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.