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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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.


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 →

Living, Working, and Running at 9,500′

I’ve been spending the summer living and working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL, pronounced “rumble”) in Gothic, CO. Life is good. First of all, I get to pursue my love for ecology while being immersed in an inspiring community of scientists and students. Also, I get to run in the mountains every day. Read on →

Ueli Steck Is Just A Dude.

Up at Mt Hood on Saturday evening, Taylor got a text from a connected friend: “Do you guys want to climb with Ueli Steck tomorrow?”

ueli steck signs belay card

Even if you climb thousands of meters ropeless, you still need to sign the belay card.

For those of you less familiar with Ueli: he is a Swiss alpinist best known for speed soloing the North face of the Eiger in 2 hours and 47 minutes. The film about the climb earned him the nickname “The Swiss Machine” for his relentless organization, drive, and power output. He is a two-time winner of the highest honor in climbing, and he recently completed a long-time project, making a first ascent on Annapurna and down-climbing the route solo in 28 hours.

Late Sunday morning, the climbing gym was busy, but not packed. Taylor and I threw on our harnesses and started to climb around, glancing with anticipation towards the door. Midway through a pitch, I heard Taylor call up to me: “He’s here!”

When I lowered off, sure enough, there was the guy I’ve seen in movies, in ads, and across the climbing internet. He was stooped over the iPad at the desk, filling out a waiver. Ushered by Heidi from the local American Alpine Club chapter, he headed to the locker room. He’s short. He’s not duck-footed, as I’d heard, but he does have bowlegs that would make a cowboy jealous. Returning from the locker room, he smiled his way through a perfunctory top-rope belay test with nervous laughter before tying in with the assistant manager, JB Graham, to take a lead test.

JB took a whipper onto Ueli’s belay while a gym member shyly backed-up the Swiss legend. After lowering JB, Ueli tied in and hiked an 11b as a warmup. Not one to miss out on the action, I walked over and started chatting with JB as Ueli lowered. Perfect timing: next thing I know, I’m making small talk with the man who speed soloed the Eiger in under three hours.

ueli steck belaying

JB takes Ueli and his flip-flops for a ride.

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All Paths Lead Nowhere

In the Fall of 2006, I was a freshman at Reed College. I though that I wanted to be a philosophy major, and despite a pronounced lack of experience, I considered myself a competent outdoorsman. With ambition blind to my own abilities, I talked two dorm friends into attempting the Timberline Trail around Mt Hood. At 41 miles in length, and with significant elevation gain, Outside Magazine had hooked me by calling it “the hardest day-hike in America”.

At that time, my idea of lightweight was an underloaded 60L pack, with a small tent, and only one (!) stove for the 3 of us. We didn’t plan to bivy, but goddammit, we were prepared to if it came down to it. And it did. As Yvon Chouinard famously said, if you bring bivy gear, you will bivy. A scant eight miles into the loop, under a drizzle slowly turning to early October snow, we were unable to find the continuation of the trail after it crossed Clark Canyon, a glacial moraine divided by a snowmelt river. We not only bivied there in the tent for a few hours, but subsequently retreated to the nearby ski resort, Mt Hood Meadows, where we spent hours in the abandoned lodge drying our clothing with hand dryers and cooking oatmeal on the floor.

Newton Creek

The Newton Creek trail traces the precipitous edge of the moraine.

While I still have a considerable amount to learn about mountain travel, it’s fun to look back at myself and see, if nothing else, the power of unbridled enthusiasm, and to appreciate the experiences that I’ve had since that which have changed my perspective and my competency in the mountains. Read on →

Gothic, CO

An update from the road:


Taylor and I are holed up in Gothic, CO, a scant 4-mile ski from the town of Crested Butte. This is the summer home of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, but in winter, its many cabins are boarded up save for two, which house the winter caretakers.


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The Hard Easy

Before we begin, a word of caution: the idea that I am about to give you is an infectious one. It sticks irrevocably, like when someone tells you to notice your breathing and then tells you to stop, but you can’t. It could potentially change your behavior for the better.

Today, I want to talk about the Hard Easy. The Hard Easy is not a concept that I invented– like you’re doing now, I absorbed it from a contemporary, likely another NOLS instructor. But it has stuck with me and remained one of my most persistent and potent thought tools.

The concept of the Hard Easy is simple to understand: There are simple yet absolutely crucial tasks throughout our daily life that if tackled will make our lives exponentially easier down the road. Yet, as is the way of the universe, it is incredibly hard to get ourselves to do them. Doing the Hard Easy means recognizing these moments for what they are and simply doing what needs to be done, even though we don’t want to.

Mountain are where you find the hard

Mountains are an ideal place to the learn about the Hard Easy: there are many invitations to cut corners, and all bring immediate consequences. This is where I started to learn: Mt Adams, WA, 2002.

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A Letter from Sunrise Camp.

Sometimes, life runs away from you.  Too much this, a little more of that, and next thing you know, the horse has bucked the reins and you don’t know where you’re riding off to. This summer has been a roller-coaster ride for me: running my first ultra, applying to medical school, moving, finding success in work, really learning how to ride a mountain bike, and discovering the need for change in my personal life. For a minute there, it got away from me, and I wondered what the hell I was doing with myself, but thanks to the wonder of epiphany, I found a moment of perspective in which I saw the need for change. While climbing through a lonely forest wet with an early rain, stewing in my effort, I saw that I was trying to do too much, and had given too little thought to what was really important to me.

That which is important to me are these: health, ambition, tribe, and adventure.  I need a powerhouse of a body to be happy, and it has to be well-fed and well-rested. I draw my daily energy from my ambitions: to make a superlative performance in work and sport, and through these, to inspire and help others. In my ambition, I give birth to adventure which sweeps me up and convinces me time and again that we are not cogs in a hopeless machine. And finally, I need a tribe, a community, to surround me and build with me a world in which we help each other to dream and succeed.

Since that mountain bike ride, I’ve made some changes, most of which have meant saying no to those people, commitments, and opportunities that don’t fuel me. It seems callous to say no and for own well-being cut ourselves free of long-held ties, but if with gritted teeth we make the cut too soon we find ourselves floating higher in the water, moving more swiftly towards our goals unburdened.

I am proud of doing less.


When we do less, we can do more more thoroughly. The thoughtless overachiever may check more boxes from the list, but as accomplishments fall by the wayside they’re forgotten as quickly as undergraduate calculus. Better, I think, to choose your tribe and your path and to feel these selectively and deeply.  Those things that we really do imprint themselves on us, and in serving our tribe, we intertwine ourselves with others.

Who is your tribe? Do you surround yourself with the few who inspire you or the many who give you the false confidence of mediocrity? What do you give to the world? For, as my father says, there are no luggage racks on the hearse.  A name is forgotten, but the heart entangled with that of others creates a story that extends well beyond the grave.

As the seasons change, summer into fall, I will be drawing close to me those that I care about. I want to give back to those who make my world so wonderful, and I want to practice improving theirs. I hope that you’ll consider joining me.

To my readers, among those who inspire me.

Sunrise Camp, Mt Adams, WA. 05:45, 8/26/13, moments before sunrise.