Winter Throwback: Grand Traverse Ski Race
Written by: Julie Nania
We spent months preparing for the Grand Traverse: long backcountry training days; scouting the course; buying all new lightweight gear; talking with experienced GT veterans. In the days leading up to the race, we spent hours preparing for the what-ifs. What if our skins failed? What if our bindings iced over? What if one of us got too tired to continue?
What we did not contemplate was a last-minute blizzard sweeping through the region and laying down over a foot of new snow, accompanied by serious uncertainty over whether the race course would be altered due to snow conditions. At the pre-race meeting, race Director Andrew Arell announced that the safety team didn’t yet know whether they could send us over Star Pass, the most dangerous part of the course. It wasn’t until five hours before the race that we learned we’d be embarking on an infamous Grand Reverse – an out-and-back trek from Crested Butte to Star Pass and back. Everyone was bummed we wouldn’t be skiing the full course to Aspen but grateful that race management was prioritizing our safety.
One hour before our midnight start, the storm moved out and the skies cleared. As we stood at the starting line, straining to hear the Blessing of the Freeheelers, the crowd was buzzing. We vowed once again to set a relaxed pace on the initial climb up Mount Crested Butte. With the crack of the starting gun, we clamored forward with 400 headlamp-lit racers, up the mountain and into a starlit night. Despite the late hour, spectators lined the ski run and a couple of naked pranksters skied through the throngs of racers.
The first few hours of the race were pretty social. The course was crowded and hectic during the climb up the ski area and the steep descent off the back side of Mount Crested Butte. After crossing the East River and putting our skins back on, we got caught in a virtual conga-line, single-file river of headlamps. We followed a side-sloping, bushy skin track. Snow was sparse, making passing difficult for about 4 miles. But after we turned up the Brush Creek drainage and started climbing toward Death Pass, the crowds thinned out – we even found ourselves passing a few teams as we headed up the Continental Divide. It was a perfectly calm night and frost crystals started to precipitate on our packs as we pushed up to the Friends Hut checkpoint.
After a brief pause at Friends Hut to refill water and have a snack, we powered up the short, steep climb to the turnaround point. At about 6 a.m., in the darkest and coldest moment of the night, we ripped our skins for the fun descent back down Brush Creek. The new day came slowly in the deep, forested valley. Our spirits rose as we made our way back toward Crested Butte, then dropped again when we were told by race volunteers that we had a six-mile bootpack to get to the finish. Hours later, we emerged from a labyrinth of singletrack trails on to the slopes of the Crested Butte ski area and Girafficorned our way across the finish line.
There were some delightful surprises along the course. Nearly a foot of fresh powder had accumulated at the top of Star Pass – our first turns on the way down were some of the deepest snow in a sparse season. At sunrise, Whetstone Mountain was bathed in pink light. By the time we skated our way back to the end of Brush Creek Road our friends were at the checkpoint with hot coffee.
At other points in the race we flailed. At the top of Star Pass as the temperature plummeted towards zero both of our waters froze (even though we had sewn them into the front of our shirts to take our body heat). Trying to shed speed, Julie deviated five feet off the course and was sent soaring by an obscured stump (there’s now a chunk missing from her touring gear). Sarah’s skins iced so bad they repeatedly peeled off; we brought seven pairs of skins and ended up going through six pairs. Variable course conditions meant that five miles of the race were either bone-dry, bootpacking conditions, or a thick mud. By the end of the race our feet were wrecked from hiking for miles in AT boots while we carried our skis.
The Grand Traverse is tough and at times relentless. We were prepared to suffer and at certain moments we did. What we didn’t anticipate? How much fun it would be. Sarah’s husband Paco jogged to the Ambush Ranch checkpoint in the middle of the night to shout words of encouragement. SheJumps’ Online Event Coordinator, Sierra Cucinelli, and Sam Higby greeted us with hugs and hot coffee after a night of no sleep. The support we felt from our friends, family, and SheJumps team during the race was overwhelming – and together we raised over $3,300 to get more ladies out there. We’re thrilled to have crossed the finish line as girafficorns!