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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.
This year, after enduring a “Grand Reverse” together in 2016 (and an additional Grand Reverse for Ethan, in 2014), we managed to avoid major catastrophes, ski the traditional route to Aspen, and sneak into the top 10 overall in 8:51. Though the intention was to retire from the race for a while due to its logistical hurdles and expense, we’re already thinking about how to improve our performance for the hypothetical future. With that in mind, here are 20 tips, aimed at racers looking for an efficient pilgrimage through the Elks:
- Whatever you do, don’t stop moving. After the limits of Ethan’s acclimation became clear around the 4 hour mark, our pace slowed considerably from our ambitious start. By limiting pauses to transitions and the mandatory 10-minute medical check at Barnard Hut, however, we avoided losing more places than we might have otherwise.
- This requires a system of eating and drinking that can be deployed on the move. We kept food and water (gels/gummies and soft flasks) in our skin suit pockets to keep them easily accessible and prevent then from freezing. If you aren’t going full spandex, you should nonetheless consider how to use body heat to your advantage in this respect.
- Everyone has different calorie requirements, but by averaging ~150 calories/hr we avoided both bonking (a.k.a. calorie crash) and nausea. We brought energy gels and chews, but the important thing is simply to test out your fueling ahead of time.
- Similarly, if you spend most of your life below 6,000 feet, continuing to hydrate is a critical component of mitigating the deleterious effects of altitude. Bring some sports drink, bring some canned coffee, bring whatever it takes to keep drinking. If it comes with easy to digest calories, all the better.
- Learn to skate on your touring equipment. Granted, the amount of skating that can be done depends on the conditions and thus differs year to year. But with a firm crust and good skating technique, the first 10 or so miles out Brush Creek will fly by.
- If you think you will race the GT more than once, invest in light and packable items from the mandatory gear list. Some pieces where you can save big on weight and space include: down pants, emergency shelter, sleeping pad, stove, pot, shovel, and hydration system.
- While training, spend as much time above 11,000’ as you can. Once you pass the Friends Hut en route to Star Pass, the next 20 or so miles are above 11k. There is a reason why most of the teams in the top ten are typically from Crested Butte and/or Aspen. Living at 8000′ to 9000′ offers a significant advantage.
- Get your headlamp / helmet configuration absolutely dialed ahead of time. Despite a few zip-ties, Ethan’s repeatedly flopped down over his face when hitting uneven snow during descents, resulting getting passed and near crashes.
- Buy, demo, borrow, or steal skimo race equipment. (Alternatively, have an inordinate amount of nordic talent and rock skate skis.) The energy tradeoff and increased enjoyability is worth the expense.
- Most of us don’t get to slide on skis more than once or twice a week, and that’s OK. When you do have the time and desire to train on snow — assuming you get a significant amount of aerobic exercise elsewhere (e.g., running or biking) — focus on a few key workouts and building skills that will help you in the race. For example, while spending most of the winter in rainy Seattle, Ethan ran most days, skied for pleasure about once a week, and only completed three days that would really qualify as targeted workouts: a 10,000K’ skinning day on a Forest Service road to condition the mind to monotony, a 7th place finish while competing in NWAC’s Alpental Vertfest skimo race, and 6 miles of easy skating on race gear at Grand Mesa after arriving in Colorado. Two weeks before the race, we knocked out a fast 28 miles on similar terrain. (Caveat: if you want to win this, you’re going to have to train like Gaston & Taam. Rumor has it they typically throw down 50k vert weeks).
- A few words on tow ropes: many racers — from the back of the pack to the podium — swear by the utility of a 15-20 foot elastic cord to maintain a constant distance between team members. As different partners may struggle at different times during the course, it can be a powerful tool to continue without frequent stops to close the gap. (Recall that pairs must remain within sight of each other at all times or risk disqualification.) When Ethan was suffering from a lack of acclimation during last year’s event, we tried this strategy but concluded it wasn’t worth the hassle for us. Spend some time testing it out and decide for yourself. If your ego can handle it, it could make the difference between a 10 hour finish and a 14 hour slog.
- For many backcountry skiers, this will be self-apparent, but it bears repeating: by far and away, the critical piece of gear for a successful race is your boots. Make sure they fit and are at least reasonably comfortable for the long haul. (This is also a primary reason you want to be sure to get in a long, 5+ hour ski with your race gear.)
- To skin up or not to skin up? That is the question. A lot of time can be saved or lost by tactical decisions regarding what you do or do not have on the bases of your skis. Some of the transitions on the GT are obvious, but many are not. Often the safest bet is to do what other racers around you are doing. A gamble, however, may sometimes be worth it. For instance, during the rolling, seven-mile Richmond Ridge that precedes the final descent to Aspen, a team close to us swapped their skins for kick wax and quickly glided out of sight. Thankfully, at least, we had waxed our skins the day before the race with the same glide wax we used for our bases. Though it wasn’t kick wax, this made a substantial difference in glide while skinning. Efficiency on rolling and low-grade terrain can further be explored with a pair of short and narrow “kicker” skins.
- Pacing for this race is a fickle fish to fry. Our two cents: shelling out negative splits for 40 miles in the middle of the night isn’t child’s play, but may not be the best strategy either. It can be to your advantage to break from the herd early on in order to avoid crowded descents and snow bridges over Brush Creek broken by the stampede ahead of you. We were glad to have pushed hard on the first climb out of the resort because what followed was a very fast and somewhat icy groomer descent. It seems most teams start hard and finish with whatever they have left.
- We’re close friends with closely matched skill sets and fitness, and spent many long hours in the mountains together before ever considering pairing for the GT. As a result, there was little chance that the physical toll and mental stress of the event would cause tempers to flare or otherwise highlight weak points in our partnership. Nonetheless, because identifying fellow masochists can take some work, many racers do form teams with relative strangers. If this applies to you, we can only reiterate the importance of getting in at least one long tour together, and ideally having some honest conversations about how to react when shit hits the fan.
- Yeah, more on shit hitting the fan: even a week after the event, Ethan considers the GT roughly as difficult as his sufferfest at Leadville 100 7 months prior. There’s a lot that makes this race an exceptionally challenging endurance event: sleep deprivation, altitude, cold, heavy packs, remoteness, a lack of aid stations, variable snow conditions. More than anything else, though, the potential for something to go wrong and derail your race is a very real concern. Though the extensive mandatory gear list attempts to address this, it’s hard to imagine how bailing wire can help when your Dynafits pull out of abused race skis. Unfortunately, there’s no real advice to give here, only the suggestion that you prepare yourself for the worst. Eric Sullivan did, and ran from Star Pass to the finish line (~23 miles) this year with a broken boot. A level of grit we should all aspire to.
- Having a “Silver Bullet” — e.g. music, redbull, espresso, ibuprofein, viagra, heady crystals, whatever — can be a game changer when you’re at mile 25 and you’re starting to wonder if you’ll ever make it to Aspen. We each packed a Starbucks “Doubleshot” and slammed them at the Barnard Hut aid station, which is a mandatory 10-minute stop. The wonderful crew at Barnard served hot ramen (more broth than ramen), which was also a wonderful pick-me-up.
- Perhaps most importantly of all, don’t forget why you’re doing this. When the milky way finally fades and dawn begins to break — the orange sliver of a waning moon slipping beneath the ragged fringe of some of the highest mountains in the lower 48 — put your pain and the stress of competition aside and take a moment to recall that there are few places you’d rather be. And if there are, consider taking up golf instead.
- Thank the volunteers! It’s easy to keep chugging through each checkpoint, focused on reeling in the team in front of you. But don’t forget this race wouldn’t happen without the dozens of volunteers who check you in, check out your gear, give you sweet schwag, stand in the frigid dark, feed you pastries and chili at the finish line.
- There is little question that Crested Butte is the better and more soulful mountain town. Correspondingly, food in Aspen is terrible and overpriced. In a standard course year, enjoy the post-race buffet and then jet down to Carbondale for beers and grub at Dos Gringos, Carbondale Beer Works, or Roaring Fork Beer Company. In the unfortunate incident of a Grand Reverse, drown your sorrows with the best tap list on the Western Slope at The Brick Oven, or with cheap margaritas at Teocali Tamale. (During the long car shuttle back to the start line, refuel in Paonia at Nelles. Order “The Pile.”)