Brian Smith and Bryan Wickenhauser won the 13th annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse on Saturday in 6 hours 28 minutes and change. This backcountry ski race normally runs from Crested Butte to Aspen, but more than a foot of new snow and high winds forced organizers to scrub plans for the midnight start and high-altitude (over 12,000 feet) traverse to Aspen. Instead, racers did the “Grand Reverse,” starting at 6 a.m. and following a complex course up to the Friends Hut and back, doing several loops to add mileage, and finishing at the ski resort.
The course was so unfamiliar, in fact, that two of the leading teams took a wrong turn with about an hour left in the race and lost their podium finishes. In the final results, second place for the men went to Ethan Passant and Travis Scheefer, and the third spot went to Jake Jones and Pat O’Neill. Mark Smiley and Janelle Smiley won the co-ed division in 7:26:02. The fastest women’s team was Emma Catmur and Emma Lohr, in 9:05:45.
The Grand Reverse distance was approximately 38 miles and 7,000 feet of vertical, which is comparable to the usual course, but this year was much quicker. Top finishers glided in 1.5 to 3 hours faster than the winning times in recent years.
We asked winning skier Bryan Wickenhauser for his impressions.
Mojo: Like everyone, you must have been disappointed that conditions caused the course change. What did you think of the new course? Did it play any more to you and your partner’s strengths?
Wickenhauser: We were disappointed, but realistic. If those were the forecasted conditions for a training mission over to Aspen, we would not have gone, so they made the right call. I did do the other Grand Reverse [in 1999], and I bike and run those trails all summer, so we were comfortable with the route. The fact that we knew it well was good for us, but we knew many of the local teams knew it intimately as well. We certainly didn’t expect to win it just because we were familiar with the reroute.
Mojo: Were you allowed to change equipment with the course change, or did you carry the same kit?
Wickenhauser: You were allowed to change gear, but we stuck with our guns and used our rando/AT gear. Never did we waver on that call. We spend a lot of time in this gear, and it’s where our comfort level is at. In our minds, this is truly not a Nordic race. I have done the GT for 12 of the 13 years. The first eight were on Nordic-type gear. I really prefer the AT gear.
Mojo: Did you guys change tactics at all with the new course versus your plan for the normal route?
Wickenhauser: I think the main change was that we felt we could now go even harder and faster to the Friends Hut, due to the long downhill at the turnaround. It really allowed for some good recovery time on the downhill with this gear versus Nordic gear.
Mojo: What was the hardest part of the day?
Wickenhauser: Hardest part of the day was racing Jay Henry and Mike Kloser up Crested Butte resort the last 15 minutes, for what we thought was a fight for first place. Unbeknownst to us, they had taken a shortcut, so they ultimately got DQ’d. In our minds we could not let them win this race for a fourth straight time!