Elk Mountain Grand Traverse Race Tips

By Mike Kloser, Founder of OutThereUSA, 5 Time Elk Mountain Grand Traverse Champion

The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse is an extraordinary 40-mile backcountry ski race between the towns of Crested Butte and Aspen, Colorado. Starting at midnight from Crested Butte — often in sub-zero temperatures — racers traverse Colorado’s spectacular Elk Mountains.

Okay, it’s been a couple years since I raced the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse (GT as the locals call it), and even longer since I originally wrote these tips. So I’ve updated the content below, if you have a few minutes, give it a read.

Some of this obvious or maybe even a bit crazy, but I bet you will find something useful from all this. Here’s a few tips and a bit of advice that I’ve written based on over a decade of racing in this crazy but intriguing race though some of Colorado’s amazing backcountry. As I have made a habit of doing in life with advice I’ve been given, take the bits you find of use, make a mental or written note and apply as appropriate.


How do you pick your teammate and what factors would you use when considering a good one?

I try to find someone compatible to my skill level with the same or at least similar goal. You need to be able to communicate well, even when the weather, conditions or circumstances deteriorate (these are probably the most critical times when communication is of the utmost). Be as prepared as possible leading up to the race, including your training, looking after your health, and gear etc. Be a supportive team player especially when the going gets tough. You would want the same of your teammate if you found you were the one in need. Trust me on this last one, I’ve been on both ends of the tow line and I’d rather be on the pointy end.

People have suggested having a tow line to hook a teammate up to during the race. Is this something you would use?

Yes is the short answer. I’ve never raced this race with out one and I don’t think of the 10 plus times I’ve raced this that we haven’t used it. Tow lines are simply a thin 1/8” or so bungee cord attached to your teammate’s pack with a carabineer, this line is usually about 6’ to 8’ long, which will stretch out to roughly 10 to 12 feet when teammates are connected. Hook the biner to waist or chest strap of the towee. Make sure to disconnect before you go down any hills.

What are the benefits of having a tow line?

A tow line functions in a couple of ways. The obvious and primary reason is to assist the slower member when on the hills or flats to move faster, keeping both of you moving as fast and efficiently as possible. The other less obvious reason to use a tow line is to keep you together and this plays a huge factor in the moral of the slower team member who is usually suffering if dangling off the back untethered.

What type of skis would you recommend?

With the rapid evolution of backcountry gear, I recommend using a light weight Alpine Touring/Randonee ski and boot setup. The days of us racing on a set of classic racing skis with wax or skins to fit and skate skiing boots is pretty much over. The AT/Rando gear is so fast and light anymore and AT skis are so much better in the varying snow conditions that you will find out there.

How about skis with fish scales instead of kick wax able skis?

I would avoid fish scales at all cost, they are just not good enough for gripping on the steeper slopes and are very slow for gliding when needed and even worse if you attempt to skate with them, which we find we often are doing in the race.

What about metal edge back country skis and light weight back country boots?

These too are a thing of the past. Go with the lightweight AT/Rando setup, you’ll get much better stability and performance from them and with some good fast skins, you’ll climb and glide with the best.

Skin choice for the start of the race and throughout?

We used to start down on the Nordic trails in the Town of Crested Butte, but now with the race going up from the start of the race, put a good climbing pair on, but no need to have them be full length for this section. There are several sections throughout the race that are reasonably low angle or rolling terrain, save your fastest pair of skins for these sections, (these should be full Mohair and cut a bit shorter for maximum glide).

How many pair of skins do you recommend for our team?

Plan on bringing along two sets each and at least one extra set of skins for your team, maybe better to have an third pair each to be on the safe side.

How do you keep your skins from freezing up or not sticking to the skis throughout the race?

You will want to put the two primary sets of skins inside the front layer of clothing you have on (when not on your skis of course). This allows them to stay warm or dry out as needed. You will typically rotate these throughout the race. Your third back up pair can be kept inside your pack for emergencies.

What kind and length of poles do you use?

We use adjustable carbon fiber Leki Nordic poles (these have been awesome!) and we set them to a length between alpine and classic skiing. If the race turns out to have some long skate sections (like we experienced during one of the Reverse years), maybe set them a bit longer for these segments.

How about clothing, I know it can get very cold, especially at higher elevations?

Start the race with minimal breathable layers, you’ll be toasty within minutes of the start. Many of the top teams are racing in Rando Race Suits. Once you get to higher elevations if the temps drop, prepare to layer up. We usually put on a warmer hat, gloves and shell once we hit the Friends hut check point, as we will be heading above tree line at that point. Note, I hardly remember a year that it wasn’t blowing sideways and near sub zero temps on the way up Star Pass! There’s a minimum clothing list that’s required and that is usually sufficient. That said, throw on an extra base layer if really cold temps are in store.

How do you prevent frost bite, I hear it can be a big concern?

I’ve had my share of frost bite on this course! Bring along layers to cover your skin, especially your face. A Buff or something similar seems to work quite well, but if you have to deal with icing up, a balaclava of a couple of Buffs might be the call. I always put on a good layer of oil based skin cream on my face to prevent wind and sun burn.

What do you wear for gloves?

I get quite warm while racing, so like the hat I wear which is very thin, I start out with a thin pair of wind resistant gloves and layer up or change out with another heavier pair for the higher elevations as needed. A shell over mitten seems to work great for me as it retains more warmth for my fingers as a whole. Make sure your gloves aren’t too snug fitting, this can reduce circulation and not allow the warmth of your skin to circulate around your fingers.

How do you keep your feet warm?

I make sure my boots have sufficient space for circulation and wear a good pair of wool socks, nothing too thick to make the boots too tight fitting though. I have also used a couple pair of thin socks together as this can help reduce friction on the skin and potential blistering.

What about preventing blisters?

I rely on three things with this. One, make sure to test and break in your boots well prior to the race. Two, I use a healthy layer of SportSlick (SportSlick.com) on my feet, anywhere that I may likely blister. Three, as I mentioned, wear a good fitting pair or two of wool socks on your feet, I prefer DeFeet socks they are tried and true!

What do you eat out on course?

I make sure of two things when packing food for this race, one is food that is easy to eat and two, pack food that you know you will like the taste of 6 or 8 hours into the race. My favorites are, chocolate chip cookies or brownies, some sort of salty nuts, Honey Stinger Waffles, chews and gels are flavorful and fast energy. Lastly, I like to carry a couple of small plastic bottles of chocolate or vanilla milk type drinks. They are super easy to ingest, and good calories, of fat and protein.

What do you drink on the course?

I fill a good size bladder with Gu2o or similar electrolyte drink and hot water (it helps prevent freezing for a good while). I also bring along at least one water bottle filled with hot water that I keep in my pack in case my bladder hose freezes up (which happens all too often).

How do you keep your water or drinks from freezing?

As I mentioned I put hot liquids in my pack at the start, keep them insulated from the cold by putting them on the inside behind some insulated gear. To keep my hydration hose from freezing, I wrap the tube with some pipe insulation. There are a couple of other simple tricks to help keep the line and bite valve from freezing. First I set a timer on my watch for 10 to 15 minutes depending upon how cold it is out and when the alarm goes off, I suck the line till I get warm water (this clears the line of the cold water). Second, if it’s really cold and especially when it’s cold and windy, I’ll blow the line clear after each drink. Third, I’ll put the line and bite valve inside my outer layer to keep it warm with my body heat, this can also help to unfreeze a line if you let it get too cold.

How about heating snow into water on the course?

Well it’s required that we have an operable stove and a cooking pot to melt snow into drinking water should we get stranded in a storm and run out of water. Personally I find this a bit much, since in all the years that this race has been going on, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of anyone needing to do so. If it came down to it, I would more likely benefit from the heat the stove puts out in a snow cave, but hey, I’ve never got stranded out there yet either… Anyway, find a good light weight stove and aluminum or titanium pot, pack it away and hope you never have to use it in this race!

What kind of pack do you recommend?

There are a lot of great packs out there, but this one is a No-Brainer for me, I wouldn’t be caught racing without one of my OutThere packs. I spent a good number of years trying to find just the right pack for this. Finally after a half dozen years racing this race, I designed my own pack. Seriously, during my Adventure Racing days, I spent more than a decade helping design racing packs for the likes of North Face, Golite, Salomon and Nike. I took all the best features we came up with and designed what many claim to be the best racing pack they have ever used! Contact me, mike@outthereusa.com and I’ll get you set up with a racer discount on my packs.