Sam Duchaine is a former OGEr, backcountry skier, and all-around rad lady. So when she reached out to us to write about her experience doing the Grand Traverse race for the first time, needless to say, we were stoked. Check it out:
Moving swiftly through the mountains. That is all I need to do. One foot in front of the other.
Years ago, I lived in Gunnison, Colorado. I was there for 7 years, on and off, working on my degree at Western State College. Four years ago, I lived in Crested Butte—the home of the Grand Traverse.
The most time-honored backcountry ski race in North America, the Grand Traverse travels 40 miles and climbs 8,000 feet over the Elk Mountains, from Crested Butte to Aspen. I’d had friends ski it over the years, but for one reason or another, I would tell myself that I couldn’t do it—I wasn’t in good enough shape, I couldn’t afford the gear, I didn’t believe I could race 40 miles—though I always wanted to try.
Eventually I reached a place in my life where, sick of feeling that way, I decided it was now or never. I would do the race. So I found a partner and signed up.
If you want something bad enough, you will find a way to make it work.
I knew I was going to need to ski a lot—I didn’t want to win the race, but I did want to minimize my suffering. I wanted to feel strong; I wanted to feel good. So I started a training program. Six days on, one day off. No matter how tired I was, or how late it was when I got out of work—I stuck to it. There were a lot of laps behind my house (I’m lucky to live on a mountain with excellent backcountry terrain), a lot of quick 45-minute nordic sessions, and lots of skiing by headlamp up Mount Ellen.
I’ve been sore every day since Christmas.
There was also an intensive nutritional component of my training. I began taking a whole galaxy of supplements: Spirulina, chlorella, and marine phytoplankton; ginseng, iron, B12 and Omega-3’s; turmeric and apple cider vinegar. As a vegan, I figured I would need a protein supplement too, but I actually had to stop taking it because I was building too much muscle—who would have thought!
Nearly everyone skis this race on randonée gear, which is ultralight alpine touring gear. Some ski it on backcountry nordic gear and some even do it on skate skis.
Everyone I talked to who had skied it before were trying to talk me into randonée, but I couldn’t seem to justify it. I’m a tele skier and I just love dropping my knee. Plus, randonée gear is expensive, so it was hard for me to bite the bullet on gear I didn’t know, for a race I wasn’t sure I would want to repeat.
That being said, telemark gear wasn’t going to be up to snuff. Companies haven’t been investing in the free heel racing market, so the technology just isn’t there. I had to get a new setup.
Since I had already decided I wasn’t going to be competitive for my first race, I told myself that the gear I used should be stuff I’d want to use again. So I crunched weights and price tags and settled on Garmont Excursion boots (now made by Scott), Madshus Annum skis, and Voile 3-pin cable bindings. You can remove the cables from the bindings for maximum touring comfort, so I did. Everything was just a little bit heavier than the randonée gear I wouldn’t have been able to afford, and it’s a perfect setup for the rolling terrain in Vermont, anyway.
I picked up a pair of 110mm Black Diamond mohair skins (for the glide factor) and ripped them in half, making two pairs of skinny skins—it’s crucial that you have a backup for when one pair gets iced up. Luckily, I got this all together a few weeks before the race, so I got to log some hours on it. It was lovely—having done most of my training in my super heavy backcountry gear, I was able to get on my new setup and just fly.
Logistically, this is a tough race, and travelling from Vermont to Gunnison gave me extra logistics to work out. Luckily, I have lots of friends in the area who opened up their doors.
The altitude also presented an issue that needed attention. I knew I had to get to Colorado with some time to adjust before the race. I settled for 7 days of acclimatizing—two weeks is what it actually takes—but I could only afford the week. I went on two skis right away, with a nice long 22-miler my first day at elevation. It was also important I ski with my last-minute partner before the race, and we thought we should check out the first leg of the course anyhow.
The next day I skinned up Mt. Crested Butte. So, I was able to get up to 11-thousand-something feet and adjust, then come back down. I think these two skis were crucial for me. Altitude makes me nauseous, dizzy, and sore—to say the least.
I had so much anxiety as the race approached. So many people knew I was skiing this thing, so I definitely had to finish. I had to make the cutoffs. And not just me, but my partner too.
On the subject of partners, and anxiety: My original partner is probably my biggest ski buddy. She’s an endurance crusher, and who I tend to ski with most. So of course, she was first in mind, and agreed to race right away when I proposed the idea.
Well, she also has an 8-month-old, and let’s just say that between the sleep deprivation and mom logistics that this just wasn’t possible for her to pull off. She did, thankfully, gave me 3 weeks’ notice, and I was able to find a friend of a friend in Durango whose partner also bailed—it seems relatively common. He and I were psyched to buddy up, and so we went on that big 22-miler together to get our bearings.
Unfortunately, even 5 days after that, the blisters he ended up getting still hadn’t healed and were an oozing, painful mess. With 48 hours before the race, he bailed too. So there I was, in the basement of my friends’ house, hearing this news on the phone. I had put so much money and effort into this race, and I could feel my heart start to break.But, it just so happened a friend from Vermont was upstairs. He had come over for dinner because I was in town. He had heard about the Grand Traverse as a child, and mentioned that ever since, he had always wanted to ski it. I walked up the stairs with a long face. I explained the news and then looked at Casey.
He smiled. “F*** yeah. So, what do I need to know? Can I ski it in my 109’s? I am supposed to work that day…”
We proceeded to address those questions, and then started pondering who might have a pair of skis light enough for him to use. Another friend chimed in that they were given an old pair of tele skis, and maybe they would work. They were the classic K2 Piste Stinx with voile 3-pin cable bindings—a little heavy, but manageable!
Serendipitously, all the logistics worked out. Casey borrowed the skis and bindings, used his T1’s (!!), and had no training. Bold.
There’s a gear check the day of the race, and Casey and I brought our bags in to be inspected. The Grand Traverse has an extensive ‘required gear’ list, and racers are required to carry everything on it so that if they get stranded, they’ll survive. Some of the items necessary are a shelter, a stove, spare bindings, repair tools, and 100 ounces of water. It takes a lot of thoughtful prep to get your pack weight as low as possible.
Our gear was up to snuff. We then made it to the pre-race meeting, only to find out that we might not be skiing to Aspen after all—it was storming hard outside, and Star Pass (the high point of the race) was a complete whiteout with 60 mph winds. Crews couldn’t even get up there to assess the avalanche danger, so it seemed likely that we would be skiing a reverse. We wouldn’t know until later in the afternoon. The race organizers showed us both possible courses on projectors just in case, then went over any last-minute questions.
The race cutoff times were sharp: We had 6 hours and 30 minutes to get to the Upper Brush Creek Checkpoint, 15.5 miles in and 11,006 feet up. Then, we had another 50 minutes to get from there to the Star Pass Checkpoint, at 17.25 miles and 12,336 feet up. If we didn’t make it to these checkpoints in time, or if we got turned around, our race would be over. We had to be dialed.
After the pre-race meeting, we went back to our basecamp in Gunnison. We re-packed our bags and food, making sure we had all of our little things in order and packed well, so that we wouldn’t have to remove our backpacks, or if we did have to, that what we needed would be easily accessible.
We got the final word on the course, and it would indeed be a reverse. Not nearly as fun as skiing to Aspen would be, but an adventure nonetheless. Since it had been a low snow year, there would be at least 5 miles of hiking, too. Casey and I ran to a gear shop to buy some running shoes—the thought of hiking in my plastic boots wasn’t appealing, especially if we wanted to try and run the bare stretch.
Another friend stopped by and offered up his “marsupial” pouch, a little pocket that straps to your chest. I decided to keep a dromedary full of water in it so it wouldn’t freeze and I could drink easily. I also threw some cut fruit and snacks in there, so I could eat on the go, too. This proved to be a crucial piece of equipment and I was grateful for it. We certainly didn’t want to have to stop to eat or drink.
We gathered up at the base lodge of Crested Butte, all of us racers decked out in our goofy gear. We were required to wear our helmets the whole time, have our headlamps out and ready, and have all our pockets stuffed full of water, snacks, and other easy-access items. We certainly were a funny-looking group—speed suits galore! We got the last of our ducks in a row inside the lodge, as well as the final course briefing.The climbing steepened, and it got colder. We were in the hours before sunrise, the darkest part of the night. The stars were amazing. I tried to chat with others as I passed them or was being passed, but they were head down, tired, and no one said much more than a word or two. Casey and I kept up some sporadic dialogue, enough to try and stay awake and to keep our morale from dipping too low. The climb seemed to go on forever. We started to see the fastest skiers headed down, and heard that we had maybe 2-3 miles to go to get to the checkpoint. It was about 5 am at this point. These miles were the hardest, and it was hard to keep my eyes open. Casey nodded off once or twice himself.
Finally, the checkpoint was in view, we had made it there by 6 am! They had some water available there, which was good, because even in my marsupial pouch under my jacket, mine had started to freeze. I was able to get it to thaw enough to drink some, but Casey’s was totally frozen.
It was cold, pitch black. We continued on to the final 500-foot climb up to Star Pass. We were in an open bowl at this point, and the skinning got real steep. We made it up there by 6:20 am, and the sun was starting to rise. We hung out for a minute and layered up so we could watch it. Absolutely gorgeous!
We de-skinned and started down, excellent to be skiing in a foot of fresh. Once we hit our uphill trail, it was a balls-to-the-wall-get-down-as-quick-as-possible-without-hitting-a-tree kind of experience. From there, we were just trying to get to the next waypoint as fast as possible, which was where we needed to change into our running shoes. Ah, running shoes! We were so happy to get out of our ski boots—I was developing bone bruises on my ankles and Casey had cultivated some nasty blisters. We hung back at this spot for at least 30 minutes while Casey put on moleskin and fueled up on coffee. I ate food. It was probably 10 or 11 am.
We saddled up, skis and boots on our backs, and started walking the 5 miles back to the snow. Digging deep, we made it back around to the ski trails and put our skis and boots back on. Then, Casey and I dropped our knees for some nice turns across the finish line.
We completed in 13 hours, and for Casey, with no training and with heavy gear, this was a huge accomplishment. We were 30 hours without sleep. I felt amazing, and still full of adrenaline. I couldn’t wait to ski it again next year. I still can’t wait to ski it again next year.
I’m ready to take it seriously and actually compete, now that I have a personal baseline to compete against.
The camaraderie and encouragement amongst the other racers was amazing, inspiring and supportive, and so much more than what I expected. Sure, it is a race, but most folks are racing against themselves, towards their own personal goals. I think it would be nice to make the top 25, but aside from that, it would be nice to make my best possible time.
The Grand Traverse felt like a race where all of the racers were rooting for each other, like we were all connected in the pursuit of moving as swiftly as possible through the mountains. It was like being part of a crew who loved adventure, who wanted to challenge each other to be their best selves. That kind of connection, with that many people, is hard to find.
Like I said, I can’t wait to do it again next year.