Written by MAX TAAM
Living in Aspen it’s hard to not know about the Grand Traverse. I race the biggest skimo races in the world in Europe but when I am at home everyone is always asking about the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse. It’s a one of kind race and on many Colorado (and beyond) residents bucket lists.
The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse is a backcountry ski race that starts at midnight and crosses the 40 miles from Crested Butte to Aspen. There has always been a friendly rivalry between the two mountain towns and a team from Aspen hasn’t won the race since its very first running 20 years ago.
(Editors Note: Skimo or Ski Mountaineering involves climbing ski slopes or mountains on skis, either by attaching skins, carrying them, or if its particularly steep, using crampons. The skier – who may be in a sanctioned race or doing it recreationally – then skis down, all as fast as possible. The terrain is usually steep, and very light and specialized equipment is used that can be adjusted with minimal delay. The Grand Traverse is a North American classic. The midnight start is to avoid avalanches by traversing the high passes before the warming sun creates unstable snow. Teams of two are required for safety, and they must be fully self-supported and carry Mandatory Gear that would allow them to bivouac for 24 hours “in any and all situations”.)
John Gaston and I have teamed up for every Teams race either of us has done for the last 5 years. These include 3 World Championships, 3 Pierra Menta’s in France, several National Championships, and all of the big US teams skimo races. In 2016 we entered the Grand Traverse for the first time together. The forecast for the night called for wintry conditions and the course was changed to a “Grand Reverse” (out and back from Crested Butte) shortly before the start. We won by 10 minutes over Rob Krar and Marshall Thompson but felt that we would have to return to the race for a finish in Aspen.
This winter John Gaston and I kept a close eye on the weather for the race and were very happy when there was no last minute call changing the course to a Reverse. The start of the Grand Traverse is unlike anything else with 200 teams taking the starting line at Mount Crested Butte in front of the midnight crowd.
Once leaving Mount CB Gaston and I quickly grew a small lead and seemed to have the night to ourselves. We were skinning comfortably in the lead in the East River Valley after climbing and descending the Mount Crested Butte portion of the course. All of a sudden several teams came screaming by us skating while we were skinning. I wasn’t concerned at first because I figured the conditions would quickly change and the other teams would be forced to transition to skinning. However this lasted for the next hour plus, with Gaston and I struggling to keep up skinning with the other teams that were skating.
At the Pearl Pass turnoff the other teams were finally forced to skin and we were able to take the lead back. It was a clear and calm night and we slowly grew our lead as we passed the Friends Hut and Star Pass (half way point). We enjoyed some powder down from Star Pass and started the long side hilling climb to the Opa’s hut. At this point we knew we had a decent lead but were not sure if it was 5 minutes, 15 minutes, or more. After passing the Opa’s hut we were happy to have the wind stay calm and the skies clear as we crossed the most exposed portion of the course to the Barnard Hut. We were moving fast and the Ramen was not yet hot at the Barnard Hut which was a good sign. We had a shot at Paul Hamilton’s and Scott Simmon’s 2015 course record of 6:44.35! After the 10 minute mandatory stop outside the Hut, we pushed it hard all the way to the top of Aspen Mountain. The dark sky finally started to show a little bit of light about 10 minutes before the top of Aspen Mountain but it never got bright enough to turn off our headlamps. We finished with a new course record at 6:37.38! The sun didn’t come up for another 23 minutes. (Editor: and the next team didn’t finish for another hour and half).
I used next years Ultimate Direction Skimo Race Vest for the event. There is a long list of required gear but I was able to fit everything in this pack. This was a great test for the vest as it was filled to the brim. The pack and load were extremely comfortable for the entire 6:37 minutes. I saved a lot of time and effort because I never even took the pack off during the race because I could easily access extra gear from the crampon pocket and food right out of the pouches on the shoulder straps.