Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Adventuring Racing in Moab at CheckpointTracker Nationals

Newly engaged, Kathy and I decided it was time to visit both sets of parents, who all live in Utah now. I conveniently chose a week which coincided with the Checkpoint Tracker Nationals 24 hour Adventure Race in Moab. After visiting her parents for a few days in Salt Lake City, we headed down to Moab on Tuesday to visit my parents and do some wedding research. On Thursday, Christi, Murray and Ian joined me at my parents' townhouse in downtown Moab for the Friday race. We raced as Team Verve.

On Thursday evening, we staged our gear. We discovered that we would riverboard from Red Cliffs Lodge to Sandy Beach, where we staged our kayak paddles and a small backpack with food and water. From there, we would kayak 25 miles to Goldbar Campground, where we staged the rest of our gear, including food, extra bladders of water, bike/trekking/climbing gear, and even our maps and passport. The first 25 miles of the race we could do without a map (just aim down-river). We kept only our riverboarding gear for the 8am start. At Goldbar, we would be doing a trekking/climbing loop that would return to Goldbar, then a bike/hike section that would take us all the way back to Red Cliffs Lodge. At each stage, we would be given further maps and instructions about the exact nautre of what we were doing next.

Frankly, I was a little discombobulated by dropping off all of our gear the night before the race. Only later in the evening did I realize that we should have a tow rope on the kayak; however, I had not only left my kayak tow rope in Seattle, but I had left my extra bungies/cord and mini-carabiners in my gear box at Goldbar where I could not access it any more. Argh!

I was also a little concerned about being too cold during the riverboarding section. I had decided not to bring gloves (a mistake) and to bring a farmer john wetsuit instead of my drysuit. However, temperatures were dipping down to freezing at night here, and I did not look forward the early morning swim. Although the weather for Friday looked pretty nice, I knew that I would get pretty cold. I decided to wear a long-sleeve wool shirt and gortex jacket as an upper layer. I only needed to endure the cold and wet for a couple hours before the sun warmed everything up to reasonable temperatures.

Friday morning, Team Verve showed up at Red Cliffs Lodge for the 8am start. At the start, teams ran 30 yards or so to a ramp, then filed down the ramp to spread out and launch off of the boat dock. My team found each other, then headed down river in the front third of the pack. The first rapids was the only one that had a hole worth avoiding, and safety kayakers directed teams safely around it; otherwise the riverboard section was fairly tame. However, I did find it more difficult work than I expected. By, the end, only half an hour later and two miles downstream, I was out of breath. I briefly struggled to stand up once we hit dry land again. My hands were blocks of wood.

After a quick transition, we were on the water in two-person inflatable kayaks. Ian and Murray took the lead, with Christi and me in the boat behind them. Ian saved the day by producing a tow rope for us! He made it from a 10 foot long 2mm bungie cord, which he used to attach himself to Christi (rather than to our boats, so that they could unattach quickly if needed). I think that the tow really helped us to move forward more consistently and quickly, and we passed many other teams during our 4 hours on the water.

At Goldbar, we received an aerial map of Poison Spider mesa and checkpoint (CP) coordinates. Each team member also received a wristband as well, which we each had to punch at every CP to show that the whole team had been to the CP (I really liked this idea). The aerial map was a bit confusing to read, as it did not have topology information. Additionally, the CPs did not have any extra description as to where they were beyond their coordinates, and they were reasonably well hidden in many cases. Navigation was tough.

We headed up the Corona Arch trail, then past it to CP3 and a via ferrata. This hand line took us up a slickrock wall, then across the top of Bowtie Arch to access Poison Spider Mesa. At this point, we had to find 5 CPs in any order, then do a tyrolean traverse and a rappel as we headed back down Culvert Canyon back to Goldbar. We decided to do the CPs in the following order: 4,7,5,6,8. A couple top teams decided to do the traverse/rappel before finishing the rest of the CPs, and were severely penalized for doing CPs out of order. It pays to read the directions carefully.

We took a bearing and headed generally west to CP4 while Ian got a handle on how to read the map. Cliffs could be discerned only by their shadows on the map. Copses of trees showed up as gray smudges, and sand was generally a slightly different color than slickrock. In the heat of the chase, it was somewhat difficult to digest this new way of reading the terrain. Nevertheless, Ian took us straight to CP 4, which was a steep climb up and down slickrock to a copse of trees. We turned and headed along the canyon rim to CP 7. I wanted to stay somewhat inland from the rim in case we were blocked by any side canyons. In retrospect, I should have avoided trying to make decisions when I was not the one holding the map, as following the rim was quicker. We found CP 7 at the bottom of a short, steep climb down into the canyon towards its upper end, then cut back across the mesa towards CP 5.

We skirted left of several steep fins and cliffs to ensure that we could access the appropriate bluff, then turned and headed to its end. CP 5 was well hidden near the end, accessible by climbing up a narrow slot to a high ledge. We headed back off the bluff towards CP 6 when our navigational wheels fell off. I decided at some point that we could go right until we reached the canyon rim which we were traveling parallel to, then follow it to a trail; however, we had already gone far enough that we were beyond it, and we crossed the trail without seeing it (trails are not very visible on slickrock). We veered too far right of CP 6. Meanwhile, a high hill with a left-facing cliff lay ahead of us, which was exactly where we wanted to go. Looking back at what happened, I think that Ian was being too quiet and unassertive of a navigator for my tastes, and so I started interjecting my thoughts and opinions about what to do without enough data to back it up, leading us astray. I could have been more constructive. We recovered, however, and backtracked to CP 6.

From CP 6 to CP 8, we planned to follow the Golden Spike trail most of the way, then drop down to CP 8. We followed the trail for a while, but then got off onto a side trail that eventually dead-ended overlooking a canyon wash. We turned north and headed up to the rim to pick up the Golden Spike trail, but when we found it again, we were unsure how far along it we were. Ian had a foot pod that placed us earlier on the trail, but bearings to recognizable points below us put us much further along the rim. We spent some time discussing options, then dropped down in the general direction of the CP. After way too much fruitless searching, we eventually got close enough to the canyon to recognize specific features and reorient ourselves enough to find the well-hidden CP. After our dallying, however, the cut-off for the tyrolean traverse and rappels was now quickly approaching.

We dropped down along the canyon rim to the location of the tyrolean traverse to find 35 to 40 people ahead of us in line for the three ropes. The cut-off was in 15 minutes (and for the rappel, in 45 minutes). The staff assured us that they would make every attempt to get everyone across. I considered that we could skip the Tyrolean and do the rappel instead (which would probably have fewer people waiting), but I really wanted to do this 350 foot ropes traverse across the canyon. We can do a rappel any day. So we waited.

A team that was on-deck for one of the three ropes complained to the staff that they wanted to use a different rope. A person in front of them had been stuck on the rope high above the canyon floor for 15 minutes, and the staff had not reacted. Finally, the staff closed down another rope briefly to retrieve him, and traffic started flowing again a little faster across the traverse. Almost everyone after us decided to skip the traverse and the wait, so we ended up being one of the last teams across, 45 minutes later.

Ian demonstrated the correct technique on how to do a Tyrolean. Push off with your feet, lie horizontal and reach out with your hands early to pull yourself along and not lose momentum. I demonstrated the incorrect technique and slowed to a stop out in the middle of the canyon. I had visions of the guy who eventually had to be rescued as I huffed and puffed, eventually pulling myself to the far wall. We then headed down canyon towards the rappel to find that they had taken it down already. Drat.

In the dark now, we stayed along the left side of the canyon as we descended following ledges just above the canyon floor, eventually exiting Culvert Canyon across the street from Goldbar. At the TA, we were given instructions to go to the next CP, which was at the Slickrock Trail trailhead. Time to gear up for the bike ride. We decided to take our trekking shoes as well, just in case there was a lot of hiking on the "bike and hike" section. I'm glad we did so.

We jumped into a pace line heading back up Potash Road, across Hwy 191 onto the bike path, into town, then up Sand Flats Road to the Slickrock trailhead. Christi's back brakes were rubbing badly; both Murray and I tried to fix it to no avail. She would just have to work harder on her bike. At the Slickrock trail, staff presented us with another rogaine-style loop of CPs using an aerial map, which we could do either on foot or on bike. I choose that my team do it on foot, as the trail is incredibly technical and I cannot navigate well on a bike, especially at night while trying to follow little white dots across the slickrock marking the trail.

Slickrock Trail navigation went better, as we had a well-marked trail to watch out for that allowed us to get reasonably close to the CP before we had to search for it. I plotted CP 17 incorrectly, and after a couple attempts at finding it, we rechecked the coordinates and found it on the other side of the trail. CP 19 was also difficult, as the trail that overlayed our map seemed to be slightly off the trail in the aerial map, which caused us to look in an area 50 to 100 meters away from the actual CP for several minutes. Otherwise, we ran the loop with few problems.

The only remaining CP was on La Sal Mountain Loop Road at the top of the Kokapelli Trail, many miles away and 4000 feet above us. We worked our way up the road at what felt like a crawl. The only navigational decision that to make was whether to go up the Kokapelli Trail (3.5 miles) or to go around on Sandflats Road/La Sal Loop Road (7.9 miles). The former was difficult single track and the latter was flat 2WD road. When we arrived at our decision point, the team in front of us had just turned around and come off the Kokapelli trail, having decided it was too difficult. We conservatively decided to go around on the easy roads.

At the top now (8300 feet elev.) we stopped to put on every piece of clothing that we had carried, and I texted Kathy to let her know that we were an hour from the finish. I wore a puffy jacket, a wind shirt and a gortex jacket. Christi and Ian wore balaclavas. Temperatures were in the high 30s at 6am and we had a 17 mile, 4000 foot descent back to Red Cliffs Lodge. One short section of road was dotted with ice, but otherwise we enjoyed an exhilarating hour of high-speed downhill on paved road. During the day the views would have been spectacular. We pulled into Red Cliffs Lodge shortly after 7:30am. Kathy and my dad had driven out to meet us as we crossed the line in 6th place. Breakfast awaits!

Other Seattle teams that came to Nationals were Dart and Manny's. Dart managed to pop one of their riverboards on a sharp edge as they turned down to the dock, 20 yards from the start. They ran back to their room and inflated a spare one, spotting everyone 10 minutes in the process, and they still finished 2nd (only a few minutes out of 1st place). Manny's is a really fun team. We saw them on the Slickrock Trail, and they looked like they were enjoying themselves, as they always do. Kathy hung out with them at the BBQ after the race (while I was sleeping), and helped them enjoy the keg of beer (Manny's, of course) that they had driven half way across the country. If you can't win the race, win the party. They get my vote.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Desert Winds: The Greatest Race That Never Was

I knew that the Desert Winds Expedition Adventure Race was going to be an epic, but it surpassed even my highest expectations. The race was doable, but pushed our limits in several ways and threw suprise challenges in our path that required problem solving skills unlike any other adventure race. I highly recommend any race that Robert Finlay puts on in the future. Unfortunately, Robert had a difficult time getting permits, and a dark cloud hung over the race before it even began. Would it even happen? We headed down to Las Vegas to find out.

Christi and I arrived on Saturday morning in Las Vegas and met Tom Thomas, our third teammate, with whom we had corresponded only a few times before the race. He is a wily veteran of adventure racing and directs his own 24 hours race, Whiskeytown, up in northern California. We all quickly got to know each other, then sorted through our gear and verified that we were ready for tomorrow's start. Everyone seemed to be well prepared.

Robert sent us out on a prologue loop on Sunday morning in order to check that we knew how to set up and use our own rappels. We biked to a canyon, up which we would trek with rappeling gear, then rappel down one or more rappels on the other side. This would give Robert and Druce a chance to check and correct our rappel technique before the race started. The prologue came to a sudden stop, however, when park rangers stopped us and gave us the third degree about our activities and lack of permits. They threw around the threat of fines; they took names and numbers. Eventually Robert showed up to handle the situation, received a citation, and then we were all forced to turn around and head back. What would happen now?? Robert still had permitting issues to iron out.

All the teams were a bit nervous when we arrived at the 4pm meeting, but we came for an adventure, and were are going to get one. Robert calmed our nerves and told everyone that the race is going on as planned, albeit "unofficial". One team decided to drop out, but I could tell that everyone else was anxious and excited to attempt one of Robert's race courses. I've done two of his races in the past, and they are very well put together and super challenging. I wouldn't miss this one for anything.

And his race course looked epic and challenging. There were only four legs, with three transition areas (TAs). The course was 250 miles long. There were only 12 mandatory checkpoints, but another 55 optional points to aim for. The first leg was 94km and we would trek, climb, rappel and packraft the canyons around Black Canyon. Then we would mountain bike 163 km in the second leg, including a steep climb over a 7000 ft peak. Another 38km trek took us down canyons back to the water, and we would finish with a 60km canoe/mountaineering leg to the finish.

The first team left the hotel at 8pm, crossed the street, then headed up a wash into the surrounding low hills. Other teams followed at 5 minute intervals. Lots of small unmarked roads turn off from the main road that we were trying to follow, and after we topped out in the high plateaus above Boulder City, we got a taste of what the race has to offer. We hesitate in the night about which canyon to follow down to the river, but we choose correctly, and down we go. 4km later we climbed up onto a ridge and met Robert at the first rappel station. I had expected the rappels to have bolt anchors, but this anchor wass just a webbing loop over a large horn which Robert is tending. After a 30' rappel, we climbed steeply down to the canyon bottom again. Some of the downclimbing is very steep going. Christi enjoys her 5-10 shoes with grippy soles. She is the best climber of the group, too, so I nominate her in my mind as the climbing problem-solver of the group.

We travelled through some dripping moss-covered narrow canyons where hot and steaming water seeps from hot springs in the mountain into warm rivulets through which we tread. We worked our way through heavier brush, and then we burst out into the open, the cool moonlit Colorado River ahead of us and steep canyon walls all around us.

Time to packraft. We unpacked our Alpacka rafts and inflated them, put together our paddles, and launched into the Colorado. Moonlight streams down the cliff walls from the almost full moon. The river is peaceful and calm. After 2 miles, we turned into a very small canyon marked by a boating sign next to the water, deflated the rafts, and started to climb. If it weren't for some pink ribbons marking the way, I would have guessed that we were on the wrong track. One section contains a 10 foot wall that is especially tricky, but I managed to overcome it by french-freeing off of Tom's foot as he sits on top of the wall and dangles his feet down for me. After a while, we climbed onto easier terrain, then headed straight up towards the ridge.

I slipped up here, as I had drawn a line of expected travel on the map, but hadn't noticed that the pink ribbons had taken us north of a ridgeline and away from my expected line. We topped out on the ridge expecting to find a plateau, and we found a valley on the other side instead. Tom suggested that we were too far north, but in the dark, I could not quite match up the map with the terrain there either, and I struggled to make our location match the spot on the map where I wanted us to be. We headed in the correct direction in fits and starts, then further confused ourselves by heading up a parallel reentrant than the one we wanted, turned back, turned forward again, turned back. We eventually got back into our game when we found the correct canyon that would bring us to Adventure Canyon, but not after a couple of teams leapfrogged in front of us.

Adventure Canyon is a wild ride. A dozen rappels and several downclimbs awaited us down the canyon. Two of the rappels were pre-set 100 foot long, single rope rappels that burn our hands by the time that we reach the bottom. Other rappels contained just an anchor point and required us to install our own rope, rappel, then pull the rope. In one spot, we arrived at a 15 foot drop that looked sketchy to downclimb, so we installed a rappel over a horn and rapped down, only to find that our rope was jammed in a crack behind the horn. Christi climbed up to free the rope, then downclimbed the route anyways.

We arrived at the top of last rappel to find a traffic jam of two teams in front of us. We were at the top of a minor waterfall that dropped directly into the Colorado River, and figuring out how to
transition from rappeling to packrafting without any place to stage our gear at the bottom was tricky. This is what Robert meant by "problem solving"? A team in front of us was inflating packrafts and lowering them down on the rope - it seemed to take forever. Christi created a sling on her packraft, and when it came to be our turn, she rappeled down with her packraft on her back. Just above the water, she leaned backwards and dropped right into her raft. She hooted with excitement. I went to do the same. Wow! I think that rappeling down a waterfall into a packraft will definitely be a memory I'll keep for a long while. Tom came down last. After a brief struggle with the overhanging lip, he rapped down and onto his back into his raft.

He is a big guy, though. The paddles in his backpack got stuck in his raft somehow, and he felt like he was going to flip over. He looked like an overturned turtle as the waterfall rained on him from above. We unhooked him from the rappel, and while Christi went to pull the rope, I steadied Tom so that he could right himself and get his pack from underneath him. Christi meanwhile yelled that the rope was stuck. She hung off of it underneath the waterfall as her boat slowly filled with water. The rope moved a little, and after more hanging and tugging, Christi got the rope moving freely and recovered it.

Dawnbreak and another hour of packrafting brought us to another canyon which we were to ascend. 94 km of trekking was starting to feel a whole lot longer than the number suggests. However, this climbing was easier than before, and daylight raised our spirits temporarily. My spirits were lifted even more when Christi volunteered to carry the group rope, now soaked and heavy, up the ascent. We topped out at about 9am on a jeep trail that led to manned CP2. There, we dropped off our rope/harnesses, filled up with water, and headed out for the 30km overland "survival trek".

Although we got through the largest ascent before the heat of the day set in, we knew that we were going to spend some hot hours on hills and ridges far above the water. Our navigation was straightforward: stay on a due south bearing 5km to enter a wide valley. Follow valley up to ridge of highest mountain in area. Follow south ridge of mountain down to CP. Although everything went smoothly, Tom and Christi had used up half their water, and I was not too far behind. The temperature reached 100.3 degrees. Tom, a big guy, was quite affected by the heat and began to move significantly slower. We continued on ridges to CP8, took a break under the sunshade, then dropped down to a wash where we picked up a road through flat terrain and easier going for a while. Noone was eating or drinking very well in an effort to make our water last.

We made our final 300 foot climb up to Peeper Pass and took a bearing on the next checkpoint 800 meters away which marked the entrance to the canyon that would lead us back down to the river 10 km away. We reached the canyon to find some shade and take stock of our situation. Tom complained of dehydration, but still had 20 oz of water left. Christi had 5 oz., and I had 30 oz. of water. Tom looked like he was bonking, so we had him drink his remaining water and eat some food. I also gave him my bladder with the understanding that Christi and I could take sips of water from him as needed.

The canyon on the way down was partially shaded in the 5pm sun, and we made good progress, although we eventually ran completely out of water. A mile from the river, we encountered a pour-off that required us to scramble up and around on high, scree-filled slopes. Tom uncharacteristically had trouble here, and even fell and slid a couple feet once. I decided to go for more water, and left my pack with Christi while I took a bladder and ran down to the river to fetch water for the group.

My trip to the river and back, punctuated by 3 rattlesnake sightings, was only half as exciting as the action unfolding up canyon. Feeling faint and dehydrated and out of sorts, Tom worried that he was getting heat stroke, wanted to call search and rescue. Christi attempted to calm him down. She felt him to be cool and clammy rather than hot and dry, so diagnosed him with heat exhaustion. After some discussion about how a search-and-rescue operation would play out, they agreed to push the Help button on the SPOT tracker (which never went through due to the high canyon walls), and they unrolled a packraft for Tom to lie down on while they waited for me to return with water. The packraft was still somewhat damp and the coolness calmed Tom down enough that he took a nap. I returned within the hour with enough water to reinvigorate Tom. Christi headed down toward the river with two packs while Tom and I took our time getting ready and following behind her. It was past dark by now and cooling off.

Tom looked better after more food and water at the river, but he was done for this race. We all agreed to packraft an hour down to manned CP3 where he could exit the course and get medical help if he needed. Coincidentally, his wife was volunteering there. Christi and I left Tom with his wife and paddled to shore where we decided to sleep for a few hours and recoup. We both curled up on the beach in our inflated packrafts and drifted to sleep.

We struggled awake at 3am and shrugged off the travails of the previous day. Rise and Shine! Christi and I headed up canyon and tried to get our heads back around the tasks ahead. We manouvered through the canyon in the dark, topping out into a giant open area just at dawn. Here we followed Jumbo Wash southeast. I could not quite place whether we were in the right wash, but I knew that we would head southeast to a pass, then down to a road on the other side. Somehow when we topped out, we were even closer to the checkpoint than I had expected. Serendipity shines on us.

We dropped down to CP4 where we found one of the many selfless volunteers waiting with jugs of water. He had not seen anyone go by since Dart and Bones had both gone by the previous day. It is awfully lonely out here. From the CP we followed jeep roads for another 10 to 15 km to Rosie's Cafe on Highway 93. I was looking forward to a milkshake, but I had to settle for a ginormous rootbeer and a club sandwich. At Rosie's, volunteers shuttled us to Robert's house. There, we took showers, ate, rebuilt our bikes, and plotted the rest of the course on five maps. Although Robert's house was comfortable, I worked franticly to finish the map work and get out the door. The first third of the mountain biking course required more difficult navigation, and Christi and I wanted to do this part in the daylight. We left at 1:30pm, right into the hottest part of the day.

The bike route wandered between roads and cow paths and other faint trails as we looked for the landmarks identified by questions in our coursebook. Unmarked roads teased us to turn the wrong way, and we spent wasted minutes up a wrong side road early on as we learned the calibration of our bike odometers. The heat was intense, too. Up on a windy ridge, we chose to nap for an hour under the shade of a large bush. Naps never felt so sweet! Slightly rested, we continued on roads past a building that I recognized from our race in 2009. I've been here before! I immediately took the wrong road that headed up a ridge. As the road topped out on "wrong way" ridge, it curved back on itself and headed back down the way we had come, an obvious sign that we were lost. We push-biked off-trail to a knoll (avoiding the barrel cacti) and took a back bearing that confirmed that we were too far east, so we headed west through the desert and picked up the correct road just as the sun set. Now that I recall, I think that intersection was tricky in 2009 as well. Live and don't learn.

Tricky navigation over, we climbed into a low range of hills in the twilight. Our bike lights reflected the saucer-like eyes of nighthawks that liked to rest on the dirt road. When startled, they fluttered in the air around us like little daemons with huge bright glowing eyes. A tarantula wandered onto the trail and stopped us in our tracks in wonder. "Ow, my eyes!" it seemed to say, and covered its 8 eyes with its legs when our headlamps shone too strongly on it. At the crest of the hills an old mine shaft was bored into the mountain. Another team had rested inside here during the heat of the day, but the weather was pleasant now under the stars, and downhills were ahead.

We turned onto a road under the transmission lines, and although we had an expected distance to the next turn-off, we counted the power poles as well: "number two - for me and you; number three - next one's free". We tried to think up rhymes to keep us occupied, as well as to not forget what number we were on. Our memories become shorter and shorter as the race goes on. We found the correct turn despite our rhyming. I had written odometer readings for (almost) every turn, so Christi and I cruised effortlessly through the twists and turns. Later on, we entered the "Flat Zone". Christi had a bike flat, then a flat on the other tire, then I got a flat, all within 20 minutes or so. We each had brought two spare tubes. During the last flat, Christi patched the old tube while I pumped up the new one, so that we would always have a couple tubes ready. This preparation was enough to scare the daemons that plagued us, and we didn't have another flat for the rest of the race.

We followed roads down to Red Lake, a huge desert lake bed. I took a bearing on the checkpoint that was two miles out on the lake bed, and the bearing lined up with Orion's belt. We turned off our headlamps and rode out onto the flat, featureless playa, using the stars as our guide.

Druce and his pickup were at this spot, and we chatted with him briefly while filling up with water. He mentioned that the next section would take us 6-8 hours. It would actually take us 12 hours. Druce would later earn the nickname of "Mr. 6 to 8 hours on the bike". We decided to bring less water than we should have. After an hour nap, we pondered our next move.

The next point was 4.6 miles away across a featureless lakebed. I decided that it was too far to accurately navigate there in the dark, and I picked another point that was closer and had a road to it. We aimed off for this second point. After a mile or two, we came up to several posts across the playa. I slowed down suspiciously, and discovered that there were barely visible strands of barbed wire between the poles. Through this, we came to another fence, then heavy brush. We started to follow the fence, and came to an unmarked road, then another one. I realized that we were effectively lost.

We followed a road west onto the playa again and looked for tracks. Shortly, we found a set of bike tracks that headed on a bearing that suggested they had aimed straight for the next point rather than doing something crazy like we did. At about the correct distance, the tracks fanned out as if they were looking for the point now. I was pretty sure that the point was west of them, as there were three other teams ahead of us whose tracks we had not seen. Christi and I headed west for a while, then turned off our headlamps and peered into the darkness. We could see a vague black rectangle off in the distance, so headed to that. It turned out to be the giant water tank that we were looking for. Lucky us. I felt slightly guilty about using the "back of the pack bike track" strategy to find the point. In retrospect, we should have just followed DART and Bones' tracks right out from the last checkpoint, as they had done this part during the day and could see where they were going. In any case, we found it.

We travelled a torturous sandy road to the highway, then turned south to travel 13 miles of unexpectedly difficult highway travel into a strong headwind. We realized we should have brought more water. We were exhausted before we even got to the dirt road turnoff that would lead us to the 3000 foot climb over Chekum Peak. The Dirty Avocados saved us, however, when they told us about a water faucet at a nearby farmhouse that they had just used. We drank and refilled our bladders for the climb.

The climb sucked. Druce was smoking crack when he rode this if he thought it was 90% rideable. In any case, we pushed our bikes for most of the way up the climb. While we stewed in the summer-like heat, dark clouds and strong winds swirled around the top - I'm not sure which I should be looking forward to. We finally reached the top with our morale crushed and exhausted from the climb and lack of sleep. I tried to ride the singletrack downhill, but just couldn't. My reaction time was so slow, I was afraid that I would bounce off a rock and over the side of the hill. I stopped my bike at almost every switchback or moderately difficult move. I was definitely at a low point. We exited onto chunky jeep road that was much wider and made me feel much less worried about my inability to keep a straight line. I studiously tried to avoid looking at anything I didn't want to hit, and by this method I managed to survive our ride down into the small town of Chloride, AZ. Mountain biking at its worst. We stopped at the market to get a couple ice creams. The store owner there told us "You must be the slow group." Ouch. Apparently, DART and Bones had come through at 2am last night and woken them up.

The ice cream revived me enough to make it to the TA several miles down the road where we could get rid of our mountain bikes forever. Good riddance! Several other teams were in the TA, many of them slower teams that had leapfrogged forward on the course after skipping CPs. Christi and I pulled the foam out of our bike boxes and slept in the shade for a couple hours while other teams cleared out. Then we put away our bikes, ate, and saddled our packs for the next trek as darkness descended.

The first half of the trek was fairly straightforward march in the dark. We slept another hour, dropping our packs and sleeping in the wash where we had stood, then marched along washes and roads for miles. Dogs barked in the distance, and we could glimpse trailers and other remnants of civilization in the distance. We followed the road over a small rise, then downward towards a four way intersection that required us to double back on a parallel road. I cleverly (in my own mind) decided to take a shortcut overland in the dark to this other road, using a bearing and pace count to find our way. We crossed and were temporarily confused by one unmarked road, then wandered through someone's yard and onto another road that abruptly ended. We were caught in suburbia hell, and after encountering a couple more roads, I realized that I could not guarantee our success in this misadventure. We doubled back to our original road, followed it to the intersection, and discovered that the parallel road marked on the map that we had been looking for was actually a very un-roadlike wash. We had been standing right on this wash 20 minutes previous, but too many new roads in the area prevented us from identifying it as the only marked road on the map. In any case, we were back on track, a little older and a little wiser. We followed the wash up to the next CP where a water stash would be for the second half of our trekking leg.

Except that there wasn't any water waiting for us. Confused, we decided to sleep a couple hours until dawn and revisit the issue. Up at 5:30, we searched a wider area and found the water stashed behind an old water tank rather than at the plotted CP 100 yards away. Restocked, we headed out on one of the more technically challenging navigational sections. Daylight is an orienteer's best friend, and we chose a few easily identifiable landmarks that guided us easily to the next marker on a ridge, then dropped back down into the canyon that would eventually take us 3000 feet down to the shores of Lake Mohave.

Christi and I had decided not to carry our rope for this trek. A tricky pour off, however, required us to lower packs on a double runner before downclimbing, and at a larger pour off we downclimbed the right face on chunky, loose rock. We tested each rock before using it as a hand hold, as some of the chunks would break free under pressure. With patience, however, we bypassed the most technical sections with little problem.

The steep canyons gave way to shallow washes and wider, flatter terrain as we moved closer to the lake. We spent several minutes at a local high point identifying the features along the shoreline a few miles away until we felt confident we knew where the next checkpoint would be. We chose a mountain along the skyline beyond it to guide us, then aimed straight there across the rolling terrain.

We both heard the rattle, and jumped back several feet. We had seen several rattlesnakes before, but this one was definitely the Clint Eastwood bad boy of the bunch ("go ahead, make my day"), with the whole front half of his body raised up like a cobra ready to strike should we take one more step in the wrong direction. We chose not to test his resolve, and beat a hasty retreat.

Along the water of Lake Mojave now, we trekked a kilometer along the shore before ducking through the heavy willows to inflate our rafts and launch through a field of semi-submerged snags onto the crystal clear waters. The last CP was somewhere along the shoreline (we had only been given a general area in which it would be), and we enjoyed the pleasant paddling up the coast as we kept a lookout for the marker.

We went further than expected when I stopped to take a bearing on other landmarks. We had gone outside of the range that we had originally plotted; however, we had been given new instructions at the last TA by a volunteer that the CP was now in the "top quarter of the map grid". I had asked the volunteer to clarify, and gotten a response that indicated it was just a narrowing of the range that we had originally been given, but like the game of Telephone, it is hard to know how the instructions were originally given from the race director, and it was obviously not where we had expected. In order to make sure we didn't miss it, we turned around and paddled 40 minutes back to the very beginning of the range, then turned around again and kept much closer track of the shoreline. We returned to our original point and went another 10 minutes up the coast before we saw the CP, about 1 km north of the far end of its supposed range. The extra hour of packrafting was enjoyable though, as it was a beautiful day and we were on the water and off of our feet. We pulled into the canoe TA a short time later.

Then the park rangers arrived. While they talked with Robert down on the beach, I frantically grabbed the canoe gear that we needed and tried to move all of our gear into a separate pile, afraid that they would somehow stop us from leaving. Christi and I collected food and gear, then waited a short while on the opposite side of the penninsula from the rangers. After a while, Robert reappeared, and we asked if we could leave yet. "You can do whatever you want. It's a free country", he replied. We were on our own. We grabbed a canoe and left. We paddled around the small penninsula, past the rangers, and headed up the lake. I tried to look as much as I could like a tourist.

The lake was boiling hot in the late afternoon. And canoeing is difficult and slow. We switched to kayak paddles and saw a huge jump in our speed. After a couple hours, I got out our maps and started to navigate. We had talked about just skipping the canoe checkpoints, but Robert begged us to do them; besides, looking for the checkpoints keeps our minds active during the long canoe. I started to give the coves that we passed names of animals that they most closely resembled on the map. We were aiming for the bull-moose cove, and canoe cp 1 was up the wash that formed its furthest antler.

Arriving at bull-moose cove, we met Way Too Cool who were apparently having better days. They looked mentally fried, and staring blankly at their map, they asked us "Are we close?" when we pulled up. "No, wait, don't tell us..." We turned into the correct wash then headed up a narrow slot canyon. Really cool. We came to a 10 foot climb. Christi went up, then up another short 5.6 bench, then up a rope to the checkpoint. I waited below. We decided not to go up and over to canoe cp 2 as it was getting dark and the climbing seemed very technical. We found an owl feather in the sand as we headed back to the canoe, which Christi took for good luck. Then we looked up to see a screech owl on the rim of the slot canyon talking to us. We listened to it for a short while, then continued back. One hundred yards later, we saw another owl on the rim. Was it the same one following us? I think that it was Christi's spirit guardian, coming to tell her that she was in safe hands. When we got back to the canoe and ate dinner, a toad followed me around. I think that Christi got the better spirit guardian - I'm just sayin'.

Right after dark, I found that navigating the canoe was a bit confusing; however, as the moon rose, we could make out the terrain along the water and our trip up canyon became almost magical. With a glance at the north star I could tell whether we were due north or twenty degrees to the west. The moonlight on the mountains and canyons was just enough to keep us oriented, and the soft warm night drifted over us like a comfy blanket. Off in a cove, we heard the sound of Cat Stevens drifting across the water as a pleasure boating party got started. Moon shadows drifted through my mind.

We pulled into the correct cove for the next set of checkpoints and headed up the wash. I like that when navigating this section, one has to commit to hiking a kilometer up a wash to find the checkpoint. The wash opened up and we followed tracks the wrong way. A line of hills that we thought to be two miles away turned out to be the low ridge that we were looking for, only a couple hundred yards distance. Back on track, we grabbed the two checkpoints and headed back. But wait, Christi forgot her pen. We needed to memorize the four words on the marker stakes. A couple minutes into our return trip, I gave Christi a pop quiz, and she could only remember one word correctly from each of the checkpoints. I found this incredibly funny, and still tease her about it. Our memories are shot after four days of racing and little sleep.

Then the hallucinations set in. I started to lose track of where we were exactly. We decided to push on to the beach where we had exited our first trek, as there was a sandy wash behind that beach that would make a nice bed for a couple hours. The canyon walls, however, turned into dragons and giant figures that were warning me of doom should we enter the steep canyons ahead. I could hardly recognize the cove, as the rock walls turned into spaceships and apartment buildings. We finally turned into the correct spot and stumbled to bed. Ah, sleep!

Friday morning. Windy canyon lives up to its name, and the wind is, of course, against us. Otherwise, the river is peaceful and calm. We can see deep down into the river, where ghostly figures of underwater trees reach up from the depths towards us, submerged skeletons that indicated the river line before the dams were built. We explored a couple more canyons to get the last set of checkpoints. The very last CP was partially blocked from view by rocks, and we wandered by it twice before finding it. As I pointed to say "it should have been right there" and started to reach for my plotting tool, Christi spotted it, exactly in position. Only the finish line remains now.

Two miles until the finish, but a small islet beckons to us. We pull over and tie off the canoe. Christi and I take turns, diving and cannon-balling off into the cool, refreshing water. Cool, clean and refreshed, we are now ready to finish this thing. Willow Beach ahead, we are done.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Four Days of Hardrock

I've always wanted to run the Hardrock 100 trail run, but given how hard it is to get into the race through the lottery system, I may never get the chance. Instead, I decided to plan my own run-cation to go run/hike the course in four easily manageable segments over four days. Along the way I would travel 100 miles, accumulate over 33,000 feet of climbing, and summit Mt Handies, a 14er. My dad and Karen signed on to be my crew, and would drive our car to meet me at each stop.

This was the schedule
Thursday: Ouray to Telluride: 16.2 miles, 5500 ft gain, 10150 feet avg. elevation
Friday: Telluride to Silverton: 27.8 miles, 10200 ft gain, 11023 feet avg. elevation
Saturday: Silverton to camp Sherman: 29.3 miles, 9350 ft gain, 11430 feet avg. elevation
Sunday: Sherman to Ouray: 27.9 miles, 8000 ft gain, 11080 feet avg. elevation

We started from Ouray on Thursday. My father joins me on the trail to Telluride while Karen drives the car around. Warren is getting ready to run the Imogene Pass run in a couple weeks, and he has planned to get in a little high altitude training. The Hardrock course follows the same route as the Imogene Pass course from Ouray up to Camp Bird, but then we turn up Yankee Boy/Governors basin and go up and over Virginius Pass at 13100 feet. Virginius Pass is a steep scramble up scree to a low point on the sharp ridge. It is not be very runnable. At least we don't have snow and cornices like the acutal Hardrock race might have in the beginning of July; on the other hand, snow might be softer and easier than sliding backwards on sharp, pointy rocks. The descent into Telluride is straightforward.

My father drops me off the next morning at 7:30am at the trailhead in Telluride for my run to Silverton. He and I have backpacked this section on a two day trip in mid-September last year. We braved constant rain and dodged thunderstorms, and an overnight snowstorm dumped an inch of new snow on us. This year, on the other hand, the weather is perfect: daily highs in the 70s and continuous clear days. As I start my run this morning, though, the temperature hovers near 40 degrees, and overnight it dropped down to freezing in the mountains - I definitely do not want to be caught out overnight.

Praying for a healthy trip, I set out for Oscars Pass on a steady climb to 13,100 feet along roads then trails up a valley behind Telluride's ski slopes. From there, I drop down steep jeep roads, losing most of my hard fought elevation gains, then immediately head up again to Grant Swamp pass. This section, and Grant Swamp pass in particular, is one of my most grueling sections of the run. The upper valley is filled with scree, and at the top, I must climb a headwall of dirt and scree to reach a break in the rocky spires. I've only been at altitude for two days, and hour upon hour of high altitude exertion is slowly depleting me.

Beyond Swamp Grant Pass are picturesque Island and Icy lakes. Here I encounter Warren and Karen, who had hiked up Icy Lake trail to meet me. I shar a sandwich and a moment with them, then I continue on. Crossing a creek on an animal trail, I then follow a traverse across steep hillsides down valley to the next climb. I break out of the woods onto high grassy slopes, where I travel off trail over ridges to another high pass and down into Bear Creek valley, eventually picking up a hiking trail that I follow back down into Silverton. I finish at 6pm, just in time for a delicious prime rib dinner at the Pickle Barrel in Silverton with the family. That was a little tougher than I thought it would be.

The next morning, I become a little anxious thinking about my run. This leg from Silverton to Sherman is slightly longer, higher elevation, and has more off-trail mileage than yesterday. I am unfamiliar with the route, and I also planned to meet my father and Karen at a wilderness campground at the end of the day. What if one of us doesn't make it there? Looking at the frosty ground, I don't relish the idea of being outside at night without a tent or sleeping bag. I pack an extra layer of warm clothes in my pack, and a headlamp, just in case something dire happened.

As I head out of town, I pass the giant canopy tent for the Silverton 6-day, 3-day, 24 hour run that is going on up and down Kendall mountain. This bunch of crazy people is running a one mile loop up and down the mountain, over and over and over. I prefer to travel, and I will hopefully end up in Ouray, where I originally started, two days from now. After a couple brief navigational issues, I find the correct jeep road and head up, up, up to the first pass of the day: Little Giant Pass. The course description reminds me that a slip on the narrow trail cut into the rock here could be fatal; however, the trail is dry and free of snow and easy to travel. After my brief visit to 13000 feet, I drop into Cunningham Gulch, switchbacking steeply down through a scattering herd of sheep in the lowlands, then across the road and up the other side.

The trail up to Green Mountain Pass diagonals up steeply between cliff bands, then follows a ridge into a valley up in the higher reaches of this range. At some point I am supposed to turn left on a vague secondary trail and ascend slopes to a pass, but I do not see the trail. After a little puzzlment, I pull out my topo map and forge out on my own course. I find the pass, then traverse slopes to a 4WD road through Stony Pass. The four-wheelers are out today, enjoying Labor Day weekend. I am quickly across the road, however, and ascend slopes to a small peak at 13200 feet, the high point of the day. A short contour takes me down to Buffalo Boy Ridge.

I have gone only 14 miles in 6 hours, so I am currently on the 12 hour plan, giving me an hour of sunlight left after my arrival at Sherman. This high altitude stuff is killing me slowly, as I find myself walking some of the flat sections above 12000 feet, not to mention all the uphills. However, most of the climbing is over, so I hope to pick up speed in the second half of the day. I try to call my father and let him know how I am doing, but there is, as I expected, no cell phone service.

Next, I drop steeply down a trail into Maggie Gulch. Once in the basin, I again have problems with the course description. After wandering around the basin for a short bit looking for a sheepherder's camp, I give up and strike out on my own again, descending the basin through open fields and light brush to the drainage at the bottom, where I cross a stream and arrive at the end of the 4WD road marking the location of the hypothetical aid station. On this run there are no aid stations, so I carry my food for the whole day with me. I do need to refill with water soon, however. Given the evidence of mining activity immediately around me, I decide to wait until the next stream.

Next, I climb up slopes and intersect with the Continental Divide trail, which takes me easily to the next pass and on into the Pole Creek drainage. The trails are becoming easier to follow and very runnable, although somehow I still manage to follow a trail that disappears on me a short way into the drainage. I can spot the correct trail nearby, and so I easily traverse over to it. Daylight and open spaces makes correcting my course fairly easy. Now I glide along, slowly losing altitude down West Pole Creek basin to the confluence with the main fork of Pole Creek. I hike and occasionally run as I slowly gain altitude up the main fork of Pole Creek.

My last climb is off trail and over the pass into the Cataract Creek basin. Once again, I cannot quite follow the directions of the Hardrock course description, so I bushwhack up to the correct area. I am glad I have USGS 7.5' quads of the area, as I feel confident about finding my way irrespective of the trail description. I work my way through heavy bushes and come out a the pass, where there is still a Hardrock trail marker dangling from a cairn. Hooray! It is all downhill from here.

The last five miles takes me past a few serene lakes, then down Cataract Gulch. The more I descend towards the trailhead, the more well-defined and easy to run the trail becomes. I make very good time, arriving at camp Sherman at 5:30pm, 10.5 hours after I left Silverton. I had spent a non-trivial amount of time on this leg wandering around trying unsuccessfully to figure out the exact course description. Tomorrow will be much easier. Warren and Karen, the great crew that they are, have already set up my tent and are making me dinner. Yum!

Sunday is my final leg. After a delicious pancake breakfast, I say "see you soon" to the family and I set out for Ouray. I make good time up 4WD roads to a trailhead and turnoff to Handies Peak. A small village of people are camped here, ready to climb a 14'er. The trail up Handies is very well established, and I can put my maps away and just speed-hike along, up, up, up to the basin below the peak, up a ramp, up the ridge, then over the top, still on the well-established trail. At least a dozen people are already at the top this morning, and I passed many more on my way up. It is a bit windy and crowded on top, so I take only a minute to enjoy the view, then I turn south and cruise down the other side of the peak into American Basin.

A faint side trail leaves American Basin and takes me over American-Grouse Pass into Grouse Gulch. I lunch at a small lake in the upper basin, then follow an established trail down the valley to a 4WD road. I don't really look forward to the 5 mile run/hike up the road to Engineer Pass on the Alpine Loop, a popular 4WD circuit. Jeeps, motorcycles, and little 4WD buggies pass me in both directions constantly as I continue up the road. The scenery of the valley below is amazing, however, and I can understand why everyone and their mother would want to be here.

At Oh Point (it is named such because people look at the view and say "Oooh!"), I wave at the gaggle of jeepers enjoying the view, then I dive over the edge and into Bear Creek basin. No 4-wheelers are going to follow me here. I skirt a huge herd of sheep that fills the upper basin, picking up a trail lower down that will take me all the way down to the highway six miles away. This trail is beautiful as it drops into a narrow walled valley past a couple old mine sites, then skirts along the walls as the edge drops precipitously down to the stream bed hundreds of feet below. At the hanging valley's mouth, I drop steeply down shale-covered switchbacks to the highway just outside of Ouray.

I travel trails that weave back and forth between the highway and the Uncompaghre River as I descend into Ouray, then I turn onto city streets for the last half mile to the city park. I finish at the gazebo where I started four days ago, take off my shoes, and soak my appreciative feet in the creek. I am home.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Trioba 33 Hour Chelan Adventure Race

I've been impressed with the quality of races that Trioba puts on here in Washington state, and was looking forward to Trioba's 33 hour "midnight start" adventure race that would take place in Chelan this fall. I attended as part of Team Mergeo: our team was Miles Ohlrich (me), Roger Michel, Andrew Feucht, and Beth Brewster.

We discovered that the gear drop was an adventure in itself when our team arrived together in Chelan Falls. Staff directed us to drop off our kayaks and continue to the next drop-off spot in Entiat. As we drove, we tried to guess what the course would look like, but we never suspected when we dropped off our bikes that we would next be going to Plain, at the far end of the Entiat crest. I suspected that we would need to be transported somewhere, and when we arrived in Plain to get our maps and final directions, we discovered that we would be boarding a bus for an hour and a half bus ride to somewhere back in the Chelan area.

The map work was somewhat daunting - we copied checkpoints onto 10 maps that covered a 100+ mile point to point race across northern Washington. I feared that at least a few of the roads on the USGS maps that we received would not exist any more, and that there might be a few new unmapped forest roads that would keep us guessing, making our navigation a little trickier. We used as many supplemental maps as we could to identify the most appropriate routes in the two hours that we had before we boarded the bus.

We rested as much as we could while the bus carried us on the 1.5 hour trip back to a park in Chelan for the midnight start of the race. There, we were given an orienteering map of Chelan containing 12 marked check points (CPs), and in "street scramble" style, we raced around town to visit the CPs in any order, answering a question on our answer sheet about some object at each location. We turned in this answer sheet at the finish location just outside of town at the base of Chelan Butte. During the next leg, we trekked through the Chelan Butte Wilderness Area, mostly off trail. We travelled through rugged scrubland with occasional thick sagebrush and scattered trees and bushes. The initial climb from Chelan up to Chelan Butte was incredibly steep, and we found ourselves sliding backwards on the steep gravelly terrain as we struggled up the 2600 foot climb. Ahead of us, we could see the bobbing headlamps of the two teams in the lead, and behind us, a line of small glowing orbs snaked up from the bottom of the hill. The moon and stars danced above us.

Once on top, we tested our night time navigation while traversing across ridgetops and valleys formed by years of erosion in this arid land. We leapfrogged past another team when we dropped directly down to a fire road that was longer but easier while they sidehilled along a high slope. We also chose routes to save our feet from blisters this early in the race: running ridgetops and going straight up/down slopes are good shortcuts. Contouring across slopes is hard. A lot of routefinding choices presented themselves in this rugged terrain. I enjoy trekking navigation though, as I can continuously consult my map while still keeping a good pace. I tripped over more than my share of bushes and fallen logs, however, while I had my face stuck in my map.

The sun came up as we traversed a ridge with views down to the Columbia River to the east. The next CP we found secreted inside an abandoned mine, its entrance barely visible above a stream of tailings. Daylight now, we worked our way through the last couple CPs, through an apple orchard on the edge of town, and ended at the Chelan Falls City Park at our kayaks.

We launched into the Columbia River for a 20 mile tour down to Entiat Park. Waterskiers dotted the glassy slow-moving river like bugs. Orchards hugged the shoreline wherever flat land snuck in between rugged cliffy slopes. Two CPs were placed on small islands in the river along this leg, and the chance of missing them kept me somewhat focused on where we were, although the warm morning sun teased us with thoughts of napping. Roger and Beth in the rear kayak temporarily drifted into a dream state, and Andrew and I felt a stiffer resistance to our paddling as the tow rope between our boats went taut. In general, though, we all kayaked peacefully and happily, resting our weary legs for the stages to come.

Off the water at Entiat, we each grabbed a quick sandwich from the gear bin while we changed into our biking gear. We started with an easy ride up Entiat River Road, and then we turned up Crum Canyon road where we climbed gradually, then more steeply. We had all left our bikes at the road and hiked to a CP on a small hilltop when Andrew and I heard Beth scream behind us. Apparently we had disturbed a nest of rattlesnakes, and five baby rattlesnakes stared her down and slithered at her. Beth has a snake phobia, so she threw Roger in front of her to ward them off. Apparently, the smell of Roger by itself was enough to defeat the snakes. We were not taking any chances, however, and gave the area a wide berth on the way back from the CP.

We continued to climb, eventually attaining a pass where we picked up some singletrack. Finally, we get to ride some trails! The singletrack quickly turned into a rocky rut through the scrubland. While cursing the race diretor, we rode our bikes through the scrubland to the side of the singletrack because it was easier. However, after a short while, the rut disappeared and we glided down along a ridgetop. The race director was forgiven. We picked up another section of singletrack shortly thereafter that was absolutely divine. As I sped through wide graceful turns along the smooth dirt down a ridgetop, I cast off my prejudices that mountain biking should somehow always include technical hard-as-nails terrain. My spirit soared into the sky, but only too quickly we dropped back onto the fire road again. In front and above us was Steliko fire lookout. Quickly dispatching the short climb, the checkpoint, the view, and the descent, we dropped down the fire road to the town of Ardenvoir, then up Mad River road to the next transition area (TA).

At this point, we could choose to do a "pro" course option, which was available to any teams that arrived before 9pm. It was now 6:30pm. The pro course contained only two CPs: one nearby up a steep, steep 1000 foot climb. The second CP was 3 miles along the ridge beyond that and did not look fun at all. DART had taken 3.5 hours to finish the pro course, and team Verve arrived back at the TA while we were still there, also having taken 3.5 hours. These were the two fastest teams. We had heard that the next team behind us was a couple hours back, so I decided that we should just get the first CP. That way, if another team did arrive before the 9pm cut off, they would have to get both CPs in order to beat us, and even if they did, they would be facing the real possibility of not getting to the finish before the 9AM cutoff, risking disqualification. Andrew pled, however, that we go to both CPs, as he was insistent on doing the whole, whole course. I assumed temporary insanity on his part and ignored his plea.

We climbed a slope up to the pass to get the CP, then decided that we would go down a different, easier looking way. The slope is always more gradual on the other side of the valley. Anyways, the easier way was at least as difficult as the way we went up, but we finally managed to get down the gravelly scree slope, push our way through the thick brush-filled, dry creek bed, and get back to the TA again.

We enjoyed the hospitality of the volunteers as they poured us coffee and cup-of-soup, and we relaxed in the TA for much longer than we might otherwise would have. We were enjoying ourselves, and we didn't feel the need to push the pace. The navigation during the next section was going to be the trickiest of the whole race, and our main goal was to stay on track and get up over the Entiat mountain range to the finish line before 9am without losing our way or getting overcome by sleep monsters. Ready to face our second night without sleep, we got back on our bikes and headed out the forest road up along Tillicum Creek, then up Indian Creek.

A couple kilometers up Indian Creek, we came to a decision point. I had researched this particular spot extensively in the two hours before the race and pulled up some info from several different extra (more recent?) maps. We could go one of three possible ways. Going right, we could traverse a possibly decommisioned road for a kilometer up to a junction. At that point, there were two roads, but the slightly shorter one was also probably decommissioned, so the longer road was a possibility. On the other hand, we could originally go left from Indian Creek and take another road that looked reasonable but longer. However, maps seemed to indicate a lot of other roads in the area that could potentially confuse us a lot in the night, and I was skeptical of this route. I had chatted with one of the race officials in the last TA and shown him our map, and from some casual comments he made, I got the feeling that going right would be more interesting (for him or for me??). So we went right.

The possibly decommisioned road was definitely decommisioned, but a bike trail followed it the whole way up, or at least followed where it would have been had it not been washed down the cliff to our right. In a few spots, there was so little room to even put a trail that we teetered over the edge of the dark abyss. And given that the road had already washed away over the edge, I was not too confident about what still remained, especially as we had already raced for 24 hours and had cobwebs in our brains. After making it through all the particularly scary parts, however, we heard Roger shout from behind us and yell for help as we went through a short stretch of road dotted with saplings. I'm not sure how he fell, but I found him splayed on the ground gripping a fallen sapling with his head dangling over the edge of the cliff and his bike
on top of him. He wasn't sure in the dark exactly how close he was to the edge, so he decided to sit tight and not move a muscle until he got some help. Having survived a cliffhanger, we continued on. At the junction where the good road was supposed to start, we were pleasantly surprised and elated that it did just that. No surprise is a good surprise.

I got a flat. It was just a slow leak, but after pumping it up, it went flat again 15 minutes later. We decided to stop and fix it. Halfway through fixing it, I discovered that the tube that I had brought with me had a Schrader valve instead of a Presta valve. Then I discovered that a Schrader valve wouldn't even fit through my bike's rim. Du-oh! Ironically, we had already fixed one flat this race, and Andrew had discovered that he had also packed a tube with a Schrader valve. We borrowed Beth's spare tube to fix my flat, noting sardonically that the only two tubes we had left were the wrong kind. The finish line started to look a lot further away. At least I had my old tube which only needed to be pumped up every 15 minutes. I took out the small thorn in my tire before I installed the new tube. I hate it when I forget that step.

The next two checkpoints we could reach by taking a singletrack almost straight to them. How hard could that be? We never saw the singletrack. We followed the road to its high point a couple hundred feet higher than the missing trail, then bike-whacked along the ridge to the shallow hilltop where we located the checkpoint on a rocky outcrop. After this, my feeble brain turned to mush as I was still confused about the missing trail, but Roger stepped in and guided us down the far ridge, which turned rideable lower down as if we were on a very old abandoned road (the trail?). We reached an intersection of two logging roads where the map indicated the trail continued on the other side. Where the trail was indicated, we did find an old road through the thicket that was so overgrown that mature trees were growing through the middle of it, and we could only identify it as a road because the forest was even more impenetrable on either side. After exploring it for 20 yards or so, we decided to come up with an alternate plan.

Roger says "If we had the map to the south of this one, we could see if these two roads connect...". And we did, and they did. I had not bothered to look for alternate routes previously, because the direct (yet non-existent) route was so obvious. Problem solved, we contoured around Sugarloaf peak to the other side and headed for the CP on the summit.

At Sugarloaf, we said hellos to the cold and lonely race volunteers there and prepared for the long, freezing pre-dawn descent. I had to stop two more times on our way down to put every last piece of clothing on that I own - I am so glad that the scattered thunderstorms did not catch us in the night, as I am still somewhat dry at least. We dropped 2000 feet down a forest road to French Creek, then switchbacked onto a long windy forest road that would eventually take us
to the last CP and then to the finish.

Sleepmonsters started to sneak out and grab for us. Roger looked at Andrew and asked Beth, "Who is THAT?" with a serious face. "That's Andrew. He's on our team, remember?". Roger rode his bike into the ditch. We plied him with caffeine, and after many more minutes of unsteady weaving, he was awake and back in the game again.

I had difficulty keeping track of where we were on the map - my short term memory was fading. I stopped every few minutes to verify where we were on the map, relying heavily on my altimeter watch. Only one more checkpoint. We dropped down to the 2400 foot level and leveled off - check. We followed the road through a left turn - check. Road on the right - check. Now the CP would be ahead of us at the next intersection right before the road starts a gradual descent. We travelled for a longer while than I expected. The road was not descending yet, so I wasn't too worried. In fact, it was ascending a little bit. Then it turned 90 degrees to the south. What? I think we're lost.

We cannot be too lost, however, as team Manny's had just joined us, and they are similarly confused. We scratched our heads and looked at our maps, and Roger, who had been asleep on wheels not too long ago, pointed out our exact location. Apparently, part of our intended route had been decommisioned, and we had unknowingly continued on a somewhat parallel road to the east with similar characteristics. All we had to do was keep going forward, and we would loop around and connect back to our original route shortly. Onward!

With dawn rising, we pushed forward and easily found the last CP along the road five minutes later. We continued with team Manny's down to the paved road, then followed it as it meandered over one last ridge before dropping into the town of Plain. Two more miles on the road and we were back at the finish line and the lodge. Trioba staff had just put the eggs on the grill, and breakfast was waiting. Success!

We finished in 30 hours and 35 minutes, and we reached all of the checkpoints, including one Pro-course checkpoint. This was good enough for 3rd place.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Devils Backbone

With a name like Devils Backbone, I expected the run to be difficult, but it took a little more out of me than I thought. I had heard good things about the run from Matt Hart, a strong ultra-runner, so when Chase asked me in January if I wanted to go to Bozeman for the 50 mile trail run, I signed right up. It was a good thing, too, as the mid-July run, which allows only 30 solo entries due to Forest Service permits, filled up in February this year.

Tom McGoff Hayes confirmed our entries and told us that "this is not a normal trail run. You will be carrying more weight since you will need food and water for at least 5 hours (more likely eight to ten hours) until the one and only aid station. You will also have to feel confident navigating mountain ridges and meadows with no ribbon showing the way... This definitely should not be your first 50 miler." Not to mention, most of the trail was higher than 9000 ft above sea level, making it even more difficult for us low-landers.

Chase and I drove out together to Bozeman on Thursday and crashed in the living room of his friend Peter for the long weekend; Peter also graciously provided us with a beaten up old tandem bike to ride around town so that we could take in the sights. The sun beat down on us with temperatures above 90; Saturday was going to be a little cooler, however. I tried my best not to burn to a crisp before then.

We attended the pre-race meeting on Friday in Tom's backyard, where I sized up the competition. Two guys from Utah, Jay Aldous and Leland Barker, had both finished in the top 5 at Hardrock in previous years, and were the contenders to win. Another runner, Christian Johnson, had run Devils Backbone last year in 10:30, which was my goal for running this year, so I thought I should watch for him and try to tuck in behind him. Tom gave away a bunch of prizes from sponsors to all the attendees, fed us a pasta dinner, and gave us a few pointers about where we could go wrong on the totally unmarked course the next day. He provided some hand-drawn maps as well that showed key turns; I also had topo maps that I had printed out from his website, so I felt pretty confident about staying on route.

Chase and I woke at Saturday morning at 3:30am and fueled ourselves up with breakfast and coffee, before heading out the door to drive for 45 minutes up to the Hyalite Creek trailhead where the race started. Just as dawn broke, Tom started us off and pointed us down the unmarked trail, which climbed 3500 feet in the first 7 miles to the top of Hyalite Peak at 10,300'. Immediately into the run, I could not keep my breathing under control, and settled into as relaxed a pace as I could given the altitude. Leland, Jay and Christian all immediately disappeared around a turn ahead at a solid run which I knew that I could never match. Five minutes into the race, I had already gotten dropped by the fast guys.

Chase and I ran together as we powered through the climb at a good, steady pace. He was looking strong, and when he stopped for a quick bathroom break, he managed to sprint back up the hill to catch up with me. We entered the bowl below Hyalite Pass to see the several hundred foot tall snow slope that we would have to climb to reach the pass. The front runners were already gone, and Chase kicked steps up the slope to reach their tracks while I followed in his footsteps. We looked to see runners behind us hiking slowly up the slope like little ants. Sidestepping the cornice at the top, we were over the pass.

On the way out, we summited Hyalite Peak and grabbed a poker chip from the bucket at the top to give to the race director at the turnaround point. The peak was only a few hundred vertical feet out of our way, and we were quickly up atop it, then back down to the trail that snaked southward along the ridge as far as our eyes could see. Only the occasion snowpatch on a north slope hindered us; the ridge was almost completely snow free. Rocky trails, on the other hand, hindered us, and the altitude definitely did as well.

The Devils Backbone ridge lasted forever. We didn't have much perspective about how far we had gone based on our map. Ridges led to ridges, and the ups and downs slowly ground away at us. The ascent and descent seemed so much more difficult than mere numbers would suggest. We both suffered from lack of acclimitization, and even the milder ascents seemed daunting. My stomach started to protest, and I didn't feel like eating anything.

I imagined that we would reach the aid station/turnaround point at Windy Pass cabin after 5 hours or so, but the five hour mark came and went. I ran out of water so I borrowed some from Chase, who seemed to be drinking much less than I was. Another 10 minutes went by and we passed the front runners returning from the turnaround, looking strong. We descended off the ridge and pulled into the cabin at about 5:25 or so, far slower than expected. I decided to take it easy on the way back and try to get the most enjoyment out of the race rather than try to push too hard and suffer.

I loaded up on water at the aid station: a full 100 oz bladder and two 20 oz hand-helds, then headed back out, waiting a few minutes to take some pictures though while Chase caught up. We started hiking back up the hill. Such a moderate ascent, but we were beat. On a very runnable downhill, I had sudden GI pain and peeled off to the side of the trail to relieve my discomfort, losing Chase down the hill. After I had resolved my issues, I continued on, and found Chase coming back to look for me, worried that I had twisted an ankle or something. Then Chase started to have his own issues, vomiting in one case after gagging on some electrolyte drink.
We were far away from anywhere now, and the only way out was to keep running. We slowed our speed down a notch and kept plodding along. A strong wind blew across the ridge, teasing our caps from our heads; however, it kept us reasonably cool and dry as sweat evaporated instantly from our skin in the sunshine.

When we finally passed Crater Lake (a small stagnant pond), Chase bemoaned that we still had "two more maps to go". I tried to encourage him that most of the climbs were behind us. We saw nobody ahead of us or behind us. We felt alone on an interminable series of ridgelines. Hyalite Peak eventually came into view, a thin ascending line crossing its flank to the pass that marked the trail we would follow. We attained Hyalite Pass almost 11 hours after we started, and gazed down the steep snow slope on the north side of the pass below us.

The race director had told us to take a flying leap at this point, so we did. The snow was soft in the afternoon sun, and we glissaded easily to the bottom of the bowl. Reinvigorated by the cold snow and the 3000 foot descent ahead of us to the finish, we perked up and started to run like we really meant it. Chase thought that we might break 12 hours at one point and we attacked the descent with renewed vigor until the 12 hour mark had passed, then we settled into a comfortable pace for the last 15 minutes to the parking lot. A couple volunteers were lounging at a camping spot in the trees, and let us know we could stop running now. Whew! After 12 hours and 14 minutes, we were certainly glad to be done. That was a hard but beautiful race. Now pass me a turkey, cheese, pickle and mustard tortilla wrap, please. I'm hungry.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Yukon River Quest

The Klondike gold rush of 1897 found prospectors streaming up the coast to Skagway or Dyea, Alaska. From there, they hiked over Chilkoot Pass, down to Bennett Lake, and then they built rafts to float the Yukon some 500 miles down to Dawson City, located at the confluence of the Yukon and the Klondike. Andrew and I heard of a fabulous race called Yukon River Quest which gave us a similar experience, albeit a little more modernized. We decided to go for it.

Yukon River Quest starts in Whitehorse, Yukon (about 50 miles downstream from the Bennett Lake system), and ends in Dawson City. Our goal was to travel down this 460 mile stretch of the Yukon river as fast as we could. Andrew and I paddled a double kayak; others also chose to paddle canoes, voyageur canoes (holding 6+ people), and single kayaks (they get my respect). Everyone started at noon on Wednesday (June 30), and needed to finish in Dawson before midnight on Saturday night, 84 hours later. However, with mandatory rest breaks at Carmacks (7 hours at milepost 200) and Kirkman Creek (3 hours at milepost 362), we had 74 hours on the water to complete our task. Except at Lake Labarge, a 30 mile long lake a few hours out of Whitehorse, the Yukon river was flowing at a reasonable clip, so our main goal was to stay on the water as much as we could and paddle with reasonable effort.

Our first goal was to get to Whitehorse, however. I drove to Vancouver and caught a flight to Whitehorse on Air North, where I relaxed amongst the amenities that this town of 25,000 had to offer. While small, this town contains two thirds of the inhabitants of the Yukon; Dawson City ranks second largest at about 1,500 inhabitants.

Andrew drove up. He really wanted to bring a fast kayak, and because we had not signed up immediately, the rental companies in Whitehorse had only barge-like boats left for rent. His kids had studied the Gold Rush in school, and so he brought the family and turned the trip into a "fun-filled family vacation road trip", at least so much as a 4000 mile roundtrip drive through barren wilderness can be called that. Our rental from Popeyes Marine and Kayak Center fell through (don't ever rent from them), so we scrambled for an available boat, and we ended up buying one on Craigslist from a place near Nanaimo, with Andrew to pick it up on the way up to Whitehorse. They listened to "Call of the Wild" book-on-tape along the way to get themselves in the appropriate mood for the Yukon.

Together at Whitehorse, we shuffled gear, went grocery shopping, and attended pre-race meetings and gear checks. Come Wednesday, we place our boat along the riverbank next to 75 others, and we waited for the start in unforgiving cold and rain. While temperatures had been in the 70s under a blaring sun all week, Wednesday brought grayness, wetness and coldness. I put on my gortex bib, paddle jacket and gortex hat. I was happy that I could wear them without overheating.

The horn sounded and the race was on. We ran 200 meters across the park to our boats, then pushed off into the Yukon to start the race. I had never been in our boat before, and I discovered that I needed a little practice with the new-fangled rudder system. We almost took out a photographer standing on a submerged sandbar before I veered out into deeper, faster water. I tried to draft the person in front of me, but I zigged and zagged and could not control the turn of my boat. The voyageur canoes came up behind us like semi trucks, and I veered out of their way. Many other canoes and kayaks shot past us on their way down the river. We lagged. I'm sure I'll figure out this whole rudder thing in a few more hours. We have lots of time to practice.

For three hours we travelled downriver to Lake Labarge. As we made our way onto the lake, the wind built up two to three foot wind waves that quartered us from behind. The kayak zigged and zagged and we started to successfully surf a few of the waves, especially after I tightened the tensioning straps for our rudder. Now in our element, we elatedly passed several teams ahead of us. We made one quick stop along shore to retension the rudder straps, but otherwise we planned to stay in the boat. We passed a couple more teams at 9pm at the end of Lake Labarge who were changing into their night clothes. Our gortex bibs were fine for the night, and we had cagoules to throw over us if we got a little too chilly, which we eventually did.

The Yukon twisted and turned snake-like through the Thirty Mile River section, a 30 mile stretch between the end of Lake Labarge and the confluence with the larger Teslin river. I felt like we were moving slow, although we were making a reasonable effort. I convinced myself that our boat must be slow, and that made me feel a little better. The current always looks better on the other side of the river, and I spent a little too much time wandering back and forth across the river to find the fast current, which never seemed to be there once I arrived.

As we rounded a curve after the Teslin, I saw my first beaver. Only 10 yards away on the bank, it looked like a furry basketball. On three more occasions in the trip we saw beavers along the edge of the river, all gathering small branches and twigs for their beachside cottages. We never saw a single deer, elk, moose or bear, which surprised me a bit. Beavers own the Yukon.

We followed our laminated charts as the river curved this way and that way. We had twenty pages of charts to get to Carmacks, and we seemed to go more and more slowly through them as twilight came. While the light never faded past twilight in the midnight to four AM hours, it still took a toll on our senses, and we continued to grow sleepier as the morning hours crawled past. Andrew took a catnap in front to reinvigorate himself. I tried raising the rudder so that Andrew could steer while I dozed, but we promptly turned sideways and rammed the shore. Note to self: back person needs to steer at all times. How dismal.

At our lowest low, we stopped in order to quickly switch places. I tried to nap in front, but I could not relax, as I felt I was going to pitch sideways into the water. We stopped again to switch back. However, this extra movement plus a few coffee beans woke me up enough that I could keep going without falling asleep. We finally pulled into Carmacks exactly 24 hours after we started, hurt and tired.

Volunteers helped us in Carmacks by setting up our tent, drying some of our clothes, and filling up bladders with water. We ate burgers, milkshakes and french fries at the canteen, changed clothes, mindlessly rushed around doing tasks I cannot remember, then went to bed. I could not sleep at all due to a horrible pain in my left shoulder, but after some ibuprofen, aleve and melatonin, I calmed down and slept for four and a half hours.

We arose early and got ready to leave exactly seven hours after we arrived, which included drinking another milkshake. We resupplied with food and left a few extra unneeded things in our Carmacks bag, which would get shipped on to Dawson for us. After a quick gear check by the authorities, we went down to the dock and launched back onto the water for another 18 hour spin until the next rest stop. Another double kayak was only seven minutes behind us; we felt some pressure to keep up our pace to prevent them from catching back up.

On the water, my muscles and tendons complained much less than I had expected, and my fears subsided from the previous night of being unable to continue. Time flew and soon we came upon the first of two rapids: Five Finger Rapids. We stayed right as instructed, and with a few bumps we were through. Looking back, the other channels also did not look too bad, either, so conditions must have been miild. A half hour further on, we sidestepped Rink Rapids by also going right. These were the only two sets of rapids that we needed to worry about, and they weren't much. A more prevalent danger, however, was gravel bars that dwelt just under the surface of the river. We occasionally ran into strong side currents that pulled us over very, very shallow bars and threatened to ground us if we didn't paddle hard to get away from them.

We travelled past Hells Gate Slough stretching out in channels to our right while the main current shot quickly along the left bank. Shortly thereafter we passed Fort Selkirk, a historic trading post that was abandoned in the 1950s when the Klondike highway bypassed it and Yukon river traffic died down. At the checkpoint here, we called out our team number as we passed. Another team on shore played with their gear, and we quickly left them behind as we cruised along in the 5 mph current.

Many islands now dotted the Yukon river, and channels and sloughs weaved between them. Although we typically followed the main channel, we occasionally darted down small channels that cut more direct paths around a curve when the main channel swung wide. In general, we discovered that the shorter path was usually the better path.

After 18+ hours and only one five minute stop along the way, we pulled up at Kirkman Creek, a primitive campground without road access that was the site for our second and final rest break. We filled up with water in the stream, ate soup and sandwich, and then spread our sleeping bags out on the lawn for as much rest as we could get during this three hour stopover. Five minutes later when it started to rain, we moved into a couple of tent shelters that they had provided, although the rain splashed through the mesh of the tent and soaked my bag before the storm cloud passed. I did manage a good solid hour of sleep. We ate some very expensive cheeseburgers and got back on the water exactly three hours after we had arrived. At this point, another double kayak was 20 minutes behind us, and a solo kayaker and solo canoer were only a few minutes ahead of us. We felt reinvigorated.

Seconds after we got on the water, a squall came through and a storm dumped on us. I threw on my cagoule. The solo canoer had pulled to shore and we lef t him behind. Shortly thereafter, the solo kayaker ahead of us decided to take a shortcut through a sandbar, and we left him behind as well. He was navigating solely with his GPS, which seemed fairly difficult. Andrew and I each had a detailed river map, and together we came up with a plan on the most efficient course down the river. Alone, trying to look at a map on a 4" by 2" screen, I would have been much more confused about which islands were which and what channel went where. Andrew and I started doing "tempo intervals" - we paddled reasonably hard for 20 minutes every hour - so that noone behind us would be able to catch up again. We never saw another paddler again until the end of the race.

A couple more squalls came through, along with thunder and lightning. We battled a strong headwind for a time, and it reminded me why double kayaks are called "divorce boats". Every lift of Andrew's paddle brought a windblown splash to my face. My hood up and my cap down low on my head, I gradually fell into a repetitive head-tipping motion in order to block the spray while taking occasional peeks at the map to keep us on track. We had just passed the confluence with the White River, and gravel bars and submerged trees peppered the river. We could hear the grit and gravel grinding against the hull of the kayak, and the water was opaque and churning. Lightning struck again, ahead of us. I became a little worried.

The river turned in the opposite direction of the thunderstorm, however, and gradually grew deeper and less angry. The current moved us quickly along, and before we could count to a billion, we saw the Moosehide Slide marking the hill above Dawnson City. Although I joked about arriving at Dawson when the bars closed at 2am, the skies of the "midnight sun" looked like a Seattle afternoon. We pulled into Dawson City in fine spirits, changed out of our wet gear, and headed to our hotel where Andrew's family was sleeping. We'll come back and pick up our kayak later. It's time for bed.