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.
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.
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
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.
3Probably 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.
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.
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.
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?
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