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By Jason Albert
Late in the 1800s, a pocket of remote Colorado high country buzzed from the gold and silver rush. Eventually, the thin air and scant rewards encouraged resilience in longtime settlers in places like Crested Butte and Aspen. And in winter back then, solitude was a way of life. The only outside link was skiing postmen carrying supplies, letters, and hope. Today, to celebrate that legacy there’s the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse — a 40 mile backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen.
“In the early days, we had a couple guys who were legendary postmen, and one guy named Al Johnson from Crystal, deep in the mountains.” said Wayne Vandenbusche, a local skier and history professor. “And this guy would carry the mail once a week from Crystal to Crested Butte and then back on skis, and he went through some of the worst avalanche country in the world."
Deep snows and epic journeys were part of life. For some that’s still true today. The Grand Traverse course covers terrain similar to what Al Johnson endured.
If it’s not the gear it’s the weather, and if it’s not the weather, it’s looking inward in yourself – did I train hard enough this year? Did my partner train hard enough this year?Brian Wickenhauser, former Grand Traverse winner
In a conference room in the Grand Ballroom at Mt. Crested Butte, crowds of sinewy skiers have their gear checked by race organizers. First-time participants Brad Burgtdorf and Matt Madsen empty their packs. Their assortment of warm clothing, spare ski parts, and food resembles a yard sale. Racers participate in teams of two and carry loads of mandatory equipment.
Race volunteer Tally Morrison carefully examines the gear they’re required to have.
“You need a minimum of 100 ounces of water, each of you has to have a headlamp and we have to have a spare headlamp,” she said.
During the race, whiteout conditions are often a possibility, so race organizers preach self-sufficiency. Skiers must carry gear to navigate avalanche terrain and survive the night out. Former Grand Traverse winner Brian Wickenhauser knows anything is possible on the steep slopes.
“If it’s not the gear it’s the weather, and if it’s not the weather, it’s looking inward in yourself – did I train hard enough this year? Did my partner train hard enough this year? There’s so many variables involved and that’s what’s so fun, just the allure of trying to run a clean race so to speak and have everything dialed.”
It’s nearly 11:00 p.m. Moments before the start, organizers ensure each racer’s avalanche beacon functions. Some are here simply to finish. They’re tweaking packs, second-guessing. Others stretch in Lycra speed suits, fasten carbon fiber boots.
At the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, skiers line up, music pumps. It’s festive; like an alpine Mardi gras. Skiers await Father Tim Clark’s blessing of the skiers.
[sidebar title="More Skiing Coverage" width="255" align="right"]In the summer of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene caused millions of dollars in damages to ski resorts and devastated many Central Vermont communities around them. In February, Only A Game's Doug Tribou reported on the recovery process for Vermont's ski industry. [/sidebar]“Harken ye Nordic warriors to this blessing now in verse, for the quest that you share will require all your heart so be true to your partner – race as one from the start,” he called out.
The headlamps from 150 teams glow like a singular mass, illuminating the snow. The racers speed away and crest the first of many hills.
It’s been a dry winter. So along with a few miles of dirt trail, skiers encounter creek crossings. At the higher altitudes they must endure Star and Taylor passes. Then it’s 10 difficult miles of rolling terrain. And with the freeze-thaw cycle here in full swing, the snowpack is bulletproof at the start.
The next morning, 33 miles into the race, all racers stop at the Barnard Hut for a mandatory 10-minute medical check.
“It’s been a struggle at points,” said Madsen. “There’s been points where we’ve been good and there’s been points where both of us are struggling.
Among his problems are blisters and a spell of low blood sugar midway through the race. Despite that, he’s been doing well.
“And then right here this hill, I ate it at the top, and I actually ejected out of my skis and they ran the entire hill all the way down,” he continued.
For others, like Adam Ferro, it seems Star Pass — perhaps the steepest, most exposed descent on the route — made the legs shaky.
“Yeah, I didn’t realize how steep Star Pass was,” he said. “I kind of peered over. I was like, ‘this is going to be scary.’ I ended up just hiking down a lot of it – that headwall at least.”
Adam is soon racing off. It’s mid-morning; sunny and warming. The snow’s slushy. And it’s slow going. From here it’s a grinding seven miles to the top of Aspen Mountain.
Atop the ski area, racers ski a sloppy 3,000 foot groomed run to the finish. It turns out race winners, Brian Wickenhauser and Brian Smith finished at dawn in a record time of seven hours and 32 minutes.
By late afternoon teams still struggle in, but they’re all are greeted like winners. Matt and Brad finish in 13 hours and 47 minutes. They’re not planning to rent gear next year. Patrick O’Neil, a member of the second place team, is a school teacher from Crested Butte. He says the Grand Traverse is part of the communal fabric.
“Seeing people finish, like a father daughter team… I’m watching people who been on their skis for 15 hours. They’re the champs,” he said. “People who have done it to think about someone they’ve just lost to cancer. There are all of these things taking place that make it a true community event. It’s a classic, an absolute classic.”
O’Neil’s humility speaks to the race’s core: that some people make the best of their place in the world. It’s been like this here since the skiing mail-carriers — snow and the rugged landscapes between two points on a map are a calling.
This segment aired on April 7, 2012.
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