The goal was fairly simple: Travel by human power from my house in Leadville, Colorado to Crested Butte, race the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse (EMGT) to Aspen, then ski back home via the Trooper Traverse. (We alluded to the Triangle Traverse in our EMGT report a few days ago here at WildSnow.)
Like any good adventure, this one started with many hours of pouring over maps, scheming with ski partners, and obsessing over gear. Two of the legs of the Triangle Traverse were well established: the EMGT (which hopefully would not reverse back to Crested Butte because of weather); and the Trooper Traverse (which is well documented, thanks to Lou). That left the Leadville to Crested Butte route to figure out. But, having the option of staying in a cabin up Halfmoon Creek and then at the Friends Hut reduced the possibilities, and the pack weight.
As I talked up the adventure with ski partners, I ended up with four strong skiers interested in one or more of the legs of the journey. A few days before the EMGT, we met at the winter road closure for Half Moon Road outside of Leadville: Fritz and I arrived by bike, Dustin skate skied across the crust from the Outward Bound basecamp, and Travis, by Subaru. After a quick check on logistics, we stuck on our skinny skins for the 12 mile journey up to OB’s Champion Mill cabins. (The short, narrow climbing skins were key to making good time throughout the Triangle Traverse.)
It started almost too easy: sunny skies and a clear road to follow. We got to the cabin in the early afternoon and lounged in the sun for hours. Fritz served his meal of Leadville’s finest Kung Pao tofu and we curled up for an early night, with a 4am departure the next morning.
Gusty, cabin-shaking winds were dying down as we reached Champion Pass around 5am, and began the cruise down frozen crust in the dark. We soon hit thick timber, but a group consensus that “the road cut must be to our left…” proved accurate. We busted out of the trees to find the first hairpin turn on the closed Independence Pass road. Due to side-sloping skinning on wind drifts and avalanche debris over the road, it was a relief when we left the road and cut the switchback to the bathrooms on top of the pass (at least one of us was glad the outhouse doors were unlocked…).
We kept heading up and reached the top of Snowfence Ridge as the sun appeared, but we were soon back in the shade as we skied and walked across wind-scoured tundra to the top of our gully route into Lincoln Creek. This would have been a fantastic couloir ski on smooth corn snow in another 2 hours, but instead we skittered down 1200 ft of hard steep snow into Lincoln Creek. The reward, however, was fast, frozen snow down the 4 miles to the base of New York Creek, our next climb.
By now the sun was blazing and we had t-shirt weather for the climb to New York pass, which required a quick scramble through a cornice. From here we took the mellow meadow skiing option down Bowman Creek which provided open low-angle corn skiing all the way to the Taylor River Road. A long flat, warm tour brought us to Star Pass on the EMGT route. It went quickly, though our pace had slowed down by this point in the day, and we arrived at the Friends Hut at about 4pm — 12 hours for the 28 mile, 8000 feet of vertical gain day.
The ski out of the Friends Hut was quick and we were soon in Crested Butte. After celebrating in the sun on Travis’s porch, we said goodbye as the team went our different ways.
I had been fighting a cold from the morning we left Leadville, and took advantage of a ride back to Leadville rather than spend the next two days sniffling on Travis’s couch. This broke my commitment to complete the Triangle Traverse without driving, but was my best shot to heal up for the race.
With my lungs clear again on Friday morning, I picked up Travis’s car from the Halfmoon Trailhead, and gave a ride to a couple of Leadville friends also doing the EMGT, and headed back to Crested Butte.
The Friday events of the EMGT are always full of anticipation, and for me, restlessness. I attempted to catch some sleep, but instead mostly lounged, ate, and socialized my way to the race start at midnight. I was feeling well trained for the EMGT, and thanks to loaner race skis from Dynafit (which I used for the entire Triangle Traverse), and speedy Travis as a partner, I was hopeful about a fast time.
Finding a sustainable pace at the beginning of the race is always hard. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement, and my lungs were soon burning. We skated the section to Brush Creek which kept us in the top ten (while narrowly avoiding a potentially race-ending fence post that showed up in front of my headlamp beam at top speed). Some teams kept skating up Brush Creek, but we opted for our narrow skins and skied mostly alone to the Friends Hut.
After fighting through icy switchbacks with a tight pack of racers up to Star Pass, we enjoyed the downhill cruise to Geo’s Bonfire where we took a few minutes to thaw our hydration hoses, eat a little, and put the skinny skins back on, which felt fast cruising over the softer snow on this side of the Elk Range.
It was still dark over Taylor Pass and Gold Hill, which boosted my confidence about how we were doing. With the sun finally shining on the second half of the notorious ups and downs of Richmond Ridge, we took a gamble on using Nordic kickwax instead of skins. This proved to be just perfect on the fresh snow, and the ridge flew by far faster than previous years. We passed several teams, including Eric Sullivan carrying one ski and jogging after breaking his ski boot.
Fast groomers on Aspen Mountain, still empty of other skiers, were a pleasure on my skimo skis (compared to past years coming down on Nordic skis). We were thrilled to hear we finished first in our age group and 6th overall: 8 hours, 34 minutes. We were also blown away to hear the winners, Max Taam and John Gaston, had set a new record by finishing almost 2 hours before we did!
The next several hours consisted of eating and re-hydrating in the sun. We cheered friends finishing the race, and waited for bedtime and a few hours sleep before the final leg of the Triangle Traverse.
Though we had talked about moving by 5am, Dustin (who had re-joined me for the Trooper Traverse) let me sleep until 6am. It was good to feel (a little) rested, though my legs were definitely aching. It was also nice to start in the daylight, and we struck out towards Hunter Creek.
After a few rounds of skis on/skis off on patchy snow, we finally found our stride and settled in for the 16 mile uphill slog through Hunter Creek. The weather began as gentle drizzle and pea-soup mist, leading us almost a mile off track at one point as we got turned around in a featureless foggy meadow before checking the GPS and compass and getting back on the right trail. The clouds gradually swirled and lifted as the miles, and hours, clicked by.
The possibility of not making it to the Champion Cabin that day began to dawn on me. I took mental stock of what we had in our packs. We could survive a bivy in our puffy jackets and a snowcave or huddled in the bothy shelter, but it wouldn’t be very comfortable. Just keep skiing.
When we could finally see the next two passes from the top of the Trooper Couloir, my hopes sunk even more. They looked really far away, and it was already after 4pm. But a long downhill brought Lost Man Creek quickly closer to us, and we were able to keep enough elevation so the next pass came quickly.
As we descended into North Fork of Lake Creek, we left the sun behind for the day, and ended up booting up to Darling Pass in the dark. We knew we were on the home stretch, so just settled into cautious skiing down to the cabin.
Amazingly, the south facing slopes were covered in about 3 inches of powder — ideal conditions for skinny race skis. We were soon stoking the fire at the cabin and cooking up large amounts of ramen noodles and tuna for dinner. We hadn’t brought sleeping bags, so we kept the fire roaring and got a few hours of sleep in our down jackets and feet stuffed into backpacks.
It took an hour and a half to ski down the snowmobile-rutted Halfmoon Road, before Dustin and I parted ways, him to skate back through the meadows to his cabin, and me to pick up my bike and ride the 7 miles uphill back home. This completed roughly 150 miles and 25,000 feet of elevation gain in a week.
Though interrupted by sickness for a couple days, the Triangle Traverse mostly lived up to my vision. It confirmed my suspicion that with lightweight gear, and strong partners (and if you’re as lucky with the weather as we were), there are many possibilities for town-to-town traverses through the snowy Colorado mountains.
Having previously taken 14 days to ski the Nolan’s 14ers route (the fourteen 14ers in the Sawatch Range), a week to ski across the Weminuche Wilderness, and 3 days to ski from Leadville to Vail, my dreams now are about the next long, light, and fast adventure.
Guest blogger, Rohan Roy is the Outdoor Leadership Club program coordinator for Full Circle of Lake County, and has worked for Outward Bound for 15 years. He’ll be sharing stories and photos of several ski traverses, from the Adirondacks to the Sierra, on Friday, April 7th at Periodic Brewing in Leadville at 6:30pm as part of the events for the Father Dyer Postal Route race weekend.