Ain’t it Grand?
This Friday at midnight, hundreds of brave souls will voluntarily venture into a cold, hostile, barren environment. Many of them have been looking forward to the adventure all year long. Their collective goal? Travel, by ski, 40 circuitous, snowy, back-country miles and climb over 7,800 vertical feet to arrive at the Aspen base area smiling.
The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse (aka EMGT, aka GT, aka “the Traverse”) is an annual ski mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen, CO. In the racing world’s seemingly endless search for “furthest”, “fastest” and “highest” superlatives, the GT is America’s oldest ski mountaineering race. It’s one that I’ve competed in four times and finished only twice.
The race can be brutal. It requires navigation of serious avalanche terrain in the dark. The race rules stipulate mandatory two-person teams rather than individual racers, as the dangerous nature of the event is somewhat decreased by traveling with a partner. Frostbite, gear failures and whiteouts have caused countless evacuations over the years, and occasionally the race changes format to an out-and-back loop due to treacherous, impassible conditions.
I’ve never had a really good race run in the Traverse. Twice my team had to turn around because of gear or body failures. The two times I’ve finished, my partner pulled me across the line (I was dragging ass) and I pulled my partner to Barnard, at which point he had to be evacuated on a snowmobile (he was dragging ass). In sum, none of these conditions were ideal and none left me with a satisfied, accomplished, “I (and my partner) really showed that race who’s boss” feeling.
That’s why, all the way in Flagstaff, Arizona, I’ll be watching at midnight on Friday. Racers are required to carry tracking devices and fans can watch their progress live online. I’ll be watching Smithy and Wick, JB, Billy, Ryter, the Western State Colorado University endurance ski team and all my other friends from back home, as they sprint up warming house hill and venture into the cold, dark night. I’ll feel their elation as they crest Star Pass and steel themselves in preparation for the decent into the basin below. I’ll feel the anxiety as the leaders take their mandatory 10-minute respite at Barnard Hut, nervously watching the trail behind them, strategically gauging their lead. And I’ll celebrate, with my hot coffee and fuzzy slippers, comfortable on the couch, as each of my Gunny/CB friends glides across that finish line in Aspen.
I’m looking forward to the night that I can once again step into my skis and try to raise my finishing average over .500.