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Elk Mountain Grand Traverse: Insider's Gear Guide 2021

The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse

The Grand Traverse is an event that highlights the artistry of skimo racing better than any other event in the country. Teams are tasked with traversing through the expansive Elk Mountains of Colorado - leaving Crested Butte at the strike of midnight and hoping to arrive in Aspen the same day...ideally before happy hour ends. Most skimo races exist within the confines of ski resorts for facility and safety. The Grand Traverse however channels the true spirit of ski mountaineering by traveling 40 miles across the heart of the Colorado Rockies backcountry.

How do you prepare for such a challenge? This post will act as a Grand Traverse Gear Guide to help you get situated with the right gear for the mission. Our recommendations are prefect for someone who hopes to race the GT, but also those who would like to build a tool kit for longer and farther backcountry adventures.

Elk Mountain Grand Traverse
Gear Guide

Get dialed for North America's premier ski mountaineering race
We'll go item by item through the official Grand Traverse packing list and give you recommendations on the best gear for the race. Every gram counts for 40 miles of backcountry travel, so these choices will be the ultralight options for the particular mission. You can always choose gear that weighs more to either save money or improve downhill performance.

Skiing System

Skis – Race skis are tools, not toys. They leave something to be desired on the downhill, but feel like a pair of winter running shoes for the way up. The Dynafit DNA is the premier race ski on the market right now. Redesigned for 2021, this will feel like a rocketship on the bottom of your feet at a scant 690 grams. A more robust race ski option is the Dynafit Mezzalama. It clocks in 100 grams heavier than the DNA, but has a full length sidewall for added durability and dampening.

Boots – The most important characteristic of a race boot is comfort. Skimo racing promotes a style of touring that we don't typically experience during a normal day out in the backcountry: we're moving at a faster pace, skiing a smaller and more unwieldy ski, and sweating a lot more. It's crucial to try on race boots in person to see what fits your foot best. Affordable race boot options are the Dynafit PDG 2 or the Scarpa Alien. If you are interested in a carbon fiber race boot masterpiece or want a chance at the podium, check out the Dynafit DNA. It's a fully carbon boot handmade by French brand Pierre Gignoux.

Bindings – Race bindings are simply, easy-to-use pieces of equipment that have the opportunity to last you years/decades/a lifetime (?). Ensure you have an adequate flat mode for the GT or suffer the consequences of ski touring with a pair of high heels for the long flat sections of this race. We like the Dynafit Superlite 150 for a robust binding option that has a good flat mode. The BD Helio 110 is slightly lighter but still robust binding that still has a flat mode.

Note: The use of a ski retention system (leashes) is mandatory on Aspen Mountain. Each racer’s ski retention system will be checked at the top of Aspen Mountain before racers are allowed to enter the ski area and descend to the finish. Ski retention systems can be in the form of leashes (what we recommend) or ski brakes (avoid these for the added weight and bulk).

I left this quote in because I never attached my leashes to go down Ajax. Somehow after skiing race gear without leashes hundreds of times before without incident, my ski blew off, shot into the woods, and was never seen again. Trust me skiing down Ajax on one ski is a shitty way to finish a 10 hour effort and an expensive mistake.

Poles – Your backcountry adjustable poles will do fine for this. If you have the opportunity, find a longer than average pole, think your backcountry pole length plus ~20%. When striding uphill and especially on flats, a longer pole promotes a kick-and-glide stride that will save you a lot of energy in the long run. Channel your inner Nordic Classic technique with this style of touring in mind. The Dynafit PDG pole is the perfect pole for this style of uphill touring

Climbing Skins – 4 Pairs of skins per team is necessary and more skins provide more security. The insider beta is to get two pairs of different skins:
- One pair of full length/full width skins with a tail clip that climb well. These will be great for the steep climb up Star Pass.
- One pair of 3/4 length skins that run slightly more narrow. These will help with lower angle climbs and provided added glide for the kick-and-glide touring on the flats.
Pomoca Race 2.0's are the best skins you can get for both applications. Just purchase the thicker and thinner widths. Or you can buy it by the roll and make your own climbing skins.

Tow Systems- If you are a team where you know one partner is much stronger than the other, you are going to want to tow. This is an effective system to help keep the team together. Be careful with energy depletion with this method, and practice it before during some training laps. I really recommend using the Camp Alp Racing Harness for both the tower and the towie. I have towed and been towed in this race and it will ruin your day if you don't have a harness. Also consider a bungee tow line, like the one that comes with the Camp Rapid Race Pack.

Clothing System

Helmet -Look for a CE 1077 (alpine skiing) certified helmet. The lighest one on the market is the Grivel Duetto, but it also makes you look like a dome-enclosed telescope. The Salomon MTN is a lightweight ski helmet that works for racing and ski touring alike.

Eye & Skin Protection - You need ski goggles, sun glasses and ski protection (sunscreen) for the Grand Traverse. A pair of low light or clear lens glasses are crucial for this race since the race starts at the spry hour of midnight. We recommend the Julbo Aerospeed sunnies that are photochromic, transitioning from CAT 0-3. The Julbo Airflux goggles are the best goggle for racing and/or backcountry skiing because they have the ability to snap off the frame to provide max flow. They breath so well you can even wear them while touring, say if in a whiteout (not ideal).

Face Protection - A buff, neck gaiter or balaclava is required for the GT. If we're counting grams (which we are), get yourself a buff.

Base Layer (top and bottom) - Race suits are the ideal base layer for this category. They are designed for skimo racing and moving at a fast, aerobic pace in the mountains. They have specific pockets for a avalanche transceiver, skins next to your stomach to keep warm, and the crucial snack pocket on your chest. Storing snacks in the race suit pockets is important because otherwise you'll be trying to choke down frozen food at 2:00 AM (speaking from experience). A two piece race suit is a more flexible layer system and helps facilitate going to the bathroom. The Dyanfit Mezzalama Race Top and Bottoms are our favorite.

Emergency Insulation Layers - This is an important and often overlooked item on the GT gear list. Moving at an aerobic pace produces a lot of heat/energy. But a single gear malfunction, health concern, or emergency stop will dramatically drop your temperature. The insulation tops and bottoms called for on the packing list are a crucial part of this race's necessary gear for that reason. We recommend a lightweight synthetic jacket and like the Dynafit Mezzalama Polartec Alpha Tops and Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Pants are great lightweight insulation choices. Be warned however that these pieces run on the cold side of insulating layers.

Wind Shell - The Camp Anorak Wind Jacket and Pants are the lightest option for this gear list item. I've come to enjoy touring in this style of jacket as well. It's superlight, soft over a base layer, and just enough to cut wind, cold, and slight precip. However, it's definitely not durable.

Socks - Socks matter more than you would think. Preventing blisters, swollen feet, and general foot fatigue is a huge challenge for races this long. The Dissent Compression Socks do a remarkable job in making my feet happy no matter the length of the tour. Bring an extra pair of ankle socks (because you need extra socks according to the packing list) if you want to save a few grams (you do).

Gloves & Warm Hat - You need two pairs of glove and a warm hat. The Camp Tempest Mitts are a great 'My hands feel like ice blocks' pair of backup mittens. I've even put these on my feet when they were in a desperately cold situation (hopefully it doesn't get to that for you).

Pack - A pack in the 25-30 liter category is ideal for the Grand Traverse because of the backcountry-specific gear list. Normal randonee race packs are just too small. The Dynafit Blacklight 30 is an awesome purpose built, lightweight pack for this category. It will also be a phenomenal touring pack for the rest of the season.

Other Equipment

Avalanche Rescue System

Transceiver - Any three-antenna transceiver works here. Transceivers must be worn on the body throughout the duration of the race. The Pieps Micro is the smallest transceiver that still has full functionality.

Shovel & Probe - If you want the absolute lightest option here, look to the CAMP Crest Shovel and Carbon 240 Probe. These are great options if you want to do a lot of skimo races. If you want to get a transceiver, shovel and probe for all of your backcountry travel, consider a kit that has the three items sold together for a better price.

Miscellaneous Equipment

Food and Water - This is a big category to expand on. Our recommendations here at CCBC is practice your food and water. Learn how much water you need when you're moving at a fast pace. Learn how to not freeze water during cold tours. Learn what food works with your body while moving fast. Learn how to keep it warm. Learn what food doesn't work for your body. All of this is so personalized that I just want to address what questions you should answer rather than what food you should bring. GT says you need at least 100oz/3L of water and 24 hours worth of food.

Headlamp - Get the brightest headlamp you can find to facilitate route finding. The Petzl NAO+ is a great option that's bright and has a rechargeable, long-lasting battery life.
Sleeping Pad - GT says this item must be a minimum 20” x 45” x 1/2” with a minimum R-value of 2. The sleeping pad can either be a close cell foam like a Thermarest Z-Rest (which is light, but bulky) or an inflatable pad like the Camp Essentials Mat.

Team Gear System

This team gear is important to bring, and a unique gear list specific to the Grand Traverse. It's a reminder that this race travels through remote and wild terrain. Everyone needs to be prepared for the worst case scenario. Compiling this gear list is also a great way to gather a dialed backcountry touring kit for emergency use and care when out for a day of touring. We appreciate the race directors keeping the roots true with needing a comprehensive backcountry touring kit.

Shelter - The Brooks Range UltraLite Alpini Shelter feels like cheating at only 230 grams. Unfortunately, the company went out of business and these are no longer produced. If you can find one congrats. If not, check out the Black Diamond Mega Light flourless, 4-season ultralight tent. Whatever your shelter might be, it needs to allow two people to sit upright together, permitting the team to use their stove inside the shelter.

Course Map – A waterproof map sufficient for navigation is required. This is the one GT recommend. Laminated paper copies are unfortunately not allowed.

Compass – No electronic compasses allowed

Altimeter – Cell phone applications are permitted with an external battery supply for phone.

Stove – Commercial quality stove must be capable of melting snow in sub zero temperatures. Pressurized fuel stoves are the best system and solid fuel stoves (Esbit) are not allowed. We recommend an alcohol stove like the White Box stove. Super light.

Fuel & Igniter - You need a full fuel container with matches or a lighter. If you get an alcohol stove, The fuel used for this stove is denatured or methyl alcohol. We recommend HEET in the yellow bottle that you can get at almost any gas station. Propane (isobutene mix) is the recommended fuel as butane is not an appropriate
fuel at below-freezing temperatures. That's if you go with a MSR Pocket Rocket or Jetboil style of stove.

Pot with Lid – Minimum capacity 20 oz.

Repair Kit – This is the minimum required for the GT: Spare pole basket, Multi-tool must include knife, pliers & screwdriver), 3’ of duct tape, 3’ of bailing wire, 3’ of 2mm cord, 1 spare headlamp, 1 set of spare batteries for headlamps

First Aid Kit – This is the minimum required for the GT: 4 large safety pins & triangular bandage, 3’ of 3” wide self-adherent wrap, band-aids, 2 - 4” x 4” gauze pads, Surgical ABD (or some means to manage heavy bleeding), racer’s personal prescription meds, over-the-counter pain meds (optional)

Blister Kit – This is the minimum required for the GT: Moleskin/ second skin/ chosen blister treatment, alcohol swabs, 3’ of athletic tape

Good Luck

Get this gear list compiled and practice touring with all of the kit. There is nothing like watching the sun rise while miles into the wilderness. Most likely you're sweaty and tired and a bit scared (I sure would be). But those are the rich moments you won't forget. See you in Crested Butte once the clock strikes midnight!