Thursday, July 24, 2008

Oceanic Does Primal Quest Montana 2008

Primal Quest Montana June 23rd - July 2nd, 2008

A month late, but I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can sit down and write about my Primal Quest experience. I went to Primal Quest this year with team Oceanic Interactive, a team put together by my Mergeo teammate Dave Russell, which also included two east coast teammates whom neither of us had ever physically met before. When I signed up for this race in January, I had never done an adventure race longer than 6 hours long. Could I/we pull it all together and make this work?

Wednesday, June 18th:

Kathy and I loaded up the car and head off to Montana for Primal Quest – yay! The whole back of the car is filled with gear, and the bike is on a newly installed rack on the roof. An hour later, my car died at the top of Snoqualmie Pass. Abort Mission! Kathy called AAA to tow us back to North Bend. I called Wayne to come pick us up and take us home again.

Thursday, June 19th:

Kathy and I loaded up her car to head to Montana – Take 2.
This time, everything goes smoothly, and we arrived in Bozeman in the evening. Kathy is planning on staying until Sunday and will fly back, and I will drive her car back after Primal Quest is over.

Friday, June 20th:

Kathy and I went for a hike from the “M” trailhead up to the big M on Bridger Ridge. It is beautiful out here. I hiked further up the ridge, but it is never-ending, and I eventually got tired and turned around. Total time for hike: 1.5 hours. Time for a nap. I blamed my lack of energy on the altitude, which is only about 5000’ in Bozeman, about the low point of the whole race.

Kathy and I drove to Big Sky and met up with JD and his friend John, who had driven the RV up from Salt Lake City. We unloaded a bunch of unneeded items from the RV and packed them into John’s truck before John returned home. Being able to borrow an RV is really sweet, saving us a load of cash. Dave showed up, as did Warren and Kristine, our support crew. Warren volunteered to go pick up Kristen, who is flying into Bozeman at midnight or so, after her plane is delayed for many hours.

Saturday, June 21st:

The team is all here: Dave, JD, Kristen and myself. I have never met JD and Kristen before. Dave knew Kristen through an online training program (she was the coach), but he has never physically met JD or Kristen either. We bond.

Today we do skills and gear check. JD brought an amazing amount of stuff and had extras of everything, of which I borrowed elbow pads for riverboarding. I lent him a lightweight climbing sling. We all had our gear fairly well organized, a good start. Climbing skills involved ascending up to the top of a ski lift tower and rappelling back down. Kayak/riverboarding skills were on a nearby lake. We floated in the water to verify that our wetsuits were warm enough. The actual water will be ten degrees colder than the lake, however.

Kathy gets to meet the team. Warren and Kristine hiked up and down Lone Peak several times to scout it out for the team, although we will end up following a required trail that is well marked by the footprints of the people in front of us.

Sunday, June 22nd:

Time to sit around and fidget with gear. Dave’s friend Clint arrived. He is a key member of our crew, as he is a PT, bike mechanic and amateur photographer.
Our crew is great, and will be driving around in an RV and meeting us at the transition areas (TAs) in the RV to feed us, put us to bed, wake us up and gear us up as we switch from activity to activity. My father brought me a birthday cake, although my birthday is not until Wednesday. We ate the cake now. Sugar is good.

At the race meeting at 6pm, we heard about different legs of the race, and then got a really cool “flyover” video of the race. It is basically what we’ve seen from the publically available Document of Decision from the Forest Service. Unfortunately, in order to get the permits, PQ staff had to reveal the general layout of the course (at least the part through Forest Service/BLM land) to allow the public to comment on it. I had studied Forest Service maps and had a general feel for the route ahead of time, which helped make our map work a little easier.
Here is the race as presented in the pre-race meeting:

Trek: 200 miles 50,000 vert. feet
Bike: 210 miles 15,000 vert. feet
Riverboard: 10 miles
River Kayak: 72 miles
WW Kayak: 25 miles
Orienteer: 10 miles ??? vert feet

After the race, they handed us a huge set of maps and we raced back to the RV to eat and do the map work. Dave and I plotted out all the CPs and marked a route. We actually finished at a reasonable hour (10pm or so?). I thought it was going to take longer. I slept well.

Monday, June 23rd: We lined up at the start line at 9am. The first leg took us to the top of Lone Peak and back down again. Big Sky is at 7500 feet, and Lone Peak is above 11100 feet, so we got to do some serious high altitude vertical climbing right out of the starting gate. The fog burned off right before 9am, and the sun shone as we start. A helicopter flew around filming the start and fans cheered. Everyone is stoked and enthusiastic.

After this point, one day melds into another….

Leg 1: Climb to Lone Peak and back to Big Sky ( 10 miles, 4.5 hours)
The gun went off and we followed the crowd up the ski slope. Once we hiked past the ski lifts, we followed a ridge to the peak. Handlines were placed along the ridge in a few spots to protect us the steep cliff immediately to our right. Teams backed up waiting for the team in front of them to move along, but it was reasonably brief. After arriving at the top of Lone Peak, we checked in (almost all of the checkpoints (CPs) are manned and require us to check in), and then headed down along a different snow-covered ridge to a steep snowfield for some good glissading. We used trash compactor bags as makeshift sleds. I enjoyed being able to go downhill without using my feet, as I knew that I would abuse them more than enough later.
Some trekking, brief jogging and glissading got us back to Big Sky in 4 ½ hours in the top half of the field. JD was a tow-monster, carrying some extra team gear and towing Kristen in spots as well.

Leg 2: Big Sky to Gallatin River – Trek (35 miles, 14 hours)
Our crew met us with sandwiches and we headed off again in high spirits. The passport typically gives a suggested route for the legs, and there are occasional routes that are marked as mandatory. The route described in this leg was not mandatory, so we took a short cut up a ski slope to Beehive Basin instead of taking a roundabout road and managed to sneak ahead of a few other teams. This small coup early in the race felt good and raised our spirits for the grueling eight days ahead. As we were following a road a while later, we ran into two guys with PQ shirts on who unexpectedly directed us onto a trail, as the route I marked continued on roads. Maybe there was private property ahead on which they didn’t want us? In any case, we came upon CP 4 almost by accident, as it was not in the correct spot, but was at a different, earlier trail intersection a mile to the WNW. We continued on to the original site of CP4 just to verify that it wasn’t there also. This was the only CP that we found was oddly out of place.

We followed trails back down to Big Sky Meadow Village. We stopped at a shop to refill water and have a couple Gatorades, then headed on up to the Ousel Falls trailhead and back into the wilderness again. When the trail on our map turned out to be non-existent, we ended up too close to the Falls and not where we wanted to be. Several other teams arrived there with us. We knew where we wanted to be, so we started heading up a forest road then did some cross country trekking to get there. It looks like there were a few new roads, including paved ones that had fire hydrants installed, so I think that they were putting in a new subdivision here and the foot trail we were looking for on the map no longer existed. In any case, we were reminded that you need to keep an open mind about things. Now on Mule Creek, we settled in for a long slow uphill trek to a pass at 9500 feet.
We arrived at the pass just before dark. Both Dave and Kristen were feeling nauseous, and blamed it on the water that they were given at the last TA. In retrospect, it was probably altitude related. Dave vomited, and then said he felt better. I was unconvinced and a bit worried about this turn of events on Day 1, as already half the team was sick and we had not even finished the first trek yet. Ugh.

We followed a foot trail down the Buck Creek drainage through melting snow and water-logged ground. Snow level is in the 8000 foot range, with lots of runoff. At the bottom of the valley we turned onto a forest road that crossed the creek; however, it had been decommissioned, and there was no bridge across the cold icy waters. The creek seemed too high and fast moving to try to wade across in the middle of the night. Are we really supposed to do this? Yes, this was the first of many, many sketchy creek crossing that we would be doing on the course. JD went across a very skinny downed tree to make it to the other side as I pleaded with him to come back. The rest of us were definitely not crossing that way. Once on the other side, he was disconcertingly out of earshot over the roar of the creek. Did I mention it was the middle of the night also? We looked further down the creek and found some larger trees to scoot across; meanwhile, JD found that the forest road continued on and saw footprints in the dirt, which seemed to indicate a good sign. JD was always looking for footprints – he was definitely the hunter/tracker type – and his route finding ability would definitely help us move faster in future days.

We traversed along the other side of the valley for several miles. At this point, I became the main navigator (for the rest of the event), as Dave was feeling ill. I spent a lot of my effort here making sure I knew which ridge we were rounding or side valley we were contouring across, as it was dark and there were occasional spur forest roads that split off the road. We caught up with another team that was unsure where to go. They were at an intersection pondering whether to head down the wrong forest road back towards the river, and we left them to decide as we continued on. I tried to looked confused myself so that they wouldn’t follow too quickly behind us. Once over a pass, we veered off onto a side hiking trail that went down to the Taylor Creek drainage, then out a road to TA #2. We struggled in at 5am, quite tired by the all day and night trekking of the first two legs.
When we checked in, we saw a list of all the teams who were in front of us. We might have been 14th at this point, as we had passed several teams and set a reasonable pace.

The next leg, the inflatable kayak/riverboard section, opened at 5:30am. Wanting to get some rest, we quickly ate, then slept until 9:30 am. Did I mention how nice it was to have a crew that made us hot food and woke us up? Clint also worked on feet, which became a valuable service as the race wore on.

Leg 3: Gallatin River -- Inflatable Kayak aka “Ducky” (25 miles, 3 hours)
I have only been in a ducky once before, so I let JD steer while I sat in front. Despite all my kayak training, I cannot steer one of these things. They are wide flat-bottomed inflatables which will spin in a circle if you do a sweep stroke. I am better in front where I can just concentrate on going forward.

This section was fun, and fairly relaxing except for a few brief moments. One was when Dave became indecisive about on which side of a debris choked island in the middle of the river he wanted to pass, and he changed his mind at the last second. They paddled hard and barely made it around the left edge of a strainer, catching a little bit of wood to the back of their kayak as a log almost caught them. We later saw a video of another ducky that was trapped here, and the team had to be rescued. The other moment was going over one of the bigger rapids; our ducky went vertical and my feet, which I had tried to wedge into the sides of the ducky, actually flew over my head. I was briefly airborne, but landed squarely back in my seat. A couple other teams were not so lucky here and had to be fished out of the river.

Leg 4: Gallatin River – Riverboarding Epic (9 miles, 1.5 hours)
After the duckies, Kristin was getting cold in her 3mm wetsuit, and she wasn’t even in the water yet. I gave her my dry suit, which made her look like a puffy doll. At least she didn’t succumb to hypothermia. I had a 5mm wetsuit that was quite comfy, and I put on my Reed dry top as well for the riverboard section.

The PQ volunteer who sent us off told us that there was a medical check a quarter mile down stream on the right at which we were required to stop, but there wasn’t. It was actually 4 miles downstream. We later called this race Information Quest.. JD was lagging behind us even when we were floating down the river without kicking. It turns out that his kneepads were some funky BMX kneepad that was only attached below the knee, and the protective knee cup actually got pulled back by the current and acted as if he were pulling a bucket through the water. I went back to check on him a few times, and later found him writhing in pain on his riverboard. He had turned his kneepads around so that the cup did not drag, but then bashed his now unprotected knee on a rock as he went through a hole. I imagined him not being able to walk the next trekking section. OK, so now we have two nauseous people and a cripple, and it’s only been the first 24 hours. Come on, people, keep it together.

After a mandatory portage of House Rock, we hit the “Mad Mile” which was a long series of serious rapids. I saw a board floating down the river without a person on it, and I tried to capture it. Just then, a girl floated down the river without a board and asked me for help. I grabbed her and got her close to the side of the river. Even then, it was moving along at 10 mph and we had to float awhile before and eddy appeared and I got her into it. Kristen showed up and stayed with her, and I headed out to find her board. Dave had captured it, thinking it was JD’s, and had it in the next eddy downstream. I was able to hike the board back up to the girl and reunite her with it.

The misinformed volunteer had also told us that the takeout for the riverboarding section was on river right; however, there was a PQ banner on the left which suggested we stay on that side, but I didn’t realize that we were at the takeout (on the left) until two guys started waving and threw a throw bag at me. “I didn’t know I was in trouble until they threw the throwbag at me”, I remember thinking later. Then I started to get worried. I managed to pull into the bushes shortly downstream from the takeout and grabbed Kristen’s leg as she overshot the takeout as well, pulling her in. We hiked out through the bushes. JD, who hadn’t helped with the rescue, was at the TA way ahead of us, with threats of penalty since we hadn’t stayed together, but given the chaos on the riverboarding section, I think that the staffers were happy that we all got off the water safely. As we crossed a bridge over the river to the TA, we saw a couple riverboards float down the river past the TA. More carnage was happening upstream.
By the time we changed, ate and got ready for the next trekking leg, PQ staff had closed the riverboard section to the rest of the teams, as it was too risky. There were a couple teams stranded on the wrong side of the river, teams without boards, etc. A lot of water was moving down that river and they had promised us it would be epic. It was.

Leg 5: Shenango to Trail Creek – Trek (45 miles, 22 hours)

We started at 4:30pm (on 6/24) with a hike up the road to Telegraph Ridge, which was a steep climb up a road that turned into a disappearing trail over blown down trees. JD found a large glass insulator from an old telegraph line and carried it for the rest of the trek. He also collected any trash he found. We topped out climbing through snow to a shallow saddle just as the sun went down, and then changed into warmer nighttime clothes while we caught the view. We dropped down another drainage to CP11, which was a little tricky to find. The tracks came out onto a road which looked like the road intersection that was at the correct elevation, but the correct road intersection was a couple hundred meters further on. We spent some time wandering about before we continued on to the correct spot. All those tracks in the snow will just confuse the people behind us even more, heh heh.
More forest roads led to a trail down Wheeler Gulch. I’m beginning to learn that trails on the map are anything but. A lot of these trails are half covered in snow, indiscernible, or covered in downed trees, if not erased by creeks trickling from the snowmelt. Wheeler Gulch dumped us into Cottonwood Creek where once more we had to figure out how to get across a fairly significant creek without a bridge. Upstream a ways, it looked like a couple fallen trees were made for crossing the creek, and we crossed over onto a clear trail that went up Cottonwood Creek.

Kristen had recovered from yesterday’s nausea, but Dave was still vomiting and nauseous. When we came to a sign for a cabin on the map, I thought we could stop and get out of the cold dampness for an hour or two. The cabin was not right next to the trail as marked, but was off on a spur trail that took us much further than expected. After twenty wasted minutes, we found the cabin, locked. Du-oh! I will call this “the cabin incident”, and “remember the cabin incident” was my euphemism for “I think we’re tired and getting stupid – is this really a good idea?”. In any case, we continued on, a little more tired. We went up and over a snowy pass, then bivvied on the other side for an hour just below the snow line, waking up shivering at dawn. (bivvied = lie down on the cold ground. We didn’t think about pulling out the tent or the sleeping bag that we were carrying). It was still a long hike past Mystic Lakes and Bear Lakes to the next TA. One of my navigation highlights was that I recognized that even though we were following a very well defined trail at one point, that trail went down a different valley than was marked on the map. Both valleys hit the main logging road at the bottom in slightly different spots so it was more of an intellectual exercise than anything. However, we did see another team up at the pass wandering around off trail as if they were looking for a non-existent trail down the correct valley. In the Bear Lakes area, the navigation was also tricky as there were more trails than were marked on the map. We kept playing leapfrog with another team that would get ahead of us, then wander off in the wrong direction, then catch up with us again and get ahead of us, and then wander off in the wrong direction again. We were slow, as Dave was feeling really ill again and even wondering if he would have to drop out, but we were steady and fairly accurate in our navigation. We eventually arrived at the Trail Creek TA in the afternoon. This was an unmanned TA, and our crew had left our bikes and bike gear for us to ride down to Carbella on the Yellowstone, thirty-some miles away. Everything had been lying in the sun and was very hot and melty. I heard that another team had a Coca Cola bottle explode in their pack here due to the heat.

Leg 6: Trail Creek to Carbella -- Bike (34 miles, 3 hours)

The bike leg turned out to be really easy, as it was mostly flat/downhill. Several miles before the TA, however, we were caught by a thunderstorm and thoroughly soaked. Lightning was flashing all over, and the power lines next to us buzzed when lightning got too close. I was a little worried, but we soldiered on, and we pulled into TA 6 just in time for dinner. Today is my birthday.

Leg 7: Carbella to Big Timber – Bike (74 miles, 5.5 hours)
This was supposed to be a kayak leg, but with the Yellowstone moving at 10 mph, they decided to turn into a bike leg. Lots of standing waves and serious eddy lines with whirlpools along the edge of the 75 mile section of river would have made paddling dangerous, and they could not provide sufficient safety personnel in case someone flipped.

We caught a few hours of sleep and headed out for this bike leg at midnight or so. We all felt really good on this leg, and Dave was feeling better and so decided to continue on, although he had earlier flirted with the possibility of dropping out and letting the rest of us continue on unranked. We all fell into a pace line and kept rotating it every couple minutes, with Kristen taking a guiding role. I think we averaged 15mph through this leg, as it was mostly on paved road, and we caught our crew just waking up as we pulled up at breakfast time in Big Timber. I always have food on my mind, and I felt like I was eating twice as much as everyone else. Food is good. I also grabbed a couple more of my pre-made 12 hour food bags for the next two legs to take with me, as we are going to have another unmanned bike-to-hike transition this time.

Leg 8: Big Timber to Crazy Mountains -- Bike (20 miles, 2 hours)
This leg is short, but then we hit an unmanned TA where we drop our bikes and then trek from there, so we bring all of our trekking gear and food for crossing the Crazy Mountains. I let JD navigate as I did not have my map board set up. I discovered, however, that his map and compass navigation were less reliable than his hunter/tracker/route finding skills. We had cycle computers and I measured a turnoff to be approximately six miles away. At 6.3 miles, I asked him if he knew where we are, as there was a side road that might be our turn (it was). He said we should continue on. After 8 miles, he was still looking for Hwy 23 (we passed this road one mile after we left the previous trailhead) and Hwy 25 (this road goes off the spur road we are looking for rather than the main road). Looking at the map now, I think that the 23 and 25 on the map are section numbers rather than highways in any case. He gave me the map, but kept biking, as he said he cannot stop. I discovered where we were and caught up with him and the group. Luckily, the spur road is a loop, and we could go in from the other side (a quarter mile from where we finally stopped), so we didn’t lose much time. I’ll let Dave navigate the next bike section, however, if he can stop puking.

Leg 9: Crazy Mountains – Trek (32 miles, 18 hours)

We transitioned to the trek at high noon on 6/26, now three days into the race. Dave had mentioned that Chris Caul had gotten lost in the Crazy Mountains during pre-race reconnaissance, which is why he created a GPS rule that allowed teams to carry a GPS in a sealed pouch in case they got lost. If a team opened the pouch and used the GPS, however, they would suffer a severe penalty. Luckily, we were never in such a dire position that the choice came up.

So, I was expecting the Crazy Mountains to be a difficult navigation problem. However, the first half of the Crazy Mountain trek was a nice easy trail up a river valley. We worked our way up to a steep snow covered pass (9800’) and dropped over a pass into another valley, then followed this valley down. The trail itself was hard to follow, but the valley only went one way, and the only difficulty was crossing the creek to make sure we did not get stuck on the wrong side of it. At the bottom of the South Fork valley, we then had to head up the Middle Fork to another pass. Both Dave and I were really feeling bonked at this point, but with only a couple hours of light left, we wanted to get to the next CP before dark. In retrospect, we should have taken a small nap.
We headed up the Middle Fork to Moose Lake. It was not obvious where the trail crossed the creek (no bridges, of course), so we continued up the “wrong” side of the creek waiting for an appropriate opportunity. Nothing showed up until we were all the way to Moose Lake. At this point, I think we were all slipping into the stupid phase. Dave and JD decided that they were going to build a bridge across the creek right at the entrance to Moose Lake (think “cabin incident”) using logs they found. I suggested taking off our shoes and socks and wading across, as the creek was only a foot deep. Kristen sat on the shore and said that we all weren’t listening to each other. I had my shoes and socks half off when Dave got a large log out to make the bridge, so I stopped to see if their plan was not so hare-brained after all. He dropped it into the creek and it floated down the creek. I waded across the river and started putting my shoes back on, telling them how easy and quick it was. Kristen waded across without taking her shoes off, still mentioning how we weren’t working as a team. JD got his feet wet as well, while Dave took his shoes/socks off and kept them dry. Meanwhile, JD was saying how we should have cut up an earlier side valley leading up to CP. I was still fixated on staying on the trail that went past Moose Lake (although it was under snow) as that was the required route. I told JD and Kristen to go ahead and see if they could find the trail while Dave put on his shoes. When Dave was ready to go, they were nowhere to be found and I did not see their tracks in the snow (there were lots of bare spots around the lake). Stupid. I yelled for them, and we eventually found them. We found some tracks in the snow and followed them. I read the map the wrong way and headed up and over a rise instead of contouring around it to the CP. When we were at the top looking down at the other lake we wanted to be at, I got all confused as to where I was, so I let JD take over, who then guided us to the right spot. This was the only time in the race where I got really confused, and I think it was all due to falling into a deep stupid funk. It was obvious that our team dynamic was breaking down as well.

We got to the CP just after dark to find it hanging over a stream with the punch missing. We wrote our name on it and continued on. I had surveyed the mountains around us as the sun was setting to get an image of what pass we were heading for. There was a team a little ahead of us and another one a little behind us at this point. We traversed up to the pass following the footprints of the people ahead of us in the snow. We caught up with them, as they were mulling aimlessly around up by the 9600’ summit, unsure where to go from there. I followed the snow onto a scree field around to the west side of the summit, where we crossed a steep snowfield to make the 9500’ pass on the other side. From there, we hooked a right down a ridge, and then dropped off it into Trespass Creek valley. I felt good knowing where to go and how to get us through the pass, and we had passed another team. Heading down Trespass Creek valley, JD got annoyed that I still kept pulling my compass out all the time and looking at the map, even though at this point we were following a cattle path of tracks down the valley and the valley only went one way. I let him take over, and he got us moving much faster than I had been. We got onto the wrong side of the river from where the trail was supposed to be (it was all under snow) and not knowing if we would hit a side river that was uncrossable, we found a way to ford the creek to the correct side, then kept heading down river. We were zombies by the time we hit Cottonwood Creek road, and I would forget what was on the map seconds after I looked at it, so I spent all my effort ensuring that we were still going in the right direction. The road continued on and on and on, and we were all in pain when we finally struggled into TA 9 just after dawn. Pain became a common theme on our treks.

Leg 10: Crazy Mountains to Bridger Range -- Bike (96 miles, 12 hours)

Another century ride. This one took us out to the highway, then up the highway to Ringling, then down a dirt road through a canyon to the Bridgers. I really enjoyed the canyon, and the rolling downhill rides made me feel really fast. The uphills put me in my place, however, as I was the slowest on this leg. I surprised her when I told her that I had never biked more than 50 miles at a time before this. Kristen gave me some biking tips and a few pushes along the way to encourage me, and we made it up and over Bridger Pass. She rode up the hills like they weren’t even there. We decided to take a shortcut off the main highway which was a little shorter, but in retrospect, was probably a much more difficult route, as it was a long climb up a dirt road and then an equally long descent to the TA. We stopped at a farm house a filled up with water at their pump, which we really needed at that point. Going down Rocky Mountain road after the long climb was a real treat, and JD and I managed to clock a maximum speed of 38 mph on our cyclocomputers. Sweet!

Leg 11: Bridger Ridge – Trek (37 miles, 18 hours)

Our crew informed us that team Nike had done this trek in 12 hours during the day, and that Merril had done it in 20 hours at night. Dave and Kristen thought we should do this section in the day. We slept for a couple hours and left about midnight, as we expected to take five hours to reach the ridge top. We followed an ATV trail up to the right that never connected back to the main trail, and then we spent an extra hour bushwhacking our way back down to the creek. The trail up was indiscernible in many spots, and we criss-crossed the creek several times trying to follow it. Side streams came from everywhere. We eventually made the ridge five hours later, as promised, although we could have done it a little faster in daylight. We took a 20 minute nap at the top and headed down along the trail below the ridge, which definitely had a tricky start. We saw another group that had bivvied up near Sacagawea Peak who had been wandering around in the dark up there the previous night trying to find the high route. I don’t think there is a high route for the first half of the trek. Half way along the ridge, we round Ross Peak and now have the option of taking the high ridge route or the lower route that has a lot more up and down and more distance. Dave was feeling nauseous and we were both worried about his possible altitude sickness and worried about water up on top of Bridger Ridge (snow was the only option for the full day up there), so we went with the low route. The low route was long and arduous. Each trek seems to take more and more of a toll on us.

We finally got off Bridger Ridge, and then we had to walk 5km into Bozeman to a park at a lake. It is amazing how arduous a walk along the highway can be after 18 hours of trekking on little sleep. We had been struggling the whole time to get to the “M” trailhead, but mentally, we just weren’t ready to have to walk back into town. In any case, we got to TA 11 to find that we were in 8th place. One team ahead of us was helicoptered off Bridger Ridge after one of their team was incapacitated due to injury. Another team got disqualified (I think it was the team that kept getting lost earlier) after they got split up and one of their teammates headed back to the previous TA while the other went on. Another team, which was already unranked due to losing one member (you can drop a teammate while at a TA and still continue as a team of three, albeit unranked) decided to throw in the towel due to the unnecessary wear and tear on themselves. Not to mention, we passed the team that had camped on Sacagawea Peak the previous night.

Leg 12: Bozeman to Shenango – Bike (50 miles, 7 hours)
We got another good solid sleep. Kristen mentions that she has never slept so much during a race in her life, and she has a hard time sleeping for much more than a couple hours at a time. In any case, I need my sleep, and I think that we are doing well because of it.

We bike out of Bozeman. Navigating country roads in the dark is a little trickier than it seems, but we never stopped for more than a minute, and we eventually found the trailhead up to Little Bear Cabin, where we passed another team that had started out an hour ahead of us. They might have had some bike trouble, but I also like to think that they were wandering around in the dark for a bit while we were sleeping. This race is definitely a war of attrition. We made it through the night with no problems, and we even enjoyed a little double track on the way down that is fast and fun. JD was racing and jumping rocks, which made Kristen frown, and she frowned even more when he got a flat. While we are repairing the flat, another team passed us. We caught up with them at the bottom and were racing them back to the TA, at which point I commited a folly which I will call the “Miles Stupid Flying Bike Trick Incident”.

My bike is really fast and fun, and I was ahead of both my team and the other team. When I looked back to see if my team was with me, I could not quite figure out who was who. While concentrating on looking back, I turned my wheel and steered myself off the road. I felt my bike slipping off the side of the road into the ditch and I hit the brakes, hard.

At this point I found myself doing a 180 degree flip in two directions simultaneously, and I took a flying crash into some bushes along the side of the road. I am very lucky that bushes broke my fall, and that I did not injure myself or my bike. I rolled out of the bushes, grabbed my bike, and (perhaps foolishly) caught the other team again, but Kristen started yelling at me to slow down, as we were not in a sprint to the finish. She was understandably freaked, as she has been a bike racer for many years and has seen her share of horrible accidents. I and my bike were fine; even the map board and the helmet light were in perfect condition. Very lucky. And I need to learn to bike in a straight line.

Leg 13 Climb / Orienteer / Rappel (10 miles, 15.5 hours)

We headed out for the climb on a beautiful morning. So far, the weather has been really nice, with only one thunderstorm and another brief shower. The first part of the climb was the free climb, which Kristen was apprehensive about. She used the rope as a crutch in spots, and the volunteers looked the other way as she hauled herself over the really difficult spots by pulling up on the rope itself. After that we tackled several pitches of mechanical ascending. I realized that JD was having some problems when I came up behind him and found him hanging half way up a free hanging ascent. Apparently, he did not have his ascenders set up correctly, and when he went to hang on his upper ascender, he was actually hanging on his lower one. This required him to pull his weight up with his arms to move the lower ascender up. He had apparently been doing this for a few moderate pitches, but now that he was on an ascent in which he could not use his feet to push off the rock, he had come to a grinding halt and had collapsed in exhaustion halfway up the pitch. Du-oh!
As our team all has to use the same rope, I sat there waiting while JD rested for what seemed like five minutes. I watched him and talked with him and eventually diagnosed his problem and told him that his upper lanyard was way too long. With climbing volunteers looking worried, JD unclipped his upper ascender and fixed the problem. There was really not much else he could do at that point. The climbing volunteer muttered something about still having two points of contact (one being the backup absorbica that we were required to use) and looked away.
Back in business, we continued to the top, although JD was physically wiped out at this point. However, when helicopters came by with the camera crews, he perked right up and marched up the rope with zeal. Once the helicopter flew back over the ridge, he collapsed again to catch his breath.
At the top is a hand line that runs across the top of the fin, catching us some air beneath our feet. Kristen had mentioned her fear of heights, so when she broke down saying she couldn’t do it and couldn’t go on, I was somewhat prepared to talk her through it and keep her moving. We took a while, but we all made it to the top. Game on.

Between the climb and the rappel was an optional orienteering section. Each orienteering PP (punch point) we got was worth an extra bonus hour, and two of them were worth two hours (I was not informed which two, however – oops!) for a total of twelve possible extra hours. For the people watching on the web from back home, this was why we wandered up a really tall mountain while everyone else went around it. Only we and Nike cleared all of the orienteering points. We dispatched the ones on top of Garnet Mountain with ease, getting them in an average of 30 minutes apiece. PP5 was definitely tricky. Dave found a spot where he could see a rocky outcropping above the trees, and then directed me by voice as I wandered through the forest towards it. There were actually three outcroppings, and the PP was between the three.
Stoked at our adeptness, we decided to get all of the PPs on the other side of Storm Castle Creek as well. This was likely a mistake, as it was getting dark and there was a lot of bushwhacking involved with these, but we had not really thought about alternatives as to how to get to the top of the rappel. We headed up Purdy Creek drainage by Storm Castle and over the top, getting there as the sun set. We wondered about the ½ mile barrier around Storm Castle peak being prohibited and tried to comply with that rule. I noticed that Nike went up the trail almost all the way to the peak, so I am unsure of whether we are supposed to read between the lines and ignore some of the prohibitions that are not clearly stated (i.e. it did not say a half mile radius, for example, just a half mile barrier).
We spread out going down through the forest to a logging road and found the first PP, then headed over to a short ridge where we hoped to find the next one. We came to the high point, a small knoll on which there were two trees, but the PP was not there. We knew we were in the right spot, so we moved on, planning to report it missing. If it was 100 feet off the knoll and we missed it in the dark, that was my fault. We dropped down through the trees to intersect some logging roads, and eventually located ourselves fairly reliably. We dropped down a clear cut to another logging road and tried to find the next PP on a small spur off a high point. Dave and I went at it from the side, but could not find it. We were just wandering in the woods. We went at it from the high point briefly, but also did not see the spur. Eventually, we gave up, and went back to JD and Kristen, who were sitting by the logging road. JD gave it a try, and he located the spur by looking for the spur rather than for a compass direction, and followed it down to the PP. He scored us a bonus hour due to his tracking skills. After that, we dropped down to the Shenango Creek and following the creek down to the last PP, which was fairly well hidden along the creek. Kristen took a slip into the creek, so we stopped to get her into dry clothes. Then we went to find the rappel. How hard could that be after finding all these orienteering markers? We wandered up into the general right area, but after an hour of wandering, I felt like we should just sleep instead of wandering above steep bluffs in the middle of the night without direction. It was a difficult decision to make as we could see the lights of the TA down below us. I got us to stop and set up the tent. Kristen had fallen asleep and was snoring peacefully, so I threw the sleeping bag over her (I should have woken her and moved her into the tent). Dave and JD slept in the tent, and I put on my warm clothes and enjoyed a nice nap in my bivy bag. I think I was the warmest and driest and didn’t realize that the others were cold and wet – In hindsight, I probably should have done more to get them to change into all warm dry clothes and have all three of them stay in the tent together. We slept for two hours, and when we got up at dawn, we could spot the rappel site a quarter mile away on the next bluff. After a quick rappel down, we were eating a cold dinner back at the RV and taking another quick nap.

Leg 14: Indian Ridge to Ennis Lake – Trek from Hell (34 miles, 18 hours)
From Shenango, we got driven across the highway a mile to the Indian Creek trailhead and headed out at 9am or so. Indian Ridge does not have much water for a while, so when we hit snow, we used it to eat or cool off in the heat of the day. At 8700’, we turned off and headed down the ridge along Hell Roaring Creek. Dave’s wife Eloise said that she on the web as several teams missed this turn and spent hours heading up the wrong ridge, and her heart rate went up as our team got closer and closer to the turn (each team had a Spot tracker that posted its location on the web). We made the correct turn, to her relief, and on to CP 29 at Spanish Creek. Meanwhile, JD is eating M&Ms and other small candies that he finds on the trail. This is one of his eccentricities. Teams ahead of us must be dribbling food out of their packs or something. We arrived about 2:30pm on 6/30, but we were only one third of the way done. We continued on into Cowboys Heaven area, which was a beautiful, magical place. I would really like to go back there when I am not sleep-deprived. We joined up with another team that kept us going at a faster pace than we normally would have gone. The trail was good for a while, but as we continued along, more blowdown appeared, game tracks wandered off to each side and the trail got fainter. The team that we were following stopped to look at the map, and I realized that there was only 20 minutes until sundown and I had not been keeping track of where we were, as I was just trying to keep up with the people ahead of me. After a quick introduction, I worked with the other navigator to come up with a guess of where we were, and we headed off quickly to find the trail again while we could still see terrain features through the trees. Just as the sun went down, we located the trail, which jumped over a short ridge and up another valley. Working together, we followed the trail up to its end. Here, the passport directions told us to follow flagging to another trail 1 km away. It helped to have a group of eight of us, as finding a small piece of flagging in the dark is not easy, and after a few false starts, we got going down a forest road that seemed to be taking us in somewhat of the wrong direction, but later on, the flagging directed us to an unmapped trail into the woods that eventually connected up with the trail that would take us down to Ennis Lake. JD had Dave on tow now, and Dave looked like a marionette, getting jerked along. And Kristen felt like she was walking on daggers, but kept hiking.

After reaching the last crest, we thought that the 2400 foot downhill would be a relief, but it just got more painful. It went on and on. JD raced ahead, pulling Dave, following faint tracks. I tried to keep Kristen’s headlight behind me and JD’s in front of me both in sight. We left the other team behind us when they stopped to look at their map. I had our team’s map but felt helpless, as I was just racing to keep up. Kristen’s temper was rising as she was feeling left behind. JD was in “grind it out and get us off the hill mode”. I was upset that I did not know where we were any more. The lights shining up at us from around Ennis Lake were disorienting and also a bit deceiving, as we later realized. We had to rely on JD getting us to the right spot, and in the end, we came out right at the trailhead we were supposed to be at. We were all getting on edge, though. Once we got to the trailhead, we had to walk 5 km to the TA at Meadow Lake Campground. It was the longest 5km of my life, and it was on a flat road. We were all hurting at our limit. We made it to the TA. We had only a 35 mile bike ride to the finish line. Time to take a nap.

Leg 15: Ennis Lake to Big Sky – Bike (30 miles, 3.5 hours)
I was worried about Dave, as he looked like a complete zombie coming off the mountain, but after an hour nap, we all looked like we could go again. Our crew was trying to make sense of how we were doing position-wise and get us going. We had scored 12 bonus hours in the orienteering and so were ahead of one or more teams ahead of us, but by how much we didn’t really know. As we headed out on the bikes, we were all getting a slow start. I think that this was a very emotional time for all of us. I was realizing the sense of accomplishment that we were about to finish. The sun was just rising, the animals were out, and the world was beautiful. And we were a ragtag team that was thrown together, had not even met each other, and here we were at the edge of the top 10. Dave had battled nausea for most of the race and was digging deep into his reserves. Kristen was in pain and had even threatened to quit the night before, which was her own way of coping, I suppose (I assumed she didn’t mean it, and if she mentioned it again after we took a nap, I would have slapped her silly). JD was completely exhausted, and yet was still the rope gun with the tow belt. He does not seem to give up, ever. I felt like we were almost ready to fall apart and yet at the same time we were on the brink of our biggest accomplishment ever. We worked our way up the long ascent to Big Sky. Dave lost his temper with Kristen. Kristen was upset with JD. I don’t know what they were saying about me, but this race rips off all the fluffy feel-good part of your character and exposes a raw blistered core. Only a couple more hours. Finally, we get onto the main road where a vehicle waited to escort us in style to the finish line at Big Sky a few minutes away. We rode across the line together as a team and our crew was waiting to congratulate us. Well done, everybody!

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