There is no other race like it in the United States. It combines the endurance of an ultramarathoner, the strength of a downhill skier, the mental determination of a Nordic racer and stamina of an Iditarod sled dog. You must be ready to start the race at midnight and not finish until the next afternoon; it can take as long as 17 hours. Don’t come straight from sea level either, because you’ll be climbing more that 7,400 feet throughout the 40 miles.
We’re talking about the infamous Grand Traverse, the oldest and largest backcountry ski race in North America. This year’s race kicks off on Friday, March 28 in the iconic ski town of Crested Butte, Colo. and treks through 36 miles of the Elk Mountains to the finish line in Aspen. As always, the Grand Traverse begins at midnight to ensure racers hit the highest point of Star Mountain (12,303 feet) before the day’s warmth can trigger unstable conditions. (Shameless plug: We recommend layering in our Hybrid Down Sweater.)
“The race provides that sense of adventure that backcountry skiers desire,” says race director and past Grand Traverse winner Bryan ‘Wick’ Wickenhauser. “People tend to get in a mindset that it’s just another skimo race, but it’s not. Usually skimo races take place entirely on resorts, but this one is 40 miles and 36 of those are in the backcountry.”
And it’s not a forgiving race. It’s pitch-black at the start and freezing cold, but you’re excited. The sense of camaraderie is palpable. But suddenly, you’re in the middle of the woods and it’s dark and the sun won’t rise until you’re above tree line. Wick, who will be doing his 16th Grand Traverse this year, remembered the race nine years ago. “I couldn’t see anything in front of me and I had full vertigo. I thought I was sliding in an avalanche,” recalls Wick. “But I was on flat ground. It was nuking wind and there were ground blizzards everywhere. I went into full survival mode.”
It’s not a predictable course, either. Two years ago, there was so little snow that racers had to run the first nine miles, many sprinting in ski boots. However, this year the snowpack has been great. But with a foot of snow on Wednesday night and more snow expected on Thursday and Friday, they’re a little worried about snow stability. But fingers are crossed, skis are waxed and Oskar Blues beer is chilling at the finish line in Aspen. All are ready and excited for the renowned race to begin.
“It’s a bucket-list event,” says Wick. “It’s a search for powder and adventure, and that’s really what skiing is all about.”