The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse. 40 miles, 9200ft minimum elevation, midnight start time, over 30 pieces of mandatory gear to carry, almost completely self supported, below freezing temps. All on skis. And as I would later shockingly learn, not a single coffee shop along the entire route. Yup you’re really out there in this race. Little did my teammate, Garret, and I know that in addition to the anticipated challenges of the event, we’d face such mishaps as frozen climbing skis, loads of falls, a runaway ski, a broken ski pole, frozen hydration, dehydration, and an unknown course, just to name a few of our maladies. And yet it was still the most amazing race we’ve ever done and we both agreed upon finishing that we’d be back at it next year.

The midnight start was memorable with headlights from all 168 teams, Mt. Crested Butte spotlighted, and a rockin 70′s deck party at the base of Crested Butte to cheer us off. We went up the mountain and I felt fantastic. At the top we ripped skin and descended a groomer. The mayhem started there. We got up to speed but as soon as we took our first turn we just slid out on the ice. Suddenly lots of headlights weren’t on the trail but instead were deep off into the woods, especially those who chose to run cross country skis which are dicey on the downs. Garret and I made it to the bottom and after some poling across a flat we put our skins back on.

That's a lot of lumens

Trouble #1 struck just after I had just bet Garret that first person to go down owed a round of beers. I had my skinny 50mm skins on for max glide but when things pitched up on the ice in a long train of racers I started sliding backwards. I was definitely the jerk with the skinny skins. I fell to stop the slide, pulled out of the skin track, and assessed the situation. I swapped the skinny skins for some wider ones which felt like a massive amount of time as loads of racers passed by and Garret waited ahead. Bollocks.

Inspection for all of our mandatory gear the morning of the race

 

We got going again and things were really swell for an entire quarter mile until we hit the massively off camber hillside traverse that we’d be on for the next 5 miles. Man that off camber skin really chapped my ass. It was incredible annoying going across the icy snow with one boot a foot higher than the other. It got even worse when every half mile we’d dip into a gully with a nasty downhill entrance. Racers were crashing everywhere. I felt horrible at this point and probably the worst I felt all race. Something with my circadian rhythm was making every tiny niggle in my body feel like I was about to pull or tear something. Finally we hit Death Pass which sounds terrible but was actually a welcome relief of a change. We boot packed then skinned across a very steep slope with black darkness below to our right down the steep mountainside. All I could make out far below was the sound of the stream rushing by. If you fall to your right side here then¬† you’re falling a long ways and are in big trouble.

Hold up, I think my contact lens just popped out.

Things continued to get a little better. My body started waking up a touch as we got into some nice packed powder in the trees. The field started spreading out, making things a bit more relaxing. We crested a rise and I looked behind to see the amazing sight of a mile long train of headlights following us. Ahead you couldn’t make out the topography except for the headlamps up above, signalling where we were headed next. Garret and I played it smart and started stopping every hour, roughly 3 miles, to get some fluids down and take in some nutrition. This seemed excessive at the time as no one else seemed to be taking nutrition stops. We climbed and climbed. 10,000ft. 11,000ft. We reached Friends Hut at mile 14 and the volunteers had a fire going. I asked them if the coffee shop was just ahead on the trail and they said that indeed it was. Orange mocha frappucinos danced in my head. We trucked on and our nutrition strategy started paying off as others took long breaks off to the side. This was both the steepest and highest point in the race. There was no moon so the only way to make out the course far ahead were the headlights that were seemingly directly above us. We hit 12,000ft and felt the altitude big time. I felt like I was only inhaling half the air I normally would.

At last the top. And a cold top it was with temps below zero. We were over 5 hours in and had our biggest descent of the day ahead so took some time to put on jackets and heavy mittens. I swapped my Smith Pivlock V2 Max clear lens sunglasses for my IO goggles and was good for some downhill action. I remember having a Picky Bar which really hit the spot. We descended the powder in the big open bowl which sounds awesome but our quads were killing us. I felt like I had a cramp the whole time but I was just fatigued. Finally we hit the bottom where the descent continued but mellowed out as we got below treeline and zig-zagged through the trees. This would turn out to be the coldest yet most fun part of the race. I was seriously worried about frostbite as my fingers ached yet it was so memorable going through the woods with our headlamps illuminating the snow ahead. It continued to flatten as we’d pole through long sections then hit some more descent. Both of our Camelbaks froze at this point, leaving us without liquid for the next 3 hours but it was so cold that it hardly mattered. At least my feet felt great. Blisters are the #1 cause of DNF’s and my 2XU compression socks were crushing it (if you haven’t tried compression for hard events then give it a try and learn about it here).

Out on the course with sunrise over the Elk Mountains

By then it was 6:30 am and what’s that? I could start to make out the mountains surrounding us. Indeed it was the first hint of sunlight and we were so happy to see it. The night was enchanting but first light made us feel like we’d hit a milestone in the race. Garret had scouted this part of the race a month before and suggested that we freeheel it with our toe locked into downhill mode but our heel free in tour mode so we could ski the downs but kick the flats a bit. This worked great until it didn’t. Now mind you that when in freeheel mode the ski brake that stops a runaway ski is locked in the up position. I hit a bump and I felt my right foot pop out even though I was still standing on the ski. This didn’t seem like a big deal until the ski cut loose and jetted ahead of me, entering a huge meadow with a creek far off in the distance below, off to my left. The ski slide on and on, on and on. Would it stop? Surely it wasn’t going to stop until it was in the friggin’ creek. Would I be able to even find it in the creek? Had I packed my speedo? There were two trees in the middle of the huge meadow and somehow, miraculously, my ski seemed magnetizes to one of them and drifted towards it, hitting it and coming to a stop. I scurried across the meadow on one ski, kicking with my other boot like I was on a skateboard. Once again, Garret was left a bit ahead wondering what had happened to me this time. I retrieved it and caught up to him, hesitantly admitting that yes, I had fallen once again and yes, I owed him yet another beer. He was a bit out of it at this point and I hoped he didn’t realize that I owed him a growler by now.

Near the historic site of my runaway ski fiasco

Now let me backtrack a moment. Twelve hours before the race kicked off the organizers had to understandably change the expected Crested Butte to Aspen route due to heavy avalanche risk. It’s been a big snow year and the 20″ of snow a few nights before did this to a couloir that we’d have to pass over:

Photo from race organizers of the couloir that causes the course change

 

So they changed the race to an out and back in which the back portion had a loop around a mountain as well as some other add ons.

The original course map. The updated one is still in the works I'm told. JK, I love you race organizers, it is a fantastic event, but let me grumble a bit.

They breezed through the new course at the meeting and we thought we’d be able to get a new course map but then none was available. No biggie though as the new route was supposed to be easier, the last time they ran it, we were told, the last place team finished in just over 11 hours as opposed to way way over that for the standard course. It was supposed to be 40 miles though so we knew that. Being ultra studly mountain men like we are, if last place was 11 hours then there was no way we’d be over 10 we thought to ourselves. But it was at this point out on the course that things really seemed to be not adding up. I pestered Garret trying to ascertain his opinion on the matter. We were now 7 hours in but had only gone 20 miles. So what was right? The 40 miles or the 11 hours? I started asking every other team that we encountered. How much farther was it? They just asked the same hoping that we knew. It was then that my heart became one of darkness as I mulled over the impossible. Could we really be stuck out here for 7 more hours? And where the hell is the coffee shop that they promised?

Now I don’t mean to be self indulgent and I usually complain bitterly when others write two part race reports but I’ve got to get out for a bike ride. Stay tuned for part two of the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse Race Recap coming your way soon.

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