Friday, April 10, 2015

Elk Mountain Grand Traverse: The Race

The race starts at midnight which feels downright weird. Eating and sleeping cycles are completely out of whack. The evening of the race found me energized with a pleasant, though somewhat disorienting, adrenaline rush.

We arrived at the ski area around 10:30 pm for check in, which took almost no time at all. That left a whole lot of time to mill about and fuss with gear.

Fortunately my friend Nick and his buddies were there to joke around with. They really helped pass the time without over focusing on the task at hand.

Here I am with Nick and Sam.

Cam and Zoe, the awesome brother/sister duo prepare for the journey.

Finally it was time to get to the start line

Incredible scene.

Steve took this shot just as we started. We're going to Aspen!

The start took us up a wide groomed ski trail at Crested Butte, so for a about fifteen minutes we sprinted up the run. A quick rip of the skins and a hectic descent followed. Imagine skiing a fairly narrow, fairly firm, blue run ,with large crowds, by headlamp. Some folks were bombing down, some were wedging down, several were crashing.

The bottom of the ski run brought us to a creek crossing which is normally a solid snow bridge, but not in this dry and warm year. The race organizers (bless them) had constructed a narrow wooden bridge over the creek and by the time we reached it a large queue had formed, But just as our turn was about up, a brave soul shot across the slushy ice below the bridge and made it, which then triggered a stampede of followers and we were quickly passed by about 25 skiers!

The craziness continued as the snow petered out and we found ourselves speed walking on cow track through sage brush. Another, smaller creek crossing appeared in the headlamp beam. It required a couple of agile hops across wet rocks then a scramble up a muddy slope with small, slick foot holds. Folks were trying all sorts of routes, but unless you hit the footholds you were sliding back to the creek.

After a couple of hours of mixed terrain we finally found ourselves on continuous snow and settled into the familiar rhythm of skinning. Here I had my first food and instantly felt a bit queasy. Not to the point of nausea, but a bit off.  It took a lot of focus to keep the pace up, but we managed to improve our position there.

After around four hours we reached the Friends Hut checkpoint and I was hurting. Not only was I still queasy, but a cough had set in too. I stayed calm, focused on my breathing, and kept it moving.  At last we arrived at the bottom of the boot pack up to Star Pass, about 300 vertical feet of moderately steep steps. As we topped out the first light of the new day appeared in the east and, like magic, I began to feel better.

The scene at the top to the boot pack.

With skis back on we descended Star Pass. These photos were taken a bit after we came through.

The top of the boot pack is just out of the frame to the left. A gentle, downward traverse through the shadow lead to the descent in the light.

Looking the opposite way to the descent. We pulled the high traverse to find decent, slightly wind affected  powder for a nice run down to the next checkpoint.

Star Pass on the right skyline behind the tree, from the checkpoint.

We skied up to the fire and this guy pops up with two mugs and says "coffee?" Heck Yes!!

Cam and Zoe were just ahead of us here. Here they're putting the skins on for the long traverse to the base of Taylor Pass.

With the light of day upon us the views opened up.

Both inspiring and energizing.

After a fairly long traverse the course climbs more steeply up to Taylor Pass.

Taylor Pass was followed by a truly fun, but short descent, then another climb.

Steve and I were in sync, moving steadily through this part of the race. My body was feeling better, my legs were a bit tired, but not spent and my energy was good.

This is the Barnard Hut checkpoint. We were greeted by a friendly lady who seriously asked us how we were feeling. Good! I think, actually I wasn't really sure how I felt. Not terrible, so yes, Good! 

All racers are required to stop for ten minutes here, so we fueled up and prepared ourselves for the dreaded Richmond Ridge ahead.

Richmond Ridge is quite a mental challenge. From the high points of the route it does not look very long, the undulations are unseen, so despite all of the warnings, the mind thinks of it as the final stretch, but it's more like several final stretches. The Ridge is a series of ten to twenty minute climbs with fast skating and/or descending between. Each climb taking a bit more out of your reserves and after eleven hours there wasn't much left in my reserves.

At one point I began to bonk. The gas gauge was on low. I thought I could get to the top of one of the climbs to refuel. I was wrong. Fortunately I was able to get some sports drink and a gel in me and quickly recovered.

At last we reached the Aspen ski area Sun Deck to begin our descent to the finish. We listened to the directions the aid workers gave us, but our minds were not all there. A couple in front of us looked solid and fast, so we followed them. Right into a black diamond mogul field! Ugh.

Legs barely functioning, brain barely functioning, but unscathed we bombed to the finish and an incredible welcome.

I was in a serious bad way, but somehow managed a smile.

A beer seemed like a good idea. Especially a free beer.

Dunno if the beer or the Prosecco had anything to do with it, but I had to find a spot to sit down and gather myself. The crowd, the music, the whole scene was both great and terrible. I was happy it was over, I was happy we were fast, but the pain and the weariness could not be ignored.

I had found the zone of uncomfortable elation!

Huge thanks to Steve. The perfect partner.
We'll be back!

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