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.
Joan and I spent 17 days in Colorado over the holiday break, and during that time I was reminded of some basic life lessons. To share with you:
1. Hold your friends close and your family closer.
Often, those two categories are the same. Especially when growing up in a small town like Gunnison, friends become family. When challenges face a community, people come together. Tragedy provides a powerful reminder of just how important the people in our lives truly are. Hold them close and tight, and enjoy the good times.
Living out of a suitcase is hard (but Joan and I already knew that.) Sometimes, it’s easier to let other people make the decisions and go with the flow. This was particularly true when people began to get holiday flus and colds. We have the most control over how we react to situations. We can have influence on the events that are going to happen, but awareness of our responses and understanding the circumstances makes adapting to those events much, much easier.
3. You can’t do everything…
My, what grand plans I had! I’ll back country ski with Jordan and Lani, we’ll hang out with John and Jackie in Denver, we’ll check out Ft. Collins as a possible next home base. Oh, let’s go to CB for New Years, too! These are all plans we had that didn’t quite pan out. High hopes fell short this time.
4. …But you can do a lot.
We got to see our nephews, go to the zoo with little ones, skied Crested Butte, Monarch and cross-country, saw TONS of friends, spent time with family, saw an incredibly creative dance show (directed by one of Joan’s old friends, ascendanceproject), stayed up till 12:02 New Years Eve and plenty more. We make our to-do lists long and difficult to complete but we fill those lists with great things, so those items we do get to check off are just as sweet. Quality and quantity.
5. Bringing joy is the best.
We had a top secret plan in the works for several months and executed it masterfully. Thanks to many individuals, one of Joan’s long-time dance friends received an aerial dance cube as a surprise present. And she flipped! It was so much fun to bring her out, blindfolded, and surprise her with this dance apparatus. Jess is going to have so much fun getting to know this piece of equipment and it was super cool to be a part of the gift giving.
6. Home is where we are.
Crested Butte, Gunnison, parts of the front range, and Flagstaff all represent a little bit of home to us. Wherever we were, we were able to enjoy it. Yes, we do keep all our possessions here in Flaggy-boy, but we still feel very connected with other places as well. With that said, Flagstaff has been a great home to us, and we were glad to get back after a long road trip.
What lessons did you learn over the holidays?
“What’s it going to take to finish this thing and be happy when we’re done?” Sean asked in one of our many emails in the week before the start of the 16th annual Gore-Tex Grand Traverse. I had attempted the race three times prior and had finished once, so I became our teams de-facto expert on preparation.
I answered, “Maintaining a reasonable pace, remembering WHY we’re doing it, hitting the checkpoints before cutoffs, drinking beer when we’re done.”
Grand Traverse race preparation is a marathon. Honestly, it’s more stressful on the days leading up to the race start than doing the race itself. Gear, gear, gear. Spend all day at racer meetings and gear check. Try to nap. Eat and drink as much as you can, something that helps to prevent proper napping. Panic because you don’t have the right flavor 5-Hour Energy. Realize flavor doesn’t matter at 6am. Check, double-check, triple-check and quadruple-check your skin set up. Pack. Repack. Re-repack. Nap. Ugh.
After a day that passes in segments, it was time to head up to the start line. The start of the race is unlike any other event I’ve been a part of. Mostly because it takes place at the same time as the local radio station’s huge fundraiser, Soul Train. Imagine, hundreds of ski randonee racers lining up at the Crested Butte base area, preparing to ski 40 miles into the night, whilst hundreds of local crazies are halfway through their night of reliving the 70’s disco era. Afro wigs and headlights, bell-bottoms and speed suits, platform shoes and ski boots intermingled while Kool and the Gang echoed against the mountains. Quite the sight.
Sean and I made our way to the back of the pack aiming for a casual start. Our goal was to ski within ourselves and not get sucked into the racer mentality, risking too strong of a start and blowing ourselves out before the real challenge began. This strategy proved costly an hour into the race, where we had to battle recurring bottle necks through breakable crust over steep gullys and open meadows. Patients was key, as getting frustrated during this section of the race would only cause tension among teammates. We went with the flow and finally arrived on Brush Creek Road where the snow had been solidified and made travel much easier.
When we arrived on East Brush Creek, we decided it was a great opportunity to make up some time. I hadn’t expected the previous section to take so long, so we settled into a brisk pace and moved swiftly up to Friends Hut. Aside from a minor slip into an open creek (brrr!) the climb went well and we found ourselves at Friends an hour before the cut off time. We took the opportunity to replenish our water, to eat some food and to bundle up in defense against the wind that could be heard howling a thousand feet above. The climb up Star Pass promised to be steep and cold.
This is when I learned how hot Sean’s engine runs. From the start, he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. He threw on a hoodie/windbreaker for a little while but complained of sweating and being too hot. Remember, we started at midnight. At over 9,000 feet and rising. At temperatures below freezing. He claims to have the metabolism of a 14 year old and this is good evidence. He used wind-pants and a windbreaker to head up Star Pass and later said he could have done without them. Wow.
We got to the top of Star and prepared to descend. I talked to a course marshal who told me we looked good for finishing. It was 7:20 am and we were about a third of the way into the race.
The drop down from Star Pass was a blast. The snow was choppy powder rather than the breakable crust we encountered earlier in the race. It skied really well, much better than the section did last year. We got down to the transition zone and joined about 10 other teams who had descended before us. There was a feeling of jubilation among the racers, because there were only two timed check points left, and those were well in the distance. With them so far away, it felt like we’d all surely make it to Aspen.
At this point, however, Sean began to cough. He had been suffering from a chest cold since earlier in the week. Keep in mind, this guy has one functioning lung. I knew his cold was going to be an issue, but it hadn’t seemed to bother him earlier on in the race. Maybe it was the cold air on the descent, but Sean was hacking severely from this point on. He had difficulty drawing a full breath and was constantly on the verge of vomiting I tried my best to maintain a pace that would bring us to the next check point in time without putting too much exertion on his suffering lung. We ended up pacing a couple of teams that were moving at a similar rate, which helped. I know how difficult it was for Sean to keep moving with his condition and he did a great job fighting through it.
The route took us through Taylor Flats and up Taylor Pass where the wind was fierce. We chose to keep our skins on for the brief descent which allowed us to climb up the subsequent Gold Hill without transitioning. Taylor and Gold are pretty short, but the steepness makes them true stingers. We put them behind us as quickly as possible.
At the top of Gold Hill, we ripped our skins for the third time and made the descent to the Barnard Hut. It was about 12:30 and at that pace, we were sure to make it to Aspen before the 4pm cut off at the Sundeck.
As we entered the checkpoint, a volunteer casually asked us how we were doing. “Fine except I can’t breathe,” replied Sean. The volunteer turned out to be a doctor and asked Sean if we could examine him a bit further. The doc was pretty blown away by our team, both of us being two-time cancer survivors, and offered Sean a treatment for asthma. I sat drinking soup and eating while the doc checked Sean out, wondering if we’d be allowed to continue.
Twenty minutes passed. I prepared our gear, refilled water and ate. I went to the medical tent to find Sean seated and inhaling from a tube that was releasing some sort of white vapor. It was making him feel better momentarily, but wasn’t curing the congestion and constriction in his chest. The realization started to sink in: the chest cold was winning and it didn’t look like our team was going to continue.
The doctor said, “Sean, I think we’re going to have to take you out on a snowmobile.” To this, Sean replied, “That doesn’t mean HE has to go out on a sled, does it?” Generally, teams aren’t allowed to continue without both members. The nature of back country travel is too dangerous for individuals to head out alone and the race organizers have stated that only teams of two are allowed to continue. Luckily, Sean’s very charismatic. He explained our mission, to compete to raise funds for Cancer Climber. He added that this was my fourth GT and that I was very knowledgeable about the course. The section remaining was very benign as far as back country travel goes, as it follows a jeep road all the way to the sundeck.
The decision was made to let me continue on. Not giving the officials a chance to rethink their decision (not that they would have, the route had no major challenges or potential avalanche danger remaining), I thanked Sean for his super-human effort, stepped into my bindings and began the final leg of the journey.
I felt GREAT. The pace we had been setting through the night was a finishers pace, certainly not a high-placer’s pace. We were strolling, largely because of ‘ole one-lung’s handicapping cold. When I got the go-ahead from race officials, I took off like it was a 100 meter dash. And continued at that pace. Up and over each minor climb on Richmond Ridge, plowing over the whooped out snowmobile troughs that have been known to make grown men cry and carrying past the heartbreaking flats between. I got in the zone and got to the sundeck in amazing time.
At the sundeck I ran into three other teams, in various stages of celebration and exhaustion. We knew we had made it, and everyone shared that stupid, aww-shucks grin of a school boy that got away with a solid prank, or maybe just stole a kiss from that girl he likes. Joy abounded. Jokes were made during the slow, much less urgent transition from up to down, and I eventually stepped down into my bindings and pulled on my goggles for the final decent. The decent into Aspen. A place where the beer flows like wine (unless they run out! Yeah, I arrived so late that the kegs had been kicked. WHAT?!? Luckily Joan was on hand to grab a PBR for me before I turned around and stormed back to Crested Butte), where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. ASSSSSSPEN!
The descent was glorious. I reveled in the corn. I hooted and hollered as a overtook fellow racers, offering what encouragement I could in an effort to make their burning legs hurt a little bit less. I was there. I was going to make it! For me. For Sean. For Cancer Climber. For all the patients, young and old, going through treatment. Cancer Climber for the win!
My face was still plastered with that silly grin as I crossed the finish line. The journey was complete. Sean was there, arriving earlier via snowmobile, already in his signature flip-flops, to give me a big congratulatory hug. “Next time I won’t be sick,” he said. “Doesn’t matter,” I said, “We gave that thing hell for as long as you could. I’m amazed you made it as far as you did in your condition. Great effort, dude.”
Cancer Climber will be back to the Grand Traverse. We’re used to adversity, we can handle challenges. We met our goals we set from the start: Maintain a reasonable pace: check. Even if it was slower than we could have gone because of illness, we made progress and would have finished in time. Remember WHY we’re doing it: check. Especially through the dark, beautiful night, I took the time to think about loved ones who have battled cancer. Some have won, some have lost. Remembering those battles fueled my strides and with each step along the way, cancer patients were with me. Hit checkpoints before cutoffs: check. Maybe we didn’t proceed as a team past Barnard, but technically, we reached every checkpoint before the cutoff time. I guess the sundeck has a cutoff too, but come on. We did damn good. Drink beer when we’re done: check. PBR never tasted soooo good. Next year we’ll be more prepared and healthier. Look out, GT’14.
The Darkroom. Everyone knows it, even if they don’t know it by that name. It’s the pits. The low point during an activity. The point at which you want to give up, go home and cower. It’s playing the pain game.
And it’s required.
You can’t have a great time in the mountains or on the trail without getting into the Darkroom once or twice. Inevitably, at one point during your ride, you’ll ask yourself: “Why the hell am I doing this? I’m miserable. My lungs burn. I can taste blood. I’m sucking wind and everyone is going faster than me.”
You’ve just entered the Darkroom.
It’s a dangerous place, this Darkroom. It can make you quit. It HAS made you quit. It’s full of hoodoos and demons and all sorts of doubt. It engulfs you and shakes you up. You can’t focus on anything but stopping and turning around. It hurts.
There are those souls out there who intentionally put themselves in the Darkroom. Society calls them masochists, I typically call them some of my more hardcore friends. My buddy EFreson calls it “Type A Fun”. Putting yourself out there, knowing you’ll soon be in an extremely uncomfortable environment takes a certain type. Admittedly, I’ve opened the door to the Darkroom on purpose from time to time. I get inside and wonder what I was thinking when I turned the knob.
“Ouch!” I say, “Why did I want to do this?! My legs burn!” as I make my way up a silly steep boot pack.
“What were we thinking when we thought of this?” I’ll moan as we bushwhack down an increasingly narrow runoff canyon.
“You thought this was going to be fun?!?” I’ll lament in the midst of a 70mph gust on a snowy, exposed ridge.
Luckily, most Darkroom experiences are with other people. You may be in the Darkroom, but at least you’re with other people. They can bring you up, unlock the door and get you out of there. It’s lonely in the Darkroom, and it’s valuable to have partners who know how to rescue you from the depths.
But I’m glad there’s a Darkroom. Cliche, yes, but how can we appreciate the good without the bad? Being positive and happy in the mountains all day long is not realistic. It just doesn’t happen that way all day. The Darkroom has a way of teaching you appreciation and giving you perspective.
When you get into your Darkroom, how do you get out? What helps? When have you willing entered?
“I don’t think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem.”
-Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
Picture is from the first back country day of the 2011-12 season, back in Novemberish.