Blitzing the Backcountry

Turn your winter fitness routine into a brand-new adventure

Dec 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

THIRTEEN MILES into the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, a 40-mile backcountry ski race that follows the historic mail route between Crested Butte and Aspen, my teammate and I come stumbling into the first checkpoint. Since midnight, in frigid, wee-hour winter conditions, we've been grinding uphill, following the weak beams of our headlamps. It's now 4:30 a.m. Nick has been patching blisters since mile two, and I've lost most of the feeling in my fingers. Looming before us is a thousand-foot climb to 12,303-foot Star Pass; on the other side, the first whiff of a downhill. Looking like two punch-drunk middleweights, we gorge on crumbly Fig Newtons. When I stick my CamelBak hose in my mouth, the frozen bite valve snaps off in my teeth. I'm having the time of my life. Seriously.

The arrival of winter used to mean a four-month endurance-sports hiatus, but a decade-long infatuation with summertime adventure races has created a demand for equivalent cold-weather tests. These new events—which often involve a combination of skiing, running, snowshoeing, and cycling, both on snow and off—exact the same physical demands as a marathon, with your stamina and skill getting pushed to the limit by harsh conditions. Dozens of winter multisport races now take place around the country, from the Iditasport 100, a sufferfest held each February near Anchorage, Alaska, to New Hampshire's Son of Inferno Pentathlon, held in April at Tuckerman Ravine.

Why submit yourself to such torture? For us, that question was answered when we emerged over Star Pass and were greeted by a mountain vista stretching 50 miles into the dawn: Because these events offer a chance to test your fitness in the kind of snow-laden wonderlands that chairlifts can't reach. In the pages that follow, we open the book on the preparation, nutrition, and equipment you'll need to succeed. Even if you never line up for a race, take our winter racing wisdom and apply it to almost any cold-weather outdoor activity. We promise winter's gonna seem a lot more like summer.