We are under a confidentiality agreement until the production is shown in Q1 2020. Our race report and photos of the event will be uploaded at that time.
by Charles Triponez
PRIMAL QUEST BC - 8th EDITION
Primal Quest is one of those iconic events that every Adventure Racer has to hang on their hall of fame, but this edition was not precisely what I was expecting...
BEFORE THE START
For the first time in Bones history, we were fortunate to race as a "2 women - 2 men" composition, and without surprise, the girls kicked our butts. The team was composed of Mari Chandler, Jen Segger, Roy Malone and myself (Charles Triponez).
I'll spare you the usual last-minute crisis, flight delay and on the spot gear sourcing.
So, between a 5min drive from home for Jen to hours of flights for the 3 of us, we finally all met at the Primal Quest HQ in Squamish BC.
Most of the preparation had to be done before, as we just had a day on site before the race start, and we were not counting on half a day of race presentation by the PQ Staff. The interesting thing was that we learned the dozens of ways we could get seriously injured or even killed on the race course... from bears to blue ice, from crevasses to whitewater, from storm to ocean crossing. After a morning of presentation, I think all of us got the point.
We learned as well that the race course had to be re-routed within the last few days for safety reasons due to blue ice on a section of the glacier trek and due to Grizzly presence on berry patches on a Mountain Bike section.
Ultimately, similar situations are not uncommon in Expedition Racing, but here the impact on the race flow was significant. Several extended dark zones of ~10h for the glacier treks and rafting section would bring the teams to multiple re-starts until late in the race.
Somehow, the strategy was to race safe and fast to benefit from extra sleep during the dark zones but not to overkill and ending up wasted for the final rush.
Under a blue and sunny sky, the epic bus ride from Squamish to Lillooet was certainly a sign that the race would be different. The good old local school bus could barely make it alive to Lillooet after having to stop multiple times because of the engine overheating. The less than 3h drive with more than 8000ft/2500m elevation gain took way longer and ended up delaying the race start.
After an emotional opening ceremony from the native tribe, the teams were randomly split into 3 different big original canoes. Actually, only the shape was original, brand new with a full carbon hull, those canoes with up to 16 paddlers were pretty fast!
So the 1st section was a combination of ~mi/20km canoe crossing Seton Lake, running few miles across Seton Portage, a historic rural community sandwiched between 2 lakes, and finally, kayak ~mi/25km across Anderson Lake to finish early evening at D'Arcy.
Paddling is not the strongest discipline of Bones, so we kept a good pace, fought the headwinds during the last hour of kayak and finished in 6.5h, a few minutes after the 1st teams.
The gap was small as the 1st teams were still transitioning when we arrived at TA1. Even if we were pretty cold from being wet, the temperature was nice and we could still see some stars... not for long though.
We transitioned quite well and jumped on our mountain bike gaining a position.
A grueling 65mi/107km mountain bike was the program for the night. From forest roads to single tracks to local roads and up to highway... we had the full spectrum of existing roads in the Sea to Sky Valley.
I was not feeling at my best during the 2nd steep grind of ~2000ft/600m elevation gain to reach the top of Pebelton trail system. So when Mari proposed me a tow, I didn't hesitate to take her up on the offer... Yes, and it was freaking steep!
At dawn, on the bottom of the valley, we had a typical BC moment. We were riding strong, drafting at 20mph when suddenly a bear stumbled out of some bushes and crossed the road just in front of us. We certainly ruined his morning as he looked quite surprised and really annoyed. Roy, last in the draft, didn't even see the bear as he was just trying to avoid crashing into us! Fortunately, we all stayed upright, and the bear didn’t decide to chase us.
It started to rain while we were heading down to Whistler and unfortunately rarely stopped until the end of the race!
We loved the smooth and scenic Sea To Sky Trail but kinda hated the Highway section with rain/heavy traffic/massive logging trucks. We finally made it safely to the final section of the ride.
We had no clue how Columbia & Quest were doing, so it was quite a surprise to see all of us reaching the last CP of the section almost at the same time. Jen & Roy pulled up a perfect navigation and riding the easier but less direct trails between Green Lakes and Whistler was fast and pure pleasure.
After 14h of non-stop riding, we arrived 1st at the TA, putting 20min to Quest and more than 2h to Columbia just in the last few miles... this is where having a local knowledge in the team makes a difference!
Anyway, this lead was only useful to choose the best sleeping spot and be the 1st to enjoy the warm food cooked and served at the TA. We all knew the dark zone on the glacier would bring back all teams together at TA2.
As we knew, the original and amazing Spearhead Traverse (from Blackcomb to Whistler through multiple glaciers) had to be replaced with 2 out-and-backs due to safety reasons. Longer distance, more elevation, and 2 dark zones were the price to pay.
The option to immediately trek up to the glacier, and sleep in the mountain to be there when the dark zone opened was quickly discarded due to the uncertainty of the weather in altitude. Quest, all geared up, were about to leave the TA when it started pouring rain. So like all other teams they choose to stay at the TA and have a good night of sleep.
Almost all teams had the exact same plan, eat warm, sleep well, wake up early and reach the base of the glacier when the dark zone opened. So, after a 3h trek, like an organized Adventure camp, we all reached CP7 at the base of Blackcomb glacier at 7am.
To save our feet from being way too long in our mountaineering boots, we decided to carry the extra weight of a pair of running shoes. 7h of Up & Downhill on Forest Service roads can ruin your feet.
We crossed 3 glaciers, scrambled some sketchy rocky sections, traversed a couple of high altitude meadows, and found our way through a maze of crevasses to reach CP10 at the top of Tremor Mountain.
The "out" took us 6h30, the "back" had to be done in less than 6h00. Meaning we had less than 6h00 to exit the last glacier before the dark zone would be enforced, forcing us to camp overnight in high altitude.
We pushed the pace, optimized our reversed route, traveled fast on the glaciers as we were getting used to our crampons and exited the last glacier with less than 1h of buffer!
We finally rolled down the mountain to reach the well-known TA2 for another unusual night of sleep. During the full section, the 3 lead teams, Columbia / Quest / Bones were minutes apart and we were all back at the TA in roughly 19h after 25mi/40km and more than 8200ft/2500m of elevation gain & loss.
As usual, our 1st question to the PQ crew was to know if anything had changed for the next section. That time it was not the case
Only 4 teams made it back to the TA before the dark zone. We knew it would be a tough night for the teams up there.
The same solid tactic applied to the next glacier trek... eat warm, sleep well, wake up early and reach the base of the glacier when the dark zone opened. Not surprisingly, the 3 lead teams reached CP11 at Russet Lake just before the lift of the dark zone.
We received new instructions that the glacier trek was shortened due to deteriorating weather conditions at the summit.
Quest initiated the loop clockwise, Columbia & us, counter-clockwise, making no difference as the objective was to summit Whirlwind Peak.
The name of the peak, with the addition of snow, was pretty much the description of the weather during the climb. It was wild but judging on the smiles, I'm pretty sure that all of us quite liked it.
Obviously, we didn't spend too much time posing for the mandatory summit picture and we headed down fast.
The trek was far from being over when exiting the glacier. We still had to cross the famous Musical Bumps and go down to the Whistler Olympic Village through a wild Mountain Bike Trail.
The weight of the wet rope started to slow me down and we decided to shuffle the weight to keep moving fast.
The West Bound Trail will stay in my memory as an eye-opening on the insane level of Whistler Mountain Bike riders. It's a very humbling experience when you are struggling going down a trail on foot when others are ripping it on their bike!
This section of the forest was so wild that I was convinced we would bump into a bear at some point. I was and still trust Jen how to handle that kind of encounter!!
The TA was pretty busy with Columbia close to leaving and Quest starting their transition. Once again, minutes were separating us.
At that point, we knew that all 3 lead teams would once again hit the next dark zone and be reunited. 2 raft launches were planned, at either 7 am or 1 pm. Obviously, all of us would have all the time to catch the 7 am launch.
We jumped on our bike with the intention to clear this section quickly. Except for a short ride on a train track to find a missing road, Roy mastered the navigation through the night and we reached the TA shortly behind Columbia & Quest. With hot chili and a cup of hot chocolate, the staff informed us that the rafting start would be pushed by 2h to 9 am due to rising river level... yes, it was still raining.
Back to the Adventure Camp- all remaining 6 teams slowly walked to the put-in to get ready and start the last "non-competitive' section of the race.
We partnered with Columbia and had quite a fun ride down class 3-4 rapids on Elaho river. Once it merged with Squamish river, the rapids were replaced with a wide and mellow flow.
Our guide initiated a friendly fight with his colleagues, which became a bit overheated. After 4 Days of race, even with lots of sleep, you are not very excited when your raft guide jumps on the other boats to open their valves to slow them down!
Anyway, after 20mi/35km, we reached the end of the raft... meaning the last and final restart, no more dark zones ahead. It was finally time to race!
Due to our kayak skirts (we were the only team with this equipment), we took slightly longer to properly fix them, so Columbia & Quest left before us. We knew the skirts would be useful for both keeping the water from the rapids out of the kayaks and keeping us warm during the long ocean paddle.
Before entering the estuary, we reached the last CP where we were told to stay on the eastern side of the channel due to increasing high winds. Quest received the same instructions, but apparently, Columbia left without being told this information. They could then take a more direct route and maybe gained some precious minutes... difficult to know! But I still don't understand why the safety boat could not relay this information!
It was rainy again, but the ocean was surprisingly flat with low wind, making for a very nice and smooth paddle. We could see Quest not too far in front of us and after 5h we reached Anvil Island at the same time as Quest. We had to leave the kayak to climb a very steep, wet and slippery trail to reach the CP close to a small lake.
Without thinking too much we interpreted the instructions of a PQ Staff that they were not doing any gear check as "you don't need your safety gear". We left our team gear in the boat and took only 1 bag with food and drink and individual gear.
On our way up, we saw Columbia going down later followed by Quest. We could estimate respectively a 30min and a 10min gap. Back down, another PQ staff asked us to see our team first aid bag... we shared that we got the same instructions as Quest, but at that point, it was too late.
We jumped back in our kayak, not thinking too much about this event.
The return felt slightly longer but with a couple of caffeine gums, we kept a good pace and caught up Quest just before arriving at the TA. We carried our kayak on the other side of the highway and proceeded with a fairly fast transition, leaving the TA just before Quest.
Out of 2 options, we chose to run along the highway (it was not forbidden) to reach a trail which would avoid a bushwalk. Quest took the other option and both teams reached the lake where the trails join roughly at the same time. Fueled with adrenaline, we missed a left turn and ended up doing a full loop around the small mountain lake, losing sight of Quest! As we were switching off our headlamps, Roy was on fire and pushed the pace to run on the flat'ish section. I was almost happy when the trail started to be too steep to run and switched back to fast trekking.
The next CP was on the way to Mt. Habrich which required us to take a hard left to climb on the ridge. It didn't take too long to realize that we had missed the turn and we were heading towards Sky Pilot. While going back down the trail, we spotted Quest scrambling up a rock field. We learned later that we passed them while they were hiding in the bushes hoping we would do the same as they just did... which was missing the left turn. Those young guns haven’t been racing long, but they learn fast the old tricks!
Even if it was constantly raining, we could see the beauty and wilderness of this area. We were just hoping that at some point, the sky would clear up!
When we reached a saddle next to the summit of Mt. Habrich, we had no idea that we would have to spend quite some time on this freezing, raining and windy ridge.
Inside a tent, Ian Adamson (OCR President and Adventure Race legend) seemed quite happy to deliver the bad news. 2 penalties of 45min each had to be served on the spot.
We were briefly told our penalties were the following:
- Taking a forbidden Forest Road during the 1st Moutain Bike.
- Not having our mandatory kit during the climb on the Anvil Island.
Obviously, we knew the later, but we had no idea of the 1st one. Apparently, this FR got forbidden between 2 versions of the road book and we fail to record that on our maps.
We used our tarp and emergency blanket/bivy to try to stay “dry and warm” for 1.5h. Quest as well served a 45min penalty.
The girls and I managed to sleep a bit but Roy woke me up several times as he was intensely shivering. I was just hoping that Roy would not fall into hypothermia, but it was without counting on his creativity...
I still hear Jen laughing so hard watching Roy after he destroyed his bivvy bag by poking 3 holes at the bottom, turning it upside down, and wearing it as a dress.
The re-start was tough and dangerous as we crossed an extremely steep, wet and muddy section with fixed ropes while we were all recovering from the mandatory stop.
While moving as fast as we could, high on the ridge, we had this moment we were all waiting for... the sky opened, the sun came in and we were lucky to finally discover the landscape. It did not last long, but it was enough to decide to come back to see more of it some day soon.
Our pace and navigation were good and we ended up catching Quest at the rope section. We enjoyed the sun at the summit of the cliff while waiting for Quest to finish their rappel and the PQ crew to change a damaged rope (time credit).
Jen was refining the strategy for the last Mountain bike, naming trails and deciding which one would be the fastest considering all parameters! We were counting on her to guide the team through the meanders of her backyard trails.
Kiel (Jen's son), her mom and friends welcomed us at the TA. It was like arriving home, but all of us stayed focused and executed a fast transition.
Mastering perfect navigation of her backyard trails, Jen guided the team to the very last CP. Quest arrived literally seconds before us on the last CP...
After 50 yards, Quest took a right but Jen went straight, this is when I thought we had a strong option for the 2nd place.
Jen took us to the finish line in record time, closing in 2nd place. Quest arrived 15 minutes later after 5 days and 10 hours of a wet, grueling race.
The Sea to Sky region is stunning, even in the rain, so I'm already looking forward to being back when it will be sunny.
It's always delightful to race with Team Bones and again racing with 2 women/2 men had been an amazing and very humbling experience. It's difficult to summarize a team in few words, but those ones came to my mind very often during the race; Experienced, strong, resilient, fun and caring. Thanks Jen, Mari & Roy for the ride. I'm looking forward to the next one!
Thanks to Maria Burton, the PQ Team & extraordinary volunteers. We know you are putting so much love and effort in your event. Primal Quest
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Biggest thanks to our family, friends & followers
65 Hours of non-stop racing.
20 minutes of sleep.
On-the-clock expedition adventure racing always requires striking a balance between efficiently moving forward with maintaining enough cognitive capacity to make smart decisions and navigate accurately.
As darkness fell, 60 hours after the race began on Thursday morning, we approached a class III rapid on the Deschutes River in our tandem Alpaca packrafts. By then, we were definitely on the wrong end of cognitive capacity as we decided to run the rapid, instead of portaging, despite the inability to see and thus read it…. Chaos ensued.
8:00 AM Thursday morning- The race began beside a nondescript road in the middle of nowhere specific, deep in the Willamette National Forest. 21 teams launched up a heavily wooded South-facing slope, climbing 1800+ feet in less than a mile, often on hands and knees and dodging debris dislodged by the teams above.
Bones was the first to reach the top but was quickly caught by Merrell, Bend Racing Canada, and Quest AR as the frigid mountain mist enveloped the area making navigation a challenge. Over the course of the next five hours, we traded positions several times on the way to the McKenzie River and TA1. Frigid conditions and light snow conspired to freeze our parts and break our resolve.
12:42 PM Thursday – We arrived at the river about 20 minutes behind Merrell, blew up our packrafts, and jumped into the quick-moving McKenzie River behind Merrell and a couple of minutes ahead of Bend Racing and Quest AR. We opted to use two Alpaca open-cockpit boats. The McKenzie ended up being a fast-moving Class II river, requiring solid water skills to stay fast and upright. Regardless of our attempts to avoid the larger holes, our boats would quickly fill with water and we would need to pull over and dump the boats so they could act more like boats and less like submarines.
This kayaking section, which included a couple of bushwhacking portages, took five hours to complete. Quest AR, which had opted for sleek, skirted Alpacas grabbed the lead- definitely the right boat choice for the McKenzie. All four lead teams flipped at least one boat in a specifically nasty class III, chilling those who swam it to the bone. The bikes at TA2 were a welcome sight heading into the night.
6:00 PM Thursday- We began with a 3,600-foot climb to the top of a local peak, the next 30 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain through the night took us 10+ hours and often involved a bike-whack through the dense Oregon bush. Mid-way through the bike leg, we hit a climbing section where one teammate would need to perform a Class II rock scramble and one a 5.9 technical climb. Liza and Charles would crush the challenge, scampering up the respective rock faces without issue.
4:20 AM Friday- We departed from Tombstone Sno Park on foot and climbed to Browder Ridge where the morning panoramic views almost compensated for the jungle of Devils Club we fought through on our way up. A slight navigation error set us back about 20 minutes and any thoughts of speeding up to make up the lost time were dashed by the off-trail fight through slide alder and manzanita bush and the slog along a forgotten and heavily overgrown road of yesteryear. The 16 miles took us a snail’s pace 8 hours, putting us into TA4 just after noon on Friday.
12:47 PM Friday- We were back on the bikes for another 3,000 feet of elevation gain along the historic Old Santiam Wagon Road where we arrived at the orienteering area in the late afternoon.
4:43 PM Friday- We arrived at the orienteering loop at the same time as Bend Racing. Eight checkpoints disbursed among lakes, dense brush, overgrown roads and steep terrain. We made quick work of the first six and were headed back to our bikes as darkness fell on the way to our seventh point. Sleep deprivation/distraction/darkness – whatever the cause, we ended up well north of the large lake where CP2 (our seventh point) was located. As we tracked back to our last known spot, we were able to find the lake, approaching from the south. The approach to the CP from the south, however, was hindered by a swamp that forced us to go back around from the north. All told, we lost 45 minutes and a bit of motivation.
We decided to grab a quick 30-minute sleep to regroup before the massive upcoming bike leg. We jumped into the shed to find Team Dart sleeping before they headed out for their orienteering attempt. Dart’s Aaron Rinn’s snoring shook the shed as we tried to lie down. Then 15 minutes into our “sleep” Dart decided they had better get going and took the next 15 minutes to rouse and make as much noise as possible getting their gear together. We left the cabin hardly refreshed.
Leaving just after midnight, we were back on our bikes and navigating a maze of old fire roads that crisscrossed and climbed, and climbed, and climbed. We ultimately arrived at the rappel site. Bikes attached to our backs, we dropped the 150 feet to the last leg of our biking section. The final few hours to the river was an amazing groomed downhill, crammed with bumps, berms, jumps and sweet flow. It energized us and ALMOST made all of the climbing worth it.
As we approached the transition area, it was growing dark and we discussed the lunacy of packrafting “Big Eddy” at night. The rapid, a Class III series of three holes looked fine when we scouted it before the race so long as we held river left. Anything down the middle was big water and likely a swim. Our decision was to portage around Big Eddy through the lava fields.
When we arrived, Bend Racing had just finished the run without flipping and Quest had portaged and been caught by Bend Racing. Quest and Bend Racing ultimately decided to travel together to the finish, a short five-mile bike ride.
Maybe it was the excitement of almost being finished, maybe it was the encouragement and promise of having sufficient safety personnel available, or maybe it was our sleep-deprived lizard brains anxious for one last shot of adventure, but our previous decision to portage around the rapid was scrapped and replaced with a desire to run it. Before running it though, we had to get there. A 40-minute run to the put-in and 10 minutes of blowing up the boats took us to 9:10 PM before we were on the water. Shadows and reflections guided us downriver to the top of Big Eddy. Daniel from Explore Oregon met us at the top of the rapid and confirmed that we wanted to run it. We did. Instructions were to follow his line. We tried, but in the darkness, it was hard to even see his boat beyond 20 feet and then it disappeared down the first hole.
Jason and Liza were the first to drop in and Charles and I followed. Unable to see any of the rapid, it was blind faith. And then carnage. Our boat exploded in the first hole, ejecting Charles and myself and our two packs which were connected together and to the boat. As a long-time raft guide, floating class III rapids are standard practice. But at night, things are different. My knee popped hard on a rock underwater and nearly stole my breath.
Knowing that the second hole was approaching, I managed to grab another mouthful of air before going down again. Another rock. Resurfacing, I could see Charles hanging on to the raft like in an old-time movie- nothing but whites, greys, and blacks. Then back down again as we hit a keeper hole. This time, when I came up, I could see nothing but yellow, as I ended up under the boat. Using my hands to walk backward, I was able to push the boat forward and grab some more air. I kicked hard to catch an eddy and got flushed out on the far bank. Crawling up on the lava field, I couldn’t see anyone.
Given my rough ride through the rapids, I was really scared for the rest of the team. Unable to see them, I headed down the lava field picking my way slowly, still shaken and with unsure balance on the sharp rock. After a while, I saw a light on a packraft and Daniel paddled over to ferry me to the other bank. Confirming everyone was safe was a huge relief. Safe, yes, but also shaken, stirred, and shattered. The swim in the dark had been rough for everyone. A stupid decision to run the rapid, really.
We did an inventory check- two packs missing, two paddles missing. We picked our way down to the boat takeout and got on our bikes for the short ride to the finish. Between the extreme sleep deprivation and recent trauma, what should have taken 30 minutes took us over three hours as we rode in circles in our compromised condition. At last, we crossed the finish to a warm burrito and a few hearty souls that were still crawling around at 1:00 AM.
Gold Rush 8-Hour Race
"At least it's not a swim start...." Despite the 28 degree temperature to start the race, the rest of the day in the Central Sierra was amazing. Soft ground from recent rains, no wind, and just enough chill in the air to keep us moving quickly. Charles Triponez and Roy Malone teamed up to compete in the Gold Rush (aka Cold Rush) 8-hour adventure race in Pinecrest, CA.
6 Hours and 20 minutes after starting, Team Bones Adventure Racing was the first to cross the finish line after 14 miles of trail running, 18 miles on the MTB, 6 miles of lake paddling, and a 300' rappel. Fantastic course designed by Gold Rush Adventure Racing.
Naan bread, yoghurt, coffee, and kebabs are not the food you typically think of when it comes to China, but in the far northwest part of the country, the evening air is rich with the smell of billowing smoke from the kebab stands. The hillsides and mountain valleys evoke a familiar Canadian-Swiss feel and a sprinkling of yurts reminds us that the way of life of the Turkic-speaking Muslim people is a notable presence amongst the encroaching Han Chinese population. Sticking out like sore thumbs are a group of foreign athletes busily gathering last-minute supplies for the upcoming 500km+ XTrail Expedition Adventure race set to start in these very hills in two days time.
The trek to the start line in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Prefecture was a discipline in itself- but after two days of travel from North America, Roy Malone, Charles Triponez, Jim Driscoll, and myself were packed up and ready to see if this winter’s hard training would pay off. With a collective 60+ years of racing experience under our belts, Team Bones was keen to toe this remote start line that had the potential to keep the podium in sight amongst a starting lineup of world-class athletes. As a World Championship qualifier (not to mention being the biggest dispenser of prize money on the Adventure Racing World Series circuit), the XTrail start line was peppered with the best in the sport, all keen to test themselves against China’s varied landscape.
After a nervous bus ride and a colourful opening ceremony featuring jaw-dropping Tuvan Throat Singing, we were off on a Le Mans-style 3km run to the shoreline of Kanas Lake for the beginning of a 25km out-and-back paddle through glassy emerald waters. Paddling is not known to be the forte of North American adventure racers and we were happy with our 8th position at the beginning of Stage 3’s white water rafting section. This is where our secret weapon, Captain Malone, was unleashed in full force.
Supplied with recreational rafts that might have been bought at a local toy shop and small wooden paddles that looked like they were whittled by local tribesmen the night before the race, we set off down a class 3 section of the Kanas River. With graceful style, Roy maneuvered our boat through the fast-moving waters with very little drama while the other boys and I played our part in providing the horsepower to muscle through the waves. Our newly-formed foursome really came together during this section as we needed to manage to bail out our boat while holding down the detached floating subfloor to keep the raft from folding in half. The scenario provided us with some good laughs and so with child-like smiles on our faces, and a joyful feeling of team cohesion, we pulled into the next Transition Area (TA) having caught a bit of time on the teams ahead of us.
Next up was a 50km trek that would take us up over the grassy hillsides and high open plains southeast of Kanas Lake. We fell into a good pace as we traveled up from the TA, finding the first checkpoint in a high saddle which afforded amazing views of the river valley below. It was here that Jim was able to start really getting his head into the maps, which was no easy feat as they were at 1:100,000 scale and over 60 years young. With major roads and trails often missing (and even mis-mapped contour lines), Jim said using the maps was an exercise in extrapolation. Watching him feel his way through them with efficiency and confidence was an impressive sight and his skill would continue to impress throughout the entire race.
The team was working well while we traveled across yurt-studded terrain. The day’s earlier exertion caught up to Charles a little bit as he was still waiting to fall into his stride with the trekking. I myself was suffering from a chronic cough which had plagued me since my travel over to China, but I was managing it with a steady stream of lozenges and good hydration. We weren’t the only ones suffering at this point: we passed Columbia Vidaraid on a steep uphill track with a very low looking Marco on tow behind his teammates. The rest of the team looked okay with Julia carrying her fair share of team water bottles plus some extras to take up her share of the load. As we cruised higher over the hillsides the skies darkened and the evening sky was pierced with impressive flashes of lightning and the sound of deep rumbling thunder. I was secretly counting the seconds between the two (one Mississippi…two Mississippi…) and hoping that our colourful bodies weren’t tempting target practice for the Asian God of Lightning Strikes. The rain came, along with a cold wind, and we found ourselves taking shelter inside tightly drawn hoods as the rain gave way to hail. Picking up the pace is the only remedy for fighting the cold, and Jim made some good navigational choices that had us gain yet another spot on the leaderboard as we descended to an alpine lake with Team Bivouac Inov-8 trailing behind. Some of the most beautiful race scenery revealed itself here as the rain slowed and rainbows appeared on the horizon.
As night fell, we made our way to Altay’s historic Hemu Village for a small section on an Orienteering Map. We didn’t know it at the time, but Hemu is the home of the Tuvan Minority in Xinjiang province. The Tuvans are of Mongolian descent (they’re said to be relatives of Genghis Khan!) and their villages have recently become tourist attractions with income from this enterprise virtually doubling their per capita income in the last 6 years. It would have been lovely to have seen their wooden homes and historic way of life in the early morning light, but we had a race to get on with.
TA4 saw us transitioning to, what was to be, a 260km bike ride. Even though we were only 14 hours into the race at this point, we’d all agreed that it somehow already felt longer than this and so we knew that achieving our goal of top 5 was going to necessitate taking good care of ourselves and each other. We were in fourth place, but only an hour and ten minutes behind the second place team at this point and we had some quick teams hot on our heels. We hurriedly assembled our bikes and attempted to stuff some good food into our mouths. Unfortunately, Charles’ eagerness with this freeze-dried meal was too much for his stomach, and he lost a good chunk of calories just as we were leaving the TA. Running low on fuel was tough for him as only 15kms out from the transition the trail mutated into a vertical climb out of the valley bottom. As we got off our bikes and started pushing, I looked up into the dark night and thought I saw some stars directly overhead, but no, it was headlamps (likely those Sneaky Weasels’), and the steepness of the bike push was put into perspective. 500 vertical meters later we were at the ridge top after what was likely the 2nd hardest bike push I’d done in recent history (it fell slightly short of the muddy nightmare seen in Costa Rica circa 2013). Fortunately, what goes up must go down, and Charles regained his strength and his bike prowess shined as we cruised down the techie descent.
It became obvious that Team Columbia Vidaraid had recovered from their trekking troubles early in the race, and it turned into a long day of cat and mouse as each team took turns taking the lead along the next 60-70kms of rocky road to the noodle house where we were to have a mandatory 2hr stop. We were very conscious of their presence, and as the steep mountain hills were giving way to dry dirt roads we worked hard to stay ahead. Unfortunately, we’d make the mistake of forgetting to bring chain lube on this long bike leg, and as our drivetrains began to complain even louder than our tired legs, we knew we had to find a way to get our hands on some oil. I think Jim was wishing that he’d brushed up on his Chinese bike mechanic vocabulary as we wondered how we were going to ask a local for some help. Luckily, our skill at charades triumphed. We found a very helpful local man who handed us the most perfect water bottle full of engine oil. He’d even pierced a hole in the bottle cap for easy of application to our chains! To top it all off, we used his fresh water hose to fill our water bottles and douse our heads to ward off the hot midday sun, and then we were quickly on our way before Columbia rounded the corner and could benefit from the oasis we’d found.
Running smoothly now, we pedaled hard into the noodle house with Columbia right on our tails. The mandatory break here was dreadful as there was no shelter from the hot sun (when we arrived, the Estonians were still there, sleeping under a large truck). We made the most of this stop and filled our bellies with fresh hot food and managed to lay down in the shady eve of the building and at least rest our eyes as the crawling ants kept sleep at bay.
After the noodle house, the hilly mountain terrain turned to a hot desert badland. We were downing the water and I was resisting the urge to dump my bottle over my head as the sun climbed higher in the cloudless sky and the thermometer pushed 40C. I was enjoying that Columbia was still right with us, as it forced our focus to stay sharp in these conditions after over 24hrs of racing. Traveling so closely with another team at a race like this does have its pros and cons; it allows you to size up the state they’re in, but it also allows one team to benefit from the navigational or strategic choices of another. In an attempt to shake them off our tails, Jim cleverly stopped to adjust the map (and let Columbia pass) just before a sneaky left-hand turn. The trick worked and Columbia missed the turn, but they didn’t take long to realize their mistake and they caught back up just as we descended into a scenic canyon that saw us zipping back and forth along a refreshingly cool stream bed. The game went on for quite some time, but we ended up being the losers when we gave away 2hrs in trying to find a mapped road through a town that just no longer existed. The midges were now out in full force and any time we were moving less than 10kph on our bikes they were buzzing and crawling into every nook and cranny of exposed skin, up our noses, and into our eyes. Standing still to take a good look at the map was absolute torture and significantly added to the stress of finding the lost road. Our sweat and stink made us especially inviting targets for the little black buggers, and any attempt at trying to get directions from locals while surrounded by the dark cloud was met with shock (or was that pity?). We eventually took a conservative route around the back of town that definitely added some extra kms, but in characteristic Bones fashion, we brushed off our error and concentrated on the next task: getting to the end of this bug-infested bike ride and onto the next paddle.
Rolling into what is now known as the “Worst TA in AR History”, I now know that we were one of the lucky teams who arrived within a relative lull in the mosquito infestation. Columbia Vidaraid was here as well, and we heard some commotion with the boys shouting commands back and forth to each other in Spanish. It seemed something was up and rumour had it that Julia wasn’t feeling well. At 37 hours into the race, we were also desperate for some sleep, and so got ourselves organized as quickly as possible and arranged for a private yurt in which to lay our weary heads. It was a complete bug-free luxury with pillows and comforters and we settled in, stuffed some delicious freeze-dried meals down our gullets, and snuggled up for a solid 1.5hrs of shut eye. It’s amazing how in regular day-to-day life the alarm always comes too early, but while racing, it’s just another starting gun. We shot up and quickly got back into action cleaning our feet and applying lube to various nooks and crannies of our lean bodies before getting dressed for the next kayak leg.
One of the biggest pleasures we had during this race was to have the supportive presence of Roy’s daughter Tegan and Charles’ wife Mary Kate along the way. Not only had they endured the inconveniences of living with someone who, for months, have been consumed by training and planning for a major expedition adventure race, but they’d then decided to spend countless hours in airports, buses, and crowded hotel rooms so they could stand beside us at the start line. The sight of their beaming faces waiting for us when we came into TAs was enough to fill our hearts with joy and light up our own smiles and this one was no different. We busily did our gear-sorting business while they regaled us with harrowing stories of the last two days of Chinese travel nightmares, camel sightings, and late evenings of baiju (Chinese grain alcohol) fuelled festivity. Personally, the presence of other women is always a bonus as even a little conversation outside of the masculine is a warming pleasure.
It was the darkest part of night as we climbed into the kayaks for a 15km paddle on Ulungur Lake (one of China’s largest freshwater lakes) to the start of a trek that would see us cover 40kms through arid desert hills. The water was calm and the bugs seemed to have settled down for the night, making paddling a breeze. Unfortunately for the team, my singing voice was batting under par during this section. I’m pretty sure the acoustics of a calm Chinese freshwater lake rivals even the finest of cathedrals and had my hacking cough not turned my laryngeal vocalizations into something approximating out-of-tune bagpipes, the three of them would have been thoroughly entertained by an endless stream of Canadian pop music hits.
TA 6 was a quick hop out of the boats and back onto our running legs. I will admit that I was nervous about this section; a scorchingly hot trek through dusty shadeless hills while being swarmed by cannibalistic mosquitoes was not the most appealing way to spend my spring vacation. I cursed that blazing ball of light as dawn arrived and it slowly crept up over the horizon and wondered how we’d make it through. We prayed for rain.
The first CP came easily enough as Charles “Eagle Eyes” Triponez somehow miraculously spotted it nestled into the side of a hill in a place where we weren't exactly expecting to see it. We realized that we got lucky when, after swiftly “punching” the checkpoint with our electronic wristbands, we noticed Bivouac Inov-8 on an adjacent ridge looking like they’d lost their puppy. They’d passed us the night before while we slept in our yurt and fatigue was obviously playing a part in their game. We were feeling thankful that we’d decided to spend longer in the last TA to rest our bodies and minds. As the clock never stops running in the Adventure Racing game, taking time out for sleep can sometimes feel like a gamble, but giving your brain that extra little energy bump can pay off in spades.
With a renewed spring in our step, we continued along through the desert. The morning sun was feeling hot on my skin and the blanket of mosquitos was beyond taking their toll- it was driving us mental! Jim pointed out where the next CP was in some distant hills on the horizon and I couldn’t help but notice that there was nary a shade-throwing tree between us and that flag. With no storm clouds in the sky, I accepted that my prayers for rain were going to go unanswered when the wind suddenly kicked up out of the west. I’d been in wind storms before, but I’m not sure I had ever experienced a constant gale quite like that. With wind speeds reaching over 100kph, those pesky mosquitos didn’t stand a chance and the heat of the day was blown away with them. We trekked head-on into the invisible force and held tightly onto our hats. CP 27 was located on a height of land beside a wind farm (I guess the wind wasn’t that unusual) and it was here that we received a message on our Yellow Brick telling us that the wind was causing unsafe conditions for any boat travel on the lake and we’d have to trek back to TA 8 instead of paddle, adding an extra 15kms to our 40km trek. This also meant that any team who was not already on this desert trek (there were only 5 teams that had made it this far) would be running a different race course than us. If we made it through to the finish line intact, we would be guaranteed to place in the top 5. All we had to do was stay focused and healthy and continue to race strong.
The next couple of CPs would have been straight forward enough had it not been for the relentless wind, poorly mapped terrain, inaccurate contour lines, and all four of us running out of water and facing dehydration. We were relieved to arrive back at the lakeshore for a quick refill on water, and our dusty tired bodies relished the coasteering route we chose back to TA 8; we scrambled, jumped, and climbed along the rocky cliffs and soaked up the coolness of the lake. At this point, I’d completely lost my voice and my cries of joy were reduced to a grinning whisper.
The wind was still howling even after we arrived at TA8 and started transitioning to our bikes. It was there that I had a minor disaster when we learned that there had been an error on the logistical plan that was distributed prior to the race start. It had said that our bike boxes would be available at this TA, and apparently the mistake was sorted out in the pre-race meeting, but our entire team seemed to have missed this detail. I stood there and scratched my head as I pondered the reality of doing the next 150km bike ride with no padded bike shorts when I remembered what was at the bottom of the gear bin; the bike shorts I’d just taken off before the desert trek. Still ripe from the sweaty 240-odd kilometre ride from the day before, these babies had been marinating in discarded food wrappers and dirty socks in the bottom of the hot gear bin. To say that pulling them back up over my backside was a bit distasteful would be an understatement. Ah, the joys of adventure racing!
Our biggest challenge on this next section was the wind. The TA flags were whipping and fraying and gear bin lids, water bottles, and any gear let loose from your hand were instantly blown away. I will admit that I was feeling quite uneasy as we rolled out of the TA and out onto the busy roadway. We had about 60kms on unsheltered highway and the idea of a gust coming along and knocking me into traffic was terrifying. It seemed that the guys weren’t nearly as scared as me, and I’m not sure if it was the fatigue at play, but without Roy there right behind me telling me that everything was going to be okay, I’m pretty sure I would have entered the meltdown zone. With his encouragement, I was soon enough battling right back with the wind in some kind of invisible arm wrestle that I was determined not to lose. Leaning our bikes hard when the gusts came, we remained solid throughout the ride, taking turns pushing at the front of the peloton and keeping spirits up when the headwind reduced our speed to a meagre 7km/hr, and revelling in the joy of passively travelling at close to 30kph when it was at our backs. Tarmac eventually turned to a dirt track and we pedaled as fast as we could so as to take advantage of daylight. Jim once again amazed us with his precision navigating and we seemed to be flying through the evening with very little trouble.
The third sunset of the race came and went, and as we pedaled on past our 60th hour of racing, the stress of the unrelenting wind (now mixed with slashing rain) was beginning to take its toll. With our lips turning blue in the chill of the night, we moved quickly to get out of the exposed higher elevation as fast as possible and decided to take a timeout in a little building we found off the side of the road. Opening the shabby wooden door revealed a momma cow and two calves and the quiet warmth of the place immediately had us craving sleep. We decided that the complexity of the next little section of biking was best faced with rested minds and we lay down with the cows for what turned into a 3hr nap on the warm dirt floor of the barn.
The push to the finish line in Altay was an epic adventure through a deep canyon. We had a little bobble up the wrong drainage after a local farmer convinced us that it was the way to go, but quickly got back on track and hit the final CP in one of the most beautiful alpine meadows I’ve ever seen. We witnessed a local horseman and his black stallion galloping across the plateau and I remembered again how lucky we were to be able to see these places that are so far out of reach to so many. As this story is getting too long, I won’t tell you about nearly losing my left leg to a sinister dog (or was it a wolf? that sucker was HUGE!), and instead will continue with the glorious feeling of the finish line and the taste of cheap Chinese champagne.
The finish line feeling is always a mix of happiness, relief, and heartache. The first two are obvious, but the third is the one that is the most difficult to describe. During our 72hrs of racing, Roy, Charles, Jim, and I formed a special bond that can only be formed by sharing such a deep experience. The finish line symbolizes a boundary between the magic of an epic unplugged adventure into the wild with some of your closest friends and the real world of adult responsibility. It is true that it might be called escapist, or possibly even a selfish way to spend your time, but those moments deep in the race course when you find yourself discovering your capacity to push yourself beyond what you thought was possible, the desire to sign up for yet another adventure becomes clear. As we sipped the sweetness of our victory bubbles, we were thankful for all that helped us get here; our friends and family for being extremely patient yet excited supporters of our endless adventures, and our bodies for holding amazing talent and strength. I thank my teammates for being simply extraordinary. I’m looking forward to toeing the line with you all again.
This was one of the fastest races we've participated in. It was a non-stop, gas pedal down, adventure. We started with a big deficit after the first 30 km paddle and spent the rest of the race working back toward the front pack. After almost 103 hours of nonstop racing (with only 5 hours of "sleep" -- mostly lying in the weeds being eaten by Australian bugs) against the 94 best teams in the world, we finished 8th.
"Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear, well, he eats you."
Expedition adventure races are bears. Logistically complex and both mentally and physically challenging, big races have the added unpredictability of Mother Nature. If you do enough of these big races eventually some of the randomness of the natural world catches up with you and in our case, at Godzone this year, the bear, well, he ate us.
We all arrived in Kaiteriteri a few days before the race feeling pretty fit and ready for an epic racecourse. The one bike that was lost in transit showed up mysteriously a day late, despite the airline never able to tell us where it actually was. As our bodies adjusted to the time/date changes, we decided to stretch our legs on a little bush hike. This sounded like a great idea and would give us a chance to see some of the off trail bush we might encounter. Let's just say gorse might be the worst plant on the planet.
Gear check, registration, and briefing done (Godzone has this stuff dialed, and it's incredibly easy and efficient), we prepped our bins with brief descriptions of the stages, but no maps. This allowed us a rare good sleep the night before the start with not much to do. The next morning we got our maps, made some minor changes to our bins and had a leisurely stroll down for a noon start time.
The first stage is always chaotic with everyone telling themselves they are going to be smart and NOT sprint of the line, then doing the exact opposite. The coasteering was short and sweet with teams crawling over each other and jumping in and out of the surf before a quick transition to a tame, 3+ hour paddle. At least, it was tame until the surf landing. We saw teams flip, roll, and yes, cartwheel into the beach with hundreds of spectators cringing and pointing. When our turn came, Liza and I miraculously stayed upright and just side surfed right up to the sand. Chris and Roy weren't so lucky and swam a bit, but only lost a few pieces of cheap, non-essential gear (unlike the team that lost several GoPro cameras... ouch).
After a quick transition to a bike orienteering course we rode through Richmond and into the hills behind Nelson. After some slow going through a mildly confusing (and painful) gorse bush bash with the bikes, we cruised into the next TA feeling pretty good. The first real test of the race was next, a 50+ km trek where we would meet the bear.
The wind, fog, and intermittent rain (does it still count as rain if it's horizontal?) gave us about 50-100 meters of night time visibility on the ridge. As dawn broke, and we recovered from a brief detour on the wrong ridge, we approached checkpoint #10 over a scree field. Roy and Chris circled to the north of the check point about 5 meters below the summit with Liza and I close behind. Another team (Adventure Junkies-- Hugh lives a few miles from Chris in Sydney) was interspersed with us as we located the CP. As Chris crossed the same rock that Roy had just stepped on, a compact car sized chunk of the mountain peeled away and carried Chris down the slope. After tumbling and grunting about 25 feet, with huge boulders bouncing over and under him, Chris somehow managed to stop himself inches from a 15-foot vertical drop to more jagged scree. In the silence that followed, the last rock ricochet echoing down into the fog, we all imagined the worst. Liza refused to look.
Before I could even scramble down to Chris, he called out that he thought he was ok. Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. We slowly took stock of his injuries; many large contusions, deep gashes to his backside, a large deep and complex laceration to his elbow, and a badly sprained ankle. None of the injuries were big picture serious, but they put an end to the race portion of our adventure.
Even though the race was over for us, we were still 25 kilometers, mostly off road and steep, from the nearest road. With his trekking poles shattered in the fall, Chris used Roy's (until a weak-ankle triggered fall snapped both of those as well). We all took turns carrying his pack while Chris stoically suffered on legs and ankle newly tenderized by Red Hill stone. Eventually we found our way to a trail, which greatly improved our speed, but the second half of the trek still took more than 24 hours. The first half took less than 9.
Now several days later, with the exposed bone on Chris' elbow covered and no signs of infection, we've all had some time to reflect. You can't dwell too much on the random and unpredictable. We come to these races prepared and fit, then we go out and see what the bear has in store for us. It may have mauled us this time, but serves as great motivation for the next round.
While we didn't finish the race, Team Endurancelife did, and they made a great video, which shows the amazing country of New Zealand's South Island.
Aptly named. The earth had been blackened by the King Fire that had ravaged 95,000 acres in 2014. Burnt out matchstick trees sprung from the ground and littered the trail. As we descended the ash-powdered trail to the water, swarms of miniature flies boldly landed in our eyes, nose, and mouth; somehow knowing our hands were occupied by our handlebars. The heat, amplified by the char, had us riding angry. The reservoir was an anemic puddle- a victim of the drought. We should have anticipated trouble. It was trouble. Hell Hole would become our personal purgatory for the next 24 hours…..
The race actually started pleasant enough. Primal Quest Tahoe was an opportunity for Mari and me to compete in our backyard. We had invited a couple of experienced East Coast racers Jim Driscoll and Jason Brown to join us. After taking a gondola up to the top of Heavenly Ski Resort for rope skills testing, the teams were ushered to the 3:00 PM start line. A quick run down the mountain to our kayaks for a short but turbulent six mile paddle to Cave Rock had us with a small 10 minute lead over GodZone and another 10 minutes in front of Team Tahoe. The biking leg that followed took us up to Spooner Lake and then following a huge single track route along the Tahoe Rim Trail to a 500’ rappel off Lover’s Leap. Off rappel, the biking leg was to finish up at Kirkwood Ski Resort via Strawberry Pass. Heading to Kirkwood, we were a couple of minutes behind GodZone who had somehow passed us on the bike during the previous night. As we exited the campground area to take the road up the pass, we missed a critical left turn and ended up biking a parallel road up 1500’ to Pack Saddle Pass. The mistake cost us a few hours as we had to retrace our route back to the bottom before heading back up Strawberry
Pass. Four hours of hike-a-bike and a quick road ride along Highway 88 brought us finally to Kirkwood, where Godzone had been recovering. Evidently one of their teammates was having a hard time at the 8000+ foot elevation. No one else had yet arrived.
Both teams left the transition within minutes of each other, with GodZone off first. The trek to Calaveras Dome took us over Kirkwood Mountain along the Kit Carson range to Bear River Reservoir and then south to the base of Salt Springs Reservoir where a 1200 foot ascent up the face of Calaveras Dome would challenge teams technically and physically. We made good time on this trek, especially while picking our way down the extremely steep descent off the spur down to Salt Springs. We had arrived first to the dome and quickly rigged up. Jim went first and flew up the first of three pitches with his foot ascender setup. Mari was on his heels and nearly matched pace. Jason went third. Part way up the first pitch, Jason started having problems with his equipment. His croll started jamming and his harness belt let out some play, putting him in a tough position to make good progress. After 90 minutes, I jumped on the rope that paralleled his and made my way up to see if there was anything that I could to help. Unfortunately, his only option at that point was to make it to the top of the first pitch, clip in at the anchor, and get re-rigged before heading up the last two pitches. Jason finally made it to the top, nearly five hours of rope time, physically spent but in surprisingly good spirits. All of this happened without any sight of other teams, so we knew we had at least a 3-4 hour lead. A scramble rappel and 1000 foot bush bash got us back down the mountain to the road where it was a relatively short trek to the next transition and a few hours of much needed sleep.
Fast and Wet.
The next biking leg was fast and fun. All on road, we flew through the small towns of Amador County’s wine country and stopped briefly at the historic bell tower in Placerville (formerly known as Hangtown in the days of the gold rush). A screaming downhill on Highway 193 got us to Chili Bar and the start of the whitewater kayak section at 10:30 AM - perfect timing for the dam controlled release of water and the relatively short window of 8:00-11:30 AM that boats would be allowed to get on the river before the release was stopped and boats became stranded. The South Fork of the American River has many great memories for me. I guided this river for eight years and actually met my wife Trish on a trip in 1990. Knowing the river didn’t keep us from some carnage however. Mari and I took the lead, with Jason and Jim following our line. The water was pumping pretty good at around 1800 cfs, it made for big holes and standing haystacks in our small Miwok inflatables. Our first swim was at Second Threat rapid as we didn’t have enough power to get through the hole. I jumped up on the flipped kayak, pulled Mari up, and we rode Third Threat upside down before eddying out to recover and resume. Jim and Jason had made it through fine. Troublemaker, however, would get both of us. The largest rapid on the river, Troublemaker is a III+ with a big hole and a rap rock to navigate. Both boats were pummeled in the first hole and all four of us ended up swimming- a yard sale of paddles and people. Somewhere during all of this, Jim broke his Epic kayak paddle and the boy’s boat was left to navigate the lower half of the river with Jason using a single blade as a rudder. Remarkably we both ran the lower river, known for fast class III rapids like Satan’s Cesspool and Hospital Bar, without mishap and only four hours after putting on the river, we took out at Skunk Hollow refreshed and ready to run.
The afternoon sun cooked us in 95 degree heat. But I was in my element. Skunk Hollow is only about 15 minutes from where I live and much of my training is done in the dry, technical area where we would be trekking. I told the team that if we pushed hard here, we could make it to the next rafting section before the dark zone. With only GodZone having made the previous kayaking cutoff, we could put a huge gap on the rest of the field. Running the flats and the downhills, and working hard on the ups, we flew through rest of the day and night along the trek, briefly getting turned around for about an hour where new trails became a tangle of redundancy. We arrived at the transition area at Ruck-a-Chucky at 7:30 AM and were shuttled to the top of the Class IV-V Middle Fork of the American River. The rafting section was a great relief for our feet and a refreshing way to beat the heat of the day. When we arrived back at Ruck-a-Chucky around 3:00 PM, we quickly transitioned to bikes, wanting to leave before GodZone arrived. As we were about to leave, race management got a call from the Forest Service stating they didn’t want teams on the trail south of Hell Hole Reservoir. We were held up for 45 minutes while management relocated CP 24 to accommodate the mandate. In reviewing the maps for the final bike section, we determined that it would be a huge section, probably taking 30 hours to complete. As we headed out toward Hell Hole, we felt confident physically and knew that with our current lead, only a big mistake would cost us the race.
WS In Reverse.
Climbing out of the canyon and onto Foresthill Road, we headed east to Michigan Bluff where we hit the famous Western States Trail just as it was getting dark. The Western States 100 is run each June in the American River canyons and tortures runners as they descend from Squaw Valley to Auburn. Primarily single track, the trail is well defined, but extremely technical. We were to ride up the trail until it spit us out near Hell Hole. Throughout the night we would descend super steep switchbacks, hit the river bottom, and then climb (hike-a-bike) back out the other side; losing and then gaining 1500-1800 feet with each circuit. Only two mishaps occurred that night- Mari crushed her derailleur hanger but had brought along a spare which Jim quickly replaced, and Jason flew Superman style off a steep embankment stopping only because a tree happened to grow just 30 feet off the trail and grabbed him and his bike before they rolled too far. By the time morning rolled around, we felt fully abused by the Western States. Low on water, we stopped at a campground that had been closed by the fire. Tractors screamed as ash and dust and oil all mixed a cocktail of misery. A lone operator covered in filth wondered why we were riding through the deforestation exercise. Damn, it was hot! By 11:00 we finally hit CP 24 and the entry to Hell Hole Reservoir.
I could write a few pages about the next 24 hours as we bumbled around the Hole on the way to CP 25, but I’m not sure I want to relive it again. Suffice to say we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening looking for what the map showed as a clearly marked trail which would take us up 2800 feet to the ridge and the Rubicon Trail. Little did we know that the trail hadn’t been used in over 50 years…. Cairns and ribbons teased us toward dead-ends and rock faces. By the time darkness came, we knew where we were, but still had not found the trail. By now we had been on this bike section for 30 hours and our food supplies were near zero- a few bits of jerky , a pack of Spam (which only Jason will touch) and three baggies or sour patch kids (?!?)….. We stopped searching around 2:00 AM and decided to sleep until daylight when the sun and hopefully our wits returned. As the sun broke, we decided to try attacking the trail a little higher on the road leading into the reservoir. We found the trail easily enough and followed it for about 15 minutes before it petered out. Frustrated and hungry we made one final attempt to locate the trail at the far end of the lake before deciding that it just wan’t there. Unable to think clearly, we decided to return to CP 24 and strike out south - well away from the Hole and a bit out of the way, but any place other than where we’d been. On the way back out, GodZone passed us coming in. Not much was communicated between the teams as I’m sure they were in shock to see us and we were too frustrated to be very friendly. Misery showed on their faces as they were experiencing the same heat, ash, and flies that we had suffered 24 hours prior.
Who Needs Food?
Back at CP 24 we found out that the only illegal trail to travel on was the one directly south underneath the reservoir, so we struck out southwest where we hit a river and shouldered our bikes for a 1600 foot hike straight up a mountain to the ridge that would ultimately get us back to CP 25 and the Rubicon trail. By now, it was getting dark again and Mari was handing out one sour patch kid to each of us every 30 minutes. We were able to garner the sympathy of one old lady who donated a can of chili and a bag of almonds from her cabin in the woods- likely preventing us from eating each other. As we hit the Rubicon trail, we learned that GodZone had hit CP 25 about 90 minutes before we did- somehow having made it above Hell Hole in about 10 hours, and where we had floundered for 24! From CP 25 to the transition area, we rode the Rubicon Trail, which is a famous trail for jeep and other extreme 4X4 vehicles. High mountain slabs and rock-strewn gullies made riding a challenge, especially at night while trying to navigate the twisted route. Sour patch rations, once gone, were replaced by Listerine strip rations (hey, 6 calories!) and a five minute and ten minute sleep before we stumbled in to the transition. Jim did a great job navigating on empty and Mari kept everyone motivated to keep moving despite the challenge of not being able to clip in due to her broken cleats.
GodZone was sleeping as we entered the transition. We had no choice but to join them as our tanks were past empty. A lot of food devoured and three hours later, we were up and off on the final trek. Godzone had left less than three hours before but we knew that unless they made a mistake, it would be tough to catch them. We pushed hard that final trek- never stopping and jogging when we could, but by the time we got to the final TA to the paddle finish, we had only made up an hour. With a six hour paddle down the east shore of Lake Tahoe from King’s beach to South Shore, we weren’t going to catch them. Kiwis are great paddlers. We decided to get one final sleep before putting on the water. Knowing that the third place team was still hours behind, we slept enough to ensure we wouldn’t fall asleep on the water and to finish at dawn, which is a much better way to end a race than during the dead of night. My family and several friends were at the beach to welcome us home after 183 hours of non-stop racing. Team Bones finished second after a feisty week-long battle against GodZone, the Sierra Nevada, and our inner demons.
As I sit writing this, feet raised with toes still numb and tingling, I’m struck by the tenacity and human spirit that drives teams to finish a race like this. Five of the eleven teams finished the whole course, five finished a slightly shortened route, and only one team had to drop out. Only surrounded by teammates that you trust and care for, can you push beyond what would be physically and mentally impossible on your own.
I try and take lessons from each race; wisdom that will help me make better decisions the next time. The lesson during this race was a costly one. In Hell Hole, we spent 24 hours searching for a trail that would lead us up and over the ridge. Clearly marked on the map, the trail would have made the trip a fairly easy one. But the trail was just the means to get us to the ridge- it was not the destination, which is how we focused on it. We knew where we were. We should have put our heads down and carried, dragged, pushed and hauled our bikes through the bush and up the to ridge. It would have been tough, but as the Kiwis proved, it was doable. Lesson: Focus on the destination, not the route.
Jim, exceeded all expectations. Super strong- especially on the bike and he took over the bulk of the navigation. Focused and efficient in transition. Welcome to the expedition scene!
Jason, who probably suffered the most during the race, always did it with a smile (or at least a grimace). Never a complaint or a doubt that he would finish. How can anyone get so dirty? Or eat Spam?
Mari, who made a last minute “go” decision, continues to amaze me. I’m convinced she’s one of the best AR athletes in the world today- male or female. Certainly a top-three female. When a pack needed carrying this race- she was the one schlepping it. Transition queen. She makes us better.
On June 6, 2015, 25 teams lined up to compete in the first 24 hour race put on by All Out Adventure. Hardly a stranger to putting on events, All Out has been creating quality races in the San Luis Obispo area for many years. This however was their first time for a 24+ and the first time an AR race was held in the Mammoth Mountain area of the Eastern Sierras. I recruited a top navigator Dennis Wilkinson to join me for a two man team. The Sierras are a beautiful area and I was anxious to explore.
The race began with a short run to a bike transition, where we were to grab our bikes and ride the gondola up Mammoth Mountain to the peak. We were met with plenty of snow at the top, despite California's drought. After navigating the myriad ski runs to get back down the mountain, we were off for a long ride to Lake Crowley though confusing mountain trails, fire roads, and a bit of path finding. While we started in the lead with Dart-Nuun, somewhere during the ride we were passed by Tecnu who had found a better path and caught Dart-Nuun and both were first to the lake.
The paddle down Lake Crowley was straight forward enough (due South), but the weather threw us a massive hail storm as we pushed off. The storm was still in full fury coming off the water where we were around 30 minutes off the lead. We then found out that we had missed plotting a point where we were supposed to swim a finger of the lake. The swim was mandatory, so we figured there would be someone at the cliff bank checking off teams as they passed and would serve as our guide as the point to cross. After searching the banks for 45 minutes without finding the crossing point, we back-tracked and met a team who had it plotted. We discovered we had passed the point several times during our search without knowing it, and there was no one there checking teams off. Ouch. By now we were almost two hours behind the leaders to begin our 35 mile run.
Midway through the run was a 500' rappel down into a massive gorge that had been carved by the Owens River over thousands of years. It was spectacular. High, sheer cliffs defended the base from the dying sun and we searched in shadows for a goat trail out. This was the site of our other navigational error as we mistook an old abandoned mining structure for the power station where the trail was supposed to be found. After searching for another 45 minutes, we finally located the correct structure and climbed back out of the gorge to finish our run.
At 2:00 AM, we completed the run and transitioned back to bikes for a screaming downhill single track - the famous Rock Creek Trail. The trail dropped nearly 2,000 feet from Tom’s Place to the Owens Valley floor where we then had multiple optional checkpoints before finishing the bike to a short trek and the final paddle. As we were running short of time for the cutoff, we hit only one optional checkpoint, knowing the final paddle would be a long one and we didn't want to finish past the 12:00 cutoff.
The paddle was a ribbon of slow moving, shallow water of the Owens River after it exits the Pleasant Valley Reservoir. It took a technical effort to remain in the current and not get swept off the boat by the trees and bushes that lined the narrow banks, but it kept us engaged as the morning sun threatened to put us to sleep. The river was so crooked that for every 1 km as the crow flies, we paddled 3 kms (see photo). It took us a little over four hours to finish the paddle. All that was left was a 3 mile road "run" to the finish.
We ended up finishing in 3rd place, behind Tecnu who beat us by 10 minutes and 30 more CP points and Dart-Nuun who finished an amazing 43 seconds before the cutoff time, an hour behind us, but with 20 more CP points. Overall, a decent finish given our earlier challenges. I had a great time racing with Dennis, who is an amazing athlete. For their first 24+ hour race, Kristin and Yishai of All Out put on a great race with plenty of strategic options in a fantastic part of the country. We appreciate the amount of time and "love" that race directors put into their events to allow us to quench our quest for adventure.
In the native Ecuadorian tongue of Kichwa, Huairasinchi means strength of the wind, and the organizers of this amazingly beautiful race could not have picked a more suitable name for their flagship event.
Ecuador is a land of extremes: enormous mountains, wildly complex terrain, and an incomparably friendly people make the Ecuadorian adventure racing experience one we won’t ever forget. Of course, the giant raindrops and feeling of near-constant oxygen-depletion will help create lasting memories as well, and we would have had many more, had our race not suddenly taken a turn for the worst a mere 31 hours after the starting gun went off…
All of our pre-race ramblings went off without a hitch. We were confident that our new team configuration (which now included Canadian Liza Pye) was going to be a contender for a top 10 position this year and our race plan seemed dialed as we rode the bumpy bus to the starting line at the foot of the 5500m Antisana volcano. The sky was bluebird and the hulking mass of Antisana’s glaciers were sparkling in the morning light. It was a perfect day to start an expedition race.
As expected, the race started high and continued higher, until it reached an oxygen deprived 4400 meters. Since most of us live a speed bump above sea level, getting enough oxygen to satisfy the lungs was a challenge. We pushed and pulled each other along as we all took turns feeling like our lungs might explode. Things eventually got easier after we descended through the sharp spikey alpine grasses and shrubs, and after five hours on our feet we came into the first TA in a respectable 11th place.
Quickly transitioning to bikes, we continued by descending a screaming 1000-meter downhill on a smooth, paved highway. The twists and turns of the pavement were pure pleasure to descend as we played cat and mouse with another couple teams. We were too scared to look down at our speedometers, but judging by the bugs in our teeth, we must have been topping out at 45-50 miles per hour. Eventually, the highway turned to gravel, and gravel became trail, which ultimately became a long forgotten path that was at times shin-deep in mud. We plodded along as our memories hinted back to last year’s challenges in the first stages of Costa Rica, but thanked the Ecuadorian gods that we were at least moving forward with relative ease. After abusing our bikes by pushing, pulling and dragging them through the muck, we escaped the high jungle trail for the smooth dirt that would lead us to TA 2. Soon after, we conveniently found a local Ecuadorian who was busy power washing his car by the side of the road, and with some quick work of Jason’s Spanish, we were soon rolling into the TA with shiny clean bikes, ready to tackle the next trek.
Again, we made a quick transition at TA2 where we were treated to delicious sandwiches, baked goods, and fresh fruit, which were supplied by the local community before we headed out on a 40km trek. We left with Yogaslackers and chatted briefly as we made our way up the road before it crossed a bridge and became another jungle path. It had been a couple of hours of running and trekking and was dark when we hit the first ropes section. This long-abandoned bridge, due to its rotting condition, required us to rope up and cross with the use of a safety line. We shuffled along while avoiding the most rotted bits, but at one point Liza’s foot went right through and she found her leg dangling in mid-air. Thank goodness for the ropes! Once safely across, we had another 2+ hours of route finding, as the over-grown jungle trail would lead us down to the river, disappear, and then pick up again some time later. We waded through shallow eddies and scrambled up and down the steeply vegetated banks as we made our way westward along the riverbank. While the map showed this section as roughly 7 kms and a gradual uphill, in reality it was much more, due to the switchbacks, misdirection, and steep ups and downs that has us sometimes using all fours to negotiate our way forward. At last, we made it to the second dilapidated bridge, this one in much worse shape as many of the treads had long rotted away leaving only the rails and a rickety fence as our passage. We made our way across aided by a safety line and once on the other side, resumed the ugly path.
Then it began raining.
The drops came slowly at first, and the tree canopy caught most of it before reaching our weary bodies. But it continued, and then it became heavy. Dime-sized drops were soon pelting us from above, and aided by the caress of wet leaves, ferns and plants that adorned the way, we were quickly getting soaked. In only shorts and long sleeved shirts due to the earlier heat, we were soon drenched, and in retrospect, slow to put on our protective rain gear. We spent the next five hours sliding and slipping and the trail got progressively worse, until most of our progress was hard fought. It's really hard to describe the amount of suffering that this effort has on the body and soul. Midnight, cold, wet, and bathed in tropical mud. We’ve done it many times before, but these are dark moments.
During the last part of this trek, Jason began losing body heat. Despite him wearing three layers of clothes, having his space blanket wrapped around his torso, and even donning a moldy yellow rubber raincoat discarded by a farmer who’d left it on a fence post, he was unable to retain any energy and started to show serious symptoms of hypothermia. We tried to up his calorie intake, had him eat more salts, more water, even run a bit, get rid of his pack, make him carry more weight, and put him on tow. All these efforts were to no avail. It was still raining hard, and stopping was not an option. Fifteen hours after starting this leg, we finally arrived at TA3 resolved to get some sleep and recover a bit before heading off to the next long bike leg.
After a two-hour sleep, we packed and saddled up. Jason was still having a hard time staying warm, but we figured by going slow he would be able to recover. The bike section began with a 900-meter climb up to a 3500-meter summit before descending. Despite wearing multiple layers of clothing, Jason could still not stay warm on the climb that had the rest of the team feeling hot in shorts and short sleeves. Near the peak, having lost fluids, body heat, and all energy, the decision was to surrender to the course. Jason had been suffering for over 15 hours at this point, and it wasn’t getting any better. Reluctantly, the team decided to turn around back to TA3.
In hindsight, our biggest mistake was probably trekking too long before putting on our rain gear, and it proved fatal to our chances of finishing. For a team with as much experience as we have, it is disappointing that we let the excitement of the race get the better of our race intelligence so early and made such a short-sighted mistake in not taking care of ourselves early.