Months of training couldn’t prepare two traverse partners for this
Written by Carolyn Highland
I woke up at 10 p.m. and lugged my gear out to the start line. Pack, helmet, skis, poles, boots, avalanche safety equipment, 4,000 calories worth of snacks, 8.8 pounds of water, and two flower hair elastics wrapped around my braids. The base of Mt. Crested Butte was dotted with hundreds of headlamps, and the air stirred with pent-up energy about to be released. I clicked into my bindings, took a few deep breaths, and steadied myself. I thought the hardest thing I was about to do was ski 40 miles through the dark to Aspen.
My race partner Lindsay and I were skiing in the Grand Traverse, a backcountry ski race between Crested Butte and Aspen that attracts hundreds of hopefuls a year and churns out only a fraction of finishers. Months of preparation had brought us here, to 11:59 p.m., the moment we started striding into the great blackness.
A collective inhale, a gunshot, and it was happening. The crowd surged forward, hundreds of hearts beating uphill, and within minutes began to diffuse, settling into their positions, falling into the steady rhythm of ski touring. The beginning of the race found us crossing creeks, sidehilling drainages, and hauling ourselves up steep bootpacks, with nothing but the headlamps of those before us as a guide.
Night is such a massive, numbing thing. Hours passed without delineation, every step up a gradual, treed drainage that felt exactly the same as the thousands before it. The night turned the mountain landscape around us into nothing, into a vast emptiness that offered us no landmarks, no milestones. The time on our watches felt arbitrary, simply a reminder to eat a snack.
We suddenly found ourselves at miles 9, 13, 16. Daylight keeps clearer watch over what we have accomplished and what we have yet to attain, and the night lets it all slip into an ill-defined dreamscape.
But in the darkness we also felt strong. When you can’t see anything, you can’t see how far you have to go, can’t measure yourself up against a sprawling distance ready to swallow you whole.
The tiny orb of light around the tips of our skis cast by our headlamps became our entire universe. We knew how far we would have to go, but as far as we could see, all we had to do was take one more step forward.
We arrived at the first checkpoint at 6:11am, nearly an hour ahead of schedule, ready to gulp down our allotted 8 ounces of boiled snow and prepare for the climb up Star Pass. We had been on track to make it between 5 and 5:30am, but we had slowed in the final miles leading up to the hut. We were both tired and hungry and ready for the sun to be up. I was rejuvenated at the sight of a concrete indicator of our position on course, and felt confident that we would make it to Aspen. But we had already begun on a trajectory that would take us on a different journey from the one we anticipated.
To get here, we’d trained for months. Long hours on flat slogs where we didn’t rip skins, crazy weeknight missions comprised of more driving than skiing, endless discussions about gear tinkering and food strategy. We’d both trained through illness and weathered blisters larger than any coin in circulation, both dumped money into moving faster with less weight, both spent hours inside our own heads wondering if we were strong enough to do what we had signed up to do.
Even though I had never been to the sundeck at Aspen Mountain, I had envisioned myself arriving there hundreds of times. Sweaty, tired, and overflowing with gladness and relief, crying tears of joy as I transitioned my skis from uphill mode to downhill, preparing for the sweet three mile descent to the finish. I teared up several times just thinking about this moment, able to feel so viscerally that singular chest sting that comes when you have accomplished something you both always knew you could and weren’t sure you ever would. I played it over and over again in my head, a carrot to get me through long workouts that sometimes felt like pointless self-imposed misery.
Around 4:30 a.m., Lindsay had started having to pull over more frequently to catch her breath and take her inhaler. I remembered our first meeting after we decided to do the Grand Traverse together, in a brewery after a day of resort skiing. We’d devoured burgers and scribbled down notes to organize the enormous multi-pronged task that lay ahead of us. She’d mentioned she had exercise-induced asthma, but didn’t seem concerned about it. We trained for nearly six months, and it hadn’t been a significant interference. She was strong, and meticulous, and determined, and she’d be able to breathe easier when the sun came up.
We had an hour and 49 minutes to make it up and over Star Pass. The angle of the incline increased sharply and I skied behind Lindsay, using the post-checkpoint resurgence of energy to shout encouragement as she continued to move slowly. I started picking landmarks a few yards away that we would make it to in order to chunk up the climb. We’ll ski to that flag. We’ll ski to that switchback. All we had to do was make it up over this pass, and then we’d get to descend. She just needed to get to the bonfire aid station after the descent, she said. There we’d eat and drink water and rest and she’d be fine to make it to Aspen.
After ten minutes, I told another pair passing us that we needed their tow rope. We hadn’t brought our own. All throughout our training, including the 23-mile training race we’d done in Crested Butte a month before, the idea of having to tow another person at any point seemed ludicrous. But now it seemed it would be the only way we’d make it in time. The blazing alpenglow was starting to creep down the peaks behind us at a rate faster than we were moving. We were losing our window.
I attached the rope to my pack and to Lindsay’s hip belt and began towing her up the pass. Our pace dipped more and more as we continued, stopping more frequently and for longer stretches. I towed her through the bootpack and up onto the top of the ridge, where she put skis back on and I continued walking, pulling her behind me. Our generous lead was dwindling to mere minutes. The checkpoint was in sight, the sun threatening to vanquish the ridge.
As the stops became more frequent, the balloon in my chest that had inflated at the sight of the gathered headlamps marking the Friends hut checkpoint began to crease and wrinkle. After months of wondering if I would be strong enough, fast enough, I was here, past the checkpoint, feeling ready to tackle the nearly 25 miles that still lay ahead of us. My eyes were clear, my legs were strong, my lungs were firing on all cylinders.
And yet as I inched across the ridgeline, I began to know something I didn’t want to know yet. I watched as team after team passed us and the time window shrank, and I began to know that I was strong enough to make it to Aspen, but that didn’t mean I would.
I turned around to Lindsay, the words catching on their way out, stinging my eyes. “Even if this is it—I’m glad we’re out here.”
It would have been easier to be angry. It would have been easier to grow quiet. It would have been easier to sink into bitterness. It also would have been easier to not try to ski 40 miles, but here I was.
Somehow, even in that knowing, even in the acknowledgement of an outcome I didn’t want to face—a perfect opportunity to show up as someone other than my best self— I felt drawn out, drawn up—I heard the whisper of ‘or’.
Or, you could rise. Or, you could take care of your partner in the way you’d want her to take care of you. Or, you could pay attention to how magnificent the sun on that ridge looks. Or, you could choose light and love, regardless of the circumstances. That or is always available to us, no matter how vehemently we pretend it’s not.
I let my eyes sting for a brief moment, allowing the frustration that comes when reality fails to meet our invented expectations. It is one of the most futile emotions we entertain—mourning something that never existed as if it had been promised to us.
And so I did what I had it within my power to do. I made the choice that is always there, waiting. I kept moving forward, and I embraced the ‘or’.
We made it to the Star Pass cutoff by six minutes, hustling across the line to transition to downhill mode for a sunny, variable descent into another basin.
By then the sweepers had caught up to us, confirming our recent acquisition of last place. The bonfire aid station was being dismantled and the racers resting there told to get a move on.
“What are our options?” I asked the sweepers, out of earshot.
“Five miles up to Taylor Pass where they can get a sled in. Or eighteen and a half back to Crested Butte.”
Forward. The only direction we could go was forward.
We began sidehilling through a thick forest, the sun spiraling through the trees in a way that was too beautiful to ignore, even under the circumstances.
I kept towing Lindsay, feeling the strength in my legs that could have taken me to Aspen still spring-loaded. It became increasingly clear that her condition would not improve on its own, that we would not make it together. She had ripped skins and clicked into her bindings, and I was pulling her at a dead tow to decrease the amount of exertion required on her part, and we were still hardly moving. The albuterol was not helping her breathe. The only thing to do was to get her out. I felt the determination to make it to Aspen release from inside me, floating up into the snow-covered pines.
As the midday sun beat down on us in a wide-open basin, we finally arrived at a place where the safety crew could get a snowmobile in. Without much discussion of a plan except that that she would be taken to Aspen and put on oxygen, Lindsay grabbed onto a rope and was towed away by the snowmobile. After struggling through the last 11 hours together, I found myself suddenly, unceremoniously alone.
In the next six hours, I would ski up to the top of Taylor Pass and then be told I couldn’t finish without a partner. I would clutch to a snowmobile line I had been told was taking me to Aspen and be dropped off at the Barnard Hut aid station five miles down the trail. I would sit at the aid station and drink soup and put on my puffy and think my day was done. I would shrug my shoulders and get back up when officials asked if I was okay to ski the remaining 10 miles of the race, and I would go.
Late in the afternoon, when nearly all of the racers had been in Aspen drinking beer and wearing sandals for hours, I would drag myself up Richmond Ridge in the company of a stranger, someone else whose partner had been evacuated. The slushy snow would glop up on my kicker skins, the sun would beat down unrelentingly through the trees, the trail would undulate maddeningly.
When I reached the sundeck on top of Aspen Mountain 17 hours after I left Crested Butte, I did not cry. The moment was nothing like I had imagined. I didn’t feel the chest sting, I didn’t experience the happy tears. I was alone, exhausted, and worried about a partner I hadn’t seen in hours. I didn’t revel in the moment; I didn’t soak it all in; I just transitioned to downhill mode and pointed my skis toward the finish. I felt that specific way you feel when you’ve gone through an intense experience: slightly in shock, kind of amazed, and fully aware that no matter how many times you tell the story, no one else will be able to fully understand what you’ve gone through.
After two hours on oxygen in an ambulance, Lindsay was rattled but fine, waiting at the base lodge for me after hours of having no idea where I was. In the coming weeks, we would spend long car rides and hot spring soaks and ski parking lot tailgates debriefing it all, but for now, it was just over.
I was in this strange in-between state. I hadn’t done the race, but I hadn’t not done it either. I had skied over 30 miles, towing my partner for five of the steepest miles, and been out for far more hours than most of the racers— nearly three times as long as the winners. I had done less, and also more.
Sometimes we believe that we are preparing ourselves for one challenge, and it turns out we are being handed another. I had trained for hours in the snow and spent hundreds of dollars on gear and talked strategy into the ground. I had mentally prepared myself to suffer, and to continue to suffer. I had even floated the possibility that we would not ski fast enough to make the cutoffs, that we would be turned around at Friends Hut or Star Pass.
But what actually presented itself was something entirely different. A twist. A soft tap on the shoulder. A challenge that would have less to do with training and hydration and quick transitions and calories consumed and more to do with empathy and acceptance and love.
It’s that moment of aw, shit. That moment of knowing that the universe is serving up exactly what you need and it’s not what you thought you were getting. It’s looking that ‘or’ in the face and taking it by the hand.
Carolyn Highland is a freelance writer and teacher living in Truckee, California. When not taking her fourth grade students into the field, she can be found skiing, trail running, climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, jumping into alpine lakes, and then writing about it.
Editor’s Note: Want to sign you and a friend up for your own starlit sufferfest? Registration for the 2020 Grand Traverse opens at 12 a.m. December 1st. Also, check out more WildSnow Grand Traverse coverage.