Aspen Winter Racing Takes Suffering To New Heights

Racers heading uphill on a snowy morning at Aspen Snowmass
Racers heading uphill on a snowy morning at Aspen Snowmass Jeremy Swanson
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While some athletic communities may take a break in the winter, Aspen’s event calendar is a lung-busting roster of popular snow-centric happenings. Downhill skiing is an easy win. But, whenever you get enough (generally meaning more than one) hard-charging, mountain-loving athletes in the same spot, talk inevitably turns to competition.

From events for adventurous weekend warriors to challenges worthy of former Olympians, this curated list of Aspen winter racing has opportunities for you to prove your mettle and have a blast, on skis, snowshoes, and running spikes.

1. Summit for Life, December 5, 2015

Racers at the start of the Summit for Life
Racers at the start of the Summit for Life Chris Klug Foundation

Jump into the season with the 10 th running of this race that goes straight up the front of Aspen Mountain. At night! Racers choose their own method of “non-motorized” transport to the top—climbing skis and running spikes are the fastest and most popular choices. Mandatory gear also includes a headlamp. The route follows a series of ski trails in reverse, beginning in town at the base of the Gondola, and ending at the Sun Deck, for more than 3,200 feet of climbing over two and a half miles. In addition to being a monster workout with a fun party—dinner, music, and raffle prizes happen at the Sun Deck—this is a fundraiser for the Chris Klug Foundation. Klug, an Aspen resident, is an Olympic Bronze Medalist and former professional snowboarder and a liver transplant recipient. He created his foundation to support awareness and education for organ and tissue donation, and serves as emcee for the evening.

2. Aspen Snowmass SkiMo Race Series, December 15, 2015, January 12, 2016, February 9, 2016

Think of these races as the snowy equivalent to a challenging trail 10K. Meant to take an hour to an hour and a half, each course includes at least one uphill and one downhill section. Routes may have mandatory boot packing sections, and consist of multiple loops or one lap around a course, depending what fun race organizers have in store. They are a great way to try out ski mountaineering and also dial in your equipment before graduating to a longer format event. The December race will take place on Aspen Mountain.

3. Mother of All Ascensions, February 9, 2016

Celebrate Mardi Gras with a quick trip up Snowmass to High Alpine Restaurant. This long-running, low-key event has a legendary prize give-away, with post-race breakfast (often hot beignets!) available for purchase at High Alpine. Organizers run a snow cat up to the finish as well, to carry drop bags and even skis for those who want to make some turns on the way down. According to local legend, the grand name stems from the fact that the original route was to go all the way to the top of Snowmass. But bad weather the first year necessitated a shortened course, albeit one that still has more than 2,000 feet of climbing, and that’s how it stayed. Racers are allowed to get to the finish on foot, skis or snowshoes, and awards are given for fastest times, best costume, finishing in general—and whatever else sounds fun on race day.

4. Owl Creek Chase, February 14, 2016

The flattest race of the bunch (which really isn’t saying much!) has been happening for 30 years, and entails 13.1 miles of Nordic skiing from the Snowmass Nordic Center and then to and across Buttermilk, eventually finishing in the fields at the Aspen Valley Ski Club. Plenty of climbing, great views, fast downhills, and enjoyable flat sections make this an attainable, yet still challenging goal race for the winter, as well as a fun outing at a slower pace. It’s also the largest cross-country race in the state and is part of the Aspen Nordic Festival, which includes races for high school teams and kids.

5. Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race, February 27, 2016

Racers heading uphill on a snowy morning at Aspen Snowmass
Racers heading uphill on a snowy morning at Aspen Snowmass Jeremy Swanson

Why limit yourself to exploring just one of Aspen’s four mountains when you can ski up and down all of them. This burly event begins in Snowmass with racers covering 24 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing as they make their way up and down Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, and Aspen Mountain before finishing at the base of the Gondola.

A somewhat more manageable recreational division begins at the base of Aspen Highlands for a “power of two” event. Racers for both distances participate in teams of two, are tracked via GPS, and must use AT or Telemark gear, as well as carry a beacon, probe, and shovel. This race draws a mix of elite and professional athletes, hardcore locals and those looking to try something new.Ski mountaineering is a unique sport in that it combines a balance of cardio, endurance, safety, unique gear and skiing skill. Which means some dedicated training and practicing with your gear will go a long way toward making the experience more enjoyable.

6. America’s Uphill, March 2016

In case the idea of racing up Aspen mountain in the dark gives you pause, American’s Uphill offers the same challenging course, but in the daylight. Plus, after you make it to the top, you can enjoy some hard-earned, spring skiing turns back to the base. Two and a half miles, 3,000+ feet of climbing and a finish line at 11,212 feet (with 360-degree views of the valley) definitely makes for an adrenaline pumping start to the day! Uphill skis and running spikes are usually the fastest way to the top, but snowshoes, running shoes, Nordic skis, alpine boards, and Telemark skies are all allowed on the course.

7. Gore-Tex Grand Traverse, March 25-26, 2016

Most of the Grand Traverse happens above the treeline
Most of the Grand Traverse happens above the treeline Andrew Arell

In case you’ve always wanted to tour the Elk Mountains on skis, this 40-mile race from Crested Butte to Aspen is your chance. For an added element of adventure, and to cross over snowy steeps when they are at their coldest, the race begins at midnight in downtown Crested Butte and finishes at the base of the Gondola in Aspen, some seven to 16 hours later depending upon your team of two. There are mandatory checkpoints, but the backcountry route is unmarked for the most part, making navigation and self-sufficiency critical. The final location for checkpoints is determined the day of the race based upon weather and snowpack conditions. Given that this is a point-to-point race through the wilderness—with several high-mountain pass crossings and more than 7,800 feet of gain on the standard route—dropping out means turning around and heading back to Crested Butte or pushing through to the finish.

8. Sun Dog’s K9 Uphill, April 2016

Runners and canines charge to the top of Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain in Sun Dog's K9 Uphill
Runners and canines charge to the top of Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain in Sun Dog's K9 Uphill Erik Skarvan

Now that Buttermilk has gotten serious about its “no dogs” policy, Sun Dog’s K9 Uphill is a chance for pooches, and their people, to play in the snow. This year marks the 21 st running of the event, which takes place after Buttermilk is closed for the season. The Uphill route climbs more than 2,000 feet over two miles with the finish near the Cliffhouse, and any self-propelled mode of transportation is fine. Some dog/human teams even try skijoring, where a dog pulls their ski-clad human. But that’s only half the day. After the climb, and enjoying treats for both people and canines, participants make their way back to the base for a Hot Dog BBQ, music and raffle. Humans are certainly welcome to participate without dogs, but there are also “demo dogs” on hand from the local shelter in case you want a partner. All dogs must be on a leash, and the event benefits local animal shelters.

 

 

 

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