks by making my own ski leashes (mandatory for the last section of course on Aspen property), and there wasn’t much time left to send out invites for people to join me in almost certain failure. At first I aimed high by inviting friends like the legendary David “DaveMoe” Meyer, who in all reality could probably tow me up the first dozen or so miles to Star Pass. But, for DaveMoe, and a half dozen others, it was simply too short of notice.
Emma and I had ended up in the same place at the same time over the winter months, mostly on snowboards, but miraculously on skis once, too. Neither of us had more than a single day of skinning this season over a dozen miles, and it was obvious that both of us were at the same level of suckiness when it came to the skills of actually skiing. Partner found.
We lined up behind 199 legitimate teams at midnight on our borrowed skis that were short and skinny enough to look like we’d stolen them from someone’s preteen daughters. Emma fiddled with her bindings while I ran up to the balcony above the start to get a disappointing photo of a pack of headlamped racers rushing up a ski run glowing from fireworks and a full moon hovering just above Crested Butte.
We started a couple of minutes late, which put us in an absolutely undisputed last place going up Warming House Hill. Over my decades of bike racing, I’d been in this position before, and had always caught up to at least mid-pack. It only took a few minutes to realize that this night there wouldn’t be any catching up to anyone. Even with both of our expectations at a ridiculously low level, it was deflating to so quickly be in our place of being so far out of place.
The only good news, which was considered bad news for almost everyone else, was that due to dangerous avalanche conditions, the race was rerouted into the “Grand Reverse,” and would be finishing in the same place it started. This meant that we could cruise back to town where our car, all our stuff, and more importantly, our buddy’s house with a hot shower and warm beds were all waiting for us. Had we stayed on the original point-to-point course over to Aspen, we’d have been stuck there in a post-epic haze, trying to hitch a four-hour ride back to Crested Butte.
It was a beautiful night for a ski, regardless of what was happening far, far ahead of us. The storm that made for a course reroute only two hours earlier didn’t so much as cause a breeze on our side of the pass, and left clear skies and a fresh blanket of snow to amplify the moon’s illumination of everything surrounding us—so much so that we turned off our headlamps, between the few tricky ravines and gullies that required Emergency Room lighting to safely navigate without ending up in the ER. What looked like a mile up the Brush Creek valley, a long, strung-out row of racer headlamps left more of an impression of a tiny town in the distance than a party we weren’t invited to.
It couldn’t have been more than four miles into the 33.5-mile course when Emma said she needed to take a look at her heels. The new gear had already gotten the better of her skin, and caused blisters that made me think we were going to turn around right then and there. From what little I knew about Emma, I’d assumed she would try to tough it out for a little longer, so it wasn’t surprising that we taped up her blisters as best we could, and pushed on into the now-vacant route. What was surprising was that we kept shuffling up towards Star Pass for hours, and never once stopped again for those blisters.
Our own private Grand Reverse slowly crept up on struggling teams that’d stopped for warmth at volunteer-run bonfires offering a reprieve from the single-digit chill that otherwise engulfs everything in its path at 3:00 a.m. and 3,000 meters. We shuffled our way up into higher, colder and steeper terrain. As good of spirits as we were both in for the majority of the night, signs of struggle beagn rolling in with the clouds and light snow.
An old buddy of mine was in charge of the final bonfire, and I stopped at this one to say hi. According to Geo, it was 6:25am, and we had about a half-hour more of climbing to get to the Friends Hut checkpoint that would be closing at 7 a.m. Even in my foggy, delusional state, the math seemed straightforward, so we quickly pointed it up, with another team following close behind. My pace was faster than even I’d expected. The idea that we could actually make the cutoff numbed any physical side effects of the increased effort.
A few minutes up the trail, we ran into a team coming down towards us. We quickly jumped off the trail, but these two stopped, and in an Australian accent, asked if we were lost. It was hard to not just ignore the question and keep pushing uphill with hopes of making the cutoff, but she was persistent. None of the four of us wanted to believe what she was saying, which was that we missed a turn and were, in fact, going the wrong way.
We followed the Aussie and her teammate back down to the missed intersection that now seemed all too obvious, and were followed by a couple more teams on the way up who eventually faded behind Emma and I as we found another burst of motivation in witnessing the dull, snow-stifled sunrise. With the fresh morning light, we were able to see skiers descending a separate route from ours, which offered unfounded hope that we were almost there. That last section of trail felt endless, until we finally made it to the checkpoint.
Perspective is an interesting and intriguing thing, especially after an overnight effort of unfamiliar movement up to dizzying elevations in sub-freezing temperatures. There were several teams at the checkpoint being told they’d missed the cutoff by mere minutes, if not seconds. Out of the seven hours of pushing along, oblivious to time and location until the wrong turn about a half-hour earlier, we’d missed the opportunity to complete the final mile of the course by just seven minutes. We were a mile short of the half-way point while the race leaders were finishing back in Crested Butte, which strengthened the course marshal’s argument of needing to implement a cutoff point for the unprepared. The team next to us was in tears over the idea of being so close to what was surely a year-long goal filled with training and expectations. But for Emma and me, simply making it to Friends Hut was enough to put a huge, accomplishment-induced smile on our faces.
The second half of the course was by no means all downhill back to town. It offered up some of the most technically challenging and steep sections of the entire day, which made us appreciate the fact that we didn’t have to navigate it at night like the real racers had done hours before us. We’d made it all the way to the Upper Trail trailhead on Brush Creek Rd, before we called it a day. It was only another four miles or so to the official finish line, but, at 12:23 and a few hundred yards shy of 30-miles, we were done, especially considering we were already officially disqualified anyway. It didn’t take more than a few minutes until a volunteer offered up a ride in the back of a pickup with a few other teams who’d abandoned the race farther up the trail, and within ten minutes we were back in the warm comfort of Bobbi and Pogi’s house.
People keep asking if I plan on doing the Grand Traverse this year, as if last year was a total bust. The short answer is yes, I’d try it again, but not because I felt this year’s attempt was a failure. Pushing through the unknown and unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, and accomplishing more than one has ever done before isn’t something that I consider a failure. But, I’d still like the chance to drop into Aspen one of these days, if only to use those stupid ski leashes I spent half a day making.