A True Backcountry Race: The San Juan Huts’ Sneffels Traverse

Some uphill-downhill ski races, like European-style Raids (where skiers ski up and down ski areas), require greater vertical. Some races, like Crested Butte to Aspen’s Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, require longer distances. Some races, like the Al Johnson Memorial, require faster and steeper downhills. But few uphill-downhill races, if any, combine gut-punching vertical climbs with steep and gnarly descents like the San Juan Huts’ Sneffels Traverse Ski Race.


Racers cresting the highpoint of the race at Wilson Creek Summit with Sneffels in the background. [Photo] Kevin Studly

The Sneffels Traverse takes place in southwestern Colorado in the Sneffels Range of the mighty San Juan Mountains. This backcountry race is put on by Joe Ryan, his daughter, Kelly Ryan, and their San Juan Huts. (To learn more about Joe, Kelly and the San Juan Huts, read the March 2014 issue of Backcountry Magazine.)

“It was a great success, all starters finished and no one got hurt!” Kelly says of this year’s inaugural race, which took place on February 8.

“The top backcountry racers were here,” Joe says. “These guys are the perennial winners at all of these type of races.” This included Scott Simmons, Brian Smith, Jesse Rickert, Pat O’Neill, Billy Laird and Jeff Deutsch who have won The Grand Traverse, North American Championship in Kicking Horse, B.C. and Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon. The Sneffels winners, Scott Simmons and Brian Smith, finished in a time of 4:37:20. (See all the results, here.)

“The Sneffels Traverse is one of their all-time favorites,” Joe Ryan adds. “There is not another course like this because of the free and wild nature of the course, the 5,050 feet of climbing, the 24.6-mile traverse and because the final 3,000 vertical feet takes place during a high speed, non-stop, single track finish to the bottom.”

“Many skiers had worried that the end of the race would be too dangerous,” Kelly says. “It was a three-foot wide trail through switchbacks with one hundred feet of exposure, but everyone finished safely.”

Joe explains how the Sneffels Traverse is different from other races: “There are skimo races and [there are] backcountry races. The way that it seems to be developing is that skimo races have skiers race up and down a ski area. These seem boring and artificial compared to true backcountry races.

“I’ve done the Grand Traverse a couple of times,” Joe continues. “The Grand Traverse is 40 miles; ours is 25. The Grand Traverse is long, beautiful, high but not very technical. But on the Sneffels Traverse, you have to be able to turn your skis. The Sneffels Traverse is a different type of race. It’s technical, steep, has a great amount of fast singletrack where, if you can’t control your skis, you are going to hit a tree or go off a cliff.”

“Look for more of these true backcountry races to start popping up,” Kelly says. “I expect to see these highly technical races in places like Jackson Hole, Lake Tahoe, Mammoth and the Methow Valley.”


SAN JUAN MOUNTAIN HUTS: The office is located in Ridgway, Colorado. Joe and Kelly Ryan can be reached at (970) 626-3033 or info@sanjuanhuts.com or sanjuanhuts.com.

COST: The Sneffels Traverse costs $80 and a total of 80 skiers can sign up. Registration includes pre-race dinner and breakfast, a spot to sleep pre-race at the local gym, aid station supplies, post race burgers and beers, and a certificate for two people for two nights at one of San Juan Hut Systems five backcountry ski huts ($120 value).

GETTING THERE: From Montrose, drive south on Highway 550 to Ridgway. From Durango, drive north on Highway 550 to Ridgway. Telluride (30 miles), Montrose (40 miles), and Durango (90 miles) offer regional airports. Each hut is accessed from a different location in the Ouray/Ridgway/Telluride region.

FOOD/BEER: Ridgway has a small grocery store, The Mountain Market. For libations, visit Colorado Boy Brewery or Trail Town Still Distillery, just blocks from the San Juan Huts offices. For food, The True Grit Grill serves great burgers and onion rings. Kate’s Place serves hard-to-beat breakfasts.

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