“If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb
Relatively speaking, forty miles isn’t that far. You can get there by car in no time at all, a road bike will get you there in about two hours, and a mountain bike in under eight. In most cases knocking off forty miles is just fun. That changes dramatically, however, if tackling that distance is done using AT gear, moving up and over the Elk Mountains in uncertain spring conditions, and you’re finding your way from Crested Butte, CO to Aspen.
Two hundred teams of two toe the line for a midnight start. The beams of racers’ headlamps cast a perfect amount of light at the start. The traditional Grand Traverse blessing is said, the gun goes off, and fireworks fill the air as we start making our way up and out. Some teams are moving casually enough to carry on a conversation with one another, yet the leaders move quickly and make immediate gains between themselves and the rest of the pack. Most of us are moving at an uncomfortable pace working to establish our place in the field, breathing hard, not talking, just moving.
At just under 9,000 ft., not only is the air thin, it’s cold, and it’s being forced hard and fast in and out of your lungs. It’s painful, and it’s nauseating. It’s the first indicator that we’re pushing ourselves beyond what our bodies are used to, and it doesn’t take long for most of us to share the same painful hacking cough as we move towards the direction of the finish line.
Spring snow usually means less-than-perfect conditions, as was the case at this year’s race. What the sun had melted during the day set up nice and icy as soon as it dropped below the horizon. A gentle ascent up the Crested Butte ski resort somehow results in a long, fast, frozen 8ft. wide luge track. People are no longer in their comfort zones, as they’re flying, flailing, and falling all around you. This offers the stream of head lamps the perfect opportunity to spread itself out along the course, and you can see it for miles moving in front of you against the midnight backdrop. We move along like this on an off cambered skin track through sage fields, crossing over partially frozen rivers, and working hard not to lose our footing down the steep slant of the course.
The first of many steep boot packs is log jammed. People are moving their skis from their feet to their backpacks so they can make their way up. Impatience fills the air. I appreciate the opportunity to rest and bring my breathing back to a familiar place. Once at the top, it’s more of the same. More river crossings, more traversing, and more dirt than we’ve seen thus far. Skis find their way back on to our backpacks and we boot forward for a half mile or so.
As we find our way to 12,500ft., the sky is shifting from night to day. We’ve been racing for over six hours, and had we not been distracted by how epic our scene was, we would have realized the toll the Traverse had started taking on us.
What goes up, must come down. Time to ski. There we were, a team of two who’d rather skin than ski, forced to find our way down from 12,500ft. in one piece. We managed. We made it. We got to the bottom of what we had climbed up and couldn’t help but feel a little sense of pride in having done so without too much error. Aspen, however, was still a long way away. Twenty miles down, twenty to go. Twenty long, hard, humbling–albeit beautiful–miles.
We found our way. Through blisters, nausea, tired bodies, exhausted minds, sore feet, dehydration, broken spirits, and painful everything, we found our way down Aspen mountain to our finisher’s medals, open arms, and the love and support of the crew that had been waiting more than fourteen hours for our arrival. We traversed. It was grand.
If we look tired, it’s because we were. If my helmet looks a little crooked, it’s because it was. I did some unintentional tree skiing on our way down Aspen Mountain. It didn’t go that well. If our feet look like they’d quit on us about 20 miles earlier it’s because they did. I love this picture. It tells quite a story. Not only about the forty miles worth of trail between Crested Butte and Aspen, but about the thousands we’ve covered together, the two us before that. Here’s to more. Here’s to him for always looking for more.
–Kellie Nelson works in Big Agnes Dealer Services when she’s not training for her next grand adventure.