Lightin' up the Elk Mountains
Skimo celebs Max Taam (left) and John Gaston
Every March, the headlamps of more than 400 backcountry skiers illuminate the Elk Mountain Range during the Winter Grand Traverse, a 40-mile race from Crested Butte to Aspen that commences at midnight when avalanche danger is low.
During the ski-mountaineering — or skimo — race, teams of two endure temperatures ranging from 40°F to lows of -20°F and a 7,800-foot elevation gain in hopes of reaching the finish line in eight to 16 hours. Aspen locals Max Taam and John Gaston set a blistering record in 2017 — finishing the race in six hours, 37 minutes and 38.6 seconds.
“It’s always been the perfect sport in my mind,” says Taam, who has competed in five Winter Grand Traverse events. “It combines an endurance challenge, big mountains, technical skills and downhill ski racing.”
Both world-renowned ski mountaineers, Taam and Gaston compete throughout the winter in the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup and on an international stage for the United States Ski Mountaineering Association. The duo also won the 2016 Winter Grand Traverse.
While Taam and Gaston are elite competitors, the majority of Grand Traverse participants are average Joes and Janes, and the event is very attainable for middle-of-the-road endurance athletes, according to race director Andrew Arell. In fact, registration for the race opens at 12am on Dec. 1 and typically sells out in less than 12 hours.
“Colorado has the best race series in the country,” Taam says. “Not only do we have a lot of races, but we have a good variety — from long to short — and see good racer turnout.”
Novices to the sport can sign up for the gO SkiMo Academy Powered by Griggs Orthopedics in January (Jan. 19–21, 2018). The three-day training camp in Crested Butte includes instruction from past Grand Traverse winners and insight on skimo techniques, gear, injury prevention, nutrition and more.
Ready to cross off one heck of a bucket-list item? Registration for all three events opens on Dec. 1, 2017.
Photo credits: Grand Traverse, Kevin Krill; Max Taam and John Gaston, Max Taam.