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Written by Peter Innes

Notes From The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse

by Ethan Linck and Peter Innes

Two weeks ago, we had the privilege of lining up to race the 20th annual Elk Mountain Grand Traverse. The “GT,” as it’s commonly known, is a 40 mile point-to-point backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen. Because of the stunning tableau of mountains en route, the unpredictable weather, and its midnight start, it’s hard to think of a more iconic ski mountaineering event in North America. As both of us have served as winter caretakers at the nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, where daily life provides ample preparation for a long day of low-angle mountain travel at high elevation, the GT is near and dear to our hearts as a celebration of one of Colorado’s more beautiful landscapes.

Gothic Mountain and the East River Valley: home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab and yours truly, team Rocky Mountain Ski Lab. Photo (c) Ethan Linck

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Skiing Gothic Mountain

In the heart of the Colorado Rockies looms a mountain called Gothic. Its austere east face catches dawn’s first light and holds a looker’s awe like a medieval cathedral. Eight miles from the ski town of Crested Butte, Gothic stands sentinel to the West Elk Mountains and is also the namesake of a small townsite at its base, where I happen to live. Every day for the past eight months I have stared up at Gothic and wondered what it would be like to climb and make turns down its snowy face.

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Gothic Mountain in February, ft. white-tailed ptarmigan

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Gothic Mountain, May 25th

 

I knew I had to wait until spring in order to avoid the infamous avalanche danger inherent to the Rocky Mountains. April was very snowy (I was skiing boot-top pow April 27th) and conditions never felt safe enough to climb/ski the 3200′, 40-45º degree face. But now it’s almost June and Gothic isn’t so snowy any more. The first three weeks of May I watched the snow in the crux choke of the east face rapidly shrink. Despite numerous opportunities to ski it, intimidation got the best of me. A line always looks steepest when you’re looking straight at it, which is what I’d been doing all winter. Plus, I’d be skiing it solo. Without a partner to commit with and be emboldened by, motivation had to come from a deeper, more unquestionable place. It turns out this place is also home to fear of regret. Ultimately, I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t ski Gothic, or if I didn’t at least try. I realized you can think about an objective all you want, but at some point you just have to get up and go.

I hopped on my mountain bike Wednesday morning (May 25) at 7am, skis strapped to The Raven on my back. The sun had hit the top of Gothic at about 6:30. It was a later start than I’d hoped for, but with a solid refreeze overnight I figured I still had a decent safety window as long as I kept moving.

After a half hour or so I was at the crux of the biscuit. The choke was completely melted. Filled in it would’ve been a steep and fun pitch of snow climbing, posing more of a challenge on the way down than on the way up. Instead, I took off my crampons and sheathed my axe for about 50 vertical feet of class 4 scrambling. If I was more of an alpinist I would have dry-tooled the whole thing and saved time by nixing a transition. Overall the climbing was mellow and well within my comfort zone. Still, I had to be careful to avoid stepping on icy spots.

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The choke, bottom right. From there the route climbs the snowfield up and left until reaching the upper bowl. If climbing Gothic at this time of year, beware of a pseudo crevasse/bergschrund below the choke. You can see it in this picture, barely.

 

My crampons, axe, and whippet came back out after the choke. From here it was a long, 45º snow climb to the top save for two very short sections of exposed rock. I had been playing with the idea of skiing the face and simply down climbing the crux choke, but taking skis off for these sections would’ve been a bit of a nightmare as it was steep and exposed.

I topped out 3200′  from the valley floor in just over two hours. The last 200 feet or so to the summit ridge were quite slow and troublesome due to softening snow. I was post-holing to my knees in some places and couldn’t help but imagine triggering a wet slide. All I could do was climb as quickly as possible, which required using my shins more than my feet in order to maximize flotation. I reckon the top would’ve made for great and fast climbing had I started just a half hour earlier. Thankfully I had already made up my mind not the ski the face.

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Looking south from the Summit towards Mt Crested Butte (left) and Whetstone. The town of Crested Butte is below Whetstone.

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Looking east from the summit. The pyramidal mountain in front is Avery Peak, which I skied earlier this spring when it held more snow.

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Looking northwest from the summit. I walked down along this ridge to the sub peak in the center of the frame, from where I began my descent.

 

My plan was to ski down Gothic’s north bowl. The good thing about starting a little late was the north bowl would hopefully not be completely bulletproof. In terms of timing, the safest option probably would be to start climbing the face at 6 or 6:30 (earlier if planning on taking much longer than 2 hours to summit), then wait at the top for 30-60 minutes to let the north bowl soften.

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Gothic’s north bowl, shot from 4 miles up-valley on May 12. I skied from the sub-peak of Gothic on the right. The true summit is in the middle. Mt Crested Butte is in the background on the left.

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Looking down from the top of the north bowl. Maroon Peak is in the distance. At 9:30am the snow was still a little icy. I reckon by 10am it would’ve been perfect corn.

 

Jump turns soon gave way to mellow and blissful corn, then to avalanche chunder, and I touched down on the valley floor at 10am with feelings of elation and content.

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Route finding on the way down was easy. After exiting the bowl, curve around to the right and then straight-line it down this field of avalanche debris for maximum yard sale potential.

 

The past three weeks had been a constant inner struggle with doubt and fear in regards to skiing Gothic, which made my success all the sweeter. Although I was a bummed I wasn’t able to ski the east face, climbing it was perhaps equally rewarding. Kicking steps up the bosom of Gothic connected me to a part of my home that previously had been shrouded in wonder. There are many other lines in the valley I still long to ski. For now, though, I can sip my coffee and look up at Gothic with pride and knowing.

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My home beneath Gothic Mt, May 10th.

 

Caltopo map of my route here

More beta on skiing the east face here

Gear notes: Dynafit Cho-Oyu skis w/ Superlite 2.0 bindings, Scarpa Alien boots, Petzl Sum-Tec 52cm axe, Whippet ski pole, CAMP aluminum crampons, Free Range Raven pack, CAMP Speed helmet, CAMP wind mitten gloves, NW Alpine softshell pants, Patagonia sun shirt, Arcteryx wind shirt.

SkiMo Race Report: The Father Dyer Postal Route

A century and a half ago, a minister by the name of John Lewis Dyer journeyed over 1000 miles by horse and by foot from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. His mission was to teach the gospel to morally bereft inhabitants of the mining camps popping up across the state. Settling down in a mining town called Bucksin Joe, “Father Dyer,” as he became known, made frequent crossings of 13,100′ Mosquito Pass in order to spread the word of God and deliver mail to various locales. The route was rugged, dangerous, and often snow covered. Dyer became a frontier legend after nearly three decades of tirelessly traveling between camps and preaching.  Today, he is remembered foremost by an eponymous mountain in the Mosquito Range outside of Leadville (Dyer Mountain, 13,800′). Read on →

Gear Review: “The Raven” by Free Range Equipment

If you follow this blog you’ve most likely heard of Free Range Equipment. Owned and operated by Bend, OR local Tosch Roy and his sister Zoë, Free Range makes sport-specific backpacks for fast-and-light adventures. Their backpacks for multipitch rock climbing, alpine climbing and ski mountaineering all boast svelte designs that pair simplicity with functionality.

The “Raven” is Free Range’s ski mountaineering/ski touring pack. I have skinned nearly every day this winter with the Raven on my back and have done my best to scrutinize and test its every feature. Here, I hope to supply you with an unbiased review of its performance in order to better inform our collective pursuit of “gear enlightenment.”

The Raven

Whether you’re trying to escape the garish confines of SkiMo fashion or just move faster in the mountains, the Raven has you covered. Pictured w/ standard diagonal ski carry. Read on for discussion of standard vs. race carry options.

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4 Tips for Ultralight Backpacking

I know what you’re thinking. It’s winter. Why write a post about backpacking?

admit this post is unseasonal. I’m trying to add more knowledge-based content to the site because I realized the majority of my posts have been general photo blogs–more valuable to me than to you. Backpacking seems a good place to start because Patrick hasn’t written about it. Although some may argue backpacking isn’t quite as exciting as skiing, climbing, etc, I believe it is the foundation of nearly all backcountry pursuits.

But hey, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere.  Maybe you are making last-minute preparations for a thru hike of Te Araroa in New Zealand. If not, it’s never too early to start planning for your big summer trip. Also, these tips can be extrapolated to other fast-and-light endeavors, such as ski mountaineering. If nothing else, I believe you can apply the ultralight philosophy to improve your daily “front-country” life as well.

Bring Fewer Things

99.9% of the different “camping” items in REI should not be in your backpack. Unless you are on an expedition, a heavy pack is like a garage that is cluttered full of junk you never use. Your possessions begin to control you. That’s not what we want. Gear should be a gateway to freedom.

The easiest way to make your pack lighter is to simply leave behind what you don’t need. How do you decide whether or not you need something? For starters, if it doesn’t serve a purpose directly related to keeping you warm, dry, or healthy, it’s probably superfluous. Second, as a rule of thumb, if you can’t envision using something every day (excluding first-aid/emergency items), consider leaving it behind. If it’s a really tough decision, bring it. After the trip, be critical of each item. What did it do for you? Was it worth the weight? Just remember that even small items can add up to pounds.

Many times, the question of “need” comes down to deciding how comfortable you want to be in camp. You carry fewer, lighter things in order to be more comfortable while on the move. Naturally, you must sacrifice some camp comforts in order to do this. However, this sacrifice becomes less of an issue the more time you spend moving.

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The author’s first true attempt at an UL backpacking kit, put together for a month on the PCT this summer.

 

Let’s talk concrete examples.

You don’t need a stove. It’s possible to reconstitute dehydrated food with cold water. Just leave it in a screw-top container with water while you hike. For rehydrating food, I like to use empty 18oz plastic peanut butter jars. “Near East” brand cous-cous rehydrates very quickly and is a tastier alternative to Idahoans instant potatoes. Alternatively, you can eat food that doesn’t need to be cooked or rehydrated at all. Nutella and peanut butter wraps, anyone? Cafe Fanny granola has an insane calorie to gram ratio. In my experience, I can never bring too much cheese. Eating cold food every night certainly isn’t for everyone, but you won’t know until you try. (Edit: this advice assumes you are backpacking in relatively mild summer conditions. With wetter/colder weather, leaving behind the stove becomes less sensible).

Ditch the stuff-sacks. Use a garbage bag as a pack liner and stuff your clothes in all the nooks and crannies. Not only will this save you several ounces in weight, it also helps form your pack into a svelte bullet. Look good, feel good.

Don’t bring doubles of any clothing item, other than socks. Face it, you are going to smell bad no matter what you do. For my summer backpacking kit, I bring some variation on the following: 2 pair light merino wool socks, 1 pair med-weight wool socks, light-weight long underwear top and bottom for sleeping, running shorts, wind pants, long-sleeve synthetic button-up sun shirt, puffy jacket, wind shell, rain shell (consider combining the two), hat, and light gloves. Your clothing system should be just warm enough to keep you warm on the coldest night, wearing everything while in your sleeping bag.

Ditch the rain pants. If it’s raining in camp, get in your tent. If you try to hike in rain pants, your legs will get wet from condensation anyways. Wind pants are a great alternative and provide surprising warmth when the temperature drops or the wind picks up. Another option I’m really excited about is the Z-Packs rain kilt.

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A week-long, stoveless food packout for two young guys. Yes, those are avocados. Not ultra light, but they keep you going for a long time. Bishop, CA.

 

Bring Lighter Things

It helps a lot to have lighter gear, no doubt, The best place to start upgrading is with the “Big Three”–your backpack, shelter, and sleeping system. This is where the majority of weight savings will be made. In other realms, big savings can be made by following tip #1. A typical 70L pack can weigh up to 5lbs. That is a lot when you consider the base weight (pack weight w/o food or water) of many experienced ultralight backpackers is less than 10lbs. The less weight you have in your pack, the less burly your pack needs to be. Ultra-Light Adventure Equipment (ULA) makes great packs. Their most popular pack is a great intro to the world of UL. It has around 50L capacity, weighs 2.5lbs, and carries a max load of 35lbs. I’ve used it and love it.

If you are backpacking somewhere with little or no mosquitos, ditch the bug netting and just bring a tarp. If you hike with trekking poles, find a tarp that can be set up with your poles (see tip #3). Tarp Tent makes some really great trekking pole shelters, most of which have waterproof flies than can be pitched on their own.

Sleeping quilts are a relatively new piece of equipment that have garnered a lot of appreciation from UL backpackers for their versatility and improved warmth-to-weight ratio. For insulation from the ground, I like to use a closed-cell foam sleeping pad cut to just above my knees. It’s light, I don’t have to worry about it popping, and it doubles as a sit pad. The Thermarest Neo Air is another popular option.

Besides the “Big Three,” an easy way to save some weight is to swap out your Nalgene bottles for a cheap, plastic bottle. My go to is a 1L SmartWater bottle w/ squeeze nozzle lid. If you use a Sawyer Squeeze water filter, it can screw right onto your plastic bottle, eliminating the need for an extra receptacle designated for unfiltered water.

Lastly, the less weight you carry, the less support your feet need. Rather than wearing ankle-high, thick-soled hiking boots, consider trail runners instead. I liken this to SkiMo racing, in which light skis and ski boots make all the difference. The same is true with your shoes when you are hiking 30-50 miles a day.

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Your pack should be light enough that you can send a V5 boulder problem while wearing it, at the end of a 30 mile day. Only partially kidding. Below Milestone Mt, High Sierra.

 

Bring Multipurpose Things

This is really an extension of tip #1, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. An easy way to bring fewer things is to have one thing be able to do the job of two things. For example, I use a mosquito head net (replaces tent bug net) to hold all my sundry items (i.e. toiletries, first-aid), rather than carry an additional stuff sack. At night I empty the headnet and then fill it with extra layers to use as a pillow (if there aren’t bugs). Also at night, I place my empty backpack under my legs to compensate for my extra-short sleeping pad. In a more extreme application of this idea, some companies make single-person shelters that double as rain ponchos. This is where backpacking becomes a creative exercise. Let you inner MacGyver shine.

Develop a Routine

Okay, so your pack is a lot lighter than it used to be. Now it’s time to make the most of it. With less time spent thinking about how heavy your pack is you can spend more time appreciating your surroundings. You can also walk further in a day and therefore see a lot more. However, having a 20lb pack doesn’t automatically let you start cranking out 30+ mile days. You still need to be efficient in your daily backcountry routine. In SkiMo racing, making fast transitions is key. The same is true with backpacking. A lot of daylight can be lost in the morning without an efficient system for getting out of bed, getting packed, and hitting the trail. Small actions can add up to a significant chunk of time. Good habits include changing into your hiking clothes as soon as you wake up, packing your bedding right away, etc. Another way I improve my efficiency is by preparing my lunch in the morning and packing it at the top of my pack. That way I don’t have to spend time unpacking and repacking my food bag (and often my entire pack) to eat lunch. Find what works for you and stick to a system.

It can certainly be energizing to take a break for lunch, but many UL backpackers prefer to simply snack all day. In that case, it’s critical to be able to eat and drink without taking your pack off. I like to organize the day’s snacks (bars, gummies, etc) in the morning. I keep them in a waist belt pouch so I don’t have to dig through my pack when I need a little boost. There are multiple solutions to having water accessible, but I don’t like bladders because removing them from your pack, refilling it, and putting it back in your pack takes a long time. Water bottles are better, but make sure your pack has side pockets you can actually reach. Alternatively, find a way to fasten water bottles to your shoulder straps.

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A small pack can take you to some pretty cool places. Rae Lakes, High Sierra.

 

A lot of ultralight backpacking is trial and error. There is no hard and fast solution, no magic gear list that will transform you. Don’t start by going out and buying a bunch of new UL gear. Start by leaving behind items you don’t need. Less is more. Live simply. Happy trails!


 

To give you some more ideas, here are some of my favorite lightweight items in my backpacking kit.

Sawyer Squeeze water filter

La Sportiva Ultra Raptor shoe

Patagonia Sun-Stretch long sleeve shirt

Petzl E-Lite Headlamp

Patagonia Fitz Roy down jacket

Black Diamond Distance-Z carbon trekking pole

Dirty Girl Gaiters

 

Also, here is a great opinion piece about UL backpacking from one of my favorite blogs.

November in Gothic

On the second to last day of October I came across a set of bear tracks. My friend Richard and I had set out from Gothic on bikes and were six miles up valley when the snow became too deep to ride. The tracks appeared in the snow, large and clawed. Unmistakable. We followed them for over half a mile up the road until they meandered up the hillside. Strange, I thought, that the bear should be wandering up in elevation, into deepening snow. Surely it was focused foremost on food, in the midst of building the last of its fat layer before hibernating. What it hoped to find in the snow I know not.

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Bear tracks are good reminder that there are animals out there that can kill you. Photo by Richard.

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October in Gothic

Aspen trees show their bones beneath the austere buttresses of Gothic Mountain, and elk wander among green spruce and grey willow. Light and warmth fade from day as the season slowly arcs along its eternal circle. All things tire and bend towards death. Winter approaches.

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Backpacking The Sierra High Route

After graduating college and spending a month on the PCT, I received an exciting invitation. It was from my badass mountain biker/backcountry skier/climber/ER doc (sound familiar?) cousin-in-law Tom, and it was for a week-long backpacking trip in the High Sierra. I’d just hiked the entire JMT, but I knew I had to go back to the Sierras because 1: they’re incredible, 2: it would be my first trip with Tom, and 3: he promised me the trip would be a “fine counterpoint” to the JMT (in other words, way better). The plan was to traverse west to east across the Sierra during the second week of September, mostly following the spine of the Great Western Divide. Our route would essentially be a summertime crossing of the famed Sierra High Route (SHR), a classic ski traverse seen by many as California’s answer to the Haute Route of the Swiss Alps, sans plush mountain huts. Since it is typically done over snow, the SHR is entirely off trail save for the first and last few miles, and it also stays high above tree line for the vast majority of its duration. This means it’s void of people, heavy on talus-hopping, and highly conducive to peak-bagging. Read on →

Breckenridge Crest Half Marathon

The “Breck Crest”  is a 20-year Breckenridge, Colorado footrace tradition described as “quintessential Breckenridge” by race director Jeff Westcott.  The marathon and half-marathon courses bring racers just beneath the peaks of the 10-Mile Range–the town’s stunning backdrop and setting of the famed Breckenridge Ski Resort–before descending dirt road through the resort boundaries. I opted for the shorter distance because “up & downs,” as I like to call them, have become somewhat my specialty. Or maybe it’s just that I haven’t raced much else.

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Kendall Mountain Run Recap

By mid July it was high time to put my summer training to the test. As chance would have it, my dad had notified me he’d be visiting Colorado with two friends to race the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton on July 18th. He suggested I race as well–I’d get to see a new part of Colorado, eat good food and drink good beer (for free), race against some serious competition, and (most importantly!) get to spend time with my father. Read on →