Miles into the wilderness of west-central Colorado last Saturday, two men kept things interesting, accelerating to take the lead in the 16th annual Elk Mountain Grand Traverse then fading when the climbing got too tough or conditions too rough for their skinny skis.
To some 170 other two-person teams in the co-ed field, they were simply the nordic guys. They had no team name, no celebrity status, just freestyle racing skis. Ben Koons and Linden Mallory were like that little brother you can’t drop. It doesn’t matter how many gears you have, he’ll catch you on his one-speed bike.
Annoying, maybe, but several top competitors in the 40-mile ski mountaineering race from Crested Butte to Aspen considered it impressive.
Three years ago, Koons, New Zealand’s leading 2010 Olympian and 2011 World Championships skier, did an altered version of the race because of high winds and too much new snow. At 38 miles, the Grand Reverse was only slightly shorter, but the top finishers clocked in 1 ½ to three hours faster than usual.
He estimated that half the racers wore cross-country skis back then; the other half went with ski-mountaineering gear. Oh, how times change.
The conditions did as well. What looked to be perfect snow for XC this year turned out to be challenging for everyone on breakable crust, even the backcountry skiers. Early in the race, which started at midnight, a fast and tuck-able descent abruptly switched to unforgiving knee-high snow.
Eventual winners Marshall Thomson and Tom Goth were the first to slam into it in the darkness, with Thomson breaking his pole upon contact. The two trekked through the wee hours of the morning to win in 7 hours, 40:54.8 minutes, about 4 ½ minutes ahead of the runners-up.
Koons, 26, and Mallory, 27, finished fifth, 26:24.4 after Thomson and Goth. It was the best result for two Aspen skiers in the race’s history and they had done it to the surprise of many.
Heading out with the leaders, the first two hours of the race turned into a single-file slugfest through the cumbersome crust. Some 340 participants moved along together at a walking pace, their headlamps bobbing in the night.
When the frontrunners hit the snowmobile track, the race opened up again. Six teams broke away, including Koons and Mallory.
“At first the nordic team was in the lead but we all figured they’d be a non factor since their gear is so incredibly hard to ski,” third-place finisher Jason Dorais wrote on his blog. “They ended up 5th – amazing. Turns out olympic nordic guys can rip some steep descents on their gear.
Former Dartmouth teammates, Koons and Mallory casually signed up for the race, deciding to take their chances on their college skis rather than spend the big bucks on new equipment. Both new to ski mountaineering, they knew how to ski fast, but were unsure how they’d stack up.
Shortly before the race, competitors were briefed in a series of meetings about the exact course. This year it ascended a total of 7,800 feet, but that was about all they knew. Little would prepare for what was ahead except acute awareness, driving grit, and a good teammate.
“All day you’re gearing up with these meetings, like eight hours ’til the start of this race, so by the start you’re pretty tired,” Koons said on the phone. “It’s a struggle to try and eat and drink enough through the race ’cause it’s dark and it’s 4 in the morning.”
“It was like a long day in the mountains; you’re just going at a higher intensity because it was a race,” Mallory said. “I think that’s where Ben and I had an advantage. Being on XC skis, being comfortable in the mountains makes a big difference.”
Graduating one year apart, Koons left Dartmouth a year after Mallory in 2008 and moved to Aspen this past December to work for anarchitecture firm while coaching juniors on the side.
Mallory (’07) continued his tenure as a longtime climbing guide for a Washington-based company, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. He spends about two-thirds of the year in Aspen and guides in places like Alaska, Russia, Africa, South America and Nepal.
Back in Aspen, he and Koons started talking about the Traverse, the town’s celebrated event. Mallory usually wasn’t around when it took place; this year he was. They decided to try it, and once they caught a glimpse of gold, it was hard to race for anything else.
After a rough start (Koons had some ski and pole-basket troubles then ripped his pants upon hitting the breakable crust), the two surged to the front on the flatter snowmobile track. With skins on their skate skis, they started to gap the field.
“[We] were able to kick and glide, full-on classic skiing up there,” Mallory said. “As it got higher and steeper, that advantage became a disadvantage.”
Around the halfway point at Star Pass, Thomson and Goth took off on the descent, leaving them and the rest of the teams behind for good.
“Those guys on alpine skis were much, much faster,” Mallory explained. “Ben and I just tumbled our way down the pass.”
The two finished shortly after 8 a.m., 2.4 seconds ahead of sixth place.
“It’d be nice to win, but it’s OK,” Koons said. “We were really hoping for crust-skiing conditions. … Most conditions we’d have had an advantage.”
Thrilled by the scenery and challenge of the race itself, they resolved to come back – probably on cross-country skis again.
“I’d encourage more cross-country racers to race it, and do it on skate skis with skins,” Koons said. “You can still be really competitive even if you don’t have the setup. If you’re strong, have good endurance, good on your feet … it’s kind of crazy terrain, ice, whatever, and it’s so fun.”
“You’re not sure what to expect because it’s so unexpected,” Mallory said. “It’s helps having a partner you’re on the same page with. … We struggled in the same places and were able to move well. You get to go on a pretty epic adventure with a good buddy, and when you’re having a tough time, they’re there to touch you forward and vice versa.”
“Honestly I’d like to do more races like it,” Koons said. “Maybe not as long or involved where you’re going with 350 others into backcountry in middle of night; it’s pretty wild. It’s just fun to go out and thrash around the mountain.”
Another Dartmouth alum, Brett Palm (’09), who’s studying to earn his PhD in chemistry at the University of Colorado in Boulder, teamed up with former Colby College skier Anders Wood (’07). Under the team name the “Big Green Nordorks,” they finished 121st, seven hours and five minutes behind the winners, on telemark skis.
“It was exhausting, for sure,” Palm said. “Definitely should not have done it on tele gear. It was great though, a challenge. I guess that’s why we did it did it.”
Within the first five or six hours of the race, the two realized they picked the wrong equipment. Too heavy on the inclines and not fast enough on the descents, they dropped toward the back of the pack, focusing on good turns rather than a top finish.
Like Koons and Mallory, they had heard nordic was the way to go, but hadn’t gotten around to finding the right gear. Ultimately, more people chose backcountry race skis, which made all the difference.
“The race didn’t involve that much skiing or technique, more just an endurance sport,” Palm said. “Definitely one of the top five hardest things I’ve ever done, mentally as well as physically.”
He recalled his days on Dartmouth’s nordic team when they’d talk about three strong urges to quit long-endurance activities. Palm said the first one came too early in the Traverse – around six hours in. The two recovered over Star Pass, but started to fade again during the final six miles along Richmond Ridge.
“We got to the third strong urge for sure,” Palm said. “But we did it. Fortunately, the word ‘quit’ is not in a nordic skier’s vocabulary and everything was OK.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.