RIDGWAY – You certainly can’t say Joe Ryan isn’t willing and eager to do what he’s asking randonée racers to do next month when he hosts the third running of the Sneffels Half Loop on March 10. In 2003, the last time he did this, Ryan skied the 30-plus miles of the Alder Creek/Dallas Trail by himself, around the Sneffels Range from Telluride to Ouray, starting at 3 a.m. on a 20 below zero morning, to clear logs that had fallen across the track.
Ryan is super-fit, an old-school hardman, with intense blue eyes and a wild mane of silver hair, who would likely finish among the elite in his race if it weren’t for all the details he has to take care of. “It practically consumed my winter,” he said of the first event 10 years ago, what with “the organizing, the volunteers, the transport, preparing the trail.”
But, he said, “It’s such a natural. I wanted to do it again. And do it as a fundraiser for the Mount Sneffels Education Foundation… The huts [four of them in the San Juan Hut System, which he built beginning in 1987] are in place, perfectly spaced to serve as aid stations. We’ll ski in the night before and melt snow for drinking water and cook up high-energy foods. We’ll have guards at the avalanche-path crossings at the Knob Slide and Alder Creek Slide to make sure everybody’s transceivers are working and track them as they go across. That’s the only gear you’re required to carry. We’re all big people out there. I expect racers to keep it together. And if you don’t, we’ll scoop you up.”
Ryan would like it if someone else were to sweep the trail after the cut-off times so that he could race, but that’s probably not in the cards.
Randonée, or “skimo” racing (ski mountaineering) has been around for a long time, certainly as long as the Swiss Army has been training on skis. (I did one in the mid-1980s called Le Raid Blanc that cross-stitched the French, Italian and Swiss borders in a weeklong “ski rally” organized by the people who put on the Paris-Dakar race across North Africa.) In this country the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association lists 25 races on its winter calendar. The granddaddy locally is the Elk Mountains Traverse, or Grand Traverse, from Crested Butte over to Aspen. This year will be the 15th annual. That race starts at midnight in a sea of nervous headlamps, and the winners ski down into Aspen in time for breakfast.
Unlike the big up-and-over trajectory of the Grand Traverse, Ryan’s Half Loop rolls along more or less at treeline, dipping in and out of dark timber and aspen forests, popping out frequently for huge views into the Sneffels Wilderness. He figures the “really fast guys,” the Pat O’Neils, the Peter Svensons, the Dave Pennys (a multiple Grand Traverse winner) will do it in six hours.
Racers will leave the trailhead above the Telluride Airport for the Last Dollar Hut in a “shotgun start” at 6 a.m. From the Last Dollar Hut, it’s on around the shoulder of the range to the North Pole hut, the Blue Lakes Hut, and finally – for the long-course racers – up the “Big Ugly” climb to the Ridgway Hut and “down, down, down,” Ryan said, “from 11,200 feet, nine miles to the finish” on County Road 5 at Elk Meadows.
(The original full course had racers continue from the Ridgway Hut all the way to the Ouray Hot Springs Pool, a total of 33 miles, but due to the thin snowpack, Ryan decided to skip what is a dicey descent in the best of conditions.)
The short course cuts off at the Blue Lakes Hut and ends at the trailhead on East Dallas Creek. Still, the “short course” is 23.8 miles long, gains 3,990 vertical feet and descends 5,489 feet. “It’s a technical course,” Ryan explained. “With steep downhills, narrow fast downhills. You have to be able to turn your skis to get down this trail. Pat O’Neil [one of the elite skimo racers] said, ‘This is the best course we’ve ever done.’”
And then there’s the after-party at Ridgway’s Colorado Boy brewpub and pizzeria.
The event is open to anyone, Ryan said, from COSMIC racers (that’s Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup) to people who just want to “get their arse off the couch and out for a supported tour in the beautiful backcountry.” Gear choices will run the gamut from “heavy-metal alpine touring setups to superlight skate/combi skis with tennis shoes,” he said, only half kidding. Serious racers pay $1,000 for a pair of little plastic boots that weigh about as much as a bobby pin. They like to wear in their mohair kicker skins before a race so they glide just a little bit faster.
Ryan isn’t much for the fancy equipment himself. He’s still got some of the old wooden skis he started out on. He is famous for skiing, and climbing ice, in all weather, without gloves. When he needs to get a new propane tank up to one of the huts, he throws it on his back and skis it up. No biggie.
Entry fee is $100 per person. Register on the website: sanjuanhuts.com. There will be cut-off times at the aid stations so that Ryan and his crew don’t have to come “scoop you up” and help you off the mountain.