Elk Mountain Grand Traverse: The Slog

America’s toughest backcountry ski race starts at midnight in Crested Butte, Colorado, and charges 40 miles north through the rugged heart of the Rocky Mountains to Aspen. When two desk jockeys, coworkers at this magazine, sign up on competing teams, an epic game of one-upmanship unfolds.
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Elk Mountain Grand Traverse | Photo: Kevin Krill

KEVIN LUBY > Three beers. That’s all it took for my friend Jonny to convince me to be his race partner. Granted they were three high-octane concoctions from Boulder, Colorado’s Mountain Sun Brewery, but I always fancied myself a more expensive date when it came to propositions requiring five months’ worth of committed training. Nothing about this nightmarish, 40-mile midnight slog across some of Colorado’s most remote peaks jibed with my patio lifestyle. Yet the scale of the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse—the distance, the elevation, the geography, the preparation—had me at hello. Plus, I’m a serial maker of questionable decisions.

SAM BASS > Three beers got him so buzzed he forgot to introduce himself. Kids these days… Sorry, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Sam and I’m an editor here at Skiing. My young associate who began this story is Kevin. Late in fall 2013, at the time we, unbeknownst to one another, signed up for this race, I was 38 and he was 27. Christ, he almost could have been my son. Well, maybe not. Anyhow, I live in Boulder with my lovely wife and two young children. I’ve always considered myself an athlete, though I wasn’t heading for the Olympics in any sport, if you know what I mean. A few years into my life as a parent/cubicle slave I realized I’d need long-term athletic goals if I was to avoid melting into my office chair. This observation was driven home in January 2008, when my son, Luke, was three and we were about to adopt our daughter. I skied into a tree, breaking my spine and face and injuring my brain.

I need to stay in the game for the long haul, I realized as I recovered, calming myself with clichés as I often do. I had heard about the Grand Traverse for years, this badass backcountry race from Crested Butte to Aspen in late March, but suddenly a goal that would require disciplined and holistic fitness training made sense. So when my buddy Eric Henderson asked if I wanted to do it, I jumped at the chance. Hende is scrappy, happy, and perpetually pumped about everything, and I knew he’d be fast. Plus, he was married with three kids and holding down a 9-to-5 at Dynafit, a gear company here in town. We’d be on the same page. At the office water cooler later, I was surprised to find out that Luby had also registered.

KEVIN > “I’m doing the Grand Traverse,” I told Bass with a hint of dickishness after I’d signed on the dotted line and forked over my $200 entry fee. During the past four years of our common employ, I rarely passed up an opportunity to rib him about his domesticity and final approach on four decades. Given that the Traverse fell squarely on his kids’ spring break, his response, “So did I,” caught me by surprise. My competitive gene kicked in. I had to beat Bass and Hende. I bet it took less time for him to arrive at the obverse conclusion. He wasn’t about to lose to a couple punk-ass kids, and I sure as hell wasn’t getting upstaged by two 40-somethings in dad jeans. With generational pride at stake, the Grand Traverse officially meant something. I had a hard time keeping Michael Buffer out of my head. “In this corner, weighing in at a healthy 190 pounds…”

SAM > Yeah, something like that. I definitely felt an initial surge of competitiveness, but that subsided as reality crept in. This guy was 11 years my junior, had all the time in the world to prepare, and was already strong like bull. Nonetheless, we both committed to five months of training. Lucky for us, a small gym called the Alpine Training Center is a quarter mile from our office, and owner Connie Sciolino knows a thing or two about whipping skier asses into shape.

KEVIN > The Grand Traverse is the endurance test piece for American backcountry skiers. Roughly tracing an old mail route, the course follows the East River out of Mt. Crested Butte before climbing up and over the towering Elk range via Star and Taylor passes, then across Richmond Ridge and down into Aspen. Each team of two racers is required to carry enough gear to survive 24 hours in Colorado’s high peaks in case of emergency. While the course mostly follows wooded drainages, Star Pass requires passage through full-on Colorado avalanche terrain, which can quickly turn ugly when 30 inches of snow falls in a few days, as it did just before the race. At the athlete meeting the afternoon before the midnight start, the 350-odd competitors got crappy news: Grand Reverse.

Instead of going to Aspen, the race would follow a course from Crested Butte to Star Pass and back. The crowd was audibly disappointed, but race organizers were understandably leery of sending 300-some competitors through avalanche terrain. Prior to this year, the race had been reversed only twice in its 17-year history. I didn’t know what Bass was thinking, but I had trained to get to Aspen, and the Reverse was a huge disappointment. The novelty of skiing through the night between two of Colorado’s most famous mountain towns was this race’s biggest draw. I’d bought wholefarm into the “beer flows like wine and beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano” narrative. And I couldn’t wait to be sitting at the bottom of Aspen sipping Veuve Clicquot while Jonny and I waited for the old guys to limp to the finish line. I even proposed a wager. Losers buy winners beer, winners buy losers warm gin shots.

SAM > There are names for people who whine when things don’t go their way, but none that I’m calling to mind can be printed here. My internal cliché generator was already at work: When the going gets tough, Team Dadfit (as we had dubbed ourselves) gets going. Hende and I shrugged at each other and refocused. It was early afternoon and we had 24 long hours ahead.

KEVIN > The pre-race hours passed slowly. I was too amped to sleep but too nervous not to try. I stared at the ceiling of my buddy’s hotel room for the better part of the afternoon and evening. Six hours from the start, I smashed a Teocalli Tamale burrito to fuel the tank for the 12 hours of touring to come.

SAM > I’d spent the morning shredding pow with my wife and kids and the afternoon combing over gear with Hende. For dinner I had a mild grilled chicken salad that ended up providing good sustained energy without any negative digestive consequences. Luby, unfortunately, would not have the same luck with his dinner choice (more on that later). At about 11:50, after Hende and I had skinned around with a few hundred other spandex-wrapped, headlamped skiers to warm up, our friend Donnie ran over and stuffed some delicious pre-wrapped energy food into our pockets. 

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KEVIN > Then, just as quick as the afternoon was tedious, the start gun cracked and hundreds of skinny-skied crazies surged up the front of Crested Butte as a howling crowd poured out of the Butte 66 Roadhouse, the bar overlooking the start arena. I would have given a kidney to trade places with any one of them.

SAM > That start was crazy. Pitch dark, below 10 degrees, hundreds of weenies skiing uphill in a frantic peloton. We didn’t see Kevin and Jonny until just before Jonny ate shit in front of a hundred people. Naturally, we took advantage of their slowdown and tried to build a lead, but it only served to motivate them.

KEVIN > For the first 10 miles, Jonny and I were running strong but messy. My water bladder malfunctioned and leaked down my back, freezing half-dollar-size hunks of flesh on the apex curves of both ass cheeks. Jonny folded himself into the back side of a creek swale and lost time picking himself up and navigating a bottleneck of spandorks struggling up a brushy hill. But approaching Friends Hut, near the turnaround point at about mile 15, we were trading pole position with Bass and Hende. I could tell Bass was struggling and Hende was shouldering the load. Aside from my ass cheeks, I felt invincible. With Jonny’s headspace at a solid medium, we had the race in the bag.

SAM > They recovered from Jonny’s creek fall well, and as I tried to put the hammer down and pull away below Star Pass, I forgot to eat, lost energy, and got cold. We pulled over so I could put on warmer mitts and the boys charged past, looking strong. By the time we got to the transition zone up on the pass, I was frozen, despite having just climbed thousands of feet. It was 3 or 4 a.m. Doubts were creeping in and we still had 20 miles to go. I forced some food down, took cheer from Hende’s positive voice repeating our pre-arranged motivational phrase, “Smile and finish,” ripped skins, and pushed off into deep powder and blackness.

KEVIN > Night pow! My race-stock rando toothpicks, 65 millimeters underfoot and 165 centimeters long, cut through the dense storm layer like a pocketknife through a redwood. Yet compared to the racers floundering around like beached seals, I skied marvelously, linking turns and gargling the occasional face shot.

SAM > A few hundred yards into the descent, I took a high-speed somersault that flung my headlamp 20 feet downhill. Hende helped put me back together and we charged on, the urgency compounded by Luby whooping about the powder somewhere to the right. Now was our chance to take the lead. With adrenaline coursing through me, we charged madly into a blind, nine-mile descent. Much of it was on narrow, switchbacking trails broken by long, low-angle sections where double-poling seemed the best propulsion method. This is when I really felt the leg and arm strength I had developed over the last few months kick in. We knew that each push was building our lead.

KEVIN > It wasn’t until after mile 20, when pink light began slipping over the toothy horizon, that the gravity of my last supper fully hit. By 5:30, four pounds of meat, beans, cheese, sour cream, and tortilla had taken up residence in my lower intestine, sending the property values into a tailspin. I spent the next eight miles wrestling with the logistics of a trailside deuce, thinking Team Dadfit was likely no more than 10 minutes behind. As we turned west, traversing the same nasty sidehill we’d skied six hours before, my mind-body struggle narrowed focus to mind versus colon. But I slammed a few more energy gels and powered on.

SAM > Poor kid. My intestine was fine, but a huge surprise climb followed by a 10-mile skate ski had me limping again. Most pairs bring a 10-foot length of bungee cord so one skier can pull an ailing partner along. It’s not so much for towing, but for encouraging the rear man to keep up. Hende had been pulling for a long while, and early in a brutal climb back through the resort he’d had enough and we unhooked. 

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KEVIN > My crash came suddenly around mile 35. The giant climb back up Crested Butte’s groomers zapped me, slowing my pace to a half-hearted shuffle and twisting yet another knot, something complicated and nautical, in my bowel. Jonny’s encouraging words fell on deaf ears.

SAM > The only thing that kept us moving at this point was a Slovakian couple right on our heels. They were the only ones we had seen for hours, and like the Man in Black from The Princess Bride, they kept gaining on us no matter what we did. They eventually passed, smiling, the man commenting about how great his wife’s ass looked in spandex. I smiled faintly, a shell of my former self. A few hours earlier, I’d been hypothermic; now I was baking in the hot sun of a bluebird Colorado day, my life force leaking from every pore.

KEVIN > If I learned anything in the first three quarters of the race, it was to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

SAM > Hende and I came screaming down the final descent and the inflatable finish arch came into view. Hende, in front, slowed down, gave me an in-motion bro hug, and shouted, “Let’s cross together!” We crossed and I collapsed into my wife’s arms. Hende immediately started sucking down a rum cocktail someone handed him. I was overcome with relief.

KEVIN > Atop the final hill of the 2014 Elk Mountains Grand Reverse, Jonny and I popped the flask of whiskey I’d carried for the duration of the race and took long, contemplative draws. Damn, we felt awful. When we crossed the line, I said, “At least I beat Bass,” to the first familiar face. After hours of searing leg pain, dehydration, sunburn, and backed-up plumbing, I had my victory. “Bass? No, he’s been here for almost an hour. He’s probably over by the beer tent.” First shock, then disbelief, then that Waylon Jennings song came to mind..

SAM > That one about old age and treachery overcoming youth and skill? Honestly, I don’t know how it happened. I’d like to say I was simply happy to finish alive and under 12 hours, which had been Team Dadfit’s goal. I’d like to say I wasn’t thinking at all about having beaten the youngsters by 53 minutes and 36.1 seconds. Kevin and Jonny were—are—younger and stronger. If I tried dead-lifting as much as Luby does at the Alpine Training Center, discs would spurt from my vertebrae like watermelon seeds. Maybe it was the experience of sleepless nights with crying babies, or the durability gleaned from an additional decade in this world. Or maybe it was that I didn’t urgently have to take a shit for 20 miles.

KEVIN > I know where we went wrong. Those dads with their mortgages, paternal responsibilities, and lingering ailments know how to suffer, persevere, and keep each other going. When things got tough, we’d just get cranky, stubborn, and internal. The young guns never had a chance.

SAM > What I do know is that we’re four competitive dudes, we all want to do the race again, and they’re still younger and stronger. And now they’re battle-tested. Team Dadfit has its work cut out if it hopes to prevail in year two. Oh, and I also know that there was a second wager: Losers wear Dynafit spandex speed suits to the Boulder Farmers’ Market on a busy, hot summer Saturday. That penance has not yet been served. I just hope I can be there for it, and not off running my kids to some goddamned playdate.

Interested in competing? Read below. 

DETAILS

Start: Crested Butte

Finish: Aspen

Distance: 40 miles

Elevation gain: 7,800 feet

Typical finishing time: 8 to 16 ho

DETAILS
Start: Crested Butte
Finish: Aspen
Distance: 40 miles
Elevation gain: 7,800 feet
Typical finishing time: 8 to 16 hours

REGISTRATION
The 2015 Gore-Tex Grand Traverse is slated for March 28. Registration opened December 1, 2014, on the official race site, elkmountainstraverse.com. Visit that site for details and find the Grand Traverse Athlete Forum on Facebook.

GEAR
The gear list is lengthy, designed to help you survive in the event you become lost in the Rocky Mountain winter. See the full list of required items at elkmountainstraverse.com. See the gear used by 2013 race winner J. Marshal Thomson at skiingmag.com/grandtraversegear.

FOOD
Figuring out what to eat and eating regularly while skinning are the trickiest parts of the race. Go into calorie deficit and you’re hosed. The tastiest nugs we ate along the way came from the book Feed Zone Portablesby Biju Thomas and Allen Lim (feedzonecookbook.com).

TRAINING
Trainer, coach, and gym owner Connie Sciolino at Boulder’s Alpine Training Center was an indispensable resource for us, providing structure and motivation to our five-month training routine. Check her out at thealpinetrainingcenter.com.

LODGING
There’s lodging aplenty, from dirtbag to luxe, in Crested Butte and nearby Gunnison (gunnisoncrestedbutte.com) as well as a short walk from the lifts at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (skicb.com/lodging). Team Dadfit stayed with what seemed like most of the racers at the nearly slopeside Grand Lodge.

SLOG BLOG
In the lead-up to the 2014 race, we kept track of our preparation at skiingmag.com/slogblog.

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Connie Sciolino (center, in red) is the founder, owner, and head coach of The Alpine Training Center, a gym in Boulder, Colorado, designed specifically for mountain athletes.

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Connie Sciolino's gym, The Alpine Training Center, caters to mountain athletes. We're using it to prep for the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse.