The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse enjoyed its 15th year where skimo (ski mountaineering) skills are put to the test between the valleys of Crested Butte and Aspen traveling over Star and Taylor Passes totaling over 40 miles and 8,000 feet elevation gain in the pristine West Elk backcountry wilderness. This review is to help shed light on this one of a kind race from a rookie racers point of view.
Being a four-year veteran of the valley and having the audacity to complete the 100-mile mountain bike Crested Butte Classic has made me wonder about this Elk Mountain Grand Traverse for more than a couple winter nights. The training began December 1st at 7am with online registration. Previous year’s events sold out in under 30 minutes so we were quick to register. College friend fellow Crested Buttian Stew “Monster” Gross and I decided to partner up and after paying registration fees and rental fee for the newly added SPOT locator beacon. We were now ready to start training as the Crested Butte Bullets.
Our goals while training were set out on the day we signed up:
1 – Complete the race while keeping the priority to have fun!
2 – Prevent all mechanical breakdowns and play it smart with equipment choices.
3 – Celebrate each check point as a celebration with a pull of Jim Beam!
After many cold winter nights of skiing the resort and the local river valleys race day arrived The pre-race meeting started with detailing the new course changes. Trespassing concerns and the lack of snow created a new course where 7 miles of bushwhacking the East River valley to well beyond Death Pass was detailed. The start at 11pm from Crested Butte Mountain Resorts Butte 66 deck happily coincidenced with KBUT’s Soul Train party.
Below are our Crested Butte Bullets team times and short details about each of the sections.
Crested Butte Base Area (9400 feet) – 11pm
The Gold Link skin was followed by an icy downhill to the valley floor where a 12 inch bridge over the melting East River bottle necked the racers. Proceeding forward we followed the blinking orbs and camp fires bushwhacking 7 miles to the far side of death pass and skinned up to Friends Hut. Patches of dirt and snow were tough to judge whether to skin or hike. Eventually we were treated with snow and lovely hours of skinning started!
Friends Hut (11,500 feet) – 4:00am.
The first check point was made well within the cutoff time so we took a pull of Jim Beam to celebrate since all the other goals were met. We then topped off our water ate some food and began the uphill to Star Pass passing the glow sticks and blinking orbs outlining the course.
Star Pass (12,370 feet) – 5:30am
Another check point and another pull of Jim Beam! Traversing over dirt patches and windblown hard pack brought out the worst fears when looking over the cornice. The volunteer and CBMR ski patroller Adam Reymann let us know that bindings had broke with folks trying to ski it. We quickly decided to boot pack down several hundred feet in order to prevent our Nordic bindings from breaking. We skied the rest of the pass and made the turn towards Taylor pass. Reaching Taylor pass in the early morning light was majestic as the mountains were silhouetted against the rising sun especially since we had caught some teams in this section.
Barnard Hut (11,480 feet) – 10:30pm
Another check point and another pull of Jim Beam! We began the mandatory 10-minute safety stop by sucking down water, Acclimate and some ramen to fuel to last section of the race. Ten minutes went by fast and we were back on the trail itching to pass a couple more groups. Richmond ridge started to get slushy so we decided to stay in the shady areas as much as possible and put the hammer down until we reached Aspen.
Aspen Sundeck (11,212 feet) – 11:45 am
We reached the deck and slammed the last of the Jim Beam while attaching our shoe string leashes and asking the checkpoint guides as to the location of the easiest trail down to the gondola base. The slushy conditions and Nordic skis made for a difficult home stretch. We finished the final pitch making hot dogging jump turns and passed through the finish gate.
Finish Line – 12:17 pm
Crossing the finish line was the best part of the entire race after 13 hours and 17 minutes. We received our medals for completion, but more importantly wrist bands for beers.
Having successfully competed in this event has brought new meaning to adventurous mountain pursuits. The deeper parts of the West Elks are untouched and filled with adventure. Enjoy your West Elk Mountains and start your own projects!
The second part of this series soon to come will be interviews from the winning teams of Bryan Wickenhauser/Brian Smith and Stevie Kremer/Erica Reiter. Stay tuned to how the veterns and winners prepare for this race!
Enjoy the photo gallery of some race shots from Kevin Krill.