Simply put: It’s a competitive backcountry tour that begins in Crested Butte, Colorado at midnight, and ends 40 miles later in Aspen. The Grand Traverse (GT) race was originally conceived by Jan Runge, Mike Martin, and Cathy Frank in the 1990s and was initially created as a fundraiser for the Crested Butte Nordic Center, but now benefits a variety of charities. The journey is a legacy to the rugged skiing postmen of the late 1800s who took similar routes to deliver supplies, letters and hope to these remote mountain towns and draws inspiration from the Patrouille des Glaciers, a point-to-point ski race in Switzerland that Runge had become familiar with. In 1998, a brave field of competitors were sent out for the first year of the official race. Word about this extreme competition got out quickly, and in a short period of time, it has become one of the most renowned ski races in the world. In 2014 the Grand Traverse summer events were launched. Now the Grand Traverse features a winter ski race, a summer mountain run, and a mountain bike race.
Here I am at my big mapping table, finally crossing a project off the list: to make a specific and official topo map for of one of the most unique and special races in North America. This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since the first race I joined back in 2005.
Due to the remote route through the Elk Mountains, each team is required to carry enough food and supplies to sustain themselves for 24 hours. Before the race starts, a team’s packs are checked for essential gear, such as bivouac sacks, a stove, fuel, avalanche beacons, rescue gear, first-aid and repair kits, and finally, a good map. However, one of the countless practices of racers is to pare down our required survival gear for the sake of weight savings. Most of us find ourselves scissoring out the necessary section of a larger recreational map, and in many cases we end up bringing a lightweight map that would honestly provide the same survival and navigational effectiveness as an airplane without wings. As a map publisher and GT alumni, I’ve dreamed of making an official, effective race map that weighs less than 40 grams and serves as a legitimate safety tool for this race.
This little project of drawing and interpreting the race route from Crested Butte to Aspen has brought back memories of disastrous moments, serene beauty, and bizarre experiences. This process is also emphasizing how incredibly involved and difficult it is for the C.B. Nordic staff to organize, prepare, and forecast this one-of-a-kind event.
Today, the race begins at the Crested Butte Mountain Resort base area, but I’m reminded of how in years past, we began the race on the nordic center trails by the CB community school down in town. One year, the surface of the snow adjacent to the nordic trails was just supportable enough to lure racers out of the track. When the mass of racers starts, it can be helpful to get out in front of folks so that we don’t get stuck in a conga line later down the track. All I remember in that dark midnight hour was seeing headlamps strewn about the field, passing the crowd on supportable crust, only to be disastrously eaten by a trap door in the actually very breakable crust. My partner and I were glad to learn from their mistake before we were tempted into the crust fields. It took a few years to remember that we have 40 miles of route to pass people. Unless you’re going for top-ten, it’s totally okay to conserve your energy during the first few miles of the race and enjoy the night.
From here, the route leaves the resort and heads into the East River valley. During the development of the map, this is the spot that the GT snow safety team pointed out as the beginning of the true backcountry experience, where the race route can quickly change based on real-time conditions. As a result, our entire route is annotated with the reminder that this map’s lines are “conditional”. When race day comes, competitors are encouraged to write their own notes on the map depending on what the race staff say during the pre-race meetings.
I’m taken back to a particularly low snow year when we had to navigate all creek crossings without any snow. Would we take the boots off and cross with bare feet? Or would we keep the boots on and risk wet, frozen feet for the rest of the race? Everyone on course was debating it. My partner and I chose to remove our boots for one deep crossing, and for the others, we found rocks to hop across. Luckily, we arrived at the Friends Hut with dry feet.
The Friends Hut is such a cool spot in the Elk Mountains, and an important landmark in the race, because it is a “cut-off” check point. Basically, if racers don’t get there before a predetermined time, they’ll be directed to turn around and go back to Crested Butte. I also learned while drawing this map that the Friends Hut volunteer committee has been really trying to get the message out to racers that the hut itself is not part of the race, nor is it a public warming house for folks previewing the course. In recent years, the people who are renting the hut on a regular old weekend, are sometimes bombarded and interrupted by racers who are previewing the course and decide they can approach the hut, sit on the deck, and eat lunch. So I was glad to pass on the message from the Friends Hut crew that people really need to stay away from the hut unless they’ve actually rented it themselves. Honestly, the future of the race depends on this simple self policing.
Star Pass is the point I have always aimed to reach by sunrise. Sunrise on Star Pass is an absolute spectacle that I’ll never forget. Of course, there’s always a chance you’ll be greeted by a sideways blizzard instead of a calm, serene sunrise. Nevertheless, optimism is a necessity from start to finish. When my pen reaches the east side of the Star Pass descent, I’m transported back to the epic year when those of us in the top 20 took a wrong turn off the course, lost precious time, and nearly got ourselves into trouble. My partner and I soon found ourselves breaking trail on the south flanks of Taylor Mountain in a full-on white-out blizzard. Finally we stopped, admitted we had made a mistake, pulled out our map and compass, and navigated our way down to the route.
As my route reaches Taylor Pass, I feel a sense of relief. Even though there is still plenty of hard work to do from the pass to Aspen, it is past the halfway mark. My best memory here is from the 2021 race when I volunteered to work for the race out of the Barnard Hut. My colleague Alex and I spent the race night in a tent on the pass. We awoke at 4am to watch and cheer on the race leaders as they practically ran up the pass and then disappeared north into the night. Shortly thereafter we were treated to a calm, clear sky with a setting full moon and a rising warm sun. Everyone out there, no matter how hard they were hurting, couldn’t help but acknowledge the out-of-this-world beauty that surrounded us.
If you ask any experienced GT racer for advice, you’ll most definitely be advised to save some energy for this section. Richmond Ridge is a seemingly endless slog that feels like an uphill, even when it’s clearly downhill. Most years for me, this has been a section that was either terribly difficult, or somewhat bearable. One year, however, my partner Rohan and I were doing quite well in the race, and we had plenty saved up in the tank for Richmond Ridge. We left Barnard Hut with skins on, and just chugged at a good pace to the top of the final climb. We had put earbuds in and were each listening to our own choice of “motivational music”. We stopped to strip skins, totally in the zone, both bobbing our heads to the beat of our music. He took an earbud out and asked me what I was listening to. I replied “Rage Against The Machine, F#$k the Police!….what about you?” He looked at me with equal stoke in his eyes and said “Simon and Garfunkel, Sound of Silence”. We carried on to the finish line, and like every year, we both said “yeah that’s probably the last time I’ll do this race.” Yet we both came back again. The Grand Traverse is just that cool.
My project is complete and the official Grand Traverse Map is here. Will I do the race again someday? Definitely not!…But probably! Maybe when my now 11-year-old son is ready to join me? Or perhaps when I’m just old enough to wonder if I still have what it takes.
I reflect on one of the big philosophical dilemmas I face as a publisher of guidebooks and maps: does the act of drawing a route on the map potentially get users into trouble? Does a prescribed route suggest that the user can “let their guard down”. I spent countless hours speaking and working with the snow safety team, current and former, and race staff about this dilemma.
Before you consider if you’re ready to give this epic journey a shot, make sure you fully consider that all possible routes, drawn or not, cross above, beneath, and through avalanche terrain. Racers have died while previewing this route in the past. It is very important to understand that these routes and this race are really, truly, in the backcountry. People attempting this route should know how to identify avalanche terrain, assess the hazard, and manage their own risk. Avalanche rescue gear and knowledge of how to use it is equally important.
Albert, Jason. “Grand Traverse Ski Race Recreates Rockies Mail Route.” Only A Game, WBUR, 7 Apr. 2012, https://www.wbur.org/onlyagame/2012/04/07/grand-traverse-race.
Buehler, Beth. “The Grand Traverse.” Colorado Country Life Magazine, 20 Aug. 2015, https://www.coloradocountrylife.coop/the-grand-traverse/.
“The Grand Traverse.” Crested Butte Nordic – Nordic Ski Capital of Colorado, 21 Oct. 2021, https://cbnordic.org/the-grand-traverse/.