Thursday, March 13, 2014

Power of Four Skimo Race Report 2014

"Put on every layer you have you're going to need it" yelled the ski patroller over the roaring wind and snow as I made my way past him. We had just made the decision to go up the ridge to Highland Peak at 12,392' rather than take the detour option and dropping into the bowl 1,000' lower. My fingers were balled up into fists inside my wet gloves and I had already pulled my buff up over my nose for some extra protection. The extra layer I had brought for my core had already been put on about 10 minutes prior. This was getting serious. I looked back at Mark and he asked me if I was okay, "everything but my hands" I yelled over the 60+mph wind. "Just keep them close to your chest" he yelled back. I turned back to the ridge and looked up at the tiny black specks that the racers in front of us had become, intermittently dotting the way to the summit a mile away. Then I put my head down and started marching forward with my skis attached to my pack.

The Power of Four skimo race in Aspen Colorado travels up and down through the four Aspen ski resorts. The race is unique because it is a teams event meaning you must complete the 25 mile, 12'000' vertical gain course with a teammate. I had no plans to race it this year until my friend Mark Christopherson contacted me 8 days prior to the start and while I was little reluctant at first, I figured it would be a good challenge. There is no race bigger than this in the USA in terms of vertical gain.
Power of Four route from Snowmass to Aspen, download KML
One of the biggest storms of the season began in the early morning hours and was dumping heavy wet snow down low at Snowmass with several inches accumulating at the higher elevations. The 6am start was pushed back to 6:30 because of the weather and avalanche control work.  Eventually the nerves were put to rest and 50+ teams of two headed up the hill 2x2 for our first climb of 3,000'. We hit the top of Snowmass in about 70 mins, quickly transitioned to ski mode and started descending the out of bounds ridge toward Buttermilk. The ridge we were on required one more short ascent before we reached the top of Buttermilk. The descent was rather quick through the resort and before I knew it I was skating a slight uphill grade on a walking path to the next checkpoint.
Power of Four Profile
Everything was still going smooth at this point except the gloves I had started with were completely soaked through to the point that I could wring the water out of them. At the checkpoint aid station I pulled out my dry pair of gloves as Mark gave me 3 Clif Bloks that I promptly crammed in my mouth. At this point we were almost 9 miles in and we had covered 3,200' vert. The climb in front of us would be the monster of the day gaining 4,500' over 4 miles and also the steepest in terms of grade. The mild weather down low slowly gave way to cooler temps and increased wind the higher we climbed. As we neared the top of Aspen Highlands and past the top chairlifts the wind was at least a steady 40mph. Mark and I sought shelter in a small group of trees to get our extra layers on before attempting the Highland Bowl ridge. Leaving the shelter of the trees my core and feet were fine but my hands were completely frozen and felt dead.

Just as we were leaving the ski area boundary someone from the ski patrol told us we had the option of not climbing the ridge and instead taking a shortcut into the bowl. Had I been on my own and this was an individual race I would have taken the safer route but after I looked back at Mark I knew we would heading up that nasty looking ridge.

I passed the guy warning us about the conditions on the ridge with a singular focus to get up and get down quickly. My goggles were useless as they were frozen inside and out so I was forced to squint in order to find my way and I carried my poles sandwiched between my upper arm and chest. Soon I started passing a few people and it invigorated me to charge even faster. I quickly glanced back and  found I was leading a small group of 6 or 8 us. Then with about a half mile to go a gust of wind hit me so hard I fell to my knees. The wind was now a steady 60 mph and gusting past 70. My buff had been pushed down off my face and hung uselessly around my neck. The gust lasted for a good 15 or 20 seconds before I struggled to my feet and continued upward to the peak.Three more times I would get knocked down and in that instant everyone around me would disappear in the white out conditions. This felt like true mountaineering but I was poorly dressed for such endeavors and reminded myself, up, down, quickly.

What felt like an eternity probably took us around 30 minutes to reach Highland Peak. Once there I struggled to get my skis off my pack, unable to use my fingers. Now that I wasn't moving I was starting to get cold and I knew it was serious. With the skis finally on the ground I clipped into the first one and then pushed my toe into the binding of the second ski and it wouldn't clamp on to the boot. I tried several times in frustration until Mark came over to help me. Ice had become jammed in the toe piece and the binding wouldn't fully close We both started desperately jamming the tips of our poles at the toe for a few seconds before I tried it again. I held my breath and pushed my toe into the binding. SNAP. It worked. Within seconds we pushed off and started skiing 42 degree, powder filled bowl.

Had I been warmer and not concerned about my hands I would have enjoyed the fresh powder and face shots more but I really needed to get down in a hurry, so that's what we did. Back at the base we skinned up for a short flat section to the Congo trail. Mark got ahead of me slightly before I stepped right out of my ski, the toe piece was still giving me trouble and after several frustrating minutes I figured it out.

Next up was the infamous Congo trail which doubles as a mountain bike trail in the summer. Picture a bobsled track on a 25 to 30 degree slope with trees lining each side. Not exactly the descent I was looking forward to after 5 hours and 9k vert in the legs but I made it down pretty much unscathed.

At the bottom I quickly transitioned for the final climb of the day up Midnight Mine road. I had read about this climb and everyone said it was just demoralizing as hell. Well, they were right. It's not the fact that it gains 3,000', what makes it so terrible is that it is 5 miles long. I've never skinned such a low angle for so long. Mark finally broke out the tow bungee and I gladly snapped it on, happy to receive a little help so close to the end. After about an 1hr 45mins of climbing we had one long descent through the Aspen resort left. The groomer we started out on fooled me into thinking it might be easy, but that quickly changed as we followed the flags under the "Experts Only" sign. I did my best to hold it together and keep Mark in sight and after 20 mins of descending we crossed the line in 7hrs 40mins. Not quite the race we were hoping for but I was still satisfied with the effort.

Out of the 47 teams that completed the Highland Bowl route we finished 27th overall (Full Results). I want to thank Mark for his patience and support with helping me finish this adventure. Also, the skis he is responsible for developing, the Voile Wasatch Speed Projects, were absolutely amazing. If you're looking for a durable, lightweight ski that is affordable you should definitely check them out.
Next up, the Wasatch Powderkeg, then I should start thinking about running...


Andy said...

Good race. I was at the finish hanging out and waiting for friends. The tales that I heard about the conditions in Highlands Bowl... Wow. Glad I was not up there!

peter said...

My hands sympathetically ached as I read your report. Congrats to both you and Mark on finishing the whole thing intact. Mark is one tough guy if he was towing you at the end. By the way, are your fingers up for tying shoelaces for a run?