Friends, the Audi Power of Four ski mountaineering race happened this past Saturday — and it went even better than I hoped it would. My partner, Eric Henderson, and I clocked a time of 7:46:10, shaving almost one and a half hours off my 2015 time of 9:14:53.
Here’s how the grueling 10,000 feet of ascending over 24 miles went down.
After a 4:00 a.m. breakfast of scrambled eggs and rice, Hende and I picked up our GPS tracking units and went through the gear-check station at Snowmass’s Base Village. The temperature was a bitterly cold 1 degree when the gun went off. We started skinning slowly, as planned, watching panic-stricken racers hustle off with the throng, knowing we’d soon be reeling a few of those guys back in.
Our engines warmed gradually during the three-mile climb up Snowmass (see my GPS data and map here), and we fell in stride with the other Old GOAT teams (that is, teams with a combined age of 80 and above). Hende and I joked and gossiped as I settled into easy breaths, then we ate our first fuel about 40 minutes in, an energy gel and a couple of date-nut balls, and I started to get the feeling it was going to be a good day. Then, in an instant, it wasn’t.
At the first transition I ripped skins and pushed into the descent — but my skis wouldn’t move. I had put skins on my skis while the skis were warm and kept them warm inside the lodge until just before the start. When I began skinning, snow crept under the sides of my skins, melted and refroze. Now, the ice was like Velcro in the soft powder that had fallen hours earlier.
I burned valuable energy double-poling downhill when I should’ve been hauling ass, and racers I’d passed earlier sped by me. I sought out scratchy patches in order to scrape the ice off and move faster. I felt panicky — I’d scuttled my race with a small-but-consequential oversight. Gradually, though, the skis began to glide and we made up time. Through the up-and-down backcountry terrain between Snowmass and Buttermilk, we caught and passed the other Old GOATS (notably, Chris and Nick, editors from a little-known outdoors pamphlet based in Sante Fe), and when we got to the first big descent, down Buttermilk, we did what we do best: point ’em downhill.
We carried speed from that descent across the snow-covered bridge over Maroon Creek, attached skis to packs, and jogged up Maroon Creek Road to the base of Aspen Highlands. By now our hands, faces, and cores had warmed, and we ate more gels and balls to fuel us for the 4,300-foot climb up to 12,392-foot Highland Peak. The final 700 feet to the summit is a mandatory skis-on-pack hike, and also an exercise in patience, as you’ve got to tactfully and politely pass members of the skiing public, out enjoying a leisurely upward stroll.
Highland Bowl is Colorado’s steepest, longest, and most exciting inbounds terrain, and on Saturday it had been blessed with 10 inches of fresh powder. Our skinny, short, light race boards weren’t the ideal powder tools, but the swooping descent was thrilling. After a short skin up a cat track out of the bottom of the Bowl, we entered the most terrifying part of the course — the Conga Trail, a tight, steep mountain-bike route.
Controlling downhill speed and not hitting trees and other racers are the trickiest parts here, but I managed with only two falls — a record for me on my three Conga race descents in the last five years. Hende was using the brand new Salomon X-Alp ski that handled terrain challenges admirably, and it was fun to watch him joyously railslide his way down the choppy forest trail.
Sixteen miles into the race, the Conga dumped us onto the bottom of the infamous Midnight Mines Road, the mentally and physically crushing final climb of the race, where our friend Ian Anderson always sets up his legendary unofficial aid station, stocked with potato chips, whiskey, and various sundries. After an obligatory shot and a kiss from my wife we were off, pushing into a brutal five-mile climb up the back of Aspen Mountain.
Midnight Mines Road is particularly hard because you catch a whiff of the barn, and going too hard here can send you into a spiral of depression induced by dehydration and caloric deficit. But Hende and I kept making conversation with adjacent racers and slamming ski-mo champ Sari Anderson’s famous date-nut balls, and eventually gained the summit and final transition at the top of the Aspen Gondola. (By the way, Sari won the women’s race division in an astounding 6:35:24.)
As I mentioned in last week’s post, all you want at this point is to send a smooth groomer to finish, but the course winds through precipitous off-piste terrain that incinerates any leg juice you might have left. And where Bingo Glade’s crunchy steeps empty onto the final stretch of groomed trail to the finish, I caught an edge and dove out-of-control over my tips, slamming my left shoulder and head — helmeted, thankfully — into the hard-packed snow, knocking the wind out of me.
Adrenaline took over and I leapt up, knowing that the finish line was a fraction of a mile and a few hundred vertical feet downhill. I followed Hende, who kept looking back at me with concern, and we pushed to the finish, elated to be finally done. The finish did not come without reward. For winning the Old GOAT division, we were given silver goat-head belt buckles. Overall, we ended up 22nd out of 54 men’s teams (check out the results here).
The takeaway? Training works. We followed the six-week fitness program from The Alpine Training Center to the tee and emerged with the fitness needed to meet the race’s challenges. I regretted brashly stating at the outset of our training that our goal was eight hours. But somehow — and I’m fairly certain it was tackling Coach Connie’s well-designed program with a decent aerobic base, and being blessed with our families’ patience — we raced strongly, happily, and crushed our eight-hour goal.
The icing came on Sunday. I skied Aspen Highlands with my kids, banging out two Bowl laps, and plowed through a taco feed with some old friends before hitting the road back home. Tune in next week for my final post in this series, where I’ll cover our favorite ski-mountaineering gear, and tell you how to get started in this exciting sport.