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.