Elk Mountain Grand Traverse Crested Butte to Aspen Ski Race – Kopf Brothers Mission Accomplished – The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse is an annual ski race starting in Crested Butte at midnight – finishing at the base of Aspen the next day, covering some 40+ miles up and over the peaks of the Elk Mountains. This is the story of my brother Rick and my experience in 2011. As stated on the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse website: “In this extreme endurance event, racers will climb more than 7,800 vertical feet and navigate in a self-supported backcountry race that tests them physically and mentally. To maintain safety in the backcountry, racers compete in teams of two and are required to carry mandatory gear. Held annually since 1998, it’s earned a reputation as a true test of toughness for elite local, national and international athletes.”
Our stated goals: 1. Do not die. 2. Finish. 3. Don’t be last.
Really the first goal was to pacify our wives and friends who challenged our sanity. The second goal – Finish was really the mission. Mostly because we figured if we did not finish we knew we would HAVE to enter again next year. The last goal was not really written down – but not being last was a motivation…
We really did not know what we did not know. We did not know how far 40 miles was on skis. We did not know how hard climbing 7,800 vertical feet was. We did not know if we would we make it around the avalanche debris in the darkness on Death Pass or stumble and fall into the the rushing water far below? We did not know whether we would ski or fall from the top of Star Pass. We did not know if we could vent the heat and sweat properly to avoid becoming an icicle. We did not know if we would cramp, or have an equipment issue that would require a prolonged stop – whereby introducing the possibility of hypothermia and frostbite? We are thankful for the advice and input of many, but as one advisor told us – you really don’t understand this race “until you finish”.
Training – This was a race of unknowns – this was our first attempt at the Grand Traverse, we had very little backcountry skiing experience, and we were forced to train separately – I in Crested Butte, Rick in Dallas. The fear of the unknown was our motivator. The one thing we did know was that we needed to be in great physical condition, and endurance was key. We both trained on average 90 minutes per day, with many days of longer treks 6 days per week for 4-5 months prior to the race. I sustained a bit of a head wound when I fell in deep powder with my skinny back-country skis, and my ski hit me in the face which required a visit to the Clinic at the base of the Crested Butte ski area where they cleaned me up and used glue vs. stitches to seal the wound below my right eye. A small crescent scar now marks the spot.
Rick trained in Dallas – mostly on the stair machine and on roller skis (yes roller skis around Whiterock lake). Rick had brand new boots (“…most racers do not finish the race due to blisters”) and he had managed to “rip the sole” out of two pairs of boots on his roller skis and so had a new pair of boots at the start of the race. We have very little back country skiing experience, we had countless items of new gear that we stuffed in our new packs… Rick did come to Crested Butte on two trips, and we were able to train together a bit – including a trial run to the Friends Hut in heavy snow (we turned after 4 hours). At the start of the race we were in great shape – but we were very nervous.
Friday day of the race – Registration 8:30am – When we arrived at 8:45am there was a line of a hundred teams in front of us. When we got to the desk we signed the obligatory waivers, but the key mandatory item was to purchase our Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search & Rescue Card – translation: insurance that reinforces the fear that you may need to be rescued. Great.
11:00am – Mandatory Racers Meeting – I think they were eyeballing us when they repeated numerous times “do not hassle the volunteers if they turn you back at the Friends Hut or the top of Star Pass”. Translation: There must be a real chance that we could ski for 8 hours and 1 minute to get to the tippy top of top of Star Pass and be told we did not make the time limit and now “we must turn-around and ski back!” Great.
The other comforting topic was that of the weather – there was a storm, it was snowing, and it was windy. The word from the race leader Jan and ski patrol race course manager “H-Bomb” was that we had a window whereby the snow may quit at midnight and the wind may calm by 3:00am. But there was still a chance of the “Grand Reverse” whereby we would not go to Aspen, but instead the race would be an out-and-back. Also evident was a great chance for a ground blizzard with all the new snow, the wind will cover the tracks, and a whiteout was common and probable… H-Bomb yelled out: “So write down the following compass coordinates – before you get to Taylor Pass there is a cliff and avalanche danger, when you see a big boulder – get out your compass and follow a heading of 341 degrees for ¾ of a mile, then 40 degrees for ½ mile, calculate using 12 degrees of declination”. Great.
11:30am – Mandatory Gear Check – there are many required individual items including spare clothing, first aid, sleeping pad, lights, water, food, spare binding, tools, avalanche beacon, probe, shovel, and gear necessary for survival… Plastered all over the equipment list is this message: “NO EVACUATIONS WILL BE PROVIDED FOR RACERS WITH BROKEN EQUIPMENT“. If you lose your equipment, you cannot rely on other racers or organizers and volunteers to find it. You must find it yourself, or quit the race. This is a backcountry race with limited support and you MUST be prepared for self rescue and a 24-hour bivouac.”
There is a delicate balance between the stuff you want for safety and the stuff you do not want to carry because it adds weight. The 100 oz. of required water weighs 6.5 lbs. Final weight of our packs was 27 lbs. Great
After the gear check and pasta lunch we were told to report to the school by 11:00pm, and if you signed-up for a Tracker GPS Transmitting device you should show up earlier. We went home to try to relax and get some rest. I can sleep most anytime anywhere – but I could not sleep this day. I laid down for 3 hours and tossed and turned. When I looked outside at about 7:30pm getting up from my warm bed it was dark, windy, cold, snowing, whiteout. Great.
We got to the school at 10:30pm – there was 6” of fresh snow in the parking lot, it was a white-out – we were the first ones there, within 5 minutes the cars of other racers started arriving. The school was opened and we went in with our gear and did our final check-in and got our tracking devices, final gear preparations, and six trips to the bathroom to pee before heading outside at 11:45pm for the start of the race.
Race start – we were among the last out of the school and took a couple of final photos, said a quick prayer and so our starting position was in the back half of the pack. We missed minister Tim Clark’s famous invocation and words of wisdom, but the gun sounded at 12:00 midnight and we were off… As is normal in a mass start it takes a while for the crowd to thin out – and there was a close call for one racer as we were bottlenecked going across the Slate river – he was on the outside and fell, and nearly went into the water. That would have been a bad start for him.
Up and over Mt. CB – We meandered through the valley floor and slowly made our way up to the Upper loop marked by tiki torches and glow sticks, then across to the base area, up warming house hill, Houston, past Painter Boy, up through the trees, and down Gunsight pass, down past the Teo lift, then the East River lift and then down the steep but somewhat groomed trail to the floor of the East River valley… We did not notice crossing the East River, as there was plenty of snow. Soon we were made the left hand turn and the slow march up Brush Creek began.
Death Pass and to the Friends Hut – it is a slow steady climb uphill and we got to the check-in at Death Pass right around 3:00am. I stopped, took off my left boot and sock, got out my duct tape and attempted to protect and stop the blister from forming on my left heel. I did not want my bare foot to get cold, so I applied the duct tape quickly – this proved to be a mistake and waste of time, because soon I could feel the bandage did not stick to my skin and was bunching up – great now I had a blister forming and a wad of duct tape rubbing against this blister. Rick asked the Death Pass safety crew how we were doing time-wise. They said we were not yet half way to the Friends Hut… simple math said at this point we were on the bubble and needed to quicken our pace as we headed across Death Pass. Death Pass is aptly named because you are traversing across a steep avalanche slide area with ice chunks, trees, and rocks. There are some spots your left ski is 2’ above your right ski and uneven footing, and your left elbow is brushing the steep snow, and your right pole is searching for a secure spot well below… all while you hear the rushing water below that will be your destination if you slip or slide off this sketchy traverse.
The second crossing of Brush Creek was a narrow snow bridge and both of the members of the team in front of us almost fell-in. The first one skied across, but fell into the bank on the other side, the next side stepped across and got their skis stuck in bank… we took our skis off, jumped across and then put our skis back on (thankful we got to watch how not to cross…). Since we had never been to the Friends Hut we did not know how far it was, there did not seem to be any teams that we came across that knew either – this added to our fear that we may not make it by 7:00am. All we knew was it was below Star Pass, we had an uphill climb to get there, and once we got above tree line we were told it was windy and “the coldest place on the earth”. At some point we stopped put our skins on again and continued up. We pushed pretty hard through the switchbacks in the trees and Rick later said his mere 2 ½ days of acclimation was impacting his ability to enjoy our adventure as we stopped to catch our breath and rest a number of times. It was clearly getting colder as we continued up and at about 5:00am we stopped and put on our down shirts and hats and switched from our gloves to our warmer mittens. Our toes were cold and numb, our fingers were also as we pushed on. We finally saw the twinkling of a group of headlights and then reached the Friends Hut around 6:15am. We stopped, took off our packs checked-in and rested for about 10 minutes. Our thoughts of a warm hut to rest in quickly vanished. There was no hut, there was no fire. There was a bench carved out of snow and there were water in jugs, but we had plenty of fluids and as we looked at the teams heading up the steep Star Pass we did not want to add any more weight to our heavy load. With no reason to stay any longer – we packed up, checked out and were told we had about an hour and a half to get to the top of Star Pass or we would be turned back.
Star Pass – as we started climbing up, we were above tree line and we could not see the summit, but could see many teams ahead of us with their headlights zig zagging up the mountain.
Many of the switchbacks were at a sharp angle requiring balance and a move with the uphill ski that is neither normal nor comfortable for my knees. We seemed to catch a second wind after our short rest at the Friends Hut and our climb up Star Pass was strong and steady.
A consistent theme for the remainder of the race was – “getting to the top was never the summit” – only the place from which you could see the next false summit… in this case we got to the top as the sun was coming up – you can see in the photo we had a beautiful clear morning and sunrise with the teams traversing across the large bowl and the silhouette of the other teams looking over the edge of Star Pass.
Before we started our traverse across the bowl we could see a skier had fallen and was about 20 yards below the traverse line and was struggling to climb back up. We watched and thought what if she were to cause an avalanche or fall even further down this steep face? As we traversed across and approached this area we could see her tracks as she slipped and fell down a section that was not soft snow, but hard pack ice left from a previous slide. We searched for the smallest of cuts in the ice to track our skis across to avoid a similar fate. We passed as she finally climbed up to the reach of her partner and she had a pained look of exhaustion and fear as a result of her very slight mistake. We were relieved and happy to arrive safely across the traverse and arrive at the Star Pass checkpoint at around 7:15am. We were cold, our toes numb, but the sun was coming up. We had a long way to go, but we had made it to this point without being turned back. In many ways we knew the pressure was off – but we still had not yet gone half way.
We kept our skins on as we slid down the 15 feet of broken cornice and then started traversing through the deep powder and made long traverses down the back side of Star Pass – while it was not easy to ski and my thighs were tired, it felt great to be going down hill! I missed Rick’s crash, but it was clear he had taken a big gentle fall because he was covered in snow and smiling.
There was a fire and gathering point after the downhill leveled out and we stopped briefly by the fire and regrouped for the next phase of the course.
To Taylor Pass – we kept our skins on and climbed on a side hill through the trees for what seemed like miles. The sun was coming up, it was starting to warm up and we were heading toward our next milestone – Taylor Pass. Once we got out of the trees and started climbing up we were in a vast open area and we could see for miles and got a perspective of the distance ahead of us as we could see where we had to go by the trail in front of us and the small dots of racers along the way. We passed the big boulder that we were told about in the meeting, and were thankful we were not in a whiteout but had clear blue skies and no need for any compass bearings. We finally got to the top of Taylor Pass checkpoint. We got some water and asked the race officials which way were we to go to start skiing down? They held back their laughter and pointed to the top of the next peak and said “well… this is Taylor Pass, but you still have to climb up there to the top of that peak.” It was a grueling climb. Great.
We learned the top is never the top and it is never “all downhill from there”. The race officials said (or at least we thought we heard them say) that once we climbed that peak, then it was all downhill to the Barnard Hut. Of course when we got to the top of that peak – we could see that we did get to ski all the way down… we did get to ski downhill, but only a short distance that put us at the bottom of yet another long climb up again. We longed for the Barnard Hut as it is another major milestone – racers are required to arrive at the Barnard Hut check-point before 2:00pm or else you get DID NOT FINISH (DNF) status, and you are done.
As we were climbing up the next long and steep slope there was two recreational snowmobilers that had stopped and were watching us slowly climb up. We stopped when we got to them and asked how far to the Barnard Hut? They said – “just over this ridge and then it was all down hill”. Well it was not – it took us another hour before we finally got to the Barnard Hut.
Barnard Hut and Ritchman Ridge – We made it to the Barnard Hut by about 11:45am, so we were well ahead of schedule but still needed to get to the Sun deck on Aspen Mountain before 4:00pm or be required to take the gondola down and a DNF. There is a required 10-minute rest at the Barnard Hut where you are offered hot soup, warm Gu, cold pizza, and water or Gatorade. We gladly sat and drank our soup in the warm sun and asked the obvious question: “How much farther?…how long?” The answer was 7 miles to the Sun deck and at our pace about 3 hours. The blister on my ankle was screaming – and there was a doctor here that was observing the state of each racer – I chose not to take off my boot and treat my blister for fear that I may be “required to stop”. One piece of intel we had gotten during our training was that if we did nothing else we should drive around to Aspen, and do a training ski out to the Barnard Hut and back. This was recommended because this section of the race is brutally long with numerous sections of up hill climbing through the trees. To be honest we had no idea what was ahead, but it could not be a hard as what we had already done, we were on the last leg, we “just wanted to be done”, and so we did not hang around much past our required 10 minutes and started off.
We would later reflect that having the GPS tracking device and knowing that we had people watching our progress on the internet was a powerful motivator to keep going – especially during this section. We knew our family and friends would be tuning in periodically to watch our progress. We imagined hearing their encouragement as we skied. My wife Francene was just landing in Gunnison from a flight back from South Carolina where her father was laid to rest – I had been in Dallas for his funeral earlier that week. Rick’s wife Ingrid would be waiting at the finish line for us and this was another big motivation for Rick knowing that she was there.
We thought we heard in the pre-race meeting that there would be no “woopdie-dos” (bumps made by the snowmobile traffic) because they brought supplies in on helicopter vs. snowmobiles this year. These bumps were a pain as we could not get any rhythm. For some reason we thought we could do this section of the race in 2 ½ hours. I can only describe the next 7 miles as brutally long, tiring mentally and constantly up hill. We climbed and climbed and climbed through the trees on this trail that was nothing BUT woopdie-dos. We were passed by 20 snowmobiles during our time on this section. When we thought we were at the top and could climb no higher, there was a turn and a flat section that lead to yet another climb. An hour into this trek Rick saw a mirage and we stopped as he pointed to the top of a ridge that appeared to be about a mile or so away and said: “I think I saw a building there – I bet that is the sun deck at the top of Aspen!” It looked close. We were excited. We continued. We soon realized we were wrong.
After about 2 hours and 20 minutes we saw someone skiing out the other way. It was Reed from the Alpineer. My friend Reed who had helped with ski selection, bindings, skins, and answered so many of my rookie questions. He appeared to us in the woods with a smile and a high five. We thought the Sun deck must be right around the corner – we could smell it. We asked the obvious: “How much farther…how long?” He said without hesitating: “40 minutes.” We said with joy: “Really?!… How many more climbs?” He said: “3-4… but one is a stinger.” Great.
That last 40 minutes we pushed hard and passed two teams, we “Just Wanted To Be Done!” There were 3-4 climbs and they were ALL “stingers”. We saw two people on snowshoes with Aspen Mountain name badges – we had to be close. “Right around the corner” turned into another ½ mile, but finally we saw a building and a lift! We had made it . There was no Sun Deck as we had envisioned… we were thinking we would arrive at a mountain restaurant and bar deck crowded with ski après well wishers… a big party and woo-hoo cheering. Not. This was more like a large vacant building that housed snow cats. We were met by three cheerful race officials who did congratulate us, and told us that “from here it was all downhill”! We were thinking 5-10 minutes. They told us probably more like 15 – 20.
Aspen Mountain – The 3,300 feet from the top of Ajax to the base of the Gondola was long and tiring. We were directed and cheered on by the locals who recognized us with our backpacks, skinny skis, and tired legs as we fell and skied our way slowly down the mountain. As we got closer to the base it got harder since the snow was getting heavier and slushier. We stopped at the top of the last hill and looked down 100 yards to the base of the Gondola and the obvious race finish – we were there! There was a crowd, there was woo-hoo cheers, there was Dave Ochs on the microphone calling our names “Here they come, the Kopf Brothers!…all the way from Crested Butte… Wow look at those big packs!…”
Rick and I looked at each other and the emotions ran high as we high fived. The weight of the moment hit us. After 4 months of very hard training, the preparation motivated by fear, the 40+ miles that we had endured — we had now arrived at the finish!! We both shed tears of joy. Thinking about Apollo Creed and Rocky at the end of the movie I looked at Rick and said “Rock there ain’t gonna be no re-match…” and he laughed and said, “Don’t want one!” Then Rick said: “I couldn’t have done it with out you!” And I replied: “I wouldn’t have done it without you!”
We skied clumsily down that last hill, not wanting to fall any more – we were greeted at the base, presented with a kiss, congratulations, and our Official Finisher medals. We hugged each other again and stood for a moment to soak it all in as Ingrid took our photo. Our official time was 15 hours 4 minutes and 25 seconds.
We were an old guy rookie team. We had little experience, I had sustained injury, and rick had trained a sea-level in Dallas on roller-skis. We competed in, and completed the epic Grand Traverse with over 40 + brutal miles and 7,800 vertical feet of climbing from Crested Butte to Aspen. We did not die, we did finished, and we were not last – mission accomplished!
A Note of Thanks and Awe – this summary would not be complete with out a huge Thank You to all of the volunteers – they said there were as many as 150 individuals who contributed to making this race happen. A special thanks to those out on the course for days before the race and during the race to monitor the weather, snow conditions and oversee the safety of the racers at all hours of the day and through the night. They were cheerful, encouraging and a welcome sight. Thanks also to all of our friends for the encouraging words and to our many “advisors” – especially Reed Betz from the Alpineer, Pat O’Neal who held an educational Q &A one evening, Dan McElroy who took us on a training run (and broke trail, and dusted us) and many more who gave us helpful tips and knowledge from previous races so that rookies like us had a fighting chance.
To those individuals who hold the trophies, winning times, and top positions this year (and pretty much every year) our highest respect goes to you for your level of fitness, endurance, skill, threshold of pain and determination. To think that these leaders this year with the new snow had to break trail, but still dropped over the top of Star Pass around 4:30am and finished the race in a little over 9 hours is truly unbelievable.
This is yet another reason that Crested Butte has been called “Colorado’s last great ski town”, and a part of the charm of Crested Butte for visitors, locals and second homeowners.
Chris & Rick started on their journey in Crested Butte in 1999 when they both lived in Dallas, came to Crested Butte to ski, and went home and told their wives they had a second home under contract in Crested Butte, CO. Rick lives in Dallas, TX and is a partner at Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr PC http://www.munsch.com/ and a commercial real estate attorney. Chris lives full-time with his family in Crested Butte and is a real estate agent in Crested Butte, CO with Coldwell Banker Bighorn Realty http://chriskopf.com or Contact. If you have an interest in Crested Butte Real Estate and would like to start a conversation about homes or condos in the Crested Butte area, call Chris Kopf, Previews® Property Specialist, Coldwell Banker Bighorn Realty, 970-209-5405 or firstname.lastname@example.org, http://chriskopf.com or Contact Chris
Author: Chris Kopf