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Apr 06

2017

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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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May 27

2016

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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.

Apr 15

2016

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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 →

Feb 17

2016

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Skimo Racing Vertfest Alpental 2016: 1st Place

The forecast called for temperatures in the 40s. As the weekend approached, the weatherman started calling for one to two inches of rain. The freezing level was above the mountaintops. Conditions were perfect for skimo racing.

Ok. That’s a lie. As Taylor and I drove to Washington on Saturday and mountain biked in the rain, I thought strongly about bailing from the second Vertfest race at Alpental. Stupid me, I had preregistered for the race, which is for some reason the most expensive ninety minutes of skimo that I know of. I should have known better– when we raced here two years ago, it was also raining.

Still, there are only so many races in the PNW, so we decided to make a classic alpine maneuver and “go have a look”. Perhaps in terrible weather, and with much more attractive races beckoning from the rockies to those with flexible schedules, we might find ourselves the only ones there.

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Vertfest start, with yours truly center-punching it in white suit, orange helmet. (Image stolen shamelessly from Kurt Hicks Überguide).

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Feb 12

2016

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Skimo Racing Vertfest Mt Bachelor 2016: 2nd Place

Last weekend, Taylor and I drove to Central Oregon for the second skimo race of the short PNW season. Mt Bachelor hosts the smallest of the Vertfest races, but of the three (others: Brighton and Alpental) it has the most lighthearted vibe and fun atmosphere.

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Aaron, Me, and Tosch, getting ready to warm up under less-than-sunny skies. (Photo: Jesse Hambley)

I raced skimo here two years ago and surprised myself with a third place finish. Coming back this year, now with unflattering speed suit and real race skis, I wanted to win. The week before the race I felt well-trained and strong, but I also went backcountry skiing a bit too much. A couple of long days left my legs feeling a bit flat, and when race day rolled around, skimo psych wasn’t particularly high.

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Sprinting off the front after the start (Photo: Jeff Snyder)

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Feb 07

2016

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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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Jan 24

2016

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Free Range Skimo Race: 2nd Place

There aren’t that many skimo races in the Pacific Northwest, in part because the sport is only beginning to take root and in part because local ski resorts (I’m looking at you Mt Bachelor) have not been welcoming of race series. Consequently, if you want to race, you get to drive. Still, after three straight weeks of full-time studying and a cabin fever mental breakdown, driving five hours from Portland for an hour of racing didn’t sound so bad to me.

Last night’s race was hosted by Free Range Equipment at the rootsy Hoodoo Ski Area as part of the Hoodoo Backcountry Fest. I’m not sure what’s backcountry about the backcountry fest, but there were tele slalom comps, fatbike races, and parking lot parties raging when I arrived. Between the beer and the bluegrass it seems like a pretty good time.

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The race was the brainchild of Tosch Roy, friend and founder of Free Range Equipment. He and his indefatigable mother set a course of glowsticks through a closed area of Hoodoo under the afternoon’s rain and remained cheerful as contestants arrived. The rain, thankfully, switched to snow.

Tosch, usually a strong racer, was out with a cold, but still stoked. His new packs (the Big Medicine and Raven) are slick, capable, and minimalist. More on those later.

Tosch, usually a strong racer, was out with a cold, but still stoked. His new packs (the Big Medicine and Raven) are slick, capable, and minimalist. More on those later.

The course was a single 650-vertical-foot drag race along a flat groomer and then up a pair of steep headwalls. Following the transition came a road, a tuck and throttle dark and shadowy groomer, and a well-lit but super-icy-chunky steep face to the lap flag. The race division made four laps for 2700′ in just under four miles. One tricky race rule was the lack of a mandatory transition zone at the base, with skating permitted to the end of the flat groomer (if skating is your thing). Read on →

Feb 23

2015

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No Excuses Interview Series: Tosch Roy

The No Excuses Interview Series explores the approaches and personalities of athletes who are inspiring in both the quality and consistency of their achievements. They’re real people doing great things. What they do, you can too, if you want it.

For part three of the no excuses interview series, we’re joined by Tosch Roy, a nordic racer turned skimo mutant at the helm of a svelte technical pack company, Free Range Equipment.

Bio

Forced on to a pair of skis at the age of three, Tosch trained and raced as a nordic skier through high school, at which point, the mountains around Central Oregon proved to be too much of a distraction to a career in cross-country skiing. Tossing aside the skinny skis for something (slightly) wider, the Oregon Cascades became a training ground for his fast and light adventures.

Tosch Roy in his playground-- the Oregon Cascades.

Tosch Roy in his playground– the Oregon Cascades.

After traveling abroad for a year, he decided that “studying” (read: skiing/climbing) at Montana State University would give him the best chance of finishing a college degree. While it was a worthy attempt, Roy dropped out after two years to start his business Free Range Equipment which manufactures ski mountaineering and climbing backpacks in his hometown of Bend, OR. Read on →

Jan 31

2015

6

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Training Cadence for Skimo Racing

What separates fast skimo racers from slow skimo racers? Certainly equipment, technique, transitions, and fueling are all important considerations, but I propose that one simple metric sets fast racers apart from the rest: cadence.

In short, cadence is how many strides a racer takes per minute. It makes no measure of how long those strides might be. Cadence is a measure of pure turnover, and interestingly, one thing in common among all of the fastest racers is a fast cadence.

The fastest world cup skimo racers have a cadence of around 110-115 strides per minute. To make that more intuitive, they stride along to the snare-beats of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” at 113 bpm.

(If The Clash annoys you too, try some Pretty Lights).

I’ve heard a few theories about why a faster cadence is good for you, but I can’t say that I agree with them. The easiest argument to make is that if I’m taking 10 more steps per minute, then over an hour, I’m 600 steps ahead. The problem is, this assumes that when you change your turnover, your stride length stays the same. It doesn’t; your stride gets shorter. If it stayed the same length, then the advice that I’m giving you now would be equivalent to saying if you just go faster, then you’ll go faster. Duh.

It's all about the stride length.

It’s all about the stride length.

It’s the change in stride length that is the important result of a faster cadence. Whether you shorten your stride and take more steps to maintain the same speed, or if you increase your cadence and have to modify to a shorter stride to avoid exploding, the result is the same: more steps, shorter steps. Read on →