May 22, 2017

Essential Gear for the Grand Traverse

Everything you need to know and pack to conquer the weather and challenge of the Grand Traverse ski race. Read up before you skin up.

Getting outfitted for the GORE-TEX® Grand Traverse is daunting, even if you’ve done it before. Weather, conditions, personal experience, availability of specialized products and many other factors will determine the exact kit that any given racer brings to the Grand Traverse. The race provides this Official Mandatory Gear List. It is very thorough and spells out the minimum amount of stuff to take on course. More than one veteran of the GT told me the secret to the race was all about “skins, nutrition, and hydration.” This informed our gear strategy as much as anything.

At the race start, there was a wide variety of pack sizes and my partner and I couldn’t help but wonder how some racers were evidently carrying a very small amount of gear, and others appeared ready for an expedition. We were somewhere in the middle and that makes sense, given that we anticipated a 13-hour finish. A pro racer looking at 8-10 hours on course could realistically carry less food and water, and even take some lighter pieces of gear. There is always a balancing act between mobility and security when planning extended backcountry adventures. More gear means you are prepared in case something goes wrong, but it also can burden you if you go overboard. There are a ton of judgment calls that happen right up to the start line. In fact, I switched my long underwear top 5 minutes before midnight based on the temps we were expecting.

What follows is a list of the actual gear that I took on the 2017 Grand Traverse and some reasons why I chose the item. Please note that we had moderate temperatures and good weather. If it had been colder or precipitating, we would have opted for additional layers, warmer individual pieces of clothing, and probably a different hydration system.

ski gear for Grand Traverse

Personal Gear

  • Osprey Mutant 38 Pack – It carries well and has all the features you need, with none of the extra crap that comes on some backpacks. Made for alpine climbing, but the nature of the GT is very much like climbing an alpine objective: mandatory bivy gear, moderate load. and extended time in remote locations.
  • CAMP water bottle holders – These were essential to keep water bottles and flasks accessible. Being able to drink on the move is key to a long-distance effort where stopping is the enemy.
  • CAMP Speed 2.0 Helmet – Super lightweight, hardly noticed it was there. Comfy and has good clips for headlamps.
  • CAMP Crest avalanche shovel – The lightest shovel I’ve ever carried. Good for a race, but not my daily driver when backcountry skiing.
  • CAMP Carbon Fiber Avalanche Probe – Similar to the shovel, this is a race-specific item for me.
  • Petzl NAO + Headlamp – This headlamp does it all. Reactive lighting is very functional. Fits on a helmet well. Batteries lasted 11 hours.
  • Julbo Stunt glasses w/ Zebra Lens – My favorite all around lens. Photochromic so they darken as it gets lighter. Light enough for dawn/dusk and dark enough for midday in the sunny alpine.
  • Smith Optics Phenom Turbo Fan Goggles – Luckily, we didn’t need these during the 2017 GT, but, if you ever need to skin and wear goggles, the turbo fan does an amazing job of keeping your goggles fog free.
  • Swix F4 Wax – This stuff is great. Use it for more glide on your ski bases, rub it on your topsheets to keep snow from sticking, and use it on your skins to improve glide and prevent glopping.

Grand Traverse ski gear

Clothing

  • Syborg Racing Suit – I should have ordered one of these years ago. Skin/nutrition pockets are well designed and easy to use. The form fitting nature of this garment leaves little to the imagination, but it’s so functional and comfortable that I’m a convert. The wicking panel in the back helps you manage moisture when you’re wearing a pack. Flat lock seams and body-mapped fabrics helps eliminate spots that can lead to chafing.
  • Storm Fighter 2.0 GTX Jacket – This basic Gore Tex jacket stayed in my pack, but if I had needed it, this jacket is bomber without weighing a ton. Gore Active also breathes extremely well.
  • Task Hybrid Jacket – This hybrid windshell/insulation top is ideal for occasions when you need just a little bit of wind protection. Primaloft insulation on the front of the torso was perfect for the climb from Friend’s hut, the descent from Star Pass, and the next hour of skinning at dawn.
  • Troposphere 2.0 shirt – This baselayer uses BeCool yarn and does an amazing job of wicking sweat.
  • Shakkar 2.0 Primaloft Short – Not available in North America, this specialized, euro-style skimo race piece was ideal for keeping thighs and waist well insulated during the coldest parts of the pre-dawn course. Yes, insulated shorts!
  • Cham 2.0 Down Jacket – A very warm down jacket for the weight. Microbaffled construction means no cold spots. This is my go-to puffy all winter long.
  • Hail Pant – This ultralite, six-ounce pant has fully taped seams, is wind/waterproof and features ¾ length zips. Fits over my size 29 Spectre boots!
  • Skimo Gloves – these are comfortable and warm enough when you are moving.
  • OR Stormtracker Sensor Gloves – These are about the perfect glove. They do what you want them to and are never in the way. Gore Windstopper keeps the cold breeze out.
  • CAMP Hotmit’n – These live in the bottom of my pack all winter. The only come out a few times a year, but are well worth it. They’re like sleeping bags for your hands!
  • Bridgedale Alpien Tour ski socks – My favorite ski socks in the world. [[why?]]

Ski Gear

  • Gara Aero LS racing skis – one of the nicest rando racing skis I’ve ever tried. This model comes in 3 lengths: 157 for smaller racers, 164 standard, and 171 with a stiffer flex. The longer length and stiffer flex are a huge bonus for taller/heavier ski racers.
  • Race RSR Skins – I took 3 pairs of these: 1 pair full length, 1 pair tip skins, 1 pair trimmed narrow. The full length skins fit edge to edge and offer maximum grip. Tip skins are cut off about the middle of the boot, allowing for extra glide on long flats. The full width is a must if skinning on icy terrain. The narrow-trimmed skins are about 45mm wide (down from 60mm) and are great for maximizing glide in fresh snow.
  • Spectre Ski boots – I wish a true racing boot would fit me, but alas, I wore my standard backcountry boots with some modifications for better touring. These are heavier than a true race boot, but offer more control and, most importantly, fit me well. Whatever boot you choose, spend some long days, in many types of conditions, with packs of various weights to be sure your feet are set up for success.

Bivouac gear

  • Terra Nova Bothy 2 – Thankfully we did not need to bivy! But, if we did, this portable shelter is great for two people and protects from wind/precip while allowing you to melt snow. Definitely a step up from your standard bivy sack.
  • CAMP Essential Light Mat
  • Snowpeak Trek 700 Titanium pot and ultralight isobutane stove I’ve used this pot and stove for the GT, spring ski mountaineering trips, summertime alpine climbing and bivouacs while archery hunting.

Nutrition

After bonking horribly in the last GT I entered, I decided that I was going to be sure that I handled nutrition well in this race. When I asked my partner from 2004 what we should have done differently, he said, “eat more, drink more, been faster.” He basically kept me going for the last ten miles after I hit the wall.

My training days indicated that I burn about 650 calories per hour. Expecting a 13-hour finish time meant that I was probably going to burn about 8500 calories during the effort. Several ultra-runner friends advised me that a good goal is to consume about 50% of the calories you plan to burn, so I took 4500 calories with me on the 2017 GT. I consumed about 3200 calories of food I took on course, plus another few from the ramen soup offered at the Barnard hut aid station. At the end of the day, my heart rate monitor showed I burned 8800 calories over 14 hours.

The rules mandate that each racer bring at least 100 ounces of water. I know that I am a salty sweater and that I need to keep my electrolytes up for sustained aerobic efforts. Knowing that the high temps on race day could be in the high 30s and low 40s, and that I could be sweating more than I would during a mid-winter tour, I opted to err conservatively and started the race with 132oz. This was nearly a gallon and really weighed me down. However, knowing that I was well hydrated gave me some confidence to push hard over a 12+ hour event. I finished my last sip right before the finish line. Here is the nutrition/hydration I used on course:

  • Tailwind Endurance Fuel – This stuff is the best. My stomach tolerates this in concentrated form and it provides electrolytes as well as calories.
  • Pro Bars – They are great if you can slow down to chew. 400 calories each!
  • GU – the classic and original gel packet. They work and don’t upset my stomach.
  • Honey Stinger Gel – a bit sweeter than GU, but less viscous, so they are easier to eat in cold weather.
  • Clif Organic Energy Food – These new offerings from Clif are made with plain food products. They are easy to eat and digest. They aren’t as calorically dense, so they will weigh more for the same number of calories when compared to other gel products.
  • EFS Liquid Shot – This is my favorite gel. It comes in refillable flasks that hold 400 calories and are chock full of electrolytes and amino acids. Tip: When you get to the dregs of the flask, add some water and shake, then you will get all the calories you carry.
  • Hydrapak soft flasks – These light weight hydration containers are easy to use and fit comfortably into an inside pocket of a jacket or racing suit, which keeps them from freezing, which is nice.
  • Camelbak 100 oz. Mil-Spec Antidote Reservoir – This aftermarket bladder comes with an insulated hose. Worked great.

Check out Part 1, The Grand Traverse: From Injured Reserve to Race-Ready in Three Months.

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