ASPEN, Colorado - Snowy skies gave way to pristine sunshine in the Elk Mountains on Saturday morning.
With it, the cloud of frustration surrounding Crested Butte's Ethan Passant and Travis Scheefer was replaced by unbridled jubilation.
After coming up agonizingly short in the 2009 and 2010 Elk Mountains Grand Traverse - a 40-mile test of wills and sanity in the Colorado high country between Crested Butte and Aspen - the duo was reduced to lamenting the tactical, late-race errors and opportunities lost.
But Passant and Scheefer, after consecutive second-place finishes, would not be denied a victory this time.
They bided their time during the adventure race's early stages, took turns breaking trail for extended stretches, then pulled ahead on Richmond Ridge, about 4 miles from Aspen Mountain's Sundeck.
Amid the cheers of a sizable crowd and the clanging of cowbells, Passant and Scheefer skied across the finish line at Ajax's Gondola Plaza in 9 hours, 14 minutes, 50 seconds.
"This feels awesome, especially after coming so close before," said Scheefer, 25. "I think maybe we did want this more than anyone."
They were pushed throughout - from the midnight start outside Crested Butte Community School to the top of 12,303-foot Star Pass and into Aspen. Little more than 30 minutes separated first through tenth place in what was one of the closest Traverses in recent memory.
Another first was established Saturday, as two co-ed teams finished in the top three. Aspen's Peter Gaston and Carbondale's Sari Anderson wound up third in 9:17:20, 50 seconds behind Crested Butte's Marshall Thomson and Stevie Kremer.
"It's unprecedented, it's incredible, it's awesome. It's like the best thing that has ever happened," race director Jan Runge exclaimed. "Women are beating some of these top professional racers. I have no idea how they did it."
Anderson had an explanation.
"The snow conditions played a big part," said the 32-year-old, competing in her third Traverse. "With people having to break trail in the beginning, we were able to stay closer than if it was hardpack or something. ... We were able to take advantage of that opportunity."
Substantial snow in the Crested Butte area in the hours before the start forced most teams to take a conservative approach in the early going. Because attempting to break away meant breaking trail for competitors, an estimated 20 to 30 teams hovered near the front during the nearly four-hour slog to Star Pass.
One racer likened the scene to a conga line meandering through the dark, remote wilderness.
"I'm anxious. I want to go," Passant said. "I want to be out in front leading races, and today it just wasn't that way. Travis said, 'All right, let's chill a little and save our energy for the end.' It was a good strategy. ... (The pace) was really slow, and there was nothing you could really do about it. It was like a road race. You have to draft and draft and wait for a moment to make your move."
Added Gaston: "It was a very confined group for those first few hours, which is a good thing if you're not feeling super strong, but a bad thing if you are feeling strong."
Passant and Scheefer were feeling fit. The snow and clouds had dissipated, revealing a sky dotted with stars. After hours spent biding their time about 20 teams from the front, they decided to make a move on Star Pass.
They charged through deep powder on the steep descent and opened up a gap on much of the field. Anderson, Gaston and a third team followed close behind.
The duos settled in for the long push ahead. Anderson spent large amounts of time setting the pace.
"She broke trail at least half the time," remarked Gaston, a 24-year-old who works for local guiding outfit Aspen Expeditions. "She's ridiculously fit. I've never met a woman as fit. I was really impressed."
Added Anderson: "It was something I've never experienced. I'm the female, I never break trail. It was a fun experience, getting the opportunity to feel good enough to be in that position. ... I kept yelling back to them to be men and get up here and take a turn. Everyone was working well together."
When the group reached Taylor Pass, Passant's eagerness resurfaced.
"At that point, I thought, 'Let's do it. Let's win this thing now,'" he recalled.
Added Scheefer: "I wasn't going to let anyone get in front of me."
That sentiment shifted abruptly, however, after an untimely skin malfunction. During one downhill, Scheefer hit a wind drift and both his skins fell off. He struggled to get them to stick again.
Passant lent his partner one skin, but Scheefer's rhythm was thrown off after one ski starting sliding smoothly while the other was lagging.
The duo was about 10 minutes from the Barnard Hut - the final aid station, about seven miles from the Sundeck - when Scheefer decided to stop.
Passant opted to follow Gaston and Anderson.
"I tried to talk them up a little bit to slow them down," he joked.
The plan worked; Scheefer rejoined his teammate after the Barnard Hut, on Richmond Ridge.
Soon after, they pulled ahead for good.
"In the last four miles or so they used their very good Nordic technique and went really fast," Gaston said. "We had some skin issues and couldn't keep up."
Anderson lost a skin in a crash a few kilometers from the Sundeck, she said. She had to stop to find it, and then replace it.
"I started going again, but I was done after breaking trail and the long night," she admitted. "I just didn't have it in me anymore.
"(Thomson and Kremer) started to catch up. I didn't think they were that far off, but I didn't see them coming."
Thomson and Kremer passed Anderson soon after. They did not seriously challenge Passant and Scheefer, however.
"It was so good to get to the top (of Ajax)," 38-year-old Passant said. "Unless a ski breaks in half or I fall and knock myself out, I knew we won this. Finally."
Missing out on a chance at second place did little to dampen Anderson's spirits. After all, she wasn't even planning to compete; she was pressed into action when Gaston's twin brother and partner was injured less than two weeks before the Traverse.
"I swore I'd never do this again, but I did say yes pretty quickly," Anderson joked.
"I'm moving a little slow and one pinky toe is really not very happy ... but to finish in the top three is amazing. I have zero regrets."
So, will she be in the field in 2012?
"The jury is still out on that one," Anderson said with a grin.