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.