Grand Traverse Training Tips |

On a sunny training day at the intersection of Express Creek and Richmond Ridge.
Ted Mahon

At midnight April 3, no less than 200 teams of two will ski into the night for the 24th Elk Mountain Grand Traverse.

The annual backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen covers 40 miles and traverses two mountain passes, climbing 7,000 vertical feet along the way. If you have this event on your calendar, it’s time to start thinking about training.

It’s an amazing experience. Connecting two classic mountain towns in this way, skiing all night with a partner – it’s worthy of a to-do list.

It must also be said that it is an arduous effort, even for the most prepared and in the best conditions. It is therefore essential that you get enough miles and elevation gain under your belt or you will spend a long night (and the next day) there.

I know the race well. My wife and I have completed the Grande Traverse 15 times, nine together as a mixed team. We had some good races, some great races and some tough ones. We have won the overall mixed classification twice and have been on the podium elsewhere on several other occasions. Our fastest year was 9 hours, 29 minutes and we had zero DNFs.

There are different things you can do to prepare. Climb training is obviously a requirement. Route scouting is also a good idea. But nothing is more important than getting out with your partner for full-day, high-mileage efforts.

Longer outings offer much more than free time. They allow you to synchronize with your partner, their rhythm, their state of mind, etc. They also help you fine-tune your packing, hydration, feeding and layering systems. And you can test the limits of your equipment in different conditions, from your skins to your clothes.

Anda Smalls and Christy are happy to see the signed turnoff to Spruce Creek and Margy’s Hut.
Ted Mahon

Generally speaking, long days are more fun and adventurous than just doing a lot of skinning in the ski areas.

We find ourselves repeating a handful of local tours for training each year. They’re fun, they provide mileage, elevation, and in some cases a good overview of sections of the course. Use these tours as a source of training ideas for your own preparation for the Grande Traverse.

Express Creek to Richmond Ridge

Start at the ghost town of Ashcroft and head up Express Creek Road to Richmond Ridge. Follow the Richmond Ridge road north past Barnard Hut to the Sundeck and down to Aspen. Distance traveled is about 20 miles, vertical gain is about 4,000 feet.

This tour is a classic Grand Traverse training day that all runners should plan to do at least once before race day. It has a fair amount of mileage and verticality, but the real benefit is in the recognition it provides.

The Richmond Ridge to Sundeck section is not the most technical. But when you reach that point on race day, you’ll be exhausted from the 25 miles you’ve traveled to get here. It is therefore a huge advantage to see in advance the layout of the climbs and descents, so you know the right time to put the skins on or take them off to ski.

It might seem like a blow to your mental game to turn a corner and see another unexpected climb during the race. So be sure to try to do this tour once in advance.

Ascended the Tinpot Trail to Four Corners on the McNamara Loop to Margy’s.
Ted Mahon

Hunter Creek/Lenado to McNamara and Margy’s

It’s quite convenient to have such a well-developed system of huts around Aspen, and the routes to and from these huts are a great way to practice. They are booked most nights, so many routes are often crowded and easy to follow. The trail is also periodically marked with blue diamonds, making it even easier to navigate.

McNamara and Margy’s are our favorite local huts to fit into a long training day. You can use the upper Hunter Creek Trailhead or Lenado as a starting point. You can take a round trip to one of these huts or, for a longer day, you can connect them both.

Consider this as an option: From Hunter Creek, head to McNamara Hut. Continue along the backcountry road to Woody Creek. Locate Spruce Creek and take it to Sawmill Park, then continue to Margy’s Hut. Walk down the standard route from Margy’s Hut to Lenado. When you reach the Lenado Cabins, locate the Tinpot Trail and follow it to Four Corners. Descend from Four Corners to the Hunter Creek trailhead. The distance of this circuit is approximately 25 miles. The vertical gain is approximately 5,500 feet.

At the Sawmill Park trailhead en route to Margy’s Hut.
Ted Mahon

Harry Gates/Peter Estin Huts Loop

You can design similar training missions around the Harry Gates and Peter Estin huts above Ruedi Reservoir. From Thomasville you can walk up the Montgomery Flats road to Gates Hut and down to the Spring Creek trailhead, covering 14-15 miles. You can add a round trip to the Peter Estin Hut for an additional 12 miles.

If you end up in the dark, maybe that’s okay. The Grande Traverse starts at midnight and you will spend the first seven hours of the race in the dark, skiing with a headlamp. So a little night training might be helpful.

Star Peak Loop

If you’re looking for more of a challenge, consider a circumnavigation of Star Peak. This suggestion is for those who are fit, fast and comfortable hitting the trails all day. It’s less crowded, harder to navigate, and requires a higher level of off-piste skiing experience than the other suggestions. For the best chance of success, wait for a clear, calm day with good avalanche stability until later in the spring.

From Ashcroft, head to the Tagert and Green-Wilson huts and continue to Pearl Pass. Descend from Pearl Pass to the Friends Hut. At this point, you will join the current Grand Traverse route. Climb the Star Pass from the Friends Hut. Once at the pass, take in the views and acknowledge that you are halfway through the race course.

Breaking track on a sunny training day above Ashcroft.
Ted Mahon

From Star Pass, continue along the route to Taylor Pass and down Express Creek Road to Ashcroft. Total distance is about 20 miles with considerable vertical gain.

These are just a few training options that are a bit more creative than just running through Ajax, Highlands, Snowmass and Tiehack. Now, if all you want is easy miles and lots of uphill, I recommend just doing sections of the Power of Four course.

If you’re new to endurance racing, let me share a little nugget of wisdom: the race itself isn’t always a lot of fun. Take advantage of the training days, they are often more enjoyable than the event itself. Being on the trails, with a friend or partner, maybe exploring a new area, preparing for a big goal on the horizon – enjoy training days, make them fun.

I should add that extra homework and planning is required for a safe and successful outing. These are true backcountry ski tours and should be treated as such. Strong partners, navigation skills, awareness of avalanche terrain and equipment, and contingency plans are all required. Use this information as a source of ideas and do your own homework to ensure a safe and successful day.

Use your Grand Traverse preparation as an opportunity to explore new areas in your garden. This will help you on race day and you may find that training rides are often the most fun part of it all.

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