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First Person: The Five Peaks Race

April 27, 2010 Run, Ski No Comments

Beautiful views helped ease the pain of a punishing course. Photo by Kate Lapides

Randonee racer Bryan Wickenhauser reports on the first Five Peaks ski mountaineering race in the Ten Mile Range above Breckenridge—a monster course that gained 10,000 vertical feet. Thirty-five teams of two braved the challenge on April 10; see the Five Peaks website for full results and links to photos. Here’s Wick’s report:

The inaugural Five Peaks race lived up to its hype as North America’s longest ski mountaineering race, with 10,000 feet of vertical and five separate ascents behind and in the Breckenridge ski resort. My teammate for the race was my fellow Team Crested Butte member Jon Brown. We’ve both been racing in the COSMIC Series for the last four years, and we train all the time together—perfect partners!

The weather going into Friday night called for temps bottoming out at 20°F with light winds for Saturday and sunny skies. Really a perfect forecast for an April ski mountaineering event. The start was classic Alpine at 6 a.m., so we awoke at 4:30 a.m. to get our breakfast on and have time for a brief warm up at gear check.

The start was at the base of Peak 9 at about 9,600 feet, and our first summit would be Peak 10, about 4,000 feet higher! We skinned our way up some mellow groomed runs to the top of the ski area, where we continued though a backcountry gate. Now we began to get into more technical skinning, as we were above tree line and the winds had taken most of the loose snow and deposited it elsewhere (like hopefully on the descents).

Our climb up to the peak took us past some old mining cabins and onto a ridge where the first gusty winds of the day greeted us. Upon gaining the ridge. it was only a five-minute skin to the peak. Ninety minutes from the base area, we were at the top of Peak 10 at 13,643 feet, where some hardy volunteer offered us coffee and candy corn. We politely declined, ripped our skins, and dropped in on a techie entrance. With some nasty rocks to negotiate, we followed the prescribed line into the main open bowl and some really good spring powder. Until now we had been in first place, but on the downhill we were overtaken by Monique (Mona) Merrill (event co-director) and Mike Kloser. The battle was beginning to heat up!

Follow the green arrows.... About 10,000' of vertical in all.

Two of the beautiful aspects of this race, in my mind, were the long, demanding descents and the dramatic views. Above tree line for much of the day, we were exposed to the elements but were getting views that the skiers in the resort below only wished they could see!

The second climb was the shortest of the day, and Jon and I rallied up to the top of Peak 9 together with Team Kloser/Merrill. Thus we settled into a rhythm for the rest of the day:  We would catch them on the climbs, and they would pass us on the descents.

At the top of Peak 9 we skied back down into the upper section of Breckenridge Resort and were integrated with tourists. We all followed Mona, as it’s her local ski resort, down to the transition area.

On up to Peak 8 (Imperial Bowl), the skinning got techie again as refrozen, skied-off snow proved to be quite difficult for side-hilling. Jon and I regained contact with Mona and Mike at this point, and we passed them prior to getting to the lone boot pack of the day, up to the ridge of Peak 8. The boot pack was well-designed with a hand line for those in need. At the top of the ca. 400-foot booter, we slapped on our skis and skinned up the ridge past a number of chutes that led to Imperial Bowl.

Bryan Wickenhauser and Jon Brown, with team Merrill/Kloser in hot pursuit. The downhills would clinch it. Photo by Kate Lapides

From the summit, it was back into the resort with a high-speed descent though refrozen, slightly soft bumps and newer snow on Horseshoe Bowl. Mike and Mona again passed us and led us down through some technical traverses to the lower flanks of Cucumber Bowl and into the T-Bar lift line for our third transition. Race co-director Pete Swenson had warned us at the prerace meeting that this would be the “steepest skinning of the day,” and it sure was! For every racer I talked to afterward, this was the low point of the day. The combination of at least 2.5 hours of racing already completed, direct sun, no wind, and a steep, lengthy pitch made you want to trade imaginary spots with someone in Death Valley , because that might feel cooler.  Dripping sweat and moving a quarter mile an hour…ugh!

Luckily it wasn’t more than 15 minutes before we got above tree line again and caught a cool breeze. We topped out on Peak 8 for the second time just before Mike and Mona, and with no other teams really pressing us from behind the battle was among friends at this point.

Descending Peak 8 to the northeast, Mona again led the way down the Whales Tail to near the summit of Peak 7 Chair for the fourth and final uphill transition. From here it was up Art’s Bowl, with technical skinning on wind-hammered sastrugi to the top. There was nothing we could do to try and shake Mona and Mike on the climb; everyone was tapped from nearly four hours of racing. The writing was on the wall: They owned us on the downhills. Heading off Peak 7, Mona and Mike gained the separation and never looked back. We made our way down to claim second overall and first in the men’s category, two minutes behind the winners at 4:08.

Hats off to Pete Swenson for designing a truly European-style course that flowed as if it was meant to be. I know Pete and Monique are already excited for the second edition, and so am I!

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  • Jamie Jones: The secret chute was only a secret top all you easterners....
  • Jeff: Awesome!!!! Are they ever going to be published in book form! These stories need to be made into a movie!!!!...
  • Karen D McCall: What a story, I read every word, absolutely enthralled. As an aging outdoor enthusiast headed for hip replacement, I can...
  • Kirk Miller: New rats in the Platte. Well done sir....
  • Dale: I met Clerin Zumwalt hiking on the Long's Peak trail back in the 1990's. He was with his family and was wearing his RMNP...
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