In a little more than 24 hours, a contingent of professional athletes, hobbyists and amateurs alike will converge upon Crested Butte, Colo., for the 17th Annual GORE-TEX Grand Traverse. Racers will test their mental and physical ability in the 40-mile race to Aspen, roughly retracing what was once a mailing route between the two towns.Crossing the Elk Mountain Range, which has received some 20 inches of new snow in the last few days, will be no easy task, and the traverse may turn into a reverse. “We’re waiting for the final verdict,” Course Director Brian Wickenhauser says in between checking competitors’ gear. “The Snow Safety Team is out above tree line right now making ski cuts and gathering avy data.”
If the avy danger is too high, competitors will start at the Crested Butte Mountain Resort, go as far as the Friend Hut and turn around. “The real danger starts above tree line,” Wickenhauser says. “We anticipate everything will be fine because the snow came in wet and should have bonded well, but we should know more by 10 p.m. tomorrow. In the last 17 years we’ve only had to reverse the race twice.”Because of the course’s difficulty, racers must compete in teams, but it’s still a fully self-supported backcountry race. “Racers must be within eyesight of each other at all times,” Wickenhauser says. “If they are not, they could be penalized or even turned around. We try and hold true to how backcountry skiers should travel, in pairs.”
Approximately 200 teams are registered to compete in the race this year, and roughly 70 percent of them are expected to finish. “Most of the competitors that don’t finish will succumb mostly to blisters, others because of frozen hydration systems or the elevation,” Wickenhauser says. “We have some people who come from sea leave and have a hard time with the thin air. It takes experience to get it right.”Tomorrow at midnight athletes will start racing under headlamp and give it their all in order to complete the race. Wickenhauser and his partner Brian Smith have won the race twice, once in 2010 and again in 2012. Smith also won in 2007. Racers take between eight and 16 hours to finish the race. “I am an old veteran these days,” Wickenhauser laughs. “To calm my nerves I just tell myself I’ve be here before, trained as best I could and just try to have fun during the build up to the start.”
For course and condition updates, follow along with the daily dispatches at elkmountainstraverse.com.