Lessons in Traversing

July 10, 2017

Guest Author: Caroline Markowitz

I’ve met some of my best friends at 3:30am. That’s when I met Thomas. Only it wasn’t last call at the bar. It was the start of a ski tour.

We had our sights on a 4:45am start from East Portal so as to catch sunrise atop the Continental Divide on our traverse to Winter Park for brunch. We'd then take it in the reverse. Our crew included Clare Gallagher, Joey Schusler, and Thomas Woodson - superhumans with stacked resumes. A 2016 Leadville champ, The North Face athlete, writer, sub-6 hour car-car Grand Teton runner, retired professional mountain biker turned professional adventurer, filmmakers, photographers, activists, Yeti, Dynafit, Smith, Skratch, and SRAM ambassadors, and the list goes on. And then there was me, the girl who bakes granola, intimidated.

Traversing and skiing 20 miles with a crew you grow to love along the way is the side effect of adventuring I most prize. Journeying to remote zones is one of the only remaining ways I've found to disconnect from the tech world and connect with people. The combination of exhaustion, vulnerability, and discomfort strips away life’s insignificances. More is gained and learned from a ten plus hour day in the backcountry, when you don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or vomit, than a week of dinners with new friends, phones tabletop. In the wild, it's commonplace to pee next to someone you just met, an elsewhere-unattainable level of closeness. "Sorry, I got a little pee on your boot." This doesn’t happen in a restaurant. 

Clare was prepping to race in the Grand Traverse, a two-person-team backcountry ski race that, weather and conditions permitting, begins at midnight in Crested Butte and ends 40 miles and 7,800 vertical feet later in Aspen. The thought of touring, booting, and skiing for that duration through the night disgusted me. Naturally, when spots opened up less than three weeks before the race, Thomas and I registered. A version of off-the-couch traversing ensued.

My confidence lay in the fact that Thomas was my partner. With one GT finish under his belt, he knew the deal. Our food game was tried and tested; I had us dialed. If a storm rolled in calling for an emergency bivvy, at least we'd be rescued full. Muscles torn... at least we wouldn't bonk. I spent the week leading up obsessively checking the weather in Crested Butte and Aspen. A one-day window of clear skies fluctuated. But the Mountain Gods answered and the forecast was perfect.

On race day after gear check, we readied our packs ensuring both weighed the same, and laid out sufficient food to fuel us 200 calories/hour over an estimated 12 hours. Most of this we'd carry on our bodies for accessible on-the-go fueling and so it wouldn't freeze. With 10:30pm came beacon check and GPS pick-up. Go time. Racers made their way to the base of Crested Butte, the top of the resort illuminated on the stark, pointed peak. It was a sea of headlamps in the mild weathered midnight. With a Reverend's well wishes, we were off to Aspen.

Thomas carabineered us together in a bungee rope tow system, dragging me around the masses in a slanted skin, like I was his loyal Lab. At around 1:30am I contemplated why in the world I was doing this, attempting to distract myself by gazing at the stars. Spoiler alert, stargazing while headlamp clad is resoundingly underwhelming. While our plan was to eat every hour, this proved unappetizing. Before 4am I’d only succeeded at sucking on Sour Patch Kids and gummy worms, and sipping my Skratch Labs Oranges Sport Hydration Mix. When adventuring, I unfailingly fill my water with Skratch. It is the perfect sweetness and gives me an extra boost when the thought of chewing food is nauseating.

The bulletproof climb up Star Pass, roughly less than the halfway point, was a test in not throwing up and not crying. My hip flexors radiated sharp pain with every step, and I cried the whole time. But as we reached the top, the slivered moon poked out just above a peak as the sun rose to meet it. The clear sky was streaked in pink, orange, yellow, and blue. I thought, "Now this is why I do this." The route decongested and happiness came in a flood despite Aspen dangling before us like a ruse. Thomas dealt with my yells and cries by healthfully dosing himself with Colorado gummies. The chill to my not-so-much.

We finished in 13 hours and 26 minutes, coming in 7th in our age group. Thanks to Thomas who dragged me the last seven miles like a champion speed walker. As we crossed the line, the Dynafit team sprayed Thomas in beer while we hugged. I laughed, thanked the Mountain Gods it was over, and hobbled over to a chair like a 200-year-old woman wearing a diaper. Things could be much worse, but I will never do that again.

Throughout the GT I ruminated on how bizarre it is that 400 some people submit themselves to an all night and day suffer-fest in order to reach Aspen. In fact, we all paid $200 to do so. In the days of hunter-gatherers, the men may have traveled these distances to chase down food and ensure survival. Not for fun. I'm sure you've run a marathon, swore you'd never do it again, and then registered just weeks later to run another. Humans were made to move and suffer. Once you experience that addictive great hurt that is our roots, it's impossible to avoid return. So who knows, never say never.  

About Caroline Markowitz
Caroline lives in Denver and is pursuing a career in sports nutrition. She founded a granola company in Jackson Hole called Born to Crunch. Follow her adventures on Instagram @carolinefrieda

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