The Grand scheme
VAIL, Colorado – If ski-mountaineering races were won on the downhill, Dr. Tracee Metcalfe and McKenna Douglas would be shoo-ins. The daredevil duo is competing in the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse later this month. A backcountry race that follows the old mail route from Crested Butte to Aspen, some 150 teams of two route-find their way for 40 miles and 7,800 vertical feet of steeps, valleys and, of course, traversing.
Metcalfe and Douglas have two goals: to finish, and to raise money and awareness for Homecare and Hospice of the Valley.
“Though I’m really competitive, I’m not viewing this as a race,” Douglas, an adventure racer, said. “For me, and for Tracee as well, it’s all about pacing yourself and enjoying the moment.”
Metcalfe concurred, though she has a slightly more personal idea in her sights: No two ways about it, she has a vendetta with the race. After being turned back 15 miles in several years ago when her partner lost a ski in an inconvenient (read: high avalanche danger) area, she is determined to finish this race.
Elk Mountain Grand Traverse is an annual race that starts in Crested Butte and ends in Aspen. It’s a late-night start (usually around midnight) so that the avalanche-prone areas are, well, less avalanche prone. Teams head out into the night, using compasses, GPSs and other traditional tools. There are no flags pointing left or right out there.
It’s considered a self-supported race, so skiers have to carry a fair bit on their backs. In addition to gear, clothing, food and water, people have to be toting an emergency shelter, stove, ski-repair supplies, avalanche beacon, probe and shovel, sleeping pad, headlamp, an emergency plan and, tellingly, a CORSAR card (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue). Douglas and Metcalfe’s packs will weigh around 20 to 30 pounds.
“The course is not marked so you have to have skills and know how to navigate,” Metcalfe said. “We’ve worked together as a team to get better at our backcountry navigation skills.”
Though there are 150 teams on the course who will be leaving a path in the snow, weather plays a crucial role in route-finding as well as duration. Falling snow and wind can easily scrub an area of tracks. It can also throw a wrench in the timing, as skiers battle the elements.
“Obviously, weather will play a major role for us,” Douglas said. “Best-case scenario, it will be around 10 hours. And worst-case scenario between 15 and 16 hours. Middle of the road we’re looking at 13 hours.”
Winning teams will probably log an eight-hour race.
“But again, it’s not about placing,” Douglas said. “We’re thinking about training smart, hydrating smart, eating smart and not pushing it but feeling comfortable.”
And to celebrate finishing the course intact? They’ll recuperate for a week before heading to Alaska to heliski – something the twosome has done many times, in search of the thrill.
“The more treacherous the downhill, the better off we do in races,” Douglas admitted. “Most women tend to struggle at that part, and she and I excel there.”
Which is fine, because there will be plenty more areas to struggle through in the quest of crossing the finish line.
“Really, we just want to finish the race,” Metcalfe said. “We’re excited about challenging ourselves, and to raise money for hospice.”
A hospitalist at Vail Valley Medical Center, Dr. Metcalfe also works for Homecare and Hospice of the Valley as medical co-director. Though both of her jobs deal with people who are sick, she deals with cures at the hospital and symptoms for hospice. That means at VVMC she looks for the cause of the infirmity and sets about to eradicate it. But at hospice, she helps patients with terminal illness manage their symptoms so they’re more comfortable.
“I think it’s important to spend time focusing on the end of life,” said the doctor. “I think it’s important to have a good death. Medicine focuses on curing people, but doctors leave people alone at the end of life. Hospice helps them have a good death. Sometimes that means making sure their last several months are spent well, pain-free, doing the things they want to do. It means allowing people to control their own symptoms.”
By and large, hospice helps people stay in their homes, instead of going to a hospital they’ll never leave. But it sometimes means getting patients strong, or simply pain-free, enough to do something they’ve always wanted to do, like travel to Hawaii.
“Hospice is Tracee’s baby, but being my best friend, I’ve gotten to see some of the really important and inspirational aspects of it through her,” Douglas said. “The work she does is heart wrenching at times, yet also so empowering. Let’s go out and seize the day, let’s draw strength from these individuals who, for lack of a better word, are fighting for their lives: people who fight to the bitter end but are so optimistic and have a beautiful outlook on things.”
The twosome has a web page, http://www.tasandthebadger.com that tells about them, the race and hospice. They both wanted to pick tenacious, ferocious beasts that would fight for their goals. Metcalfe went with the honey badger. Originally Douglas went for the Tasmanian devil, hence the Web address, but ultimately she decided on the rhino.
“She said it’s because the rhino is stubborn and will charge first and ask questions later,” said Metcalfe, laughing.
Whatever their monikers, Metcalfe and Douglas will attempt high-alpine perseverance on March 30. Those interested can track their progress by going to http://www.elkmountaingrandtraverse.com and clicking the Live Tracking option under the Results tab.