Posts Tagged ‘Death Pass’

I had never been this nervous before a big event before. Prior to 50-60+ mile trail runs I’d been calm and confident. However the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse had me scared. The event is an unsupported backcountry ski race that starts in Crested Butte and ends in Aspen roughly 40 miles away and over a couple passes through the Elk Mountains. The race starts at midnight so racers can clear some avalanche prone areas in the dark before the sun warms the snow slopes.

Partly, it was my injured achilles tendon that I suspected would flare up and force a painful withdrawal from the race. I may not have even started the event except that participants had to compete in two-person teams and I couldn’t let down my brother with out at least trying. Also, with the Grand Traverse I would be much more dependent on gear and much more at the mercy of the weather than any of my previous big endurance events.

By virtue of being one of the first teams in line at Friday morning’s registration we got to enter the gear check just after all the top competitors. We emptied our packs on the floor then went over all the items on the gear list from our skis, food, water containers, first aid kit, repair kit, headlamps, maps and clothing.

After passing the gear check we returned to the main room and enjoyed the pasta feed. Then we returned to our team #63 headquarters where we repacked and weighed our bags (14-15 pounds each prior to adding 6-8 pounds of water).

With the sunny day outside we were worried that some of the creek crossings might not be bridged. Racers in some prior years had needed to ford some cold streams so we took a few trash bags and molded foot beds into them with duct tape and left a few extra lengths of tape for securing them around our legs if necessary.

Grant and I then applied some additional glide wax to our skis and Grant buffed on several layers of extra blue grip wax into his kick zone.

After a multi-hour combination of sleeping and lying awake staring at the ceiling we woke and had a light dinner while heating up water to carry during the race. After a cup of coffee each we loaded up my car and drove over to the Crested Butte Community School with a small entourage of friends. At the school we picked up our laminated medical cards to wear during the race and had a beacon check. Do I look nervous about the impending insanity?

We stood in the hallway thinking a thousand thoughts and just waiting for the start of the race when I could focus on moving and quit worrying.

We didn’t hear the announcement, but sensed the frantic movement in the crowd as people grabbed gear and headed out the door. We lined up well behind the pack and clipped into skis and adjusted poles.

I don’t remember any kind of starting gun, just the crowd of skiers surging forward. The race was started this year with a “slow start” where a snowmobile would move slowly ahead of the skiers and everyone must stay behind the snowmobile and jockey for position until it pulled off. This was partly to avoid a mad rush for the front at the beginning and to guide us through some fence gates.

Grant immediately went into NASCAR mode and started pushing his way through the pack and passing people. After a little while I caught my breath and told him to slow down, we still had nearly 40 miles to go! We settled into a decent pace and watched the pack spread out a bit. Then the wide trails at the start slowly narrowed and we soon reached some bottlenecks where the beaten path went down to a single track.

Up ahead we could see the pack’s lights moving up a hill and people stopped at the base applying their skins. We joined the crowd here and also skinned up then got back in line. For the next couple miles we’d pretty much stay in the same position and moving with the pack toward Mount Crested Butte.

Many of the people on Randonee gear were stopping to make frequent skin changes in this section, but my keeping our skins on we felt we were moving at a faster overall pace.

We came into the base area for the Crested Butte Mountain Resort where several more of Grant’s friends cheered us on before we started the long climb up the resort. Grant set an aggressive pace and we passed several people on the gradual climb.

At our high point we found a bunch of racers de-skinning and a small group playing drums and making up impromptu songs to cheer on the Grand Traverse racers.

After stowing away our skins we started down the ski area’s trails, often over-driving our headlamps. The slopes hadn’t been groomed since the morning so we found variable conditions – hard snow/ice and pockets of softer snow. Dealing with those conditions in our skinny skis was trying and we both took several spills before passing the bottom of the East lift.

The route then took a service road down to the East River Valley with several steep rolls. The last one was about 20-25 feet and quite steep. Standing on the top I decided to try and side slip down but just ended up going down on my hip and sliding to the bottom.

Looking back up I saw Grant reach the top of the slope where I yelled at him to just slide down on his side. Instead he decided to point his skis straight down and hope to ride out his momentum on the flats. Unfortunately, the transition from steep to flat wasn’t gradual and Grant went down hard at the bottom of the slope. He got up okay but probably earned a large bruise.

The first thing I noticed now that we were in the East River Valley was the sudden drop in temperature. The cold air had definitely settled in the valley bottoms and I was anxious to keep moving before we chilled.

As we moved out I could see a string of headlamps running well down the valley and more people coming down the slopes behind us. I found this section of the race quite enjoyable as it was slightly downhill and I could get into a good kick and glide rhythm. When we reached the Ambush Ranch checkpoint on Bush Creek Road we had been racing for just under three hours. Grant estimated we should take another 2 and a half hours to reach Friends Hut, which would put us comfortably under the 7am cut off.

We soon ran into problems as Grant’s grip wax wasn’t performing very well anymore now that the temperatures had dropped so much. He struggled on for a while then decided it would be better to just put on his skins now – roughly an hour earlier than he’d normally rely on them. We quickly found that the skin’s adhesive had frozen in the cold air after getting wet on the earlier usage. Taking the advice of some Grand Traverse veterans, Grand had trimmed his skins to only run from the ski tip to the end of his kick zone. I had stuck with a full-length skin including a modified rat tail attachment system.

It didn’t take many strides forward to notice that Grant’s skins weren’t going to stay on and they soon fell off. We stopped and fished out our mandatory repair kit, including the all-important duct tape and made a few wraps around the skin and ski. Once again the cold worked against us and the duct tape wouldn’t even stick very well.

After some frustrating forward progress Grant ended up with one skin that seemed to be staying on and the other was tucked away into his jacket in hopes of warming up the glue. In this manner we slowly made our way past the Death Pass checkpoint where we should have stopped by the roaring fire to deal with our equipment problems. Instead, we pushed forward and stopped not much longer to further expose our fingers to the cold and re-tape the skins.

Death Pass turned out to be an awkwardly steep slope that required care to negotiate. For the first time since the beginning of the race we found ourselves stuck behind other skiers as they each gingerly picked their way across the slope while trying not to look at the steep drop down to a creek. Eventually we cleared this section and could ski comfortably again.

When we were moving we were passing people pretty well, but with the constant stops more racers were going by us and we were steadily loosing our time margin for the Friend’s Hut cutoff. The valley air was probably below zero with a slight wind and taking off our mittens to deal with our gear had numbed our fingers. I ended up putting 2 hand warmers in each mitten to try and fight off any frostbite.

While we were stopped I saw two racers descending and recognized Drew, Grant’s training partner. Drew and his race partner had the same problem with their skins and found that the duct tape wasn’t holding. So they were bailing out on the race after successfully completing it twice before.

With three wraps of duct tape around his skins, Grant was game to try and make the cut offs so we continued upwards. The temperature increased a little as we gained elevation and left the creeks. The duct tape wraps were slowly loosening and dropping away. At 5am Grant and I held and conference. From prior trips up to the Friend’s Hut he knew we still had two hours left. That put us right at the cutoff even if we didn’t have any more equipment issues which was almost a certainty.

It also wasn’t like we could just continue to the hut and then get a ride out, we’d still have to self-evac from the race course unless we had a medical problem. Also, we’d both much rather descend this portion of the trail with skins on to slow us down for the sharp switchbacks. With all that in mind we decided to quit the race.

Just before we started down a “skier” came up behind us carrying his skis and booting it up the slope. We told him about the cutoff and the two hour ETA to the hut and he quickly took off uphill at a jog. Apparently, his skins weren’t staying on either.

I figured we should salvage some good out of our retreat and so we scanned the trail for duct tape (of which there was plenty) and other trash and picked it all up to carry out. We descended past a few more teams still continuing on and couldn’t imagine them actually making the cutoffs.

Back down in the valley we put on some extra clothes as we still had to deal with the cold temperatures and now weren’t generating as much heat as when we were moving upwards. I did get to stop and take a few photos now that we weren’t “racing”.

I stopped Grant at one point on our descent and asked him to turn off his headlamp. Remembering his roommates’ excitement at our journey I figured we should enjoy being out in the middle of nowhere with a clear sky and take in the celestial display. We were even rewarded with a few shooting stars.

Continuing on to Death Pass I mentioned how it didn’t seem that deadly to me – while it was steep there were trees below and ground that looked like you might stop before landing in the creek. Of course, just after saying that I got tangled up while negotiating the difficult part and Grant had to take off his skis and return to help me out. He was nice enough not to first take a photo of my Death Pass game of Twister.

When we reached the Death Pass checkpoint we found all the volunteers had turned in to their tents to get some sleep, but thankfully the fire was still going. We found another team warming up by its flames and joined them to share tales of the cold temperatures and our respective trials.

After twenty minutes of warming up and eating, we all headed out past the Ambush Ranch checkpoint and continuing on Bush Creek Road. Grant and I tried for cell phone reception at a couple points but got nothing. We hoped to catch some of the people heading to Aspen to see our finish before they started their drive.

The peaks around us were receiving the sun’s full attention this morning, but the road stubbornly stuck to the shade. However, once we reached the trailhead two wonderful things greeted us. First was the sun and second was Charlie, a volunteer with the Crested Butte Search and Rescue who knew racers would bail out to this point. He gave us each a welcome shot of hot chocolate and then a ride back to town.

Back in Crested Butte we were able to alert everyone that the course had chewed us up and spat us out. An hour later we were enjoying a large breakfast and noticing 3-4 other Grand Traverse teams in the restaurant who would also be recording a DNF (Did Not Finish) for this year.

Gear notes:
Both Grant and I used nordic backcountry skis with full metal edges and manual BC-NNN bindings. His were Rossignol BC 65 skis while mine were waxless Alpina Discovery’s. We both used Black Diamond’s Traverse poles. Boots were backcountry models by Alpina and Rossignol and we used lightweight backpacks from ULA and GoLite.

Complete Photo Gallery

Race Results

Future updates: Grant’s comments on the race.

Special thanks to Chris at Mountain Outfitters in Breckenridge for lending us the required spare binding for the race.


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