2014 Elk Mountains Grand Traverse/Reverse
Photo (c) Kevin Krill
There comes a point, when you’ve been skiing for 13 hours above 9000′, through a long cold sleepless night and then under a baking spring sun, when your boots are biting your ankles and the integrity of your toenails is a dubious proposition at best, when you’ve had enough combinations of glucose and salt and chemical flavor that the thought of eating makes you wretch a little and you wonder how on earth you made it two-plus decades eating every single day, a point when all you want to do is stop. A point when the point of what you’re doing disappears, and it seems like the only purpose to the whole wretched thing in the first place was to suffer. At this point, you think about dropping.
During the 2014 edition of the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, (sorry, “Gore-Tex” Grand Traverse, as the wheels of capitalism must spin, even in Muir’s church) this point came for Kate and I just before 1PM. The Grand Traverse is a classic 40-mile backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, and had been the focus of both our winters since registering in December. Unfortunately, due to considerable avalanche danger above treeline, it was a “Grand Reverse” year, a course starting and ending in Crested Butte. The news, delivered after lunch the day of the race, was pretty crushing to the assembled racers: the goal of Aspen, the romance and aesthetic of the route, had disappeared, leaving in its stead a night of slogging that would drop us right back where we started. Because of this, 1PM had brought us back within sight of Mount Crested Butte.
For Kate, 1PM was an unfathomable low, as she had been skiing on blown-out knees for hours and every turn or sidehill stride made her wince and grind her teeth and drew involuntary tears. We were 32 miles and 7500′ from the start, with 8 miles and perhaps 1000′ left to travel. But those 8 miles would be bloody indeed. We stopped, talked, flirted with despair and the eventualities in front of us. Up the hill, Ambush Ranch and a final checkpoint loomed. We had sugar, skied. Cresting the hill at 1:03, we had no idea whether we’d be leaving to fight for a finish or give up our bibs and give Kate’s ruined knees and feet a way out.
As it turned out, we had no choice. Due to the unforseen difficulty of the course (it ended up being both longer and having more climbing than the actual route to Aspen) a last-minute cut-off had been imposed, and we were directed to ski out 2 or 3 miles to the Brush Creek trailhead, where a shuttle would return us to the start. For a moment, it seemed like a relief. A decision avoided. We started moving, Kate in excruciating pain. We didn’t talk about much but getting out, but we were both quietly reflecting on skin track behind us.
Some things went well: The first three-odd hours passed in a focused and satisfying blur. We paced ourselves smartly, pushing up through the pack from close to last to the top half or so nearly until the Friend’s Hut. I’ve now spent enough time up all night moving through the woods that I never got particularly sleepy. Our packs were fairly light and small, and mine never bothered me. We never had any problem with skins, or frozen water, both notorious race-enders in previous years. Dawn and morning alpenglow in the basin above Friend’s Hut was exquisite.
Other things didn’t. We didn’t push Kate’s skis or boots much past 20 miles in training, about the point they started to cause problems for her during the race, with lateral slop in three-pin bindings and soft plastic cuffs failing to provide her necessary support for the long haul. There could have been more eating during the second-half of the night: numerous bonks contributed to a slowed pace and morale drop right before dawn, during the final slog up to the Friend’s Hut. I didn’t dress warmly enough for our time in the alpine, and was a worse partner for it. And then, of course, we got pinched for time.
The past week has been somewhat emotional, as the disappointment manifest itself. We poured a lot of ourselves — and more relevantly, our limited time together — into preparing for this race, and to not cross the finish line, even if it wasn’t the finish line we were counting on, has been a blow. But I am still immensely proud of Kate, who hasn’t so much as raced a 5K since high school, for taking on the challenge and getting so very close. It’s a gear and strategy intensive route, with a level of remoteness rare to most endurance events in the lower 48. The midnight start means you begin tired and only get worse as time goes on. Getting enough to eat over 8-16 hours is serious business. Acute focus and optimism is far more important than fitness.
I like to think we could have gotten to Aspen, with an easier, known course, and a real goal to fight for. But such speculation is fruitless, and the only way to know for sure is to come back next year. We’ll be there.