Submitted by guest writer, Tracey Hughes
“I’m so over this” said my friend May Eynon, who happened to be skinning next to me in a sub-zero gale wind as we made our way over the endless, wind-blown white swatch of Taylor basin to Taylor pass. I was over it, too. My partner Bart pressed on in front of us, bracing against the gales that pounded us constantly. I found it absurd that a) we were doing this race again b) May, a tough-as-nails diehard girlfriend I had known from various punishing events, was as sick of it as me and c) we had only covered half the forty mile course in 10 hours.
Snowmobiles tore by us in both directions, shuttling frostbitten and exhausted racers to evacuation points along the course. I often wondered if they were going to call off the whole thing and mercifully pick us up somehow. Stopping meant freezing so we plodded on…
I still blame it on the Dayquil-induced haze that caused me to call Bart and ask him to “Do the Grand Traverse again” last December. Had I been rationally thinking, I would have recalled the agony I endured in the 2001 race, swearing to never do it again. As it were, I had built up the race to be a sunny, beautiful backcountry trek from CB to Aspen that was difficult, but rewarding. Bart, always up for severely punishing events, quickly agreed and we began prepping for months of training for the race.
A wintry storm had dropped 11 inches of fresh fluffy snow on Thursday and I had spent a beautiful, happy morning skiing the knee-deep with friends before meeting the others for the drive. Three teams from SMV: Mark and Linda, Andy and Brian, and Bart and I, piled into a suburban and made our way to CB where we were to meet my brother and dad at a friend’s house. Amber’s mother Kelly and husband Les not only let us invade their beautiful new CB south home for a night while we prepared for our journey, they graciously made us a fat breakfast for race day.(THANKS SO MUCH)
The severe cold did not allow for us to stop as our gloves and hats would freeze instantly, taking 30 minutes to warm up again with those agonizing pin-prickings on the ends of fingertips that happens when they defrost.
The race began at midnight on the 28th from the town of Crested Butte, destined to take us home to Aspen by way of 40 miles and 6000+ vertical of extreme backcountry terrain. We couldn’t help but notice the mercury was at 0 as we struggled into our skis under pale headlight beams, illuminating hot breath and swirling snow crystals. The high-energy warmed us though and we surged forward en-mass when the starting gun sounded. One last glance at Tam and Dad waving good-bye and I was off under firework-lit skies. A mere 2 minutes later I found myself floundering on the ground with skiers pouring around me. This was not the last time I would find myself wallowing in the snow that night. I got up, brushed it off and began following the bobbing stream of headlamps leading me to Mount Crested Butte.
As an added bonus for this year, race-coordinators had re-arranged the course through Mount Crested Butte so that “Tikki torches and the late night bar crowds will greet the racers as they pass through the base area just below the Silver Queen lift. After this parade review, racers will begin the climb up and over Crested Butte Resort.”
The “parade review” was three drunk guys dressed like Eskimos with lighters occasionally screaming “YEAAHAAHHHHHHHHH” (Thanks for the support Tim Wells). The “up and over mount crested Butte” seemed to add several hundred vertical feet that we lost in a valley an hour later and forlornly had to regain. We were not appreciative of the course change.
The severe cold did not allow for us to stop as our gloves and hats would freeze instantly, taking 30 minutes to warm up again with those agonizing pin-prickings on the ends of fingertips that happens when they defrost. So we didn’t really stop, just plodded along sucking on frozen GU packets and occasionally trying to get some water (which promptly froze on the top of my insulated Nalgene bottle when I opened it.)
At one point I decided to stop for a pee break (something I had held off for a few hours due to the unpleasant thought of exposing my rear to the frigid air). I had removed my skis to put skins on and when I went to put the left one on I found that the binding had FROZEN OPEN. Not in the best of moods and quickly loosing feeling in my hands I struggled with it for a bit before coming up with an ingenious plan: my water was still hot from filling it w/ boiling water before starting so I would pour it onto the binding to thaw it. This worked swimmingly as a quick fix, but it was a move that would prove to be troublesome later on.
And so it went for 6 hours through starlit and frosty meadows, thick evergreen forests, and such terrible spots on the trail as the aptly named “Death Pass” which offered frozen dirt and rocks to trip over, potentially hurtling one 200 hundred feet into an icy stream.
I felt that our time was good seeing as we didn’t stop and kept a brisk pace to ward off the cold. However, I realized that we were nowhere close to our 2001 time when the blessed sun finally rose over Star pass and we were still searching for the Friends Hut. I hunted desperately though frozen-together eyelashes for the warm bonfire of our last year to thaw our frozen feet and fingers by. Visions of Hot XL1 and Raman danced in my demented brain as I preyed that the next ridge would reveal our salvation.
We finally arrived at Friends hut around 6:30 am and were sad to find no fire, but delighted to learn they had opened the Friends hut, something they had never done. Outside the hut, a volunteer poured boiling water on my binding so I could get my ski off which I took inside hoping to warm up a bit so the binding would work. Inside, we found friends Andy and Brian trying to thaw near-frostbitten fingers and frozen Camelbacks crammed into the hut with about 30 fellow racer-sufferers. I was glad to see I was not the only one miserably cold and in fact better off than most. Nary a smile showed in the hut as bottles of Ibuprofen rattled out pain relief, duct tape covered frostbite, and a meager fire only served to steam our gloves rather than dry them.
Slowly but surely we followed the line of racers pressing for the cut-off point. Only a few were behind us as the rest had given up at Friends hut.
“Are you going to keep going?” someone asked me and I was surprised, as I had never considered turning back with my one mission in mind: GET TO ASPEN. I learned that many had decided to turn around due to frostbite, FROZEN EYEBALLS (can this really happen?), and fatigue. “FOR THOSE OF YOU WANTING TO GET OVER STAR BY CUTOFF YOU BETTER LEAVE NOW” boomed a voice through the warmth of the hut, jolting me back to the reality that I was going to have to peel myself away if I was going to fulfill THE MISSION.
Bringing the ski into the hut turned out to be a HUGE mistake as the skin that I desperately needed to get comfortably up star pass was wet w/ condensation and instantly froze upon hitting the 1-degree air outside the hut. The adhesive let go after a few hundred feet and I was a one-skinner. “I don’t think we are going to make the cut-off” said Bart, as he tried unsuccessfully to duct-tape the skin to the back of ski, making me more desperate at the prospect of ending up back in Crested Butte with no ride. With that, I took my skis off and began kick stepping up Star Pass.
Slowly but surely we followed the line of racers pressing for the cut-off point. Only a few were behind us as the rest had given up at Friends hut. At 10 minutes to 8:00, the cut-off time, we finally reached a sun-bathed Star pass with huge American flag flapping in the wind. Now it was sealed, we were going to end up in Aspen, come hell or high water! Much to our disappointment, we found the sun did little to warm us, and now the high avalanche danger kept us moving as well, traversing across wide-open slopes in a seemingly endless left turn.
Our first pleasant break, 15 incredible minutes of rest in a sun beam happily chugging Emergen-C and chowing girl-scout cookies for super-strength, was our last. Our illusions that the trip would be calm and warm were shattered when Taylor basin greeted us with a steady freezing head wind. The higher we got, the worse the wind. A few hearty soles manning a wind-scoured checkpoint greeted us and warned us of the high frostbite danger ahead. They helped us struggle into neck-gaiters and heavy mittens for the 3-hour ordeal that lay ahead.
As I plodded along in the wind, I spotted my friend May and her partner Christy and my heart warmed that they were sharing the ordeal.
“What in the hell are we doing out here?” I shouted through the wind (somehow still held a smidgen of humor at this point). We laughed, but we all knew it was so long before it would be over. About 5 false-summits teased us, each with increasingly stronger and colder winds. Somehow, in my little Arteryx windshell cocoon with heavy mittens and hat on, I slipped into a little moving coma and hardly felt the wind except for the immense energy drain it created. By this point we had been skiing for over 10 hours and my brain had ceased to do much, thankfully, but move one foot in front of the other. I skied all the way up Taylor pass with one skin on, the other tucked into my jacket with a variety of items that I was trying to thaw-GU, Gloves, Jerky and my lighter hat. I’m sure it looked like one hell of a bra-stuffing job. Anything that was not in my jacket, next to my skin, was frozen solid, save my water, which was hot when I started and evilly soaked all my fresh clothes with condensation (those were now frozen too). I cursed Dayquil a few times.
I was truly disappointed to find that they were not evacuating us still-moving racers, but instead expected us to FINISH the race when we reached the mandatory 10-minute break point by the Bernard hut. My left ski was now a permanent fixture on my boot so I had to wrestle myself into the Mountain Hardwear “Himalayan Hotel” tent with it on. I got a wee cup of dreamy Ramen here and swallowed 6 more ibuprofen preparing for the mind-numbing, snowmobile-wup-de-dooed, eternal and de-moralizing 10 miles of Richmond Ridge to Aspen Mountain.
As we dashed for the finish line I spotted dad and Tam-such a sight for sore eyes! Collapsing in front of them I begged them to get my skis off…
How is it that I managed to suppress how impossibly long Gold hill was from 2001? Those brain cells must have frozen the last time because I remembered it being about 1/10th as long and ALL Downhill. I felt like there were cement blocks tied to my feet and my arms had ceased to move me forward sometime ago. In a desperate move, I clawed through my jacket and found a surprise-a pack of M&Ms I had stolen from a ski kid two weeks ago and left in my fleece.
I opened the bottom and let the candies fall all over my face, catching a few in my mouth but mostly spilling them all over the snow because I lacked to coordination to catch them. Chewing and walking in a zombie-like like shuffle, I popped candy after candy and soon felt a small serge of energy-enough to keep me going up the continuous up hills Richmond threw at us. I continued like this for 2 more hours.
Thankfully, beautifully, unbelievably I found myself standing in front of the sundeck checkpoint crew at 3:45 in the afternoon, a puddle with a backpack. No sense of humor left. Bart and I had invested good money and time into the purchase of our “secret weapon” skis that were to jettison us down Aspen Mountain with slightly less terror than a standard cross-country ski. Now it was time to outdo our 2001 ordeal in which it took 1 hour and a lost boot sole to get down.
Sure enough, the Atomic Navigators held a soft edge for me as I rocketed down, side-slipping through Spar Gulch and pizza-wedging straight down Niagara in the fashion of an 8 year old who can’t get enough speed but is completely out of control. As we dashed for the finish line I spotted dad and Tam-such a sight for sore eyes! Collapsing in front of them I begged them to get my skis off–one of which required a coffee drenching to unfreeze it. We had made it in 16 + hours, two hours more than our last time.
Though discouraging, we found out later that the race had suffered a 40% attrition rate and widespread cases of frostbite. Not surprising, this one is going down as the toughest most grueling Grand Traverse yet. Despite our 56th place (yes out of 62 that actually finished), we’re just glad to have finished in Aspen. As for now, I’ve told Bart to ignore me when I’m under the influence of Dayquil.
— Tracey Hughes – FeedTheHabit guest contributor