The Blessing of the Freeheelers
Rev. Tim Clark
(finish time 12:03 -24 overall)
O creator of these soaring snow clad summits, we invoke
your protection of these beloved brethren in their tremendous
endeavor of courage and fortitude.
Blessed be thou great an glorious travelers of the night!
Blessed be thy race, and blessed be thy flight!
Bless ye two together as a team, bless thou thy boards,
thy poles, and headlight gleam!
Blessed be thou GU gobbling free heeled skinny skiers,
may thy kick be strong and thy glide be long!
Blessed be thou when the winds doth shriek, flinging
the spindrift from the peak!
Blessed be ye when the dark night shrouds, and the moon
doth hide behind the clouds!
Blessed you are and blessed youll remain, though
we come to worship the church of pain!
Now bless ye one another as we glide into the morn,
let the racers give voice, a great day is now born!
Amen April 7, 2000
A Star Pass Point of View
Susan Purvis PO Box 2708 Crested Butte, CO 81224 (970)349-6311
Copyright 2000 by Susan Purvis All rights
reserved No part of this article may be reproduced in
any manner without the express written consent of Susan
midnight, for a brief moment on the radio, all I heard
was the cheering and the gun go off as the racers left
the starting line in the dark."
In the predawn hours of Saturday morning, April 4th,
1998 four safety personnel and an avalanche search dog
set out from the Friends Hut to climb Star Pass. We
were a support team for the first ever Elk Mountains
Grand Traverse, a forty mile back-country ski race from
Crested Butte to Aspen, Colorado. The Friends Hut, located
at 11,300 feet, is a backcountry ski cabin located one
third of the way between the two mountain towns. This
was our home for the next several days. The Star Pass
section of the Elk Mountain Traverse crosses through
highly exposed avalanche paths and is considered the
most dangerous and remote portion of the course. Once
the racers are beyond this territory, they still have
to ski twenty plus more miles to the finish line. In
this extreme endurance race, this is the point where
the weak part from the strong.
would take us about one hour to reach the 12,300 ft.
summit. The night was dark, windy and cold, yet full
of anticipation of the 96 competitors about to ski through
our perch on their way to Aspen. The responsibility
of each team of two is to ski together and carry enough
survival gear to support themselves for twenty-four
hours. Our job on Star Pass was three fold: to ensure
a safe passage off Star Pass into Taylor Basin and over
to Taylor Pass; to check the mental status of every
racer; and secure an 8:30 am turn around time. Those
racers not meeting the 8:30 am deadline or who had altered
mental status at Star Pass would not be allowed to continue
The crew stationed on Star Pass included three avalanche
forecasters/route leaders, and myself, who was medical
leader/dog handler and my little black lab Tasha. Setting
the pace for our 1,000-foot climb to the top was Scott
Swift, a young and energetic backcountry skier. His
headlamp lit up the white, windswept mountain as he
rapidly climbed to the ridgeline. Steadily following
behind was Dan Ewert, a calm and quiet man and the chief
avalanche forecaster for the race with over 20 years
of experience. Dan has made similar decisions to open
avalanche terrain to the public throughout his career
as snow safety director for the local ski area. This
morning he had only one thing on his mind and that was
to ensure the safety of all the race participants and
volunteers. I followed Dan without saying a word. The
cold air pierced my throat and within 10 minutes, I
was overheated and out of breathe. My dogs red
blinking light on her collar marked her position in
the dark night as she ran between the lead man and me.
This was her first big job as a certified search dog
and she knew it. Picking up the rear and yodeling as
he climbed was Chris Myall, a burly mountain man-looking
guy with rosy red cheeks and a smile to win any girls
heart. Chris was the second half of the avalanche team.
He had spent many days traveling to Friends Hut and
back this winter. His job as we climbed was to place
glow sticks along the dark mountain course to light
the way for the oncoming competitors.
day before the race the avalanche team spent the day
evaluating the snowpack, observing adjacent avalanche
terrain, and setting the course towards Aspen. They
felt good about the conditions they found. The snow
was stable, temperatures remained constant, and the
Star Pass cornice, created by eight feet of windblown
snow, had an opening through it that would allow the
skiers to pass.
After listening to the final weather report at five
o'clock Friday afternoon, Dan radioed to Jan Runge,
Chief of Race, that the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse
was on! The atmosphere inside the Friends Hut was warm,
steamy, and full of excitement and anticipation. Volunteers
and race organizers had been planning and waiting for
this moment for several months. This was it! No one
really knew how long it would take the first racers
to reach the Friends Hut from the starting line. The
faster men were expected to arrive in four hours but
the actual arrival time was unknown. The thirteen mile
ski trip to the Friends Hut took me took eight hours
complete with blistered feet and a heavy pack full of
support equipment, dog food, and survival gear.
At midnight, for a brief moment on the radio, as we
all lay in silence in our sleeping bags, I heard all
the cheering and the gun go off as the racers left the
starting line. As I lay on the bunk, I envisioned the
racers skiing the course in the dark. How would they
negotiate the dreaded Deadmans pass? This part
of the course is a steep hillside with a narrow trail
cut into it and in some places narrows to only 20 inches
across. When I skied through several days before, I
took my skis off and didnt dare look down to the
river 100 feet below me. I slept restlessly from then
A few hours after the start of the race, an additional
volunteer staff of 10 woke up to prepare food and hot
drinks for the racers. Over 100 burritos were rolled,
stuffed with eggs, cheese, beans and rice. The medical
crew was monitoring the radio and gathering oxygen bottles
and blankets to bring to the aid tent in the event someone
got hurt or could not go on.
The forerunner for the race entered the Friends Hut
just as I was leaving for Star Pass. He left Crested
Butte at 8:00 p.m. and the time was now 3:00 am. He
spent a lot of time placing glow sticks along the lower
portion of the course for the competitors. He had frost
on his mustache, beard and eyebrows.
As I stopped to catch my breath during the climb, I
looked down into East Brush Creek and saw two headlights
quickly moving up the track. The racers were making
their way to the Friends Hut. It was 3:35 am and no
one expected such an early arrival. The lights moved
in and out of the timber as we continued our ascent.
When we crested the ridgeline, we could see more lights
further down the valley. Those lights were several miles
behind the leaders. It was so odd to see headlights
flashing up the drainage in the middle of the night.
It reminded me of seeing car lights on the highway from
inside an airplane.
The ridgeline to Star Pass is narrow. It drops over
800 feet into empty space in both directions. The ski
tracks from the day before had vanished. The wind on
the ridge exceeded 30 miles per hour and the night grew
colder. We all stopped to put on more clothing. Just
before we reached our four man tent outpost. I looked
back and saw the headlights of the two racers on the
ridge. They had almost caught us. It was time to jump
into the tent, put more clothes on and brave the elements
until the last of the racers passed. By the time I got
out of the tent with five layers of clothing on, the
first team had reached us. Two men from Aspen in Lycra,
cross country- racing gear and small backpacks with
frozen camelbacks gave us a quick hello and asked which
way to go. Chris Myall pointed to the flashing strobe
light attached to a single ski staked in the snow and
said, "Drop in right below the cornice, stay left
and high". In an instant, the two skiers leapt
over the edge and vanished into the dark night. The
second team was not far behind. They too were in Lycra
and cross country- racing gear. They inquired how much
further ahead the first team was and skied over the
edge, vanishing into the night. Thirty minutes later,
the first Crested Butte team came through. Their main
concern was how far behind the first place team they
were. I told them they were about 40 minutes behind.
There was no time to chit chat and over the edge they
went. It was still dark but dawn was coming fast.
The sunrise was spectacular. The ridge was lit up behind
us and we could see the racers climbing the ridge. They
appeared small and moved slowly from our vista. Some
teams skied together and others waited for their partner
at our checkpoint. Once they reached the pass though
they didnt wait long. The biting wind still raged
at 30 plus miles per hour. One racer showed up without
his gloves or hat on. As he skied off the cornice, he
shoved his bare fist into the snow. His partner told
us that he has been skiing eight years without his gloves
on. One team came through in costume. A handful of ladies
passed by. They were all strong and smiling. By the
8:30 am cut-off time, 38 teams had passed through Starr
Pass receiving no assistance from our crew. The winners
skied across the finish line before the fans arrived
and the ski area opened. Only one skier sat down in
our tent to catch his breath and he skied the course
in 16.5 hours.
It was truly an incredible group of athletes skiing
across a spectacular landscape in Colorado that early
April morning. Abruptly, our moment of excitement was
over. We sat up on the ridge in silence listening to
the howling wind.