I blame Lucy Conklin. At least, the very unlikely event of me racing The Grand Traverse (GT) Ski Mountaineering Race traces back to her. She caught me at a weak moment with her compelling, emotional yet logical, pitch on why we should partner up and race the Grand Traverse. October 2017, two years into retirement from bike racing, my only stated athletic ambition was to become a ‘respectable’ mountain biker over the next couple of years. To be clear, ski mountaineering was not on my radar.
It certainly was not the high risk of avalanche danger, the navigation skill requirement or the midnight start time, that made her plea appealing. The challenge, the adventure and the fact that I had never done any ski mountaineering, lured me to at least consider the possibility…
At midnight, December 1, we were on the phone and clicking ‘pay now’, securing one of the 220 coveted team spots for the 2018 Grand Traverse.
Through a series of unforeseen events, e.g. Lucy fell in love with Mexico, kite surfing and warm weather, she gracefully bowed out of the GT in early January.
I had committed, registered, and dare I say, was excited about the race. Not to mention, I had begun training, in earnest (for the first time in two years, I had a clear athletic goal, which motivated me to skin to the Four Points or on Buffalo Pass several days each week). I had purchased light SkiMo gear. I spent time learning the basics of the backcountry (e.g. went on a hut trip, went to an avalanche presentation, learned about beacon, probes and shovels!, etc.).
There was no turning back. I just needed a backcountry savvy, athletically talented, navigationally adept partner. Unlike most places in the world, friends with these traits actually exist in Steamboat. Coincidentally (or perhaps through sheer powers of the universe!), I bumped into my friend Mindy Mulliken skinning Bruce’s Trail (a 7-mile trail that connects Rabbit Ears to the Ski Mountain) in January. I explained my situation and asked (begged) her to partner with me for the Grand Traverse.
Not only is Mindy one of the best in the backcountry, and wildly entertaining, she has completed the Grand Traverse twice and has even won the race ten years ago while living in Crested Butte (something that she doesn’t mention without probing). She was the dream partner and agreed to race it with me. Although we didn’t follow a structured training plan, we did complete a handful of long (5-7 hour) skins from January to March.
Gear - BFD
Training for the GT can be a fairly arduous endeavor, only to be matched by obtaining the mandatory gear for the race, and sorting through the logistics of getting to and from a point to point race. The mandatory gear requirements are no joke. After purchasing all that I (my bank account) could stomach, I started borrowing gear from my Steamboat and Boulder SkiMo buddies. The end result – 6 generous friends helping make this race happen by lending out their equipment from an emergency stove, shelter, sleeping pad, first aid, tow rope, head lamp, helmet, down pants, avalanche gear, etc. etc.
Thank you Kyle Lawton, Eric Kenney, Trunks Hendrickson, Brian McGovern, Cara Marrs, Kristen Feiges!
Hitchhiking Plan Averted
After tackling the gear equation, Mindy and I arranged a comically convoluted plan to get to Crested Butte on Friday afternoon and home from Aspen on Saturday involving a rental car, a bike ride to Hayden, hitchhiking, and literally packing no clothes other than what we would wear and carry during the GT. Needless to say, it was complicated, and not the best way to spend the day leading up to a race that begins at midnight. However, two days before the race, we experienced yet another example of the connection and generosity of the Steamboat community. We had a ride to CB with the charming, young locals, Ben and Jimmy, who were competing in the race, and Ben’s lovely fiancé, Sarah, who selflessly agreed to drive all of us there.
The Grand Traverse Reverse
The logistics behind getting 440 athletes across several mountain passes in the middle of the night is no easy task. Safety teams and avalanche crews spend countless hours assessing the risks and dangers leading up to the race, and mitigating the risks wherever possible. We always knew that there was a chance of the ‘Grand Reverse’ (i.e. the race starts and ends in Crested Butte instead of ending in Aspen). At the 1:00pm race meeting the day of our race, they still had not decided.
9:00pm (3 hours before the race start) we learned that we would not go to Aspen from a post on Facebook:
The Snow Safety Teams have called for a Reverse. The highest risk portion of the course, Star Basin, remains uncontrolled and hazardous. The Star Pass Team was turned around twice on their way to the Pass, first by the blizzard, then by an electrical storm. When they finally did reach Star Base, the blizzard ensued all afternoon with whiteout conditions persisting through our 5 p.m. conference call with the Teams. The blizzard continues and leaves the Team with insufficient time to to mitigate avalanche risk in Star Basin. This is the highest risk portion of the course in terms of avalanche danger. Sending 450 racers into this portion of the course is not an option. In spite of concerted efforts to make this a through race, it was a unanimous decision by the snow safety teams that it was not possible for a journey to Aspen this year. Field team members will continue to work through the night to make a Grand Reverse course possible.
Large avalanches were observed in the Crested Butte area today, highlighting the danger that exists on course.
Having never done the Traverse or the Reverse, I knew it would be a great adventure either way.
11:59pm, Friday, March 23
The most challenging part of the race for me (after tracking down gear and getting to Crested Butte) was the midnight start time. Mindy and I met up with friends of hers, Crista and Jay, who generously treated us to dinner, and prevented us from being homeless. Relaxing in their beautiful home in Mt. Crested Butte, we watched inspirational videos and attempted to sleep from 9:00-10:00pm. With 1 hour of sleep under our belts, we threw back coffee, and Jay kindly drove us to the race start. Buzzing with excitement, we hung out with 400+ lycra clad racers in the middle of the night.
Typical of time leading up to a race, the 90 minutes flew by and before we knew it, the adventure that had consumed the majority of my waking (and sleeping) thoughts for the past 5 months had arrived.
The Cliff Notes
So much happens in a 9+ hour race in the backcountry, it’s difficult to succinctly capture the experience.
In a nutshell, the race included a mass start climb, a descent, hours climbing in a forest on single-track (conga line style), a river crossing, a pitch-dark descent in powder that eventually led to a tight forest of single-track, steep downhill skiing, a flat skin, a 1.5-mile skate ski, a 1.5 mile hike on a muddy road, a 4.5 mile hike (in boots) on a single-track mountain bike trail, a skin on Mt. Crested Butte, a short downhill ski, a skate ski uphill and a short groomed downhill to the finish line.
Total Miles: 35
Time: 9 hours 42 minutes
Elevation Gain: 5,675 feet elevation gain
Strava Map: https://www.strava.com/activities/1470179171
Place: 3rd Place Women’s Team
Much more importantly than the course and results, this overnight adventure created memorable moments where I nearly had a sense of humor failure, coupled with some of the greatest moments of all times:
Character Building Moments:
Headlamp dying – skiing in the pitch-black forest without light was terrifying (and cost us some significant time).
Blisters – I was warned! Spoiled and overconfident because I had avoided them up until this race, I have officially been initiated into the world of proper skimo blisters. (Side note: if you see me in town in flip flops or slippers, that’s why).
Lack of dexterity – Anticipating eating challenges, I placed all of my #honeystinger chews and #sweetwoodjerkey in ziploc bags. Revealing the state I was in, I could not open the ziploc bags. I literally bit through the bag, stuffed my cheeks with food, knowing that it was a mix of food and plastic bag! Yep, that happened, all night.
Transition challenges – In a state of sleep deprivation, exhaustion, hallucination (?), I could not get into my skis. Mindy patiently encouraged me, the woman at the aid station kindly helped me with my skins and skis. I was a mess. 2 minutes – LOST!
Moments of Bliss:
Endless stars – the silence, the sheer beauty of the sky bursting with the brightest stars, and having the sheer pleasure of being in the middle of the Rocky Mountains to enjoy the magnificence. (For this scene alone, I encourage everyone to do this race!)
The pink glow on the mountain – watching the sunrise, the majestic mountains starting to appear, gradually, knowing that we had made it through the night.
Losing all sense of time – hours ticking by, moving forward, simply living in the moment.
Coffee!! I didn’t know just how good it could taste (and I am a dedicated coffee enthusiast). The hot coffee that the volunteers offered, sometime around sunrise will forever be ingrained as one of the best I have ever had. I almost shed tears of joy when they offered me coffee. “Are you serious? I don’t even know what to say, other than I love you, and yes, I’ll take a coffee” I replied.
My partner, Mindy, and her positive attitude, fun natured spirit throughout the entire journey.
Experiencing this adventure with Steamboat friends: Jon, Andreas, Ben, Jimmy, Sarah and Ryan.
We crossed the finish line and felt absolutely elated. A woman handed us both a PBR and it tasted delicious. After finishing my beer, I learned that it was 10:00am (that’s a first!). Our new buddies, Jimmy and Ben treated us to a champagne celebration on the finish line.
So, thank you, Lucy, for the idea, the pitch and for reviving my racing and adventure spirit. Thank you, Mindy, for being an incredible teammate. Thank you, Kyle, for helping me prepare mentally for this race, not to mention the gear, the tips, the encouragement. These races are 100% about the experience and connection with friends.
Grand Traverse (or Reverse) 2019 – I am in!