THE 2017 ELK MOUNTAIN GRAND TRAVERSE
NEW RECORDS, NEW MILESTONES, AND 40 MILES OF THE ELK MOUNTAINS.
By Ted Mahon
Congratulations to Strafe founder John Gaston and athlete Max Taam for taking the win and setting a new course record at the 20th Annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse this past weekend. The victory not only capped off a monumental skimo race season for the duo, but it also brought the Grand Traverse title back to Aspen for the first time since the race began, twenty years ago.
PHOTO: AUSTIN COLBERT/ ASPEN TIMES
I still recall when I first saw a flyer for the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse. It was late winter in 1998, and it was advertising something that seemed pretty crazy at the time: a 40 mile ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen. I was intrigued, and I skinned up Aspen Mountain to watch on the morning the racers were set to arrive. As I neared the Sundeck, Travis Moore and Pierre Wille came whizzing by on nordic skis. The two Aspenites reached the finish line at the bottom of the gondola in 8 hours and 31 minutes, and had won the first Elk Mountains Grand Traverse.It was unlike any other event at the time. The race course followed a route between the two ski towns over Star and Taylor passes. Due to inherent risks associated with skiing through remote mountains and avalanche terrain, the organizers mandated all participants have a partner. A sizable amount of gear was also required in order to ensure teams could complete the traverse safely and manage potential emergencies along the way. In addition to the ski gear and clothing needed for such an outing, teams were required to carry avalanche rescue equipment, a repair kit, an itemized first aid kit, overnight bivy gear including sleeping pads and down layers, and a stove and system to melt snow for water. Extra clothing and layers were on the list as well, and enough food and water for the entire effort, which often pushed backpack weights to 20 pounds or more. A good headlamp was essential as well. In an attempt to minimize the exposure to warming springtime avalanches near the 12,500 foot Star Pass, the race started at midnight and much of the course was completed in the cold darkness of the night.
MAP OF THE 40 MILE COURSE. TED MAHON ON COURSE AT SUNRISE.
PHOTO: TED MAHON
In ideal conditions, the effort required to complete this race was massive. In fact for most participants it wasn’t practical to treat the GT as a race at all, and the event was commonly viewed as a “just to finish” type of goal. Under adverse conditions — challenging snow, arctic temps, wind — the whole effort morphed into something more akin to a survival adventure, a test of skills and determination just to make it to Aspen. To many, including myself, it was that challenge that was so appealing. Fully inspired after watching Pierre and Travis ski in that day for the win, I made it a goal to do the race whenever possible (this year marks 15 finishes for me and my wife Christy). But as fulfilling as those years were for me, Aspen never managed to stand atop the podium again. For most years various teams from Crested Butte took home the title or else battled Mike Kloser and his partners from Vail for it. Sure, there were some impressive finishes from Aspen locals here and there, including many by the Wille brothers, but the elusive win was always a little out of reach.
Fast forward to this past weekend and that concern from myself and the GT racing faithful from Aspen was quelled. It took nearly two decades, but the title has finally returned to our side of the Elks. And while the time it remains here could be short lived, it was cool to see these guys bookend a colorful twenty year history of a pioneering backcountry ski race in such commanding style. Congrats guys!
MAX AND JOHN JUST AFTER SETTING THE NEW COURSE RECORD.