My first indication that the day may not go as planned was when I found myself hiking up the T-bar trail. I was hopeful it would be another beautiful spring day in Breckenridge for the 2016 Imperial Challenge, but as I walked to the gondola, a gust of wind nearly lifted me and my snowboard off my feet. I shrugged it off and headed up the hill. The sky was thick with gray clouds, but a sliver of blue sky was peeking through in the distance.
When I got to the base of Peak 8, the transition area was a buzz of activity. Racers thoughtfully located and set-up their gear for a quick transition from bike or run to hike. There were split snowboards, ultra-light skis, heavy wide planks, and snowshoes amongst the feather boas, backpacks, and tutus.
The wind was blowing the clouds to the east and the blue skies were taking over. The transition area was groomed ice, a little slippery, which is common for this time of year. The warm days turn the snow to slush and then it freezes overnight and turns into what locals call the “coral reef.” Skiers in the know avoid “coral reef” conditions as it is less than ideal. No fun. With that in mind, I look to the sky, feel the wind at my back and walk over to the lift attendant for a status report.
“Imperial Chair is scheduled to open today, but not until 10am because of the wind and conditions,” he says. So I make my way up to the T-bar with hopes that it will get me, at least, midway up Peak 8. The race is scheduled to start in about :15 minutes. I still have some time. At the T-bar, I speak with the lift attendant and she informs me that the T-bar is not opening until later because of high winds.
That was when I knew today might not go as planned.
I decided to hike up the T-bar as far as I could to setup for photos. The first pitch from the T-bar is short and steep but took my breath way. In my snowboard boots, it was hard and slippery. The sun was coming out, but the wind was blowing. My awe and appreciation for all the racers of the Imperial Challenge increased as I hiked up the T-bar line.
The racers of the Imperial Challenge are extraordinary and come from near and far, are young and young at heart, competitive, recreational, super fit and goal oriented. In other words, it attracts all types and there is a category for everyone. For all, the nervous excitement of the event gives them wonder-powers for that first 10k Bike or Run. Then, the hike up peak 8 requires focus and determination even in the best conditions, but when the conditions are less than ideal it can be even more demanding.
Porkchop Hill, the last pitch at the top of the T-bar track, is always a test of focus and style. Steep, hard and slippery most of the time, there’s a boot pack track up the side of the trail, but some strong-willed racers will herringbone or test the strength of their skins and technique. If successful, racers will shave off a few seconds from their time and also save some energy getting to the top, but if disaster strikes, and you lose your edge or traction, it can be like a domino effect as you collect other racers while you slide all the way to the bottom of the pitch.
A few racers mentioned that the pitch ABOVE the T-bar was the most challenging with hard pack, slick conditions, and howling winds. Some decided to boot pack the entire pitch to the top of Imperial while others carefully skinned in short traverses.
With an ironic chuckle, most racers said the most challenging part of the course, this year, was the ski down from the top of Imperial. Racers snickered they were on the edge of disaster with a not-so-flattering ski technique that saved them going down Vertigo. Quads were screaming as racers hit the slush at the bottom of the hill, but they couldn’t be happier because the finish was near.
The energy at the finish was extraordinary. Racers were elated, celebrating and recapping the day’s journey and challenges. Smiles, hugs, beers and champagne were shared and toasted. Every racer was celebrating the day’s success!
That is why locals and visitors love this pseudo triathlon challenge. It’s a low-key community challenge, but with good energy and camaraderie. Congrats to all the racers for suffering the challenges of the day with focus, strength and laughter. Well done! See all the photos Climbbettybreck.SmugMug.com
Enjoy the Climb.