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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