The Aspen Power of Four is a multi-sport race series that takes competitors on a course up and over the four mountains that make up Aspen-Snowmass: Aspen Mountain (Ajax), Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass.
“They have a mountain bike version, which I’ve done. They have a running version, which I will never do. And then they have the ski mountaineering version, which Matthew Turley and I did for the first time this year,” explained Jamie Kripke. The two MCA photographers called themselves the “Frozen Buckeyes.”
Jamie is based in Boulder and his family has a place at the base of Snowmass. “It’s a cool way to see the area. You start at Snowmass and end up in Aspen, skiing some stuff along the way that most people never get to ski,” he said. An avid recreational skier, Jamie registered for the race as a way of setting a goal that would get him out skiing more. It wasn’t about the competition; it was about the experience.
And what an experience! The race starts at the base of Snowmass at 6 AM. Teams of two (you always have to have a partner in the backcountry) head up the mountain on skis to the top of Elk Camp at 11,325 feet where they exit a backcountry gate. The course, marked by color-coded stakes, takes you to the top of West Buttermilk at 9,900 feet. You continue along the ridge before descending into the Maroon Creek valley. You boot it across the road and through the base of Aspen Highlands (it was a particularly long walk this year due to the meager snowfall). You skin to the top of Loge Peak and then boot the final ascent to the top of Highland Bowl, the highest point on the course at 12,392 feet. From there, a long descent takes you down and across Castle Creek, before you begin the final final-five mile climb up an old mining road (“the most grueling part,” said Matthew) to the top of Ajax at 11,212 feet.
Total distance: 25.3 miles. Total climbing: 11,600 vertical feet.
“It is a ski race, but when Jamie asked me if I wanted to be his partner, he specifically said we are not racing—the goal is to finish and not kill ourselves doing it. On the first climb, we were adjusting our pace a little bit, and Jamie said, ‘At no point do I want to hear my heartbeat in my head,’” Matthew laughed. He competed in numerous ski-mountaineering races during his twenties, though he admitted, nothing quite as tough as the Aspen Power of Four. Matthew mostly skis in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah–until this race he’d only skied in Colorado once.
“Matt was definitely faster than me going uphill. He was basically in a lycra jumpsuit and he had these really skinny little race skis made out of carbon fiber and super light race boots that looked like something Kanye West would wear in concert. The idea is, if you can go uphill quickly, it’s good because you’re going uphill most of the time. My gear was relatively light, but it wasn’t race gear,” said Jamie.
“I wanted to go as light as possible. We had to go the same speed, but I figured might as well make it easy on myself,” added Matthew.
The ultra-lightweight skis are great for going uphill, but not so great for going down. The terrain and snow conditions were variable. They skied areas of gladed trees and in other places they had to climb down over rocks. The final (3,000-foot) descent down the front side of Ajax to the finish expected skiers to rip a couple of double black diamonds that were bumped out and icy.
“At one point, I wiped out and almost lost my ski down the hill because it came off,” said Jamie. “There was a section that didn’t have any snow on it, and everyone was trying to get down through these rocks. It was pretty treacherous for the most part, but there were some parts where the skiing was really good.”
There were about 110 teams of men and women entered in the race. The winning time, posted by a pair of 20-somethings that compete on the international level, was around four and a half hours. It took Jamie and Matthew just over nine. Of 60 men’s teams, only 45 even completed the race.
“You can look around and tell what group you’re in by what other people are wearing. At the beginning everyone is closer together, so we were surrounded by a lot of guys in skin suits, but as the day went on, I noticed the clothes on other people were getting baggier and baggier like mine. They weren’t racing either; they were just out there to do their best and enjoy the day,” said Jamie.
They kept a conversational pace, talking about anything and everything. “We actually didn’t talk about photography that much, which was cool,” said Jamie. MCA photographers are flung far and wide but get together regularly for Roadshows. “Our group is closer than most for that reason,” he said.
Since the course takes competitors through the ski areas, once the lifts opened, there was solid support from the public to help push the racers onward and upward—literally.
“People see your bib number, and they start cheering, people were yelling at us from the chairlift. That was sort of cool,” Jamie recalled.
So would they do it again?
“Jamie was a great ski partner. I knew it was going to be a good long and fun, but arduous day. I’d love to do it again,” said Matthew.
“If you asked me the day after the race I would have said no way in hell would I do it again. But you forget how bad it sucks. Ask me next December. I did the mountain bike race, and I said no way in hell am I doing that again, but I’m thinking about doing it this summer,” Jamie said smiling.
And if not the Power of Four, maybe the Grand Traverse, which goes from Crested Butte to Aspen, that Matthew divulged they (jokingly) talked about doing next year.
“If he’s game for it I would totally do it,” replied Jamie. Sounds like it’s on!