This weekend I raced the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse for the second time, and it was nothing like the first. Last year we had great weather. This year, zero visibility, high winds and low temperatures made the race very rough going.
At Taylor Pass, around 30 miles into the race, we encountered a total white out. I could barely see my partner, Hunter, skiing 10 feet ahead of me. We certainly couldn't see any sign of the trail in the featureless above treeline terrain. Markers put up by race organizers had been buried or blown over. There was nothing but white. With a train of other lost teams, we basically felt our way, step by step, to the top of the pass. From here, we had miles of above treeline skiing with wind gusts around 40 miles per hour. Our water was frozen. Any exposed skin was almost instantly frost-nipped. I wanted to turn around, but there were two problems. 1: There was no place to turn around to. The closest refuge was Bernard Hut, on the other side of the worst part of the trail. 2: My partner is a ski patroller, used to working in the worst of weather. When I said, "Is this safe? We could freeze to death!" He said, "Just another day at the office."
So we pushed through. Many teams opted to turn around. Some that didn't got serious frost nip and at least one case of full-thickness frost bite (black fingers that will fall off.) Even though we skied much faster than last year, we arrived about 35 minutes later than last year's time.
That was the pattern for the whole race. The winners were way behind last year's times too. First-place winners Mike Kloser and Stephen White were about an hour behind the winning time last year.
According to the Aspen Times, the second place winner, Pierre Wille said the frigid temperatures and gusts bordered on unbearable.
"It was like being on the inside of a pingpong ball," he said. "I thought we were going to die out there. It was a little scary. We had to stop and put on every piece of clothing we had."
So it goes. It was a really hard race this year. It took everything I had and reduced me, at the end, to a shivering, vomiting husk. I'm pretty sure I'll lose some skin off my face from the wind in the coming days.
But I'm already debating how I can do better next year.