Rebecca Dussault is an Olympic and US National Champion Cross-Country skier. She lives in Colorado with her family.
The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse is bound to be an epic adventure no matter who you do it with or what the conditions are. With over 40 miles of backcountry terrain and 6000 ft. of climbing, I’ve learned in doing it three different times, be prepared for anything.
I teamed up for the race this year with Jari Kirkland, a great athlete from Crested Butte known for her prowess in biking and adventure racing. She is also the holder of the fastest women’s time (posted as part of a co-ed team) in the Grand Traverse. We were going to go hard or go home,l and our goal was to finish within the top ten of the 130 or so teams racing.
The day before the race went well as we sorted group junk and stuffed endless amounts of gear into our pack for the â€˜what if’ or at the least, what we’d need to survive for 24 hours in the backcountry. We met right before the start and fine-tuned our last strategies, went out under the stars for a moment of prayer and then hit the line with nerves and excitement. We were on lightweight Salomon classic skis with Salomon duathlon boots and Swix carbon poles. We both had the the coolest pack known to man, super light and made by our sponsor Salomon.
We busted out of the start skating and yelling each other's names so as to not lose contact The course quickly begins climbing, so we fastened on our skins and headed up Mount Crested Butte. I felt so super and strong, that we decided I’d tow Jari. We fixed the tow and kept the hammer down. The backside of the ski area was fast and fun and then we were out on Brush Creek. It had barely gotten crusty enough overnight to skate beside the classic track. Keeping Jari on tow, we skated as far as we could up the valley. There was a sketchy section which has dire consequences if you should mess up – the aptly named Death Pass. We made it through and cruised across all three river crossings on huge snow bridges. I kept Jari on tow as we ascended to the Friends Hut and as we continued up to the top of Star Pass. We were making such good time that we did all of the sections in the dark – I have always been used to seeing when descending the Pass. It was cold and windy, but super fun powder down the back. Once at the bottom, the course is supposed to follow a low traverse through the trees over to the meadows and then onto Taylor Pass. Well, for whatever reason the whole race got confused on the route and ended ascending way up again before coming down to the meadows. We all knew that the route wasn’t right but none of us was strong willed enough to decide to break fresh tracks through a pitch black forest in an obscure direction. This reroute cost us dearly on time and set us back by roughly 1.5 hours. We had previously been on track to smash the women’s course record.
We made it to Taylor with Jari still in tow, and it was a good thing because she started free sliding down the slope. I dug my poles and skis in to hold her fast to the mountainside. With a lot of effort she was finally able to regain the course again. I had been towing the whole way and telling myself, â€œYou’re an ox!â€ Now, we were at Taylor Pass and found ourselves to be 6.5 hours into the race and only 11 minutes behind the men. We charged on into what was now a ground blizzard from all the wind. I was warm except for my hands, but they were tolerable. One of my crashes I deemed, â€œthe mother of face plants.â€ I stood up and had to empty my face of the snow pack therein. I was having a great, exhausted time. Jari meanwhile was skiing better than she previously had been. She noted that her water had frozen, possibly due to not drinking often enough. I encouraged her all the time and not until after the race did I realize that she had talked so seldom and usually only in answer to questions I posed.
We stared to descend to the Barnard Hut. She was behind and crashing a ton. I watched helpless as she took crash after crash. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We eventually made it to the hut, but Jari was by now in the late stages of hypothermia. I had spent the whole race so far, ahead of her and in the dark – I never took a good assessment of her condition. With only 20 minutes to go to the first mens team, the doctor put her in the medical tent, made her get into new base layers and a down bag with oxygen. I stood around encouraging her and eventually got cold myself and began to shiver. Seeing how I wasn’t leaving without her, they stuffed me in a bag and gave me oxygen also. I must say I felt refreshed after that. A little more than an hour had passed in the tent, during which time the first and second co-ed teams had passed us. The doctors made us tell a joke and redress ourselves before they would release us. We were psyched to hear we were in 12th overall and still the first women’s team. This helped motivate us for the last 10 miles.
We charged on and hiked some of the steep rolling sections. I put Jari back on tow as soon as I could and skated with her on the wide terrain. Finally, we made it to the top of Aspen Mountain. We tied on our safety straps and put on goggles. It was a fun hard descent through about 6 inches of fresh snow from the overnight storm. Jari did her best as she continued crashing – a major energy drain.
We crossed the line exhausted but jubilant. Our time of 10 hours 58 minutes, wasn’t anywhere near the 8.5 hours we’d hoped for, but we were safe and we were done. I hugged Jari and we cried. We did our best and left it all out on the course. We dedicated the effort and suffering of this incredible race to the health of Sharbel and Gale Levins who are both suffering daily. As always, we learned a lot and had a great and epic journey.
For more stories from Sharb and other recent happenings in our lives you can click on the link to our website: http://www.dussaultskis.com