The Grand Traverse, then and now

“First off, let me say I think you’re all crazy for doing this”

[  by Than Acuff  ]

At midnight on Friday, April 3 in 1998, 47 teams of two skiers each lined up behind the Crested Butte Community School for the 1st Annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, a 40-mile backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, most of whom were on telemark or Nordic gear. Eight-and-a-half hours later winners Travis Moore and Pierre Wille crossed the finish line on their trusty Nordic skis with 36 more teams crossing throughout the remainder of the day, including yours truly, crossing the finish in a blistering time, literally and figuratively, of 14 hours and 16 minutes.

Twenty-five years later the race continues, thanks to CB Nordic, and at midnight on Saturday, April 1, 2023, as many as 200 teams of two skiers each will line up to ski from Crested Butte to Aspen for the Montane Grand Traverse through the same 40-mile stretch of snowy, mountainous terrain between them and the finish line.

Sure, the gear is much lighter now and quite more stable than the Nordic and telemark skis of that first Grand Traverse, and ziplock bags of little smokie sausages drenched in maple syrup and Malt Nut Powerbars have been replaced with Gu and Honey Stinger gel packs. Furthermore, while Cam Smith and John Gaston won the race in a time of six hours and 15 minutes last year, it still takes over half of the racing field anywhere from 12 to 16 hours to complete the course and the adventure remains in place.

Fact is, no race has ever been the same with some races turned back because of avalanche conditions (Grand Reverse), others taking teams into massive disorienting ground blizzards, some forcing skiers well into the pain cave with sub-zero temperatures and even one race with teams crossing the finish line in shorts after relatively tepid nighttime temperatures. It remains, 25 years later, a backcountry adventure ski race and the original race organizer Jan Runge’s words from the first race still ring true.

“First off, let me say I think you’re all crazy for doing this.”

Pat O’Neill 

(Raced in all 25 races)

The first GT was in 1998. Jan Runge asked me the summer before what I thought about a ski race from CB to Aspen. My response: “Kick ass,” and, the race was kick ass. Jimmy Faust and I had been reconning the precarious route that winter with a Jerry Garcia map and meatloaf sandwiches.

On race night, there were 50 teams, I believe, including Than Acuff. ESPN was even involved with filming. The check-in was buzzing with excitement and nerves. Since it was race one, we were embarking into the Great Unknown. Jimmy and I were rocking retro leather telemark boots, three-pin bindings and narrow telemark death twigs. Travis Moore and Pierre Wille, two Aspen Nordic Legends, rolled the dice on Nordic gear and came up big with the first GT. Jimmy and I got third. It was a night to remember, and the first year of a now 25-year skiing tradition. 2023 will mark my 25th EMGT. What a long, strange trip it’s been….

Ian Hatchett 

(Longtime racer and race volunteer)

Gear check was in the old Gothic Building, and they actually made us go outside the building and show we could boil water. I also remember the heavy gear. Full backcountry kit, telemark skis and boots and full expedition packs. The gear list has gotten longer over the years but in those days, there was no lightweight gear. We literally took enough to camp the night.

Lining up there was a palpable nervousness and energy that goes with a long endeavor, not really knowing what was in store. No one had really done this before (there wasn’t a thing such as online). You also couldn’t buy any knowledge for the price of a beer or a cup of coffee from a previous veteran because it hadn’t been done before. Some of us had done it in three days as a hut-to-hut trip but not as one continuous push.

The start of the race from behind the school was chaotic because the course wasn’t well marked. And I remember marching in our boots on Brush Creek Road from Skyland to Veltri’s Ranch. We shouldered our skis and walked in different little sub-groups just talking. In spite of the pain of walking, it was still early in the race so spirits were high.

 The Friends Hut breakfast spread had burritos and bourbon. I remember thinking, breakfast burritos for free? I’ll take two! And I didn’t throw them up on the march to Star Pass. It was a long, lonely shuffle from Star Pass to Taylor Pass. There were no course officials, aid stations, Geo’s Bonfire. Boy was the field spread out by then and it felt like a real wilderness experience.

The Richmond section was interminable. I had done it before with clients out and back from Aspen and it seemed short. But not after skiing from Crested Butte.

Then I did the cruelest thing I’d ever done. My partner was obviously hurting and I told him, “Don’t worry, when we get out of the trees there will be a sight for sore eyes,” knowing he would think I meant the Sundeck. In reality, there was one more hill. He was so mad he took off on a burst of renewed energy, fueled by anger.

Finish line medals with Glo and it was an absolute cracker day, and all of our supporters and fellow competitors were sprawled out on the base area deck, shirts off, drinking beer and I recall someone saying, “Get the paper photographer down here now because I want photos of this. This is how Aspen used to be!” 

Jan Runge 

(The woman who started it all)

It was insanity. We had to deal with two counties, two Forest Service areas, two cop departments, two ski areas, three towns, ambulances and hospital crews on both sides and it was just me. Mike Martin came in midway, thank God.

I wanted it to be like the races in Italy where there’s a ceremony and priests involved, I just threw it to the pagan side of things instead.

I didn’t know how to do registration. We just had some piece of paper people had to come by and pick up. There was no online registration.

The most important thing was we connected with people like Bob Wojtalik, Buck Myall, Dan Ewert, Lee Lynch and others I’m forgetting and that was huge. Luckily, we had Chris Mathias line us up a sponsor with Mountain Hardware and then some watch company that gave us crummy little watches and I was just like, ok, thanks. We basically had no money and operated on a shoestring, but the community brought the whole race together and the race was community.

Scott Lefevre flew over the Friends Hut in his plane with the doors off to throw bacon and supplies out for the burrito aid station.

We really had no communications out there. We had this horrendous Swiss Motorola team fly over saying they were going to climb mountains and set up towers, but they were all out of shape, smoking cigarettes and we ended up having to rescue one of them.

The nice thing was that Mike and I skied, toured and mapped out every inch of the route because, if you think about how many places people can get lost out there, it’s phenomenal. So, we kept the race really small, we had to. We still had people scattered all over the place and people turning around and we didn’t have a formula for how to get people who turned around back from Brush Creek and herding people in late in the afternoon was a chore.

I remember the biggest surprise was how fast those guys did it that first year. We were at the finish line trying to figure out how to put up the Mountain Hardware dome when Pierre Wille and Travis and Geo and those guys came tearing in. We didn’t even have a finish line set up.

You crossed the finish line and you got a beer basically. We had free-flowing kegs and the awards ceremony was more like a party.

It was pretty incredible. Thank God I was young because it was a pretty major effort.