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GoreTex Grand Traverse: Q&A with Team Crested Butte’s Jon Brown

GoreTex Grand Traverse Logo

The GoreTex Grand Traverse (formerly the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse) is the grand-daddy of North American ski traverses.  Departing Crested Butte at midnight, the unsupported course climbs roughly 40 miles past two checkpoints before finishing down Aspen Mountain into the town of Aspen. Because the race takes place on an unmarked and largely unsupported course through the Colorado backcountry, the race is completed as a team of two, and racers are required to carry the equipment necessary to make an emergency 24 hour bivouac.


The night start, huge mileage, variable terrain, and historically varied weather make this a race to be reckoned with. Racers need to keep themselves warm, hydrated, fueled and, well, racing for 8-14 hours. Compared to the Wasatch Powderkeg or other North American SkiMo races, it is logistically complex.

This year will be my first in the race and I, like many first time racers, had a lot of questions. Jon Brown, from Team Crested Butte, was gracious enough to talk training, gear, and strategy with me.

Team Crested Butte

Old school Team Crested Butte at Grandvalira. LtoR: Jon Brown, Jari Kirkland, Brian Wickenhauser & Eric Sullivan

Jon Brown is a member of Team Crested Butte, and he has raced the Grand Traverse 10 out of the last 12 years. He and his partner Brian Smith won the 2006 traverse by a hair, sneaking across the finish line between another pair of racers.

He started nordic skiing in highschool but since discovering SkiMo skis, his nordic kit has been collecting dust in his garage. Jon began his race career as a mountain bike racer after graduating from Western State Colorado University, paying the bills by working as a raft guide, barista, and snowmobile guide. In his 30s he moved to Gunnison where he started a small publishing company and started adventure racing with Team Crested Butte.

TCB has since evolved from an adventure racing team into one of the strongest SkiMo teams in North America.

1 It’s not quite January, and the race is basically 3 months away. If I want to structure my season to build up to this event, how should I approach my training?

With roughly 3 months before the race you have a lot if time to train your body and dial in gear, but you also have a lot of time to worry about your fitness and overthink your gear!  My suggestion is to not get too wrapped up in it.  
 
Depending on how much time you have and your access to snow you’ll want to get out and do a considerable amount of skinning, but you can also supplement your training with running, cycling or any other aerobic activity. If you have plenty of time and easy access to snow you’ll want to do a couple of shorter days with high intensity and a couple of longer slower days. If time permits, throw in a really long day (6+ hours) every third week or so. I also think mixing it up with some Nordic (skate or classic) is helpful. Although lightweight gear has allowed the race to evolve into an AT event, there are plenty of times I was happy I had done a few kilometers of skating leading up to the race.
 
As far as the terrain, it’s largely low angle skinning. 40-some miles with less than 8000 vertical gain is pretty flat. For fitness, vert is great! But for technique and getting your feet ready, it’s advisable to do longer, low angle tours. I’ve experienced this where I have spent hours in my boots skinning up the resort only to be crippled by blisters from a short, flattish tour in the same boots.  
 
Since a good chunk of the race is at night, it’s best to be comfortable skiing by headlamp. With the sun coming up at 7 and going down at 5, most of us already have at least a bit of experience with this. If you don’t, it’s worth your time to get out for a couple of adventures in the dark.
 
Even after doing the GT for 10 years I like to throw in a trial run 2-3 weeks out. I put on the full pack and ski with my partner for a solid 8 hrs. This gives a chance to iron out any details and have plenty of time to recover.  The week leading up to the race is really low key with some skiing but no intensity. 
If at all possible, do a couple of warm up events like Power of Four, Five Peaks, or the Gothic Mountain Tour. These will give you a good measure of your fitness. Of the three, the Gothic Mountain most closely models the GT with low-angle skinning and a nice rolling skate to the finish.
Last tidbit: You can’t plan for everything and having a great, adaptable attitude can be just as important as countless hours of skinning.
Jon Brown skinning at the 2012 Wasatch Powderkeg, Brighton, UT.

Jon Brown skinning at the 2012 Wasatch Powderkeg, Brighton, UT.

 
2 It seems like the GT has undergone a transformation from Nordic- to AT-centered gear. There’s still a lot of talk about kick wax, which is all-Greek to my alpine skiing ears. How do you approach the low-angle terrain and rolling variety of the course? How do you approach skins on/off decisions during the race?
 
It seems that the equipment has caught up to the original spirit that the creators of the GT had originally envisioned; The euros were doing similar races on AT gear for years and from what I understand, the GT was based on some of the classics like the PDG, Pierra Menta and Mezzalama. Since the GT course isn’t quite as steep and treacherous as what is offered in Europe, Nordic gear made the top spot on the podium and has had its place there for all but the last few years. 
 
In recent years AT/Rando/Skimo gear has gotten so light, offering all the performance of an alpine set up while skinning more efficiently than a Nordic set up. The advantage has really shifted to AT. Some folks might disagree, but having skied the traverse many times on Nordic gear, I wouldn’t do it again if I had any choice in the matter.
With AT gear, there can be a lot of talk about skins: type, length, width etc. Full mohair skins offer surprisingly good glide and 4×4 kick… when you are carrying a full GT pack and coming across variable snow conditions the grip that skins provide is predictable and outweighs any short term gains from going with kick wax. During the 2013 edition there were a couple of guys in the top 5 that were amazing skiers and were able to be competitive with a Nordic set up, but for the average skier it was considerably more efficient and fast to use skins.  
 
As far as transitions, there are only a few throughout the race. Since the race starts at the base area of Crested Butte, skins are on until we descend into the East River valley. At that point, the conditions determine whether or not it’s possible to skate, skin or hike. Once the Brush Creek drainage is reached, skins are back on all the way up Star Pass. Skins go back on at the bottom of Star and are on until the drop into the Barnard Hut. Some folks will strip skins on the “rollers” approaching the hut but generally you can leave them on through this section.
Grand Traverse Course Map

Grand Traverse Course Map

From the Barnard Hut to the Sun Deck its a guessing game – I don’t know if I have ever done the same thing twice through here. Last year I did a lot of skating and hiking with my skis in hand: it seems as though each year you run across very different conditions and you have to be ready to adapt to whatever you encounter.
 
3 Probably more than half of GT written media centers around gear. I assume that I’m not the only person who harbors some anxieties about my gear being too heavy, yet I can’t afford to buy entirely new CAMP kit and a single-antenna beacon. How much does weight really matter, and if you had to focus on only a few pieces of gear, which would they be? 
 
There are a few ways to answer this question, and depending on your goals there are a variety of answers. First, you have to really think about what you and your partner want to get out of the race:
If you are looking to win, yes weight of the gear is a crucial factor. Every ounce adds up and over the course of 8 to 12 hours you’ll absolutely feel that weight. If a podium spot is not your goal, then your options open up. Until recently, Nordic gear has been the kit of choice, but really, anything skate, classic or BC type Nordic would work. I still see folks with tele gear too – basically its possible to ski to Aspen from CB on just about any type of ski gear.  
As far as the type ski/binding/boot – the most important part is that it fits and you are comfortable skiing in/on it.  

 

Elk Mountains Grand Traverse Gear

GoreTex Grand Traverse Gear: (1) Camp X3 600 30L pack with bottle holder. (2) Bothy Bag (3) Pot w/mandatory gear, headlamp (4) Camp Flash Anorak and Pants (5) CAMP Probe and Shovel (6) Extra baselayers and socks (7) Beacon, Goggles w/light lenses, Sunglasses, CAMP windmitten (8) Required insulating layers.

When it comes to the mandatory gear there are a lot of places to save weight (and a lot of places to spend money). It’s always interesting to see the range of pack sizes at gear check. You can definitely pick out the first timers as they look in wonder at some of the vets’ impossibly small packs. It seems that every year there is some new tech fabric that comes out that is thinner, lighter, and higher-performance, allowing for ever smaller lighter packs.
Making sure that you have the exact amount required and nothing more is one way to shrink your pack. The podium contenders wont carry an extra centimeter of duct tape, cord, bailing wire, bandaids etc. I’m not recommending that you pare down your pack at the expense of safety – it’s important for you to evaluate your own personal/team situation and needs and then strip away what you don’t need.  
Elk Mountains Grand Traverse Hard Goods Gear

GoreTex Grand Traverse Hard Goods: (1) SkiTrab Gara Aero World Cup Skis with Trab TR Race Binding(2) SkiTrab Race Poles (3) MSR Titanium Pot (4) Required medical and repair equipment (5) Required gear fits inside titanium pot (6) and stows in a clean package.

 
Looking at the official gear list there are a couple of items that I feel are well worth the money and are useful outside the race. For a wind shell, I use a CAMP Flash jacket. It is THE most practical performance jacket that I have ever owned. It is light-weight and protects from wind and light moisture. It stows as a waist belt and can be put on without having to stop and take off your pack: It’s perfect!  
Pot/lid, fuel and lighter: I invested in a titanium pot that met the minimum requirement with a titanium Esbit wing stove. Its crazy small, light, fulfills the requirements, and it’s useful enough to keep it in my BC pack for emergencies. Last year, I saw some folks take a full tent as their emergency shelter; It met the requirement but honestly, throwing down $40 for a 2 person emergency shelter is worth it. This is another item that is practical enough to have in your BC kit full time as well.
Elk Mountains Grand Traverse Gear Clothing

GoreTex Grand Traverse Gear Clothing (1) SkiTrab Sintesi Helmet (2) Headband (3) Trab Speedsuit (Dynafit equivalent) (4) CAMP G Comp Wind Power glove with integrated wind mitten (5) CAMP flash anorak (6) Mohair race skins

Your shovel is another piece that is easily pared down, though the shovel I use is not one that I carry at any other time outside of racing – the CAMP Crest shovel is designed to meet ISMF regulations and it’s tiny: it weighs less than 9 oz.  
 

It is easy to get wrapped up in all the details, weights, choices, etc. but what I think is the most essential piece that isn’t mentioned on the list is a positive attitude and sense of adventure. That should not be overlooked. If you and your partner are on the same page as far as goals and expectations and put adequate time on/in your gear, anxiety should be replaced with excitement and an amazing experience.

Many thanks to Jon Brown for his help and wisdom. Please continue this conversation in the comment belows:
Do you have more questions about the GT? 
You can help to support Mountain Lessons by updating your race gear. A good place to start is with the Dynafit PDG Race ski. With all of the performance of a world cup race ski at half the price, it’s what I use and love. Take your kit to the next level by clicking the photo below!
Dynafit PDG Ski

Dynafit PDG Ski: 3 lbs 8 oz per pair.

19 Comments

  • Paddy on Feb 13, 2014 Reply

    Does your Trab TR binding have a “flat” walk mode? Do you feel like you need one for the largely low-angle coarse, or does your boot’s cuff articulation negate the need for a flat walk?

    • Patrick Fink on Feb 17, 2014 Reply

      I’ll field this one Paddy. The TR, like most race bindings, doesn’t have a “flat” mode where the heel comes all the way down to the ski surface.

      When I first started using the Dynafit TLT speed superlight, I wondered if I would miss this feature. I honestly don’t notice much of a difference, even on flat ground. The covered binding pins are still lower than the first riser on standard dynafit, which I will notice if skinning on the flat.

      I’m sure that the boot articulation helps ad you might notice this more with a less-flexible walk mode.

  • Martin on Jan 08, 2014 Reply

    Any advice about blister prevention? I’ve been using moleskin and thin liner socks (Bridgedale), which has been working well during training, but the moleskin adhesive comes adrift after a few hours.

    • jon on Jan 08, 2014 Reply

      Through adventure racing I’ve found that sportslick (http://www.sportslick.com) works well for shorter durations but nothing beats leukotape (http://www.amazon.com/BSN-Medical-Leukotape-Sports-Tape/dp/B000H94TAQ). It may look like other types of athletic tape but there is no substitute for this stuff.

    • Patrick Fink on Jan 08, 2014 Reply

      If you want to keep using moleskin, I suggest getting ahold of some tincture of benzoin. You apply it before the moleskin and it forms a sticky layer that keeps the moleskin on much longer.

      I’ve also used ENGO patches, which you apply to your liner or boot where you usually form blisters. That can be more of a preventative measure. Honestly though, I don’t often get blisters, which I largely attribute to spending lots of time in my boots and more importantly to maintaining the right balance of snug and loose in my boot fit while skinning. Too loose makes for blistahs.

    • Christof Stork on Jan 12, 2014 Reply

      I think blisters is the main reason people fail to complete the race. I found using silicon patches much better than mole skin. The silicon patches are right next to the mole skin at a drug store. Put them on hot spots before a blister develops!

      If you get many blisters, you need new boots. The hardshell boots need to fit perfectly.

  • Christof Stork on Jan 04, 2014 Reply

    Any suggestions on how to handle the possible wet stream crossing?

    • jon on Jan 08, 2014 Reply

      Hi Christof – We had one year that the big talk was the open water in the East River valley. Everyone was coming up with all sorts of trash bag set ups – inside boots, outside boots etc. One guy drilled holes in the bottom of his boots to aid draining. In the end, everyone pretty much got their feet wet and the bags did little to help. If there is open water this year – you are going to get your feet wet, that’s the bottom line. Knowing that, I would adjust my strategy by either taking a minute after the last crossing to change socks or lube/tape your feet so that you don’t get blisters from having soft/wet skin. Also, it’s been my experience that my feet are usually so wet from sweat by the time I get to Aspen I may as well have walked through a stream!

  • Alex S. on Jan 03, 2014 Reply

    I second the question about water systems and nutrition schedules! How are you remaining consistent with food and hydration?

    Also, I use pomoca race pro skins (the pink ones!) and I was wondering if these are sufficient. I remember seeing an older article, maybe by Brian Wickenhauser, that said he puts gold label glue on his race skins for colder CO temps. Is that true still?
    I plan on bringing a spare pair and I wonder also whether having more traction in my second pair would be a good thing, like a mohair mix. Or will good technique suffice?

    Lastly, I dont see ski crampons in the photos. Have you ever decided to bring these?

    Thanks!
    Alex

    • Christof Stork on Jan 03, 2014 Reply

      For food: I put Hammer PERPETUEM in my water. No need to stop. No digestion problems.
      For water: I like the camelback because I can drink a small amount every 15-30 minutes without dealing with the pack. I don’t have those fancy shoulder strap holders. I like the 100 oz of camelback next to my warm back. Buy a hose insulation kit with mouthpiece protector. After you drink, blow on the hose to push water back in the camelback to put air in the hose a bit. If the hose still freezes, stick it in the backpack.

    • jon on Jan 08, 2014 Reply

      Hey Alex-
      I think the whole water and nutrition thing is very personal… meaning that each person is going to have different needs. I have gotten over to Aspen on little more than a packet of gel and 12 oz of water- it wasn’t pretty, but my stomach was a mess and my water had frozen within the 1st half hour!
      Typically a person should take in around 200-300 calories an hour (keep in mind i’m not a nutritionist – this is based on my experience rather than science). The degree of intensity usually dictates what I eat – in a super intense skimo race, gel is it but the GT is a little longer and I am able to get down more solid “food”.
      I’m not sure if this answers your question but you should experiment through your training – don’t change your plan for race day. The race should really just be an extension of your training.

      With regard to skins – your Pomocas will be great! I would absolutely bring a second set … I hesitate to call this pair a backup because you will want to alternate between the 2 sets. If you take care to keep them out of the snow when stripping them, wipe your bases down before sticking them on and keep the pair you aren’t using against your base layer they should hold up the whole race. Grip shouldn’t be an issue – if you have a 3/4 to full length mohair skin you are set. A nylon skin is less ideal because it is quite a bit slower but it will get the job done.

      I’ve never some across conditions in the GT where I felt that a crampon would be necessary.

  • Taylor on Jan 03, 2014 Reply

    Awesome article! The more information I read the calmer I become. I had a couple more newbie questions.

    Is it totally ridiculous to wear a gore pant? I don’t own softshell bottoms but it’s starting to seem like perhaps I should. I’d rather not purchase a bunch of new clothing for the race. Is this a no-brainer or can I make my lightweight gore-tex work? Are there other clothing choices that would be more important?

    I seem to have constant water struggles. Do you guys use bladders and if so what is the preferred method for keeping the hoses unfrozen? Nothing more frustrating than schlepping water you can’t access. I’ve noticed that your backpacks have bottle attachments in front. Do you rely mostly on this?

    To keep it very simple; do you stagger your eating approx. every half hour? What’s a good rule for deciding how many snacks to bring?

    Thanks so much! Stoked about the race.

    • jon on Jan 08, 2014 Reply

      Hi Taylor – Gore-Tex is fine! If you typically tour in that set and you are comfortable in it then you should be comfortable in the race. I run super hot personally, so I wouldn’t use a shell but I also never use one unless I’m riding lifts or standing around on a windy exposure. Also, it’s pretty rare to overheat from your legs being too warm – on top its a different deal. When your core overheats that can be somewhat uncomfortable.

      I do have a bladder but I have a “custom” base layer that I sewed a sleeve onto and I put the badder in this sleeve on the front of my base layer… it’s pretty easy to do and it keeps your water from freezing (it makes me look like I have been spending more time drinking beer than skiing but it works). The other benefit to this is that it takes a good deal of weight off my back – the result is less strain on shoulders and much more balanced descending off of Star Pass.
      I also have a bottle on the shoulder strap of my pack – I use this for any chances of a quick fill along the way. We aren’t supposed to rely on water on the course but on occasion I have gotten water/broth at Friends and Barnard.

      With the food – I try and get 2-3 hundred calories and hour. I think that you have to figure your own routine and food choices … everyone seems to have different tastes and tolerances. Fine tune your nutrition during your training missions and don’t change it up for the race.

      If you want any more details on the “custom” base layer let me know ,,, I can get some pics posted.

  • Jon Brown on Jan 03, 2014 Reply

    Great questions Chris – Patrick is spot on with the gear… my choices are made through the light and fast lens. Standing around in a speed suit can be a chilling experience but skinning uphill stokes the fire remarkably well. We have had a number of early mornings that were below -10 and I haven’t worn anything more than a wool base layer and a thin soft shell (usually unzipped with in the first few minutes).
    The helmet is not required for the GT but because it is mandatory for skimo racing I have gotten in the habit of wearing it and now feel naked with out it.
    With regard to the course… the sections you mentioned can definitely be waxed or skinned with modified skins. It is really condition dependent but it’s been my experience that the efficiency gained from a mohair skin outweighs any increased glide you might gain. If you have impeccable classic technique you might see some gains here but for most at this stage in the race fatigue offsets the potential gain. When it comes to the section after the Richmond climb, yes, ripping skins here is faster. From the Barnard Hut to the finish there are a number of different options that are viable and skating once you reach the top of Richmond is the fastest option, without a doubt.

  • Christof Stork on Jan 02, 2014 Reply

    Nice Q&A. My follow on questions: The article seems to suggest that a helmet is required, but helmet is not required? Also, I didn’t see much good thermal gear in the gear pictures? What is the bailing wire good for? Are mohair skins that much faster than nylon skins? There are two flat areas where it seems thin skins or kick wax are really useful: the 4 mile stretch before Taylor Pass, and the 5 mile stretch after the Richmond Hill climb?

    • Patrick Fink on Jan 02, 2014 Reply

      Chris, I’ll answer as well as I know and hopefully Jon or Brian can jump in and add to what I have.

      A helmet isn’t on the required list, but some prefer to use it and are probably used to having it– eg Jon probably has his head warmth dialed with just the helmet and headband, but without the helmet would choose a beefier hat.

      As for thermal kit, anyone wearing a speed suit is to some degree relying on movement for warmth, but #8 in the first picture shows what I think are a puffy jacket an puffy pants, which could be used over the speed suit in really cold conditions. If you’re moving, a wind layer over base layers can really make up for a lot. My friends think I’m nuts, but I usually tour in just a wind jacket over my baselayers, and that’s more than enough warmth, down to about -5F.

      The baling wire is required gear, as I’m guessing you know. It could be used to repair a busted binding or boot. Not idea, but probably workable enough to get you out.

      Skins: This I have experienced recently. Mohair is worlds better than nylon on moderate terrain. It gives you a lot more glide. A startling difference really. That additional glide really adds up in energy savings on longer tours. The decreased traction is only really noticeable in truly challenging skinning conditions, and you can make up for a lot of it with better technique.

      I can’t speak to the course, so hopefully B/J can jump in on that one. Hope this helps! -P

  • Ethan on Jan 02, 2014 Reply

    Great article. As another first timer here, a lot of what my partner and I talk about is pacing and meeting the cutoffs. We can certainly crank out fast miles in training, but it’s hard to anticipate how pace lags over 40 miles. Do you see a lot of recreational entrants struggling to meet the cutoffs each year? Any advice on falling into a sustainable rhythm?

    Thanks for the wealth of info,
    Ethan

    • Jon Brown on Jan 03, 2014 Reply

      Ethan – It’s a valid concern and I don’t know the stats as well as Wick might for finishers and those getting caught behind the cutoff. The cutoffs are very reasonable and put in place for safety reasons only. If you are prepared for the race you should have no problem meeting the cutoff time barring any unforeseen gear, weather, health issues. Something that I learned adventure racing is that it’s important to always be moving … as the race goes on and you are tempted to stop for food, mess with gear, put your headlamp away etc you lose time. It may not seem like much but if you can keep moving through these situations you save yourself a lot of time. Set up your pack so that your partner can reach essential pieces, eat and drink on the move and try to minimize time at any necessary stops.

    • Christof Stork on Jan 03, 2014 Reply

      Star Pass is 15-16 miles and 4000-4500 ft of vertical from the start. I think the vertical is harder than the distance. You will be doing flats for ~1 hour, so you have 7 hours for the vertical. If you can average a pace of 700 feet of vertical per hour or better, you should be OK.

      I was worried about cutoff times last year. I’m old and slow, but made it with time to spare. I think the only cutoff time that counts is Star Pass. If you have no chance of making Star Pass, they stop you at Friends’ hut. If you make Star Pass, the other cutoff times are easy and I’m not sure the Barnard hut cutoff time is hard.

      Last year, at the back of the pack, everyone was intense getting up to Star Pass. Once over Star Pass, everyone gets relaxed, big smiles, good vibe.

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