Eating humble pie.
Eating humble pie. That about sums up yesterdays experience at the Power of Four ski mountaineering race. In short we were sent packing, chastised for believing that for just one day we, regular backcountry skiers, could attempt to hang, albeit grasping at their ski tails, in a world inhabited by super humans. It is a story of mere mortals whose dreams, but not bodies, slowly disintegrated into shells of their former selves. Fortunately this wretched carcass has enough energy to lift fingers to keyboard and provide an unabridged version of the sorry tale.
When Scott and I signed up for the race three weeks ago we knew, challenging as it might be, we could finish. Yes, it would seriously hurt, but both of us, while not fast, have big diesel engines. Endurance is our forte and barring any unforeseen circumstances we anticipated finishing the monstrous event covering 25 miles with 11,000 feet of elevation gain. I even talked about carrying a headlamp in case we would be finishing in the dark. That was until Scott pointed out that there was a cutoff time at the exit from Highlands, seven hours after the start. If we didn’t make that 2 p.m. checkpoint the game would be over. I left the headlamp at home.
Driving to the start, we ran the numbers again through our heads. A couple of hours up Snowmass, one to Buttermilk, quite a few more for climbing Highlands and skiing the bowl….. it was going to be really close…
In single digit temperatures we lined up at Snowmass’s base village. I hung at the back, head down, hoping no one would notice my heavy metal skis, four buckle boots, baggy pants and big pack amongst a sea of carbon fiber and lycra. Even so it was pretty cool to be able to stand side by side, for a fleeting moment, with members of the US National team. I admit to being a little star struck and google-eyed observing these avatar-like lungs-on-legs roaming around in their Stars and Stripes onesies.
At 7:15 a.m. we were off and the turbocharged gasoline engines quickly shot out in front. Our diesels began turning over, warming up as we steadily made our way up to the top of the Hanging Valley, exchanging pleasant chitchat with fellow racer Art Burrows who talked of a ‘nice walk in the woods’. Indeed, this was exactly our perspective on this race…..if it wasn’t for that looming cutoff.
Still, we were positive as we left the first transition point. The snow was quite soft in places dropping down Roberto’s and the Lower Ladder. I played at the edges looking for some fresh powder turns.
As we put the skins back on the suns warming rays finally reached us and we began to climb again, this time up to Snowmass's eastern summit.
Looking back at the Hanging Valley summit provides a view of the Lower Ladder we just skied:
Heading up Burnt Mountain:
From here we left Snowmass ski area and set off into the backcountry toward Buttermilk. At first I found more soft snow and sweet turns as we dropped onto the ridge trail. This was fun! What a great excuse for a Grand Day Out touring the mountains of the Aspen-Snowmass skiplex, I thought. Quickly, the traverse to Buttermilk became more challenging than I had anticipated. Fresh powder was a distant memory as mashed potatoes, rocks and snow snake twigs interspersed with undulating terrain in tight trees replaced powdery open faces and glades. The skins went back on and climbing resumed. Progress slowed further and our next climb up Aspen Highlands seemed a lifetime away.
At the top of Buttermilk we ripped the skins again and I stuffed a Snickers bar in the tank, barely stopping. We reached the aid station at the bottom of the ski area, sucked down some water and set off again. In my mind I had thought the base of Buttermilk was synonymous with that of Highlands. Not true. In fact there is a bridge to cross, flat fields to skate over and a paved road to hike between the two. Drat! We were going to be cutting it really close. Highlands is a 4,400 foot climb, the largest of the day and those diesel engines would need to go into overdrive.
I cranked up the IPod, gave my Leadville100 belt buckle a rub for good luck and stepped onto the escalator. On and on we went. Up and up we climbed, matching cadence with Deadmau5, Spoon, Fatboy Slim, Disco Biscuits, Citizen Cope, the XX’s and whatever other music shuffled through my ears. Sweat ran like a river as I hammered my way upwards.
But it wasn’t enough. At the top of Highlands we, along with several others, were flagged down by a ski patrolman. “Great job, you guys!” he said “but you’re not going to make the cutoff”. In my endorphin riddled brain I tried to run the numbers again…20 minutes down the bowl…another climb…. he was right. We were about 20 minutes short. Dammit, dammit, dammit. I was mad. I knew I had it in me to finish the race. My legs were still strong, I had paid careful attention to hydration and fuel throughout the day and I had all the gear with me I needed to get it done. I did not want to be shut down. I threw myself on the ground, appropriately close to the garbage can and the beer banner.
And then we turned, tails between our legs, in search of schnapps to anesthetize our disappointment.
With hindsight, and after several beers, I am proud of what we accomplished. We may have had to eat humble pie but three big slices was nothing to sniff at. In the end our Power of Two and Four-fifths was around 9,000 feet of climbing and well over 15 miles. According to this morning’s Aspen Times over half of the field failed to finish and I am guessing it’s because of that cutoff time.
It was a fantastic race, truly deserving of the oft over used word ‘epic’ and its organizers are to be commended. I hope it becomes an annual event. I would gladly sign up next year, as long as that cutoff time is extended by an hour, or we can start an hour earlier, so us mere mortals don’t get hung out to dry. Congrats of course to all those that finished, you're all beasts!!