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A Star Pass Point of View

Copyright 2000 by Susan Purvis All rights reserved No part of this article may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of Susan Purvis

"At midnight, for a brief moment on the radio, all I heard was the cheering and the gun going off as the racers left the starting line in the dark."

In the predawn hours of Saturday morning, April 4th, 1998 four safety personnel and an avalanche search dog set out from the Friends Hut to climb Star Pass. We were a support team for the first ever Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, a forty mile back-country ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, Colorado. The Friends Hut, located at 11,300 feet, is a backcountry ski cabin located one third of the way between the two mountain towns. This was our home for the next several days. The Star Pass section of the Elk Mountain Traverse crosses through highly exposed avalanche paths and is considered the most dangerous and remote portion of the course. Once the racers are beyond this territory, they still have to ski twenty plus more miles to the finish line. In this extreme endurance race, this is the point where the weak part from the strong.

It would take us about one hour to reach the 12,300 ft. summit. The night was dark, windy and cold, yet full of anticipation of the 96 competitors about to ski through our perch on their way to Aspen. The responsibility of each team of two is to ski together and carry enough survival gear to support themselves for twenty-four hours. Our job on Star Pass was three fold: to ensure a safe passage off Star Pass into Taylor Basin and over to Taylor Pass; to check the mental status of every racer; and secure an 8:30 am turn around time. Those racers not meeting the 8:30 am deadline or who had altered mental status at Star Pass would not be allowed to continue the race.

The crew stationed on Star Pass included three avalanche forecasters/route leaders, and myself, who was medical leader/dog handler and my little black lab Tasha. Setting the pace for our 1,000-foot climb to the top was Scott Swift, a young and energetic backcountry skier. His headlamp lit up the white, windswept mountain as he rapidly climbed to the ridgeline. Steadily following behind was Dan Ewert, a calm and quiet man and the chief avalanche forecaster for the race with over 20 years of experience. Dan has made similar decisions to open avalanche terrain to the public throughout his career as snow safety director for the local ski area. This morning he had only one thing on his mind and that was to ensure the safety of all the race participants and volunteers. I followed Dan without saying a word. The cold air pierced my throat and within 10 minutes, I was overheated and out of breathe. My dogís red blinking light on her collar marked her position in the dark night as she ran between the lead man and me. This was her first big job as a certified search dog and she knew it. Picking up the rear and yodeling as he climbed was Chris Myall, a burly mountain man-looking guy with rosy red cheeks and a smile to win any girlís heart. Chris was the second half of the avalanche team. He had spent many days traveling to Friends Hut and back this winter. His job as we climbed was to place glow sticks along the dark mountain course to light the way for the oncoming competitors.

The day before the race the avalanche team spent the day evaluating the snowpack, observing adjacent avalanche terrain, and setting the course towards Aspen. They felt good about the conditions they found. The snow was stable, temperatures remained constant, and the Star Pass cornice, created by eight feet of windblown snow, had an opening through it that would allow the skiers to pass.

After listening to the final weather report at five o'clock Friday afternoon, Dan radioed to Jan Runge, Chief of Race, that the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse was on! The atmosphere inside the Friends Hut was warm, steamy, and full of excitement and anticipation. Volunteers and race organizers had been planning and waiting for this moment for several months. This was it! No one really knew how long it would take the first racers to reach the Friends Hut from the starting line. The faster men were expected to arrive in four hours but the actual arrival time was unknown. The thirteen mile ski trip to the Friends Hut took me took eight hours complete with blistered feet and a heavy pack full of support equipment, dog food, and survival gear.

At midnight, for a brief moment on the radio, as we all lay in silence in our sleeping bags, I heard all the cheering and the gun go off as the racers left the starting line. As I lay on the bunk, I envisioned the racers skiing the course in the dark. How would they negotiate the dreaded Deadmanís pass? This part of the course is a steep hillside with a narrow trail cut into it and in some places narrows to only 20 inches across. When I skied through several days before, I took my skis off and didnít dare look down to the river 100 feet below me. I slept restlessly from then on.

A few hours after the start of the race, an additional volunteer staff of 10 woke up to prepare food and hot drinks for the racers. Over 100 burritos were rolled, stuffed with eggs, cheese, beans and rice. The medical crew was monitoring the radio and gathering oxygen bottles and blankets to bring to the aid tent in the event someone got hurt or could not go on.

The forerunner for the race entered the Friends Hut just as I was leaving for Star Pass. He left Crested Butte at 8:00 p.m. and the time was now 3:00 am. He spent a lot of time placing glow sticks along the lower portion of the course for the competitors. He had frost on his mustache, beard and eyebrows.

As I stopped to catch my breath during the climb, I looked down into East Brush Creek and saw two headlights quickly moving up the track. The racers were making their way to the Friends Hut. It was 3:35 am and no one expected such an early arrival. The lights moved in and out of the timber as we continued our ascent. When we crested the ridgeline, we could see more lights further down the valley. Those lights were several miles behind the leaders. It was so odd to see headlights flashing up the drainage in the middle of the night. It reminded me of seeing car lights on the highway from inside an airplane.

The ridgeline to Star Pass is narrow. It drops over 800 feet into empty space in both directions. The ski tracks from the day before had vanished. The wind on the ridge exceeded 30 miles per hour and the night grew colder. We all stopped to put on more clothing. Just before we reached our four-man tent outpost, I looked back and saw the headlights of the two racers on the ridge. They had almost caught us. It was time to jump into the tent, put more clothes on and brave the elements until the last of the racers passed. By the time I got out of the tent with five layers of clothing on, the first team had reached us. Two men from Aspen in Lycra, cross country- racing gear and small backpacks with frozen camelbacks gave us a quick hello and asked which way to go. Chris Myall pointed to the flashing strobe light attached to a single ski staked in the snow and said, "Drop in right below the cornice, stay left and high". In an instant, the two skiers leapt over the edge and vanished into the dark night. The second team was not far behind. They too were in Lycra and cross country- racing gear. They inquired how much further ahead the first team was and skied over the edge, vanishing into the night. Thirty minutes later, the first Crested Butte team came through. Their main concern was how far behind the first place team they were. I told them they were about 40 minutes behind. There was no time to chit chat and over the edge they went. It was still dark but dawn was coming fast.

The sunrise was spectacular. The ridge was lit up behind us and we could see the racers climbing the ridge. They appeared small and moved slowly from our vista. Some teams skied together and others waited for their partner at our checkpoint. Once they reached the pass though they didnít wait long. The biting wind still raged at 30 plus miles per hour. One racer showed up without his gloves or hat on. As he skied off the cornice, he shoved his bare fist into the snow. His partner told us that he has been skiing eight years without his gloves on. One team came through in costume. A handful of ladies passed by. They were all strong and smiling. By the 8:30 am cut-off time, 38 teams had passed through Starr Pass receiving no assistance from our crew. The winners skied across the finish line before the fans arrived and the ski area opened. Only one skier sat down in our tent to catch his breath and he skied the course in 16.5 hours.

It was truly an incredible group of athletes skiing across a spectacular landscape in Colorado that early April morning. Abruptly, our moment of excitement was over. We sat up on the ridge in silence listening to the howling wind.

Editors Note: *Last year, Tasha and I departed Star Pass for aspen as the official sweepers of the race. Tasha did quite well moving across freshly broken single snow covered ski tracks for 6 miles. She did not develop snow balls on her pads and I kept her well hydrated. The sun was intense along the route from 9am until noon. We traveled approximately 20 miles and over two mountain passes in two day.


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