It’s ten minutes to midnight and the dance floor is pumping with disco hits. Afro wigs, sequined dresses and Elvis suits collide as a spotlight illuminates the peak of Crested Butte. Beer is flowing, the soul train is moving. It’s an unlikely start to one on America’s oldest and wildest ski races.
At midnight, the gun goes off and pairs of racers start up the first pitch of the 40-mile Goretex Grand Traverse to the cheers of the disco crowd. If conditions are right and teams persist, they’ll climb a total of 7800 feet before skiing down to Aspen, CO in the welcome morning sun. Crossing Star and Taylor passes deep in the cold night, they’ll crest 12,000’ and feel both the empty silence of the midnight woods and the vibrant bonfires that mark checkpoints along the way.
There’s a lot that sets the Grand Traverse apart from other ski mountaineering races. For one, it doesn’t always work: the same conditions that keep the course interesting can close the passage to Aspen, forcing a “Grand Reverse” to Crested Butte. For another, no one style of skiing predominates. To succeed, teams have to be able to manage not only backcountry skiing and navigating by night, but they also have to decide how to move through miles of rolling terrain, be it by skinning or skating.
A decade ago, the race was won on cross-country skis with metal edges. In recent year, ‘skimo’ race skis with comparable weight and superior skiability have dominated. Still, you’ll see all types on course, from two-ton powder skis to three-pin telemark fanatics. It can all get you to Aspen, in the style of your choosing. The only required commonalities are a backpack full of spare equipment and shelter, and a partner to suffer/party along with you.
One moment that stands out in my memory from racing in 2014 emerges near Star Pass. The weather was dead cold, and at 5 am the barest hint of dawn was cracking into the sky. Star Peak was silhouetted at the head of the valley, with stars dotting the clear, frigid sky above. Taylor and I stood for a moment by the fire of the aid station, swinging life back into our hands and watching a line of headlamps tracing the skin track upwards. I threaded the frozen tube of my camelback down my shirt, wincing and hoping to thaw it free. The snow around us sparkled in the firelight as we set off again into the cold. It was absurd, beautiful, and too strange— how could you explain to your mother why this what your idea of fun? At the Grand Traverse, you don’t have to. Somehow, you’re surrounded by people who get it.
Story by Icebreaker Ambassador, Patrick Fink