The first-ever Multiglisse Traverse was billed as "A Difficult Race Across High Mountains," and that it was.
Race organizers, racers, journalists and support workers were faced with 25C temperatures and a deteriorating, isothermic snowpack that slowed down travel on the high alpine route from Brandywine to Meager Creek, forcing all but one of the teams to turn around.
The snowmobile support for the race was hampered by the soft snow as only three of the machines available to race support crews had enough power to get around in the slop.
Last Friday morning six enthusiast teams and two professional squads embarked on an adventure that over the next few months may be one of the most talked about alpine events in the Coast Mountains. Sub-standard safety arrangements, 30 centimetre-deep slush on the Pemberton Icecap and painfully-poor communication changed The Traverse race into The Reverse race as team after team turned around and headed for the valley after realizing the distance, conditions and circumstances were not conducive to getting to Meager Creek by Sunday.
Problems aside, every racer that spoke to Pique Newsmagazine, said not only was The Traverse a phenomenal experience, it was an event that has broken a tough trail toward making backcountry mountain events viable entities in the Coast Range. And no matter how maligned he may be, Traverse race evangelist Peter Chrzanowski will always be remembered as the person who put it together.
Steven Threndyle, editor of Coast Magazine and member of the Coast Magazine pro team, was one of the four people who crossed the finish line at Meager Creek at 6:18 p.m. on Sunday — more than 60 hours after 30 mountain people headed north on a sketchy backcountry course over the Callaghan Valley and toward Meager Creek. While the Coast squad made it for a dip in the soothing warm waters of Meager Hotsprings, four teams bailed out in the Callaghan Valley and one exited the race via the Rutherford River drainage.
Threndyle says the snowpack conditions and the sheer scope of the course made it almost impossible for the inexperienced Traverse support and safety crew to be prepared for the possibility of danger. He says backcountry enthusiasts now have to "take part in a serious dialogue whether or not this type of event pioneered in the hut-to-hut atmosphere of Europe is what we want to take place in the Coast Mountains."
Threndyle was joined on the Coast team by Susan Noppe, Robbin McKinney and a "definite ringer" Greg Stoltmann, who did a majority of the route finding for the team. He says although there was no real feeling of racing, the Coast Team and Team Dirtbag, the other pro team, were about the same distance along the route on day two of the race. The Dirtbags opted for a different route and Threndyle says the route chosen by Coast's Stoltmann was higher and looked to be more dangerous than the one the Dirtbags took, but it put them on the final leg of the race hours before the Dirtbags, sealing the victory.
"It's tough to have the race element in the alpine," Threndyle says. "Backcountry skiers go to the alpine to get away from clocks and stress and all that kind of bullshit. If you introduce the clock into alpine travel it may be a recipe for disaster."
Although the confusion during the race may have had some people complaining, Threndyle says that vibe didn't last too long.
"If we were slagging the race, the organizers and the concept from the very start why were we feeling so good after we crossed the finish line?" he asks. "If it wasn't for Pete C. I for one would not have had the opportunity to feel like that, because this is not a trip I would do."
Cosmic couch surfer Troy Jungen of Team Dirtbag says they made a team decision to turn around after the Coast squad got a jump on them. A vast majority of the Dirtbag's food supplies were in the backpack of their snowboarder teammate who had bailed out of the race after getting frustrated with the sloppy snow conditions and the inability of a snowboard-equipped mountaineer to efficiently travel on the flat icecap. With no food and a sketchy route in front of them, Jungen says the safest decision was to head out.
"This wasn't a race, it was a glorious opportunity to get people into the alpine and show them what's out there," Jungen says, adding a shorter, locally organized race might have been a better idea for the first Traverse race.
"This was a large endeavour. Actually, it was larger than large. Too large to be safe and well-organized."
Karen Arnold, Robin Allen and Carolyn McBain were members of an all-woman team that entered the race. They agree with Jungen's observation that the race was a gargantuan effort — for organizers and participants.
Arnold says their team had a great time in the alpine, travelling by day and camping under the shining, full moon. They exited out the Callaghan Valley on Saturday after it became apparent they were not going to make the finish.
"We were just happy to be given the opportunity to be up in the mountains, the whole essence of this event was to get people out there and it was a total success, we had a great time," Arnold says.
Tuesday morning, ski filmmaker turned event promoter Chrzanowski sat on a bed in the Whistler Creek Lodge surrounded by film canisters, two-way radios, backpacks, mountaineering skis and — what's this — crutches.
"What a long strange trip it's been, man," Chrzanowski says as he surveys the gear to be cleaned up before heading home and glancing at the swollen, purple toes sticking out of a cast on his right foot.
Chrzanowski, the Traverse race evangelist and only injury of the race, had to be heli-evacuated from the first checkpoint area after breaking his ankle while being towed behind a snowmobile Friday, shortly after the race began. He says The Traverse will be back next year and he is going to seek more help organizing and search out the naysayers that are lining up to point accusatory fingers.
When you get Peter Chrzanowski, you get his reputation as well. Some, like Dirtbags Troy Jungen and Peter Spriceniecks, look at him with reverence — a pioneer in backcountry adventure and film making. Others base their views of Chrzanowski on past problems. In one fell swoop, Chrzanowski becomes The Traverse's biggest asset and largest liability — he says he doesn't care.
"All the people who talk about me have never ski toured with me, they have never spent any time with me and they shouldn't waste their time and mine by spreading stories… I'm sick of it," he says. "Every racer I have talked to says the race was a great adventure. All of the people who are pointing fingers are doing it based on 20-year-old stories. When you put your name out there on events like this you end up with a lot of friends and a few enemies."
"The people who appear to be my enemies were just waiting around for something to go wrong so they could point fingers and start blaming me. If they would have taken some of that energy and tried to help out, we would all be a lot better off.
"This race is going ahead next year and those same people will do their damnedest to make me look bad... I say they should help out or shut up and get out."