I wrote this up for the Washington Alpine Club May 2022 Bulletin, so I thought I'd publish it here (with a couple more photos).
In late 2021, we (Kathryn & David) were contemplating our plans for the winter. Living in the PNW, we are spoiled with options for skiing. We’ve got glaciated volcanoes, a maritime snowpack, the cheapest lift ticket in the US (Badger Mountain), and Whistralia within a few hours drive. But this year, we decided to do something a little different. We signed up for the Grand Traverse, a 40 mile backcountry ski race. At 12:00 AM on April 3rd, around 200 teams of two would begin skiing through Colorado’s Elk Mountains from Crested Butte, to Aspen. Our goal was to make the strict 7am cutoff at Star Pass, and finish the race skiing down Aspen mountain in our matching skimo suits, while waving to bemused tourists.
Our logic for entering was firstly, that it seemed like a fun and different challenge for us. Second, we pretty much already had all the gear on the extensive compulsory gear list. Third, it was a good excuse to “train at elevation”. In other words, we traveled to various Utah and Colorado ski areas with our Ikon passes. We got to explore some new towns before our pandemic-remote-work lifestyle comes to an end. Our team name, Sexy Sailors do Skimo, came from the fact that we originally met on my sailboat, and Kathryn lives on her sailboat, the Free Spirit, in Fremont.
Before leaving Seattle in February, we went on a few tours, and even experimented with skating on our backcountry gear at Cabin Creek. Once on the road, we tested the uphill policies of various ski areas. From Park City, to Steamboat, plus some dawn patrols, and an informal uphill race at Copper Mountain. That was Kathryn’s first, and my second skimo race ever. Lastly, we managed to do one long (17 mile) tour that doubled as a recon of the notoriously rolling hills that make up the latter part of the course.
Steamboat Springs delivered an amazing sunset one evening!
At the compulsory racer meeting the race organizers stressed that by choosing to continue beyond Star Pass, you and your partner are committing to get yourselves to Aspen. “Do not expect a ride (or helicopter) to come get you” was the message. One person asked if tow-ropes were allowed, so partners could tow each other. The presenter jokingly replied “I thought they were compulsory!”
At 11:55pm, we were toeing the start line with 400 of our spandex and GoreTex clad friends. Father Tim Clark began the ‘Blessing of the Freeheeler’ (2021 version). A few minutes later, we were off! Two ex-Olympians made a statement by skating straight up Crested Butte ahead of everybody else (spoiler: they placed second). For us, the first part of the race went pretty well. We heard a few people calling out for partners they had lost in the crowd. At one point we came around a corner to see an amazing line of headlamps stretching into the distance (no time for photos, sorry!). It was exhilarating.
Just before 1am, we were putting our skins on after the first descent. Spirits were high, and we were ready for the 14 mile, 3,000’ climb to Star Pass (12,336’). For the next few hours we made steady progress, while snacking and drinking on the move. We only stopped for a couple of pee breaks. As 5am rolled around, we both started looking nervously at our watches, and trying to do mile-math in our heads.
We made it to the upper brush creek checkpoint just after 6am, as the sun was rising. The volunteers gave us “7oz” of water, pointed at the 1000+ feet of climbing ahead of us, and said “you’ve got just under an hour to get up there”. We were nervous, tired, and very committed to making it to Aspen! We got out the tow-rope we had made ourselves a few days before the race. We had never practiced with it, and our first attempt at deploying it was short lived because we had to do our first kick-turns here! If you’ve only ever toured in the Alpental valley, you probably don’t believe it’s possible to go 6+ hours without doing a kick-turn, but there you go! We climbed as fast as we could, ripped our skins, and traversed to the checkpoint. One of our watches said ‘6.59’. We blew past a couple of other teams who were taking their time here and descended to ‘Geo’s bonfire’. We made it!
On our dress rehearsal mission the previous week, we discovered that Kathryn’s boots had started leaking badly. They have taken her up Mt St Helens, Adams, Baker, and many other adventures without issues. We thought that extensive silicone application and testing under the kitchen tap would be a better solution than risking brand new boots a couple of days before the race (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, anyone?). But we were wrong. When she took her boots off to change socks at Geo’s bonfire the response of one of the volunteers (wearing his ski patrol jacket) was basically “Oh my god, you have the early stages of trench foot!”.
The next few hours were tough. Anytime somebody overtook us we thought that put us in last place, and wet feet are no fun. To top it off, the weather (and thus view) was suboptimal this year. Eventually we got to the portion of the course we’d seen the week before. Just after 11 AM we arrived at the Barnard Hut. We came in skating across the flats with our tow-rope deployed. At least we looked kind-of cool for a minute there! The hot ramen and water at Barnard was much appreciated, but we didn’t loiter long (the racer manual emphasized “Barnard is a checkpoint, and not a course lounge!”). The next 8 miles felt like Rainbow Road from Mario Kart, but at 11,000’. Up, down, do we transition? Can we skate this? This is the last hill right? Damn, those women on nordic skis overtook us while we transitioned again!
Towards the end of the race, a couple of things seemed to go our way, we overtook a couple of teams who were screwing around with leashes at the entrance to Aspen (Ajax) mountain. We got some cheers while descending Ajax from people who saw our backpacks and race numbers. Hearing “Team Sexy Sailors do Skimo” announced over the plaza, and crossing the finish line together (Kathryn adds: while holding hands, which was Dave’s idea) was one of those moments we will never forget. In our tired state, and having not seen the sun all day, both of us had lost track of time. We were surprised to learn that we finished with a time of 14:28:55. Not bad all things considered. We were even more surprised to learn that we were the 127th team overall, out of 192 starters. Among the CO-ED teams we were 24th out of 49/35 (starters/finishers). For reference, the first CO-ED team (and 4th overall) “Ski Date!” finished in 7:56, while the last official finisher was at 16:42.
We are really proud of our effort. We picked an audacious goal for ourselves, trained, and made choices that led to us finishing (by the skin of our teeth!). The main thing we could have done differently would have been doing our big dress rehearsal mission earlier. That would have given us more time to fix any issues we found, whether that’s practicing kick-and-glide, or new gear. Have you ever skinned 3 miles in 1h? Because you need to do that (or skate uphill!) for several hours to finish the Grand Traverse. The Star Pass cutoff this year was 20 minutes earlier than in 2021, and they may make it even earlier next year. Now it’s late April, and we are in California, heading north, and turning our eyes towards those Cascade volcanoes (and Kathryn has some sweet new ski boots).