At the stroke of midnight on Friday, March 25th, my partner Brent and I started the 20th-annual Grand Traverse Ski Mountaineering race at Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado. Covering over thirty five miles and traveling over backcountry terrain from Crested Butte to Aspen, the Grand Traverse brings over 200 two-person teams to the Elk Mountains to test their mettle on an ungroomed, undulating course which spends most of its time over 10,000ft elevation.
I honestly can’t say exactly what my expectations for performance were before the event, but I can truly say they weren’t met. We can get that out of the way now – it was difficult. There may be various reasons for this but in my mind it comes down to one simple truth: I was undertrained. I spent most of this winter focused on Nordic skiing and shorter-duration AT skiing (2-3 hours at most per workout), which in and of itself was fine aerobic training, and doing a handful of backcountry ski tours certainly helped with muscular endurance and fitness. But at no point did I stop, take a hard look at the demands of the GT and say, “boy, I should probably get my ass in gear and do some long 6+ hour skinning up the highway”. By not really building a high volume of work in the months preceding the event, I was left sorely lacking once we began ascending the first climb (really, out of the start) and venturing into the high altitude which I was entirely unprepared for.
With a week and a half now between me and the race I can look back objectively on what went well and what should improve for next year. I think the biggest mistake I made was to start too hard – the pace was quick at the front as we climbed over Crested Butte ski area and Brent and I stayed in the top-10 through most of it, excited to be in the mix and racing after such a long wait. It wasn’t until we were ripping skins and heading off the back side that I realized I had been pegged near threshold that first 20min, tapping precious reserves which wouldn’t replenish that quickly in the thin air. I think this cost me the rest of the race; not that other things didn’t contribute, but I know if I push too hard early on in an event it affects my ability to recover quickly and sustain a long duration. This was reinforced when, in the last couple hours of the race we got passed by several teams who had probably been far behind us in the first half. Negative-split we did not.
What about the good stuff? Well, it was beautiful. Granted, the majority was in the dark but still, as we skated and skinned along the sides of mountains and up over passes, I could sense the grandeur of the scenery around us, and when the sun started to creep over the mountains as we traversed Taylor Pass I was gobsmacked with vistas so unlike what I’m used to in the North Cascades: long rolling ridges and broad alpine basins, mountains much older and shaped differently than my own. It was a shot in the arm at a time when I really needed it (so was the soup at Barnard Hut about five miles later), and helped sustain us along that last LONG climb up to the top of Aspen ski area.
I wholeheartedly recommend the Grand Traverse to anyone feeling up to the challenge. The event is organized so well and all the volunteers are top-notch, especially considering many of them committed to spending at least the night, if not several days in the backcountry to support us as we stumbled through their purviews. Having a mug of hot coffee rushed to me the moment I arrived at Geo’s Bonfire was like salvation in a cup, though it make it harder to pull away from there and get back on the trail a few minutes later. And having the Taylor Pass checkpoint folks chat with Brent and I about our hometowns and reference their own experiences there took our minds off the fatigue, even if just for a few moments. Truly great people down there.
So now it’s on to spring, and trail running races. My experience at the Grand Traverse left me humbled yet hungry to dive back in to training, to be better prepared for what comes next. And so if everything else about it was a relentless hurt-fest, the outcome is a great reward.