Vail duo wins Elk Mountain Traverse
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.”
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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.
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.”
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.”
Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.