I’ve met some of my best friends at 3:30am. That’s when I met Thomas. Only it wasn’t last call at the bar. It was the start of a ski tour.
We had our sights on a 4:45am start from East Portal so as to catch sunrise atop the Continental Divide on our traverse to Winter Park for brunch. We’d then take it in the reverse. Our crew included Clare Gallagher, Joey Schusler, and Thomas Woodson, superhumans with stacked resumes. A 2016 Leadville champ, The North Face athlete, retired professional mountain biker turned professional adventurer, filmmakers, photographers, writer, sub-6 hour car-car Grand Teton runner, activists, Yeti, Dynafit, Smith, Skratch, and SRAM ambassadors, and the list goes on. And then there was me, the girl who bakes granola, intimidated.
Traversing and skiing 20 miles with a crew you grow to love along the way is the side effect of adventuring I most prize. Journeying to remote zones is one of the only remaining ways I’ve found to disconnect from the tech world and connect with people. The combination of exhaustion, vulnerability, and discomfort strips away life’s insignificances. More is gained and learned from a ten plus hour day in the backcountry, when you don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or vomit, than a week of dinners with new friends, phones tabletop. In the wild, it’s commonplace to pee next to someone you just met, an elsewhere unattainable level of closeness. “Sorry, I got a little pee on your boot.” This doesn’t happen in a restaurant.
Clare was prepping to race in the Grand Traverse, a two-person-team backcountry ski race that, weather and conditions permitting, begins at midnight in Crested Butte and ends 40 miles and 7,800 vertical feet later in Aspen. The thought of touring, booting, and skiing through the night for that duration disgusted me. Naturally, when spots opened up less than three weeks before the race, Thomas and I registered. A version of off-the-couch traversing ensued.
My one confidence lay in the fact that Thomas was my partner. With one GT finish under his belt, and a few unsuccessful attempts, he knew the deal. My other confidence came in our food game. I had us dialed. If a storm rolled in calling for an emergency bivvy, at least we’d be rescued full. Muscles torn…well, at least we wouldn’t bonk. I spent the week leading up obsessively checking the weather in both Crested Butte and Aspen. A one-day window of clear skies kept fluctuating. But the Mountain Gods answered, and the forecast couldn’t have been more perfect.
On race day after gear check, we readied our packs ensuring both weighed the same, and laid out sufficient food to fuel us 200 calories/hour over an estimated 12 hour duration. Most of this we’d carry on our bodies for accessible on-the-go fueling, and so it wouldn’t freeze. With 10:30pm came beacon check and GPS pick-up. Go time. Racers made their way to the base of Crested Butte, the top of the resort illuminated on the stark, pointed peak. It was a sea of headlamps in the mild weathered midnight. With a Reverend’s well wishes, we were off to Aspen.
At around 1:30am I started to think, “Why the fuck am I doing this?” I couldn’t even see the stars because every time I looked up, my headlamp beam muted out the starry night. Thomas carabineered us together in a bungee rope tow system. The trail was congested from Crested Butte to the Friends Hut, the first cut-off point. So Thomas dragged me
around the masses in a slanted skin, like I was his loyal Lab. Whenever we stopped to tend to my high-maintenance needs, those we just passed regained their lead. It was a game of yo-yo. River crossings and lines up bootpacks resembling Jenga sprinkled the route. I prayed no one would fall. Game over.
While our plan was to eat every hour, this proved unappetizing. Before 4am I’d only succeeded at sucking on Sour Patch Kids and gummy worms, and sipping my orange Skratch water. But four marked the onset of physical and mental exhaustion and nausea, so I forced half of a Justin’s honey peanut butter pack in my mouth. And then tried not to choke on it. Upon reaching the Friends Hut, my hip flexors radiated sharp pain with every step, but I began the bulletproof climb up Star Pass. Each step was a test in not throwing up and not crying. I cried the whole time. But as we reached the top, the slivered moon poked out just above a peak as the sun rose to meet it. The clear sky was streaked in pink, orange, yellow, and blue. I thought, “Now this is why I do this.”
Star Pass marked roughly less than the halfway point, and we passed this checkpoint a few hours before the cutoff; we were in the clear to Aspen. Perhaps it was delirium, but my tiny Dynafit PDG’s felt like pow skis on our descent to Geo’s fire pit. We shredded. I then downed too many Advil, ate half of my pb&j and a coconut date roll (I swear by these), and continued on into the beautiful, warm sun. The route decongested and happiness came in a flood despite Aspen dangling before us like a ruse. Thomas dealt with my yells and cries by healthfully dosing himself with Colorado gummies. The chill to my not-so-much. We remained on the tow system for most of the race, skiing the mellow downs roped together in our skins so as to avoid transitions, my kryptonite. If not more efficient, tow skiing boosted spirits. Anywhere near us and you’d hear, “Thomas is walking the dog!”
We finished in 13 hours and 26 minutes, coming in 7th in our age group. Thanks to Thomas who dragged me the last seven miles like a champion speed walker. As we crossed the line, the Dynafit team sprayed Thomas in beer while we hugged. I laughed, thanked the Mountain Gods it was over, and hobbled over to a chair like a 200-year-old woman wearing a diaper. Things could be much worse, but I will never do that again.
Throughout the GT I kept ruminating on how bizarre it is that 400 some people submit themselves to an all night and day suffer-fest in order to reach Aspen. In fact we all paid $200 to do so. In the days of hunter-gatherers, the men may have travelled these distances to chase down food and ensure survival. Not for fun. I’m sure you’ve run a marathon, swore you’d never do it again, and then registered just weeks later to run another. Humans were made to move and suffer. Once you experience that addictive great hurt that is our roots, it’s impossible to avoid return. So who knows, never say never.