Wow, what a “race.” I put “race” in quotes because the winners finished almost 2.5 times faster than my partner and me. The Power of Four, for us, was all about finishing, not racing.
What is the Power of Four? One of the hardest skimo races in the country. Skimo is short for ski-mountaineering, for those not into this incredibly obscure sport. The Power of Four gains over 11,000 feet of elevation over 25 miles, summiting each of the four mountains at Aspen Snowmass.
Over the past few years, I have completed and DNF’d the Power of Four in nearly every possible combination: Not making the cutoff, teaching a partner how to ski down (seriously) after crushing me on the uphills, having a partner quit and finishing alone, the somewhat easier Power of Two, and finishing the full course a few times, too. Just a great opportunity to be outside, right?
I was lucky enough to secure a free hotel room through work directly next to the start line. This allowed me to sleep in an extra 45 minutes or so, which ended up working out quite well! I like to sleep! The majority of folks who attempt this race are pretty hardcore. More than 11,000 feet of climbing over 25 miles with some challenging skiing along the whole course? The past couple years, including this one, it’s been the National Championship for the whole sport in the team category. Based on that, people are hardcore. The first couple times I was intimidated, but now I just find it awesome. There are so many hardcore outdoors people and athletes in Colorado; it’s inspiring.
After getting checked to be sure we had our mandatory gear (avalanche safety gear, couple extra layers, etc.), a last minute visit to the bathroom, we headed to the back of the pack and put our skis on. (Nate used a split board for the entire thing, which is impressive in several ways, go Nate!) A couple of minutes later the starting gun went off and up we went. The forecast was for a sunny, beautiful day, and that’s exactly what happened!
My partner went a bit ahead of me, but I kept my slow and steady pace up the 3,200 or so foot climb to the top of the Elk Camp chairlift and Burnt Mountain at Snowmass. We put out skis on and headed out of the resort gates to Buttermilk. I had forgotten how tough this section is. I narrowly avoided a few potentially bad falls… The first part was awesome skiing, then it was a bit of hardpack, some sketchy and thin tree skiing, some awkward herring bone short uphills, a bit more sketchy skiing, then it was on with the skins for the short climb to the top of the next mountain: Buttermilk. The downhill here was straightforward on a groomer, across the road and beautiful bridge high above Maroon Creek, then about a mile walk over to Aspen Highlands.
Highlands is a steep 4,600 foot climb. We took a break at the bottom for 10 minutes or so to cram a bunch of food in our mouths and use the restroom. Next up was a climb up Thunderbowl which is the steepest section of the course by far and pretty much the limit for steepness for skinning. On the steepest part we struggled a little but it didn’t end up too bad.
My partner, Nate, is a much stronger athlete and I was a bit concerned that my lack of training would cause some friction with his fast pace. He forgot to switch skins at the base of Highlands, however, and ended up struggling a bit on the climb. I was ahead for the majority of the climb and waited for him at the switch to booting the Highland Bowl.
The Highland bowl is a spectacular double-black high alpine bowl with an above-timberline summit of 12,392 feet. Of course, the Power of Four Course goes to the top and then goes down Ozone: directly down the middle of the bowl. Conditions were great and my skis handled the bowl amazingly well, thankfully!
Next, at the bottom of the Deep Temerity lift, we put our skins back on and did a quick 20 or so minute skin to the top of a narrow, steep, switchbacking backcountry trail. We were greeted by hot dogs! Mmm, that really hit the spot. The top of the Congo Trail also marks the only cutoff on the course. You have to make it by 1pm. This was pretty much our goal for the day, and we made it. By 20 minutes. Haha. I was feeling pretty tired and my feet hurt pretty badly, but we made the cutoff. No way I was quitting.
I’m not the biggest fan of the Congo Trail. I struggled a bit, but overall conditions were pretty good and spring-like, and there wasn’t too much traffic. So: not too bad.
The Final Climb: Midnight Mine Road
Ahh, Midnight Mine Road. 5.5 miles and 3,300 vertical feet or so. That translates to a very long, slow climb. Not steep, but oooh so long. I made a comment at the bottom of the climb, “I’m pretty sure when I take my boots off my feet will be bleeding. In several locations.” I think my partner thought I was kidding. We slowly continued for about a mile and he offered to tow me using our fancy carabiner plus bungee cord contraption. Nate is strong! He towed me to some degree for almost the entire rest of the climb. Now, I do want to be clear that it’s not like I was just standing there and Nate was dragging me up the mountain. My feet hurt badly, and I was exhausted, but I was still moving. Nate did help tremendously though and I’m super thankful for that. Could I have finished without his tow? Absolutely. Would we have been over an hour slower? Definitely. Thanks Nate! My skins did fail due to a bunch of snow sticking to the bottom. This necessitated a break to switch them out.
Reaching the top of Aspen Mountain was a relief. Thankfully, after switching my failed skins I had a bit of an energy surge for the last mile or so. It felt so good reaching the top, at 11,212 feet, because it was literally all downhill from there! We transitioned and skied down over 3,000 feet to downtown Aspen, CO. There was a party going on with a DJ, a ton of people. Unfortunately, they had completely run out of food and beer, but I guess that’s what you get for being at the back of the pack? We took our Finish Picture and we were both still smiling, so gotta call the day a win, even if that’s not reflected on the results page. Just over 10 hours of sunshine, hard climbs, challenging skiing, and we were done!
I finally got to take my boots off and my feet were horrible! No bleeding, but definitely the worst blisters I’ve ever had, which is somewhat surprising giving that I’ve hiked well over 15,000 miles in all sorts of conditions. It’s now a week after the race and I still haven’t been able to do much exercise due to my horrendous blisters! Oh well: worth it.
Takeaways and Reflections
Today I thought about a number of things while racing:
-I’m super lucky to live somewhere where there are absurd events like this. Almost 12,000 feet of elevation gain in 25 miles, climbing 4 mountains and skiing between. The benefits of living right next to a world class ski resort.
-I’m super glad that I’m crazy enough to compete in these absurd events. Even though this year I wasn’t really that well trained, I committed to my race partner at the beginning of the season, and we followed through and finished. Sure, we were near the back of the pack, but who cares? How many people can even say they’ve done a day with almost 12k of elevation gain, let alone on skis? It’s cool to take place in the events in your area and just finishing the Power of Four is always something I’m proud of!
-Goal Setting is incredibly important. Sure, it would have been easier to just wake up in the hotel room and go back to sleep, enjoy some breakfast, and ride the gondola to the top of the mountain and have a leisurely ski down. I would have felt great at the end of the day, too. But would I feel the same sense of accomplishment that I had after reaching the bottom of Aspen Mountain at the end of the race? Surely not.
Big or small, through trial and failure, it feels sooo good when a goal becomes an accomplishment. It can be so easy to just take the easy route, relax, and not push yourself (which I’m certainly guilty of often), but it’s just so satisfying to get it done! Every day is the first day of the rest of your life, take advantage of that!
Up Next? The Grand Traverse 40 mile ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, CO