2009 Coverage - Part 1

2009 Coverage - Part 2

UPDATED! Elk Mountain Grand Traverse Tips!

Kloser, Henry win Grand Traverse 2008
It's Vail endurance racer's second consecutive title and fourth overall
Jon Maletz - The Aspen Times

ASPEN, CO — Mike Kloser thought his chance at consecutive titles had faded into the bitter early morning air.

The Vail endurance racer’s lead in Saturday’s 11th annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, a 40-mile slog through the Colorado high country between Crested Butte and Aspen, had withered. After nearly eight hours spent struggling to maintain their course and confront inclement weather, he and teammate Jay Henry were admittedly exhausted as they negotiated Richmond Ridge on the backside of Aspen Mountain.

Three-time winners Jim Faust and Pat O’Neill of Crested Butte were gaining ground.

“When you leave the [final checkpoint at the] Barnard Hut, it doesn’t matter if you have the lead or not. It’s a suffer fest,” Kloser said. “That’s why we call Richmond Ridge ‘A bitch of a ridge.’

“[Faust and O’Neill] were hounding us. They were 100 to 200 yards back. I thought for sure that was it.”

It wasn’t. Faust and O’Neill momentarily took over first place, but Kloser didn’t give in.

He couldn’t, not with the finish line approaching and a record fourth win within reach.

Kloser urged Henry on, the duo vaulted to the front and soon were all alone as they closed in on the Gondola Plaza. Kloser, in much the same way he did one year ago with then teammate Steven White in tow, gazed uphill, then raised both ski poles above his head as he slid into the finish area after a 9 hour, 4 minute, 5 second ordeal. Faust and O’Neill were three and a half minutes off the pace.

As the crowd drew closer and he and Henry embraced, a look of elation and relief stretched across Kloser’s windswept face.

“I kept saying that it’s not over and not to give in,” the 48-year-old Kloser said. “That’s what has helped us win as much as we have.”

A victory — his fourth in the last seven years — looked like it would allude Kloser about an hour and a half after the midnight start as competitors wandered through Brush Creek. Kloser remarked to Henry that he thought they were heading too high and wandering off course, a suspicion that was realized when the duo was passed by competitors in both the women’s and co-ed divisions.

The navigational difficulties were just beginning — for the entire field. Clear skies five minutes before the start in Crested Butte became overcast. Snow pelted the racers and made trail markers largely indiscernible.

The three lead groups — Kloser and Henry, Faust and O’Neill, and Pierre and Andre Wille — found themselves together and slightly disoriented near 12,303-foot Star Pass. Moments earlier, Faust and O’Neill had been breaking trail through dense trees when they came face to face with a steep side hill caked with hard snow.

“It was game off all of a sudden. We’re all in a situation here,” Faust said. “Everyone shined their headlamps [in one direction], there’d be a cliff and we’d say, ‘OK, we’re not going up there.’ Then we’d shine them over there.

“We spent about 45 minutes chasing our tails. We were out there in the dark, it was dumping snow. You could barely see your hand in front of your face.”

The sense of desperation was not lost on Pierre Wille.

“There was so much snow, you couldn’t see the summer trail,” said the Basalt resident. “You could barely miss it and be in a forest. … We were lucky to make it home.”

Once the teams found there bearings, it was “game on,” Faust said.

Kloser and Henry set the pace as the course wound through exposed Taylor Pass.

Faust and O’Neill remained in hot pursuit as the two teams contended with 30 mph winds and temperatures that plummeted below 20 degrees, Kloser estimated.

Kloser and Henry made it to Barnard Hut — a mandatory 10-minute stop roughly seven miles from the Sundeck — six minutes before the Crested Butte team.

The race for first, one between familiar foes, was rounding into form. In 2003 and 2005, Faust and O’Neill finished second to Kloser, who’s raced with three different partners. They topped the decorated endurance racer and Dan Weiland in 2004.

“We reeled them in,” said Faust, who was competing for the first time after having his left hip replaced one week before last year’s Traverse. “It was back and forth there. We’d catch up on the downhill, and we’d walk on the uphill.”

Despite gaining and giving up ground on the final push, Faust and O’Neill overcame the sizable deficit and momentarily passed Henry and, thus, vaulted into first.

Henry and Kloser were up to the challenge. They assumed command shortly thereafter, and soon were pulling away.

“They were always in sight,” Foust said, “but if they don’t fall or make a mistake, we’re not beating them.”

While his time was 18 minutes slower than in 2007, Kloser’s effort on this day was good enough to best Faust, O’Neill and a field of more than 250. His effort was good enough to pick up consecutive wins and a record fourth Traverse title.

“It was a new goal I wanted to achieve, and it feels good,” Kloser said. “You can’t come into this race without your ‘A’ game and expect to be a contender.”

A year after finishing second, the Willes wound up eighth after finishing in 9:48:20.

“It was a long, brutal night,” Pierre Wille said. “In that race, you’re just happy to finish.”

Vail Team Wins 2008 Elk Mountain Grand Traverse
Than Acuff - Crested Butte

One hundred and twenty-three teams were met with warm midnight temperatures and spitting snow on Friday, March 28 as they headed out into the night for the 11th Annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, a 40-mile backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen.

Nine hours later, the race ended with four teams pushing hard along Richmond Ridge to the final descent of Aspen Mountain to the finish line.

The top four teams finished within six minutes of each other. Team Beaver Creek/Nike Mike Kloser and Jay Henry won in a time of nine hours, four minutes and five seconds.

Locally born and bred Andrew Kastning teamed up with Paige Brady to take the coed title, 10th place overall, with a time of 10 hours, three minutes and 40 seconds. A Gunnison Valley team of Jari Kirkland and Rebecca Dussault were the first women’s team, finishing 15th overall, in 10 hours, 58 minutes and 10 seconds.

Ian Hatchett and Allen Hadley each found partners for the 2008 race to continue their streaks of 11 straight finishes, the only two competitors with a 100 percent success rate in the event.
Three-time Grand Traverse winners Pat O’Neill and Jimmy Faust of Crested Butte finished in second place with a time of nine hours, seven minutes and 30 seconds.

The Team Salomon/Crested Butte duo of Bryan Wickenhauser and Eric Sullivan came in third place, two minutes and 20 seconds behind O’Neill and Faust. The lead pack was capped by 2006 Grand Traverse champions Jon Brown and Brian Smith, who finished in fourth place, 25 seconds behind Wickenhauser and Sullivan, in nine hours, 10 minutes and 15 seconds.

Local skiers Billy Laird and Josh Shifferly, who finished the race in nine hours, 28 minutes and 10 seconds, filled the fifth-place spot. “From Star (Pass) to the finish it was a train of eight people,” says O’Neill. “That’s pretty brutal when a race that’s nine hours long gets down to three minutes.” The race didn’t start out well for O’Neill and Faust though, as they fell back early in the race. Once they hit Ambush Ranch at the mouth of Brush Creek, they locked the hubs and gunned for Star Pass, pushing through packs of teams to reach the lead group.

“We were able to catch the leaders by the top of Star Pass,” says O’Neill. “We got our mojo working big-time.” Every year it seems there’s a weather-related twist to the race. Either there’s high winds, or arctic temperatures, or dumping snow, or all three. This year, Mother Nature threw snow and wind at the racers along the highest points of the route but seemed to cooperate, relative to past years.

“I kept on my True Value gloves, polypro t-shirt and a shell,” says O’Neill. Yet the lead pack still had trouble with the course despite their vast experience. The lead pack descended off Star Pass in near perfect backcountry conditions to locate the trail from below Star Pass back up to Taylor Pass.
“It was probably the best conditions that I’ve ever seen,” says Kloser. “It made for a fantastic ski down.”

The teams found the turn back up through the trees but the winds and new snow had wiped out the course set by course marshals, leaving route-finding up to the competitors in the pitch-black dark of 5 a.m. “Within 100 yards, the trail had been blown over and vanished,” explains Kloser. “We were wandering in the general direction but uncertain of where we were. In the end we got to some steep exposure that was unfamiliar.”

“We missed the most nectar trail that they’ve put in,” says O’Neill. “The compass card was spinning. At one point I was wondering if we were going to climb Taylor Peak.” “You couldn’t see the Dog Star,” adds Wickenhauser. “We got above tree line and had a group huddle.”

The Crested Butte team of Dave Penney and Todd Malzhan joined the other four teams searching for the trail, putting the race aside temporarily as they all joined forces to get back on track.
“I was like, ‘Look guys, let’s get the map out’” says Kloser. “It was classic adventure race pace.”
Eventually the five teams dispersed to find the trail and Kloser and Henry found it first, with O’Neill and Faust right behind them. “Once we got on the trail it was game on,” says Kloser. “When we found the trail we were ecstatic and family time was over,” says O’Neill. Unfortunately, as many as 30 other teams followed the tracks of the lead pack and were subjected to an estimated extra 800 vertical feet of climbing in an already brutally long race. Course marshals were alerted to the “reroute” and remedied the situation for the remaining teams, sparing them the same demise.Remarkably, the miscue did nothing to change the line-up of leaders, as they pointed it for Taylor Pass with Kloser and Henry leading the way.

Kloser and Henry carried their lead out of the Taylor Pass checkpoint with the four local teams on the chase looking to keep the title in the Gunnison Valley. “I said to Sulli, ‘Are we just going to let Kloser run away with it?’” explains O’Neill. “Sulli said, ‘If we’re going to catch Kloser and Henry, we’re going to have to get medieval with it.’”  By the time Kloser and Henry hit the final checkpoint at the Barnard Hut, O’Neill and Faust were three and half minutes behind them and closing in fast. Sullivan and Wickenhauser joined the party, as did Smith and Brown. “It was a full-house at the Barnard Hut,” explains O’Neill. Kloser admits that he was fully aware of the teams hunting them down and kept looking back to check on their status. “Within 20 minutes I could see those guys and from then on it was bite the bullet and grit your teeth,” says Kloser.

O’Neill explains that while he and Faust had taken a more relaxed approach to this year’s race, once they saw that they could reel Kloser and Henry in, they finally decided to go for it. “Jimmy and I really had no expectations—that was the first time we really kicked into go mode,” says O’Neill. “We also knew Bryan, Sulli, Brian Smith and Jon Brown were behind us. Here we were trying to catch Team Nike and we’ve got some of the best athletes behind us. It was a testosterone sandwich.”

While Kloser and Henry opted to use skins along Richmond Ridge, O’Neill and Faust applied kick wax and eventually took the lead, gaining ground on the flats and downhills. Kloser and Henry retook the lead on the final hill and reached the top of Aspen Mountain in first place, skiing down to the 2008 title.
“It transitioned into an uphill and we weren’t giving in,” says Kloser. “We just put our heads down and got a little gap on them.”

“From the Barnard Hut to the top of Aspen Mountain was really exciting,” says O’Neill. “We felt psyched in a race of this caliber just to get in the top three.” Kirkland and Dussault entered the race with one goal in mind. “Rebecca and I went into the race thinking we wanted to be top 10,” says Kirkland. As the race progressed, Kirkland struggled with where they were on the course in relation to the break of dawn.

“It started getting light when we got to Taylor Pass and I felt like we should be further along but I was giving it my all,” says Kirkland. “It was definitely mentally challenging.”
The team received some good news though when they found out they were in seventh place overall, just 11 minutes behind the leaders. Yet, all hopes for a top 10 finish were dashed when the medical team at the Barnard Hut suspected Kirkland was hypothermic and required her and Dussault to wait an hour before returning to the race. “They were like, ‘You can’t argue, get in the tent’,” explains Kirkland. “It was a little frustrating for sure.” Kirkland vows to return though to hit the goal of a top ten finish overall. “I’ll have to check with Rebecca’s schedule but I would love to try again next year and be top ten,” says Kirkland.

It was the fourth Grand Traverse title for Kloser, his first with Henry. While Kloser is an internationally known and heavily decorated professional adventure racer, he seems to return to the Grand Traverse each year despite the lack of a massive cash purse and pile of prizes.
“There’s something that lures me back year after year,” says Kloser. “It’s a true adventure race and it can be epic. I like the challenge of it and the fact that there are some strong teams.”

Team Nike’s Kloser with Steve White win Elk Mt. Grand Traverse 2007
By Chris Freud - Vail Daily reporter

Vail’s Mike Kloser momentarily gazed uphill then, with relief on his face, raised both ski poles in celebration. Just 5 seconds separated first from second place at last year’s Elk Mountains Grand Traverse; Saturday, in the 10th edition of the demanding endurance race, vast terrain separated Kloser and teammate Stephen White from the rest of the 250-person field. The Vail duo overcame equipment failure, inclement weather, fatigue and a deficit that ballooned to 30 minutes on their 40-mile, night-long slog from Crested Butte to Aspen. And, after 8 hours, 46 minutes and 50 seconds they cruised to the finish line at the base of Aspen Mountain.

The victory is Kloser’s third in the event; He took home the 2003 and 2005 titles with then-teammate Dan Weiland. Local brothers Pierre and Andre Wille crossed the finish in second, 8 minutes off the pace. Crested Butte’s Dave Penney and Todd Malzhan finished third. Penny was the first competitor across the line in 2006, but could only watch as Gunnison’s Jon Brown and Brian Smith finished five seconds ahead of his partner, Eric Sullivan.“This is a tough race, and you suffer a lot,” said Kloser, who finished fifth last year. “You better appreciate it any time you win it. This one was the most rewarding considering how we had to fight from behind and persevere.”


Bald tires
Competitors set a quick pace as they pushed off at midnight from the base of Crested Butte Mountain. (The start point in Crested Butte was moved this year because of deteriorating snow conditions.) As the pack climbed the mountain, then crossed the east river valley, the duo continued to trail. A poor wax choice made each step laborious, White said. He began to feel the effects. “I was struggling miserably,” he said. “It was like trying to get traction with bald ties. I felt like Bambi.
“I was having a hard time keeping up with the pace, but my partner helped me pull through.” As seven teams distanced themselves from the field, Kloser and White managed to stay close to the front. As they negotiated 12,303-foot Star Pass — the course’s highest point — the team vaulted into second. But, because they helped break trail, the teams close behind didn’t lose ground.

Negotiating the soft snow made traversing relatively straightforward, White said. They managed to overcome unforeseen equipment malfunctions — Kloser skied the entire race without a functional headlamp and both struggled with pole straps that continually became disconnected, making it difficult to push off.

Taylor Pass
The biggest obstacle, one that hindered the entire field, lay ahead on remote Taylor Pass. As Pierre Wille and his brother, also near the lead group, climbed a cornice on their ascent of the pass, they were hit head-on by sub-zero temps and winds that Pierre Wille estimated reached almost 60 mph. Snowmobile tracks and wooden stakes charting portions of the course were nowhere to be found. Conditions were so severe that race organizers reportedly halted some competitors early Saturday and forced them to bivouac. “There was no trace of where to go,” said Pierre Wille who, with teammate Travis Moore, won the inaugural traverse in 1998. “We couldn’t see anything. It was still dark and our headlamps shined on all the snowflakes.
“It was like being on the inside of a Ping-Pong ball.” Pierre Wille’s thin boots were frozen solid — during the early stages of the race the competitors had to negotiate multiple small streams. His hat also froze and felt like a helmet.

The frigid temperatures and gusts bordered on unbearable, he said. “I thought we were going to die out there,” Pierre Wille said. “It was a little scary. We had to stop and put on every piece of clothing we had.”

Final push
Still, they pushed on. So, too, did Kloser and White, who were not far behind. The two reached the Barnard Hut, a mandatory 10-minute stopping point, just in time to see the lead group — Gunnison’s Bryan Wickenhauser and Eric Sullivan — push off in the direction of Richmond Hill. Kloser and White waxed their skis and prepared for one final push.
“We started picking off guys left and right,” Kloser said. “Those other guys said they cracked and became unglued.” The two’s deficit, which had swelled to as much as 30 minutes earlier that morning, was trimmed to 7; they made up that time just 20 minutes after pushing off from Barnard — some 6 miles from the finish. While others faltered, Kloser and White jumped ahead for good. They passed the Willes on Richmond Ridge and didn’t pause until reaching the bottom of Ajax.

“I’ve had my share of screw-ups, and people have proven they are capable of coming from behind,” Kloser said. “Nothing in this race is ever a sure bet.” Eight minutes later the Willes, exhausted after their nearly nine-hour ordeal, drew roars from the gondola plaza crowd as they descended Little Nell to the finish. After shedding their 20-pound packs stuffed with food, avalanche beacons, bivouac gear and even a stove, they embraced.

“It’s great to be home,” Andre Wille said. “Right now, the weather here is so nice. It’s a totally different world up there.”
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