40 Miles of Adventure: The Grand Traverse

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There is no other race like it in the United States. It combines the endurance of an ultramarathoner, the strength of a downhill skier, the mental determination of a Nordic racer and stamina of an Iditarod sled dog. You must be ready to start the race at midnight and not finish until the next afternoon; it can take as long as 17 hours.  Don’t come straight from sea level either, because you’ll be climbing more that 7,400 feet throughout the 40 miles.

We’re talking about the infamous Grand Traverse, the oldest and largest backcountry ski race in North America. This year’s race kicks off on Friday, March 28 in the iconic ski town of Crested Butte, Colo. and treks through 36 miles of the Elk Mountains to the finish line in Aspen. As always, the Grand Traverse begins at midnight to ensure racers hit the highest point of Star Mountain (12,303 feet) before the day’s warmth can trigger unstable conditions. (Shameless plug: We recommend layering in our Hybrid Down Sweater.)

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“The race provides that sense of adventure that backcountry skiers desire,” says race director and past Grand Traverse winner Bryan ‘Wick’ Wickenhauser. “People tend to get in a mindset that it’s just another skimo race, but it’s not. Usually skimo races take place entirely on resorts, but this one is 40 miles and 36 of those are in the backcountry.”

And it’s not a forgiving race. It’s pitch-black at the start and freezing cold, but you’re excited. The sense of camaraderie is palpable. But suddenly, you’re in the middle of the woods and it’s dark and the sun won’t rise until you’re above tree line. Wick, who will be doing his 16th Grand Traverse this year, remembered the race nine years ago. “I couldn’t see anything in front of me and I had full vertigo. I thought I was sliding in an avalanche,” recalls Wick. “But I was on flat ground. It was nuking wind and there were ground blizzards everywhere. I went into full survival mode.”

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It’s not a predictable course, either. Two years ago, there was so little snow that racers had to run the first nine miles, many sprinting in ski boots. However, this year the snowpack has been great. But with a foot of snow on Wednesday night and more snow expected on Thursday and Friday, they’re a little worried about snow stability. But fingers are crossed, skis are waxed and Oskar Blues beer is chilling at the finish line in Aspen. All are ready and excited for the renowned race to begin.

“It’s a bucket-list event,” says Wick. “It’s a search for powder and adventure, and that’s really what skiing is all about.”

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The Access Fund Education Summit: Climbing Etiquette and Education

Dr. Kevin Tatsugawa, a Brooks-Range ambassador, attended the Access Fund Education Summit in November. This is his report on his experience.

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All climbers have a story of their first climbing experience. Back in the day, it revolved around a more experienced friend literally “showing one the ropes.” Climbing used to be an activity that was typically reserved for the outcasts – the counter-culture hippies and dirtbags of the outdoor world – at least that was my experience.

I still remember the first time I went climbing. Having recently learned basic knots and how to belay, I began climbing with friends who were more experienced than me. They taught me about placing protection, setting up anchors, and how to lead climb. Until one day, my training was over and I found myself guiding and instructing other people about climbing and climbing etiquette.

Today, with the advent of indoor climbing gyms, climbing is quickly becoming a popular activity with urban youth. Today’s best climbers no longer seem to be mountain men or mountain women, rather gym rats who spend more time pulling plastic than they do rock.

Today’s beginning climbers no longer learn about rock climbing from a mentor, rather they have a coach or instructor who teaches them the basics of climbing in the gym environment. They progress through the grades and pull down harder than most people ever thought possible a decade or two ago. But gym-climbing protocols does not always directly translate to climbing in the outdoors, especially in terms of social etiquette and environmental issues.

Back in the day, there were so few of us that environmental issues were hardly, if ever, addressed. The number of developed crags and boulder was nowhere near the number today. It would take time and energy to access the obscure canyons and walls, which meant that the general public was minimally affected by the environmental impact. Even on the crags or boulders that were more accessible, there were fewer climbers.

However, with our numbers swelling nowadays, we need to be more vigilant about our environmental impact. In our hyper-connected society, one person’s indiscretions can have a long-lasting impact on other climbers, a local crag, or even governmental policies on public lands.

What is the solution to this burgeoning problem? Is anyone doing anything to address these issues? The answer is yes. There are organizations such as the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club that have organized themselves to deal with these issues.

The Access Fund hosted an Education Summit last November to discuss a plan to educate neophyte climbers who are transitioning to the outdoors. Climbing industry representatives, land managers, educators, researchers, volunteers from local climbing organizations, and Access Fund staff presented and exchanged ideas. We talked about the evolving climbing population, the importance of climber education, ways to modify behavior, potential collaborative partners, and how to reach our young climbers.

Climbing is a fun activity and no one wants to take that away. We, as a community, just need to take care of our limited and very valuable resource – the crags and boulders. Most of the major issues identified at the Education Summit are remedied by slightly altering our behavior at a crag. They include:

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-Stay on the trail when accessing boulder and crags
-Be mindful of other climbers, land managers and the public
-Pick up your trash
-Keep dogs on a leash, or better yet leave them at home when climbing
-Avoid crushing vegetation with crash pads and when spotting others
-Remove tick marks from the rocks when leaving a boulder or crag
-Be mindful of how our noise affects others

What else would you add?

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Q&A With Phil Powers, The Executive Director Of The American Alpine Club

phil-powers-aacThe American Alpine Club (AAC) is a nonprofit based in Golden, Colorado that provides benefits and services to climbers – everything from a $10,000 reimbursement package for climbers that need to be rescued, to lodging operations throughout the world, to discounts to various brands. Phil Powers is the Executive Director of this national organization (that he describes as the “AAA for climbers”), but is also an accomplished climber himself. He sat down to answer a few questions about the organization, his family and his favorite Brooks-Range jacket.

How did you get involved in the American Alpine Club? 

I’ve been a climber for my whole life and I’ve been a member of the AAC for a long time. I moved down to Colorado’s Front Range to get my kids into better schools, and I have a history in working in education. I felt like getting into the outdoor education world would be perfect.

What is the most important project you’ve worked on this year?

There are two major things that stand out to me. Three years ago, we launched something called the Cornerstone Conversation Grant, which funds essential infrastructure at climbing areas. This year, it has rolled into a big enough program that we can see the differences we’re making nationwide. It’s a huge success.

More recently, we launched the Live Your Dream Grant, which gives money to young climbers so they can take the next step in their climbing education. It can range from just giving them gas money so they can head to Yosemite, to getting them big wall training. It’s been fun to support young American climbers in their craft.

Where do you like to climb?

I climb mostly in Eldorado Canyon, just outside my home in Denver, Colorado. But, I used to guide in Rocky Mountain National Park, so I like to get on The Diamond of Longs Peak, as well. I also still own Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, so I head up there occasionally, as well.

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Biggest accomplishment?

K2 is somewhere people often know, and I climbed that in 1993. I also did a big route called the Washburn Face on Denali in 1992. Also in ’92, I did a traverse on the Cathedral Peaks in the Tetons. But now, my goal is to get back to climbing 5.12 again. I just want to get strong and climb hard.

When you’re not climbing, what do you like to do?

I have four kids and a mortgage, so I work a lot! But I love hanging out with my kids. Happily, they like to go to the rock gym! And my youngest son drags me skiing. He’s only 11 years old.

What’s one thing you’d like to change in the climbing world?  

The most basic climbing education in America is inconsistent. People use different signal systems, different belay motions and have varying philosophies on the belay system. It’s not like the rest of the outdoor world, which has consistent classes and testing throughout the nation, such as Avalanche 1 or wilderness first responder courses. With climbing, you can take a mountaineering class at a climbing gym, get a merit badge in the Boy Scouts or complete a course at your local YMCA. And all of those mean something different. There is no common vernacular and there is a lot of inconsistency in what people learn. So, we’re working on coming up with a quality, consistent education for outdoor climbers.

Do you have a favorite Brooks-Range product?

I wear my Cirro Jacket everywhere. It’s lightweight and doesn’t have a hood. I think it’s stylish. The AAC also recently gave Brooks-Range jackets to 50 of our most important volunteers. As an organization, we thrive on those people and wanted to reward them for all of their hard work. It’s so great. They feel appreciated and warm!

Thanks, Phil!

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