Elk Grand Traverse takes its toll
ASPEN – Just a handful of local racers competing in the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse last weekend finished the course, and many of those who didn’t are grateful to still have their fingers and toes.
Vail Eco Challenge veterans Mike Kloser and Dan Wieland won the race – a 40-mile ski trek from Crested Butte to Aspen – in about eight and a half hours. Summit County teams that finished include Mickey Floro and Jacob Youcha, Scott Yule and Roanne Miller, John Warner and Scott Downen, Larry Crispell and Tim Casey and two teams of Breckenridge ski patrollers. Mark Taylor finished the course but was officially disqualified, as his partner Freddie Valdez, like many other racers, was sidelined with frostbite.
Danelle Ballengee, some of whose extraordinary feats include forging through the jungles of Fiji during last year’s Eco Challenge, setting a record by running up and down all 55 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in 14 days, 14 hours and 49 minutes and racing in temperatures of minus 26 degrees, was airlifted by helicopter at about 5 a.m. Saturday with severe frostbite that nearly took off her toes.
“I’m really happy to have my toes right now,” Ballengee said Tuesday, mentioning that her doctor told her it would take about 10 months for the feeling to return to her big toe. “We were having a lot of problems out there, but we kept overcoming them and plugging along. I felt fine as we were approaching the hut. But when I took my sock off, my toes were bone-white. Then my foot turned black – really black. I would have gone on, but the search and rescue guy at the hut was pretty insistent that I don’t go on.
“It was almost entertaining watching the carnage of people coming into the hut who were cold, sick, frostbitten and hypothermic,” she added.
Ballengee, who was doing the race with Vail resident Billy Mattison, was air-lifted from the Friends Hut below Star Pass – about a third of the way through the course. Before arriving at the hut with frozen toes, her problems included a broken binding that she wasn’t able to fix because it was too cold for duct tape to adhere, a frozen water and food supply and a poor choice of footwear.
Valdez, who was evacuated by snowmobile due to frostbite on his face, lost his light when the cold killed the batteries in his headlamp.
“People started dropping like flies,” he said. “I would say it was like 30 below (zero) with the wind chill. The temperature was around zero when we started. I would do it again, though. I didn’t leave thinking it was the worst thing ever. I never really felt like it was life or death for me. I was thinking I might go to the doctor, but I never thought, “oh my God, I’m going to die.’ I’m sure a lot of people probably did think that way. For me right now, I have a whole new level of what kind of cold I can take.”
Getting past the cold
Breckenridge Town Council member Larry Crispell and his teammate Tim Casey didn’t really consider it a race when they crossed the finish line 15 and a half hours after the midnight start time.
“We finished the course. We were proud of that,” he said. “There was a pretty high attrition rate. It got a little lonely out there. We saw some startling cases of frostbite. Being in such good shape didn’t make you immune to some of these problems. We dressed warm enough to where we would only be warm if we kept moving. We were joking the whole time. Every time a snowmobile came by, we’d say to each other, “Hey, this snowmobile’s for you.'”
Scott Yule, who has done the race in past years, also was one of the local contingent to cross the finish line. He and Miller finished the course in 13 hours and 8 minutes.
“It was one of the most extreme weather environments I’ve ever skied through,” Yule said. “It was incredible. There’s a million and a half stories to go along with the race. Ron Uhle stomped out a helicopter pad and spent like three hours at the Friends Hut helping evacuate people. He’s the alpine hero. We didn’t have too many problems. The water froze, the food froze, but we made it.”
Mickey Florio and Jacob Youcha were frozen and weary but finished the course in 15 hours and 45 minutes. They might not have fared so well if Florio hadn’t given Youcha an extra pair of his underwear to wrap around his face to fight frostbite.
“It was hard, but I had to laugh for a little bit because my teammate was looking so silly with my underwear wrapped around his head,” said Florio, who, like Ballengee, also might have to wait a while before he feels his toes again.
“In the night, the weather was easily below zero, and in the day time, it was really windy. I don’t think I’ll be doing it again.”
Despite skiing about 10 extra miles helping people evacuate and searching for his teammate, Taylor crossed the finish line by himself, and enjoyed doing it.
“Some people were in a bad way, but I had a blast,” he said. “I had a fun night out there. I never got cold. I’ve done three or four (Grand Traverses), and this was way harder and way worse than any of them. It was the cold, and that they added like 1,000 feet of vertical to the course. But, it was good camaraderie. My buddies were like 50 meters ahead of me, and we were yelling at each other for the last nine or 10 miles.”
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