Vail’s Kloser, Henry win Grand Traverse
ASPEN ” Mike Kloser thought his chance at consecutive titles had faded into the bitter early-morning air.
The Vail endurance racer’s lead in last weekend’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 past 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.”
Support Local Journalism
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
Join Vail Daily’s Sean Naylor, Ross Leonhart, Nate Peterson and Chris Dillmann as they hit the slopes for opening day at Vail.