ASPEN - It's been called uncompromising and unpredictable. A rite of spring. The culmination of a season's worth of intense outdoor activity.
As longtime competitor Bryan Wickenhauser can attest, the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse also is unlike anything of its kind.
The 15th installment of the venerable race - in which teams of two test their grit, equipment and sanity on an arduous trek through the remote Colorado high country between Crested Butte and Aspen - kicks off at 11 p.m. Friday.
"It's part ski race, part adventure," said Wickenhauser, a co-race director who teamed with fellow Crested Butte resident Brian Smith to win in 2009. "It's unique, really the only race in North America that travels off a permitted ski area. ... You're out there in the pitch black with your partner for hours on end. It provides a sense of adventure that backcountry skiers like. That's obviously what draws in folks."
About 130 teams will gather Friday night at the base of the Crested Butte Mountain Resort; the start was moved from its usual location outside the community school because of sparse March snowfall. From there, competitors will skirt through the East River Valley and follow 19th-century mail routes across two mountain passes - Star and Taylor - before hitting Richmond Ridge and descending Aspen Mountain on Saturday morning.
Racers will cover 40 miles and negotiate 7,800 feet of precarious elevation gain. Along the way, they will contend with avalanche risks, exposure, fluctuating temperatures and wind gusts that cut through even the toughest clothing.
Wickenhauser was among those caught off guard by a ground blizzard in 2007 near Taylor Pass that pelted competitors with winds in excess of 50 mph and caused multiple cases of hypothermia. Thirty teams wound up dropping out.
"We were ill-dressed, in skin suits basically. Our mantra was to keep moving," Wickenhauser recalled. "We did not know where we were going, and we were frozen. There was nowhere to hide. To put on our down jackets, we would've had to hide behind a rock or tree."
Things should be a little more tame this time around, Wickenhauser surmised.
"When you're putting on a ski race with the snowpack we've had this year, there's always a concern," Wickenhauser admitted, "but concern is a relative term. We've had a snow-safety team up there all week, and it seems like the snowpack is locking up at night and there are strong melt-free-cycle temps. It's going to be cold enough at night, so we're not overly worried unless racers were out there until 1 or 2 (p.m.)."
In the interest of safety, the course features four cutoff points: the Friends Hut, Star Pass, the Barnard Hut and the Aspen Mountain Gate. Competitors who fail to reach the Friends Hut by 7 a.m. or Star Pass by 8 a.m. will be forced to turn around and head back to Crested Butte.
Barnard Hut features a mandatory 10-minute stop and medical check, and those who do not make it there by 2 p.m. will have to ski to a predetermined pickup point, be escorted to the Sundeck and download on the Ajax gondola.
The same fate awaits racers who fail to reach the summit of Aspen Mountain by 4 p.m.
Wickenhauser expects the top teams to reach the Gondola Plaza around 7 a.m.
After coming up agonizingly short in 2009 and 2010, Crested Butte's Ethan Passant and Travis Scheefer finally triumphed in last year's Traverse, crossing the finish in 9 hours, 14 minutes, 50 seconds.
Two coed teams cracked the top three; Aspen's Peter Gaston and Carbondale's Sari Anderson wound up third in 9:17:20, 50 seconds behind Crested Butte's Marshall Thomson and Stevie Kremer.
Little more than 30 minutes separated first through 10th place in what proved to be one of the closest races in recent memory.