The frozen Five Peaks: What it’s like to race up and down Breckenridge’s summits on a cold winter morning
March 15, 2018
The top of Peak 9 was only 200 yards away. Once there, our ski mountaineering Five Peaks race descent to the next of Breckenridge's peaks — and to the beneath-treeline warmth — would come soon enough. But in this moment of ascent against the frigid wind, as I waited for my race partner Kevin Berrigan to catch up, this was the coldest cold I'd ever felt.
It was so cold that this was the beginning of the time period — lasting several more hours, until the end of the race — when I couldn't feel my fingers. But the pain in my fingers? That wouldn't come until the days after the race. In the moment, I didn't feel much of anything. It was that damn cold.
With the wind chill, the temperature on this cloudy Saturday morning in March above 13,000 feet —if I had to guess — was somewhere between zero and 10 degrees. But with the unpredictability of the winds whipping around Peak 9's summit, it felt much colder.
And it likely felt much colder because our race prep down at the base at The Maggie two hours earlier was a bit helter skelter.
The only gloves I wore in this frigid moment in the middle of the Five Peaks race — a part of the Cosmic Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup race series — were Kinco work gloves. They are insulated leather gloves that can be worn for skiing, but sure aren't designed to stand up to the biting cold of 40-mph winds. And the reason I was wearing them was because just before the race started, there was a mixup between race bags. Essentially, my other gloves — those more suited to protect in below-freezing temperatures — were in my original bag that someone had accidentally scooped up and strapped to their back.
That's life. Things like that can happen, especially when both bags not only are the same, but also both have blue tape put on them by their owner. What are the odds?
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That said, a traverse of the top of Summit County's iconic Tenmile Range on a winter morning is difficult enough when you actually have all the gear you planned to bring.
Most all of my other layers and supplies were in that other bag. So I resorted to scavenging some around the Five Peaks race base area at The Maggie to cobble together bare minimum supplies for the up-and-down alpine tour race. It's one that requires competitors like Kevin and I to gain 7,300 feet of vertical elevation while traversing from Breckenridge Ski Resort's Peaks 10 to 6, and then to the finish line at the base of Peak 7. Thirty-six other men in the male duo race completed what Kevin and I attempted that day.
I'd also be remiss to not mention Breckenridge local and U.S. Ski Mountaineering coach Joe Howdyshell, as he was a lifesaver on this frantic morning. Joe, one of the race's event organizers, came through and provided me with a backup bag of supplies — including the mandatory backcountry safety supplies — when I informed him of my situation.
The help aided me for the ski mountaineering race, as ski-mo incorporates several elements of recreating in the backcountry: skinning up the mountains, skiing down the mountains and what's called "boot-packing" — essentially hiking in ski boots — on certain unskiable and/or steep terrain.
By the time I returned to the starting line with my pieced-together bundle of gear, the race gun went off. It was 7:30. No time to stop and think about all that had just happened. Just time to slip on what are referred to as "skins," in ski mountaineering races. They are ski-wide, below-the-ski sleeves that are comprised of a carpet-like material which has one-way traction. The special traction grips the snow when "skinning," in only one direction: up.
Kevin and I were here to race the Five Peaks race, one of the highest ski mountaineering races in the United States, in order to prepare for The Grand Traverse. It's a backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen where competitors travel 40 miles over the Elk Mountains and climb over 6,800 vertical feet.
The only issue with using the Five Peaks race to prepare for the Grand Traverse is that the Five Peaks actually gains more total vertical over fewer miles. Yes, the Five Peaks is much less in terms of distance, but how's this for a comparison: Imagine you're a boxer, and in order to prepare to fight a 12-round match versus the champion, you take a 6-round match versus someone who, when their punches land, hit you harder than the champ's haymakers?
That's what the Five Peaks felt like. Especially at that moment near the top of Peak 9.
And especially because Kevin was struggling through the race on gear he pieced together the night before. Doug Stenclik, the owner of Cripple Creek Backcountry out of Carbondale, was kind enough to lend him ski-mo racing skis and Salomon-brand boots. The only issue was, the boots didn't fit his feet very well. And when in the middle of some of this country's most gnarly ski-mo terrain — when sucking wind at 13,000 feet — even the slightest of inconveniences can feel like the weight of the world is on you.
As a result of the pre-race mixup, as a result of Kevin's gear issues and as a result of the weather conditions, Kevin and I finished hours behind the top racers. The best of the best on Saturday, including champions Cam Smith and Sean Van Horn, finished the race in 3 hours, 10 minutes and 53 seconds.
Kevin and I? It took us 6 hours 13 minutes and 17 seconds to cross the finish line.
But competing in the Five Peaks for us wasn't about winning. At first, the primary goal was to prepare for The Grand Traverse with a race like this, one that we knew would punch us in the face.
But, man, did the Five Peaks race hit us harder than we might have expected. There is simply not much that can compare to the feeling of exhaustion above 13,000 feet. If there is, it's that above-treeline cold each of us battled through, a frosty bite that took my fingers several days to recover from.
And perhaps that's the primary lesson we learned via the race. Here we and all the other racers were, living our love for the mountains by racing through the backcountry, racing through those picturesque peaks tourist after tourist stop their cars on Interstate 70 to gawk at. We came prepared with a healthy respect for the mountains, complete with avalanche beacons, probes, cold weather gear and competent backcountry skiing skills.
But, in the end, if the mountain wants to be the winner, it will be the winner. On this day, Breckenridge's peaks tamed Kevin and I. They reminded us of what winter can be like in such a beautiful place. And they reminded us of the energy, effort, planning and humility it takes to tackle the Tenmile in winter.
For that, as we look back, we say thanks.
Sports & Outdoors Editor Antonio Olivero contributed to this report.
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