2016 Elk Mountain Grand Reverse, 23rd, 8:53
The view from my old living room. I’ve been putting this off for one reason or another for over three weeks now, but it’s time to get a report off my shoulders, as the rest of my life hasn’t come to as much of a standstill as my blogging. I’m not sure why this is so long — it just came out that way. Consider yourself warned.
The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse — a 40 mile, point-to-point backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, starting at midnight one day in late March each year — is expensive, a logistical pain in the ass, and extremely alluring. For better or worse, the EMGT has also taken on more importance in my life than races usually do. There are reasons for this. I used to live few miles from the start of the course, spending day after day doing the sort of low-angle skinning that is requisite training for successfully competing in the race. Kate and I started the 2014 event together, a “Grand Reverse” beginning and ending in Crested Butte due to avalanche danger, but were forced to drop with an injury only a few miles from the finish. And this year, my close friend Peter has himself been spending the winter in Gothic as a RMBL winter caretaker. As we are about as tightly matched in fitness and skill set as I can imagine, it was an obvious decision to team up once I determined I had the week free from teaching. We both very much wanted to do well.
I skied as much as work and relationships would permit all winter, honing my fitness with regular track work and a few short running races. I flew out to Grand Junction. Following a lovely but anxiety-tinged week in Paonia, Kate and I spent Thursday night in Gothic, my first time back since I left Colorado two years ago. Skiing in under shifting clouds and a bulging moon, my headlamp jumping among the ghostlike aspens, brought back a flood of memories — and an inevitable rish of sadness for a period of my life rapidly receding into the past. Stegner’s doppler effect.
We stayed up later than we should have, drinking whiskey and chatting about the very particular things only people who spend the winter in a shambolic cabin in Gothic can know. The next morning, cooking a huge breakfast and waxing our skis, we watched the weather put on a concerning pageant of wind, snow, and brief, tantalizing glimpses of blue sky. Though a storm had hit the high country Wednesday, snow totals and avalanche danger had remained low through the end of the week. However, with another system predicted to strike shortly after the race got underway on Saturday, the question of whether we’d be pointing our skis at Aspen — or anticlimactically looping around the East River valley — was going to be settled by how quickly and how hard the storm rolled in. As of 9AM the morning of the race, things weren’t looking encouraging.
Still, there was nothing to do but ski out, get our mandatory gear cleared, and pick up our packets. We skied back to the car in a white-out, but by the time we started to drive the mile or so down to Mount Crested Butte, the sky was clearing. We didn’t dare get our hopes up, but after rushing over to the pre-race meeting (already underway), another racer at the back of the crowd confirmed it for us: conditions were safe enough to send us over to Aspen.
Elated, our spirits quickly dropped again after realizing we had misread the website and entirely missed gear check. But after pleading our case to the race directors, they graciously allowed us to go through the process anyway. Then, with 10 hours until the gun would go off that evening, we were left with little to do but anxiously organize our gear, drink coffee, and eat.
After a last dose of internet and espresso at First Ascent, Kate headed back to Paonia to grab some sleep before rushing over to Aspen and meet us on our (hopefully) early morning arrival. We decided to camp out at the base lodge, and nap if possible, steeling ourselves for a long night in the mountains. We chatted race strategy, tried to manage our excitement, and visualized plunging down to Aspen in sunshine, exhausted but thrilled.
There was only only one catch, which was that it hadn’t stopped snowing and things looked to be getting worse. Though the weather was off our mind for most of the afternoon, we couldn’t help but overhear another team of racers furtively discussing a distressing possibility: the possibility that race might be canceled. It was hearsay, but it quickly sent our moods in a spiral, and left us feeling hollow for the next few hours. Our veggie burgers (pre-race food at slope-side pubs is tough) did little to alleviate the sudden, unwelcome tension.
Finally, at 9PM, an email came through. Due to unexpectedly severe weather and already-huge snow totals, the reverse course would be implemented after all. It was, undeniably, a punch in the gut, mitigated by the relief of finally knowing what was in store for us. The problem of how to get a ride from Crested Butte to Paonia now that Kate had left was non-trivial, but something to worry about another day. The clock ticked on, and before we knew it, it was time to get going.
The start of the race can’t help but be thrilling, even in a Reverse year. There’s a spotlight on the horn of Mount Crested Butte, a dance party at the lodge. An old-hippy-style “rite” is read to racers, and then things get underway, with 450 racers sprinting psychotically for 50 paces before settling in to march rhythmically up the slope. Miraculously, the storm had finally broken, and in its post-coital calm the moonlight broke through receding clouds.
From our brief warm-up lap, I was aware my heart rate was spiking as I attempted to hang on Peter’s heels, a predictable result of having spent just enough time at high altitude to throw my body for a loop. (Paonia, at 5600’, doesn’t really qualify, and day-trip excursions above 10,000’ tend to make you taste blood but not affect performance to the same degree.) This proved true as we jockeyed for position and jogged toward the top of the slope but I am nothing if not proud, and I didn’t ask Peter to slow down. Absolutely nailing the first transition, we blitzed off skating, only to find immediately that we had dramatically miscalculated our wax, our skis dragging and squeaking and muscles burning with effort.
Again, this had more of an effect on me than Peter, who was relishing the change in technique. We dropped off the back side of the mountain, skated some more, threw on skins, and then climbed and careened through sagebrush, somewhere in the top 10. At the entrance to Brush Creek, there was a bonfire, and some teams passed us as Peter took a leak, but with considerable effort (on my part, at least) we closed the gap. Death Pass, a narrow section of trail on a steep gully, had mostly melted out the week before, and I cringed as I nailed a series of rocks negotiating it. (Luckily, Hagans are exceedingly durable for their weight).
Crossing streams and meadows as we gradually climbed toward Friend’s Hut, I began to struggle more and more. I wasn’t eating, and despite trying to store my water against my body, it was freezing, so I wasn’t drinking much either. After deciding to pass a team moving just slightly slower than us, Peter jogged for 50 yards, and in trying to hang on to his heels, my heart rate again spiked dramatically, only gradually returning to manageable levels. This was probably the point at which we went from competing to surviving, as I was never able to summon much more than a slog from then on. Teams we had passed repassed us, and I succumbed to the tow rope. It didn’t help much. We hit the turnaround point, tantalizingly close to Star Pass and the promise of Aspen, and then descended, making turns in soft snow and then skating and double-poling with difficulty in the same, facing down oncoming traffic.
The 2016 Grand Reverse route was modified from the version Kate and I had skied, cutting straight over the summit of “unremarkable but impressively girthy” Strand Hill rather than endlessly skirting its lower slopes. This was a welcome improvement, but at our slow pace dawn still caught us before we topped out. Our Carbondale-based friend Sean and his partner were also having a rough go of it, and we traded places for a while, eventually passing them for good on a stretch of gravelly skating following the descent from Strand, easily best bit of real skiing all day.
The final three or four miles, circling back around the west side of Mount Crested Butte, were a solid dose of misery. After a getting brief second wind while skating past Sean, the return to grinding uphill on hiking trails made me acutely aware of how much I was burning the proverbial candle at both ends. We crawled along, and crawled some more. I began to take “breathers.” At long last and after many false summits, we broke back out into the ski area, and immediately faced a gradual uphill skate I only managed as an exaggerated waddle.
We descended 600 feet to finish in 23rd place and 8:53. For the only time since my very first ultramarathon, I briefly teared up, utterly beat and grateful to be done.
On finishing, the dilemma of how to get home immediately reared its head, and so the usual post-event comforts of rest and race analysis were postponed until the memories had begun to fade. Because of this, it’s hard pinpoint exactly how I feel about finishing (once again). I am at once disappointed in slightly underperforming my own (unreasonably high?) expectations and happy with how well we did on an off day. More than anything else, I am grateful to be able to do these things at all, and for the images the race left indelibly imprinted in my head. The mile-long chain of headlamps stretching behind us. The shimmering crest of the Elk Range in the moonlight. Dawn from 10,000′. Scarred aspens, sage, melting snow.
Next time, I’ll keep my water warmer, eat more, and respect the altitude more. It’s probably too soon to say this — and for playing chauffeur all weekend, I think I owe Kate and Sarah the same favor next year — but goddamnit, I’m going to ski to Aspen some day. I hope Peter will be there with me.