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.