Question #1: How do you train for racing at 12,000-13,000 feet elevation when you live in Austin, Texas (550 feet elevation)?
Approximate answer: Exercise in heat and humidity, run and bike up all the hills you can find, arrive in Colorado a week early, acclimate while scouting the area trails, and drink lots of water.
Question #2: How do you train for 3000-foot climbs when you live in Austin, Texas (200-foot max hill height)?
Approximate answer: Perform repeats of hill repeats, go up and down Enchanted Rock at least 10 times, develop leg strength and endurance, rest your legs for a couple days before the race starts, design an effective tow system, hire a Sherpa.
Question #3: How do you train for steep scree slopes with loose, sliding rock when you live in Austin, Texas (lots of rock but it's all embedded in the ground)?
Approximate answer: Well, two out of three ain't bad... especially when we didn't understand the question beforehand.
We also hoped to fix previous mistakes that included not being able to take in food during a long race (Marcy), ankle troubles when climbing over rocks (Jason), and not having proper cold weather clothing (all of us!). Armed with SPIZ, trekking poles, fleece and parkas, we set off for Telluride pulling a U-Haul trailer.
Arriving for a race a full week early has many advantages. We took the time to relax, take in the amazing mountain vistas around us, work with gear at an unhurried pace, and explore the town bakery and restaurants. On several days we did a workout of up to an hour, mostly walking up trails and ski slopes to acclimate our lungs and bodies and to check out various trailheads in the area. Our wonderful crew of 5 arrived by mid-week and we had multiple conversations about gear, food, and potential race scenarios.
This was our first "supported" adventure race, meaning that we had to coerce several competent people to travel to Colorado, drive around the mountains while we were biking and trekking, work hard, move bikes and equipment, cook, organize, and be cheerful for a week. We were blessed with help from Sheila (Jason's wife), Steve, Rob, Brandi, and John. Seeing them at various points on the course was one of the best things about the race for us.
Near the end of the week a big storm brewed over the mountains and then a magnificent double rainbow appeared. It seemed to come down to the top of a nearby hill, so close we could almost reach it. Soon rain drove us to the tent where we retired for an early sleep.
Gear checks and skills testing started on Friday. Several items were tagged and all pieces were verified. Whitewater testing was done in a local pool, and while the setting wasn't authentic the volunteers were thorough in testing our knowledge and making us aware of the biggest danger in the river (foot entrapment). The ropes section mostly involved a gear check and verification that we could use the gear correctly.
Our crew helped us ferry everything from place to place, then we were done and ready to put the packs together. I finally realized that I needed to relinquish all crew organizational duties, so Brandi took over and I concentrated on my gear box. The pre-race meeting was straightforward, and then we received the maps for the first 26-mile section. Time to focus!
The first section was a loop on foot, starting with a trek up to the top of the ski area. We were given UTM coordinates but didn't have an easy way to plot them on the particular scale of the map (40,000:1). Luckily Kip had purchased a set of 24,000:1 quadrangles so we plotted the points on those maps and transferred the information to the trail map. We had a good idea how to get started up the mountain and hoped our navigational abilities would take over from there. The crew would be treated to movies the first night, as they didn't need to pack up and move anywhere right away.
Sunday morning we did final prep and tried to nap a little, mostly staying off our feet as much as possible. We had a scrumptious breakfast at Maggie's while watching the crew caravan to Mountain Village. Quickly it was time to gather at the starting line, give everyone a final hug, then the countdown to 3 p.m. - GO!
Lead teams took off on a run, leaping over the fences and staring down cameramen until they got out of the way. We followed near the back of the pack, walking at a brisk pace toward the slope. We took a wide ski run that was close to a direct route but not incredibly steep like some places. Teams spread out across the expanse of grass, many towing teammates like John was towing me. Our breathing was a bit faster than during our training walks but still felt like it was under control.
John and I made our own switchbacks up the ski run called See Forever, trying not to cut people off with the tow rope. Teams headed in all directions, some going directly up, some taking side roads, some staying lower in the valley to do a big climb later. We took a side road briefly to give our calves a break. Soon we overlooked the whole valley, ascending to the top of the highest ski lift.
Near the top we walked along a grassy ridgeline that I determined was "good" in terms of comfort level to the exposure. Wind blew at the top and had a nice cooling effect. You could pretty much count on the wind and lower temperatures above 12,000 feet. After a short drop we reached Checkpoint A where our team number was recorded.
We followed teams down a thin trail and through fields of grass and pretty flowers. The main struggle of the next hour was resolving the scale of the map to what we saw around us. All of the topography was immense, far away, and difficult to picture from the map contours. Two streams on the maps turned out to be at the bottom of sweeping valleys. We were supposed to follow a trail up the second stream, but lost the trail and attempted to follow a small creek. Teams were spread out in all directions, eventually climbing up toward a saddle in the distance.
We found ourselves high above the second creek where we could see the trail, but we didn't want to go down to it just to climb back up the other side. We tried skirting the hillside but it became steep and it seemed precarious to me so we headed up to the top of the slope. After dipping down through a few small drainages we started climbing a path toward the saddle, meeting up with teams that had taken other creative routes.
As our elevation increased, Jason seemed to lose energy and become rather "numb", for lack of a better description. Lightning flashed in the distance so we didn't dawdle at the crest of the rise to think about it. On the other side we dropped down into a scenic valley with snow patches and small lakes. We chatted with a racer named Jim who had been on a winning team at a previous Texas race, then we stopped to refill water bladders at a lake. Jason rested and seemed to be doing OK.
The slope on the other side of the valley seemed a long way away, but as we started walking it was suddenly in front of us. The scale continually surprised us. Sometimes it would take forever to walk toward a small feature, and sometimes the big mountains almost moved toward us. We learned as we went along, figuring out all over again how to read a contour map, gaining experience in what was possible to traverse and what was dangerous, and most of all coming to an understanding that we could not determine some routes until we could see what was there.
A switchback trail led us up a rocky slope to a ridge where we signed in for our first official checkpoint, CP1. I asked the volunteer what the ridge was like and he said "Just go", so we went. The distant lightning made me slightly jittery so I tried to focus on the ridge in front of us. That didn't help much. There were jagged spires and seemingly impassable sections all along it. We climbed rocks to the top of the first peak in the series and assessed the next step. I sat and tried to relax while the guys took a look at how to move forward. We could not stay on the ridge due to the sharp drops, so they tried to figure out how to get down into the valley and around to the next part.
I heard Jason say something to the effect that I would not be comfortable with what we had to do, and John replied that I wasn't going to be comfortable with any of the choices, so I prepared to be uncomfortable. They gathered me up and we started down among the large rocks. Kip and Jason looked at ease, so I focused on John's instructions and we slowly slid and crawled from big rock to big rock. We transitioned to a steep slope with lots of loose rock and started a descent where we faced into the slope and walked/slid down the hill. John taught me to continuously step with my hands and feet and to move with the rocks. Below us Kip and Jason made it to the bottom of the steep slope and waited for me to figure it out. It was true, I was not comfortable, but without any other choice I just listened to John and tried not to freak out.
Darkness approached as we reached the flatter area, interrupted by flashes and rumbles from nearby, although it appeared that the storm was not moving in our direction. We tried to move quickly across the slope below the ridge toward a point that looked possible to traverse. I started calculating possible scenarios for the coming hours and I was concerned. The ridge in front of us looked impossible to traverse for any distance. The slope below it looked terribly steep and much longer than the one we had just come down. Our only experience in this terrain was about 1 hour old and it was about to be pitch black. The plan was to go over the ridge, possibly up one more peak, then go down the other side into a neighboring valley where we could probably go around on the side of slopes to reach CP2. However, we had no idea what the terrain would look like and how difficult it would be to assess in the dark.
I finally had to halt the procession and use up the remaining light for a discussion. We decided quickly that we did not have time to get to the top of the ridge in the daylight, so hurrying up there would not gain us anything. I was worried about getting into a situation on the top of a rock/ridge/mountain where we did not have enough information to select a route or determine if the area was safe for a group of rookie mountaineers to travel. I was also concerned that I would put a halt to our travel later if the going got questionable, forcing us to sleep in the cold until daylight even though we were all ready to move for hours to come.
Long discussion, but finally everyone agreed to take the long way around. We started down the long slope to Blue Lake. Jason was not sure we could get around the lake, with its potentially steep sides as far as we could tell from above, but to my relief there was a passable shoreline and we moved as quickly as we could to the other side.
After a brief search Kip located the trail heading down from the lake and our pace picked up. We were following a pipeline that first appeared by a mine near the lake and the route seemed to be correct. Then the pipeline dropped down a rather steep hill, and we questioned whether we were still on the main trail. Sense of distance must have been skewed because we decided we had not come far enough to turn left and drop down toward the creek. So we stayed next to the pipeline, even as the trail turned into singletrack and eventually disappeared.
After a few hundred meters we were faced with a pipeline traverse across a ravine. I realized that this course of travel was going to lead to ever-steeper and probably impassable slopes before the pipeline came out above Bridal Veil Falls. After all, we had been hiking in that area before the race and I could not picture a safe exit for the pipeline to the trail we were seeking. We determined that we needed to head downward to find the trail that we should have been on.
One false start down the ravine yielded steep drops that we could not descend. We headed back up and found a more gentle descent down a dry creek. It was a long way down to the trail and we constantly questioned whether we should head back up to find the trail where we got off course. But we made it down small rock faces and we hung onto trees to slide down short slopes. Each small victory made us more determined to make the decision work. John helped me down the longer drops and we eventually came out at the trail. Success!
Finally we were back on track. The trail went down switchbacks and then followed the creek down to Bridal Veil Falls. A large snow machine and a snowmobile that were stored for the summer appeared out of the darkness to welcome us to civilization, if only briefly. We glanced at the lights of Telluride before turning our attention to regaining the hundreds of feet of altitude that we had given up to avoid the rocky ridge and peaks of the direct route.
John towed me and we slowly climbed, passing a smaller waterfall and pausing to get water from a side stream. Two other teams passed us going the other way, headed for Ajax peak and CP3. They were naturally surprised to see us moving in that direction. But I did not envy where they were headed. The back of Ajax peak looked like one giant scree slope on the map.
Finally we moved up to the top of the valley and approached the glow stick of CP2. We could see headlamps of a team coming down the ridge in the distance but it was impossible to tell what they were going through. We weren't in last place, but we were somewhere in the back of the pack. The volunteer at the checkpoint helpfully told us we had gone extra distance to get there. Thank you, sir. He also tried hard to convince us to go back the way we had come to go to CP3. Ajax peak was one option; the other was to follow a ridge to Imogene Pass and follow a trail down into the valley. I was quite adamant that we should try the ridge and avoid Ajax. Jason had purchased a book of hikes near Telluride, and it described this particular ridge walk in detail. It had sounded like a trek we could do.
So against the better judgment of the volunteer we headed up to Trico peak. John led us over small rocks and boulders and we easily reached the top. Jason and I rested while the other two scouted a way down the other side. The back of the peak was covered with large boulders. Kip fetched us for the start of an exercise in down-climbing. John guided my feet and hands while Kip stayed with Jason who was not enjoying himself. Once in a while I got stupid and looked down to see the earth drop away beside me. As the race went on my ability to ignore the exposure around me improved.
Slowly we picked our way down to the saddle behind Trico. From there we could vaguely make out a trail that led up from the main path below. We surmised that many teams probably took the main path to that trail and avoided Trico peak, while also staying off of Ajax. Later GPS analysis would show this to be correct.
After that the going was easier. John led the way along the slopes around several other peaks. There was a faint, indefinite trail in places but we were also fine walking on the grass and rocks. The sky brightened in anticipation of a beautiful sunrise. It is amazing how invigorating a new day can be!
We stopped for a break and John snapped a photo of Kip napping on the rocks. Kip knows how to make good use of his time when other people need to stop moving. I studied the maps and glanced at the small lakes below us. The view was spectacular and we could see for a long ways. Once moving again, we found the road up to Imogene Pass. There was a sheet of snow above the road and Kip used the opportunity to toss a snowball in John's direction. Then he took a running start at a snow/ice sheet and had a good slide down to the road. I stuck to the less-slippery rocks.
After a short walk and climb we reached Imogene Pass. Another success! John took our picture at the sign at the top, then we started down on the road. The road pointed sharply down, but it was still a road after all, and we didn't have any trouble walking/jogging down it.
We glanced up to see a team on the slope opposite us and I had to swear in amazement. They were coming down an extremely long, steep scree slope and it did not look like they were happy about it. One person looked almost stuck, but apparently he or she was still moving slowly downward on butt and hands. I was really glad we had gone around to the pass. We realized a little later that they were not even on the back of Ajax peak but somehow had taken an alternate route. Further down, Ajax did not look much better. The side of that mountain was covered in slide marks and dirt trails. Trico peak was definitely worth the work!
We moved hastily down to CP3 on Tomboy road and the volunteer told us that other racers had relayed stories of boulders bouncing by them on the way down Ajax. Many people apparently were on the scree slope at the same time and it sounded like a dangerous situation. Looking back it seemed that we should have been wearing helmets for part of the time during that loop, except that we would have had to think to bring them since they were not required gear at that point.
We continued our descent into the valley of Telluride. We passed by abandoned mines and pretty waterfalls. There were rocks everywhere. The road wound around the sides of the mountains and under a tunnel. One mineshaft next to the road looked really deep. Apparently there are tour companies that drive jeeps up in that area, but I preferred to be on foot for that section. We alternated walking and running to ease the stress on our legs. Downhill actually became tedious after a while!
Finally we could see the town and the ski slopes on the opposite side. As we neared the streets, we gained on a team that appeared in front of us. Then we passed a team going up the hill in the opposite direction. Whoa, now THAT was a detour! Apparently we were not the only ones with scree slope trepidation. Back in town we jogged down the paved streets and made our way toward the gondola.
The team ahead of us stopped to use the public restrooms so we greeted them and moved on. We took the trail next to the creek and followed it out of town, saying "howdy" to local walkers and joggers. John found a side trail which led directly to the ski resort and kept us from having to go up and back down the mountain. Thanks John! The trail was steep and it was getting hot so we walked up it slowly, stopping for rest and water several times.
Then we popped out onto a resort road and followed it around the spa where we had done the ropes certification. Not far from there we found the main PQ parking lot, CP4, and OUR CREW! Yay! It was great to see them. We checked in and then Kip and John went to the map tent to copy the remaining points over to our maps. Jason and I collapsed in chairs under the Easy-up. The crew ran back and forth, handing us drinks and food. All I could say at first was "Wow", mostly thinking about the course so far. The crew had heard comments to that effect from other racers as well. We had gained a couple spots since CP2 but many teams had come through this point in the darkness earlier.
Kip and John joined us and we finished getting ready for a long bike section. Gear was transferred to the bike rack bags on the backs of our bikes. The crew warned us that the first bike section could be difficult with lots of walking. We scurried around and managed to get ready in just over an hour. That was way past our initial goal of 15 minutes! Expedition race transitions can take some time even if you are very focused.
We checked out, made a couple adjustments to the bike racks, and headed out. The arrows we were told to follow were a bit confusing because they seemed to lead us back to the way we had walked up. Then we saw a side trail and it made sense. Jason led the way along a nice little singletrack trail that skirted the edge of the mountain. It was gentle and a bit sandy, just a smooth ride. Too soon we came out on the road and found the next checkpoint, CP5.
We had another brief debate about trail vs. road and ended up taking the trail. I balked when it seemed the trail would turn into steep switchbacks. We went back out to the road and spent some time climbing on the pavement before John and Jason told me we were going back to the trail. Ok, but it might take me a while to get down, I said. No problem. We went back to the trail and it turned out to be one little switchback and then a gentle slope. So I felt a bit silly. We came out on the main road and found the trail on the other side leading around some houses. Another set of short switchbacks and we were next to the creek heading down to Ilium valley.
The singletrack was mostly easy, with a couple rocky sections, and we rode at a decent pace. As the trail dropped down to a road we saw another team heading the other way on the road. It was confusing for a moment but we figured out that they were just really far ahead of us and they were starting the second part of the bike loop. The road took us to a campground and CP6.
It was time to use the maps again and study the terrain. First we crossed a small creek and Kip helped me with my bike. Then a small diversion while a camera crew got shots of Jason walking his bike across and riding up the hill. It was too steep for me, so I walked up the hill with Kip and John following. The result was a team photo on the PQ web site that was neat to see later. More climbing and we found a road. More climbing and we took a short side trip to someone's backyard. Not that way. A little riding, more walking, and we came to an intersection. It looked like the shortest route was through someone's ranch. The signs for the trail that we sought pointed the other way. We decided to follow the signs and take the longer way around. Coming from Texas, we are leery of trespassing because all the ranchers in the state have guns and aren't afraid to use them. We didn't want to experiment with the general atmosphere in Colorado ranchland.
The trail was easier to ride after that point, although we still did our share of walking the bikes. Horseflies buzzed around and prevented us from stopping for very long at a time. It seemed like a good time to lather on some Bug&Sun, which helped. John started towing my bike while we walked which definitely made it easier for me. Into the forest we went.
The trails were well-marked and we found the side trail we were looking for. It headed downhill so I took my time around the tight turns. I also discovered that the faint buzzing sound from the back of my bike was one of the straps to my bike rack bag rubbing on the wheel. John helped me reposition the rack in an attempt to keep the strap from breaking, which worked for quite a while. Jason had fun riding down the hills and I followed as fast as I felt comfortable.
At the bottom we found a small creek and followed it for a spell. The trail was a bit wet, but I consoled myself as I did many times during the race that it was nothing like Borneo. No mud! It's interesting how much easier it is to move, regardless how steep or scary the terrain, when there is no mud. People tend to focus on the leech aspect of Borneo, but for me it will always be the mud...
The trail turned upward out of the valley, and I mean UPWARD. The bike-push became difficult. Another team approached from behind and a couple of us thought we should move faster to stay ahead of them. After breathing hard for a couple minutes it became clear that in the grand scheme of things it didn't matter. We rode around a pretty lake, across a meadow, and over small streams.
We followed the trail as it flattened out and turned into small rolling hills. I enjoyed this section with the little climbs, short descents, and easy pedaling through the trees and over roots. When we stopped to refill our Camelbaks at a clear, cold creek, the other team rode by and greeted us. We passed them back as they were eating not far from there.
The trail changed character after crossing a road and we found ourselves on more of a jeep trail. It climbed for a while, took us past a creek and another team resting, and made a few turns. A side trail to the right looked promising, but it dumped us into a meadow on a ridge, which wasn't right, but it explained where we were. Coming back to the trail we met the other team trying the same offshoot. We told them it wasn't the trail we were looking for, but they investigated for themselves anyway.
Further along we found a gate and a confusing sign. We figured out the meaning of the words and continued on. Soon an intersection appeared that made us think some more, at which point we determined that the trail map was not exactly accurate, but we had enough information to follow the correct trail down the side of the hill as the contours showed.
The trail was easy to ride, down a couple switchbacks and above a creek. It soon became apparent that either the map was really bad or the trail had been changed because we moved away from the creek and stayed at one level on the hillside. We found a new type of topographic feature, an offshoot of a creek going downhill. All natural waterways merge on the way down, so we surmised that someone had created a canal. The trail led us along the flat banks of the deep little brook, a rather surreal setting in the middle of nowhere.
It is disconcerting to be on a trail that isn't drawn correctly on the map, but at least we were heading straight for our destination trail that should be perpendicular to us. The frequency of map glances increased for a while, then the trail we wanted was there. We left the waterway and chugged up the slope to the left.
Partway up Jason suggested we move quickly past one of the trees and we discovered that it was creaking loudly. Not one to stick around under a pending tree fall, I hastened up the hill with the guys. We rode through glades of white aspens and fields of green grass, then started a descent into the next valley. Down the easier drops I practiced braking with both hands. As a road cyclist I mostly use the back brake but I had trouble with my back tire skidding on the steep Colorado downhills.
At the bottom we looked for a creek crossing where we would attempt a shortcut to CP7. Instead of riding south to a camping area, west a short distance, and then back north to the checkpoint, John and I decided to try going a couple hundred meters through the trees. This should bring us out on the road and save us some riding.
A team passed us as we started our off-trail adventure. John led us down the creek and up the banks on the opposite side. At the top we found a fence and heaved the bikes over. John scouted a little way up and thought he could see the road, so up we went, pulling the bikes over logs and working our way through the forest. Unfortunately, the meadow at the top did not contain a road. John was baffled. Kip and Jason were upset. I made an educated guess about where we were, but in the end we decided to do the safe thing and go back to the trail where we would ride around like everyone else. So we headed downward. The bikes were tossed a little less gracefully over the log fence. Trees and vines got in our way. The team grumbled.
Back at the trail we rode up a small hill and expected to continue on about a mile to a camp where we would go west and then turn north...wait, there's the checkpoint right in front of us. We had gotten off the trail less than one fourth of a mile from CP7 and the map was totally wrong. I tried not to laugh, while Jason and Kip narrowed their eyes and John almost rode back down the trail to hide. I'm sure the checkpoint volunteers had no idea why our team was barely holding it together, but we got in and out of there as fast as we could as the mood and the sky darkened. Our departure was briefly delayed while the volunteers replaced our GPS unit, which had been working only intermittently since the start of the race.
We glided down the road to a parking area and stopped to put on more clothes. We met a man and his daughter who were camping there and they chatted with us and brought out a lantern to help us see what we were doing. Then we rode further down the hill and found a grassy field to take a nap. We decided to sleep early in the night before it became too cold, so we set our watches to go off two hours later and slept on the tent material that was spread out. I was chilly and woke up shivering, but it was a fast 2 hours so I must have slept. Jason said he stayed awake for most of it.
On we went, up the road. We would be climbing for a while. John towed me and we warmed up with the effort of biking uphill. Most of the road was good to ride and I don't recall how much we walked, if at all. But it was a long hill so we took occasional breaks. All we could see in the darkness was the road ahead and the trees all around. This lasted quite a while and I won't bore you by attempting to describe any more of it.
At the top we gathered water from a creek and Jason rested. He seemed to be quite tired. We relished the thought of a nice downhill ride on a good road. Starting down I was thankful for the extra bright Nite Rider Dive Light on my head. Kip and I were both wearing them so we lit up the night for Jason and John. The Cateye on my handlebars added depth perception and I could avoid or anticipate the occasional bump or pothole. Back and forth we steamed down the switchbacks. The ascents and descents in Colorado last a long time.
In a valley on the far side of the wilderness area we wound our way along the roads and followed signs for the next village. In the wee hours of the morning Jason spoke up about a problem that had been plaguing him for miles. Apparently during one of the descents earlier in the day he had ruptured a testicle, probably against his bike seat although he didn't remember any sharp pain or noticeable trauma at the time. Gradually the pain grew worse and by the time he told us about it he was having trouble riding. We alternated walking and riding, but eventually it got so bad that Jason was on the ground crying in pain.
Normally you might associate "testicle three times its normal size" and "writhing in pain" with an emergency helicopter ride and the end of the race as a ranked team. John suggested the radio and Jason basically told him he didn't want to use the radio, forget it. Kip reassured Jason that we had plenty of time and we didn't have to go anywhere for a while if that would help. Apparently the pain subsided somewhat and Jason rested. Then he quickly popped up and said, "let's walk," so we followed him up the road. We took several short napping breaks between walking as the sun rose behind us. And we named it FRED for "Fertility Rock of Enormous Dimensions"...
Jason eventually found that he could ride short distances if he sat only on his left butt cheek. However, when faced with the option of a shorter route on a bumpy trail, we all decided it was best for FRED if we took the long way around on a smooth road. Partway up an incline we turned to see John falling asleep so we all collapsed beside the road for a snooze in the morning sunshine. That was the best sleep I had that day. We awoke and staggered on, shedding clothing as went.
Up we traveled, gazing at valleys and hills in all directions. Smaller unmarked roads took off in various directions but we decided to trust the initial road sign for the main road and we stuck to it. A long, curvy downhill followed and we stopped for water at a small creek. Then we rode down some more, meeting up with Team ContraTerra as they came off the bumpy shortcut and onto the main road we had been following. It was good to talk with Kathy and her teammates briefly, then they were flying down the hill ahead of us. I took it a bit slower, especially as we found more loose gravel and the road got a bit steeper. Kip sometimes bikes downhill slower than I do but he had no trouble with these roads, while I used my brakes. FRED seemed to be riding OK.
At the bottom we came upon CP8 and then found Kathy's team refilling water in a creek. The distance back to the TA and our crew didn't seem too daunting so we were in good spirits. After a quick ride along a creek we started ascending switchbacks on the other side. Jason even had the energy to tow me up most of it. My legs felt good so I was able to loosen the towline for periods of time. Kip walked parts of it, but he walks quickly and almost keeps up with my riding pace. We passed a team going up the hill.
At the top we rode across a mountain plain, marveling at the beauty of it. Several cars came by in the other direction with people cheering for us as they drove. Soon we started a descent down to the paved road of Highway 145. This section was a bit hairy. We were WAY up high on a narrow road with the possibility of cars from either direction. The switchbacks were stacked on each other, going down steeply and then reversing directly under the last one. Our brakes and hands got a good workout. Luckily we didn't have to pass any vehicles there and I mostly stayed as far from the edge as I could. I was about to take a break to rest my hands when we were suddenly at the bottom.
Someone suggested adding air to the tires for the section of paved road before the TA, since we had been riding on lower air pressure to help bike handling on dirt trails. We stopped and used some CO2 cartridges to add air to the tires, finding out that our frame pump had fallen off at some point. We saved one CO2 just in case. From there we rode up hill into the wind for a ways, staying in a pace line to make it easier. Cars zoomed past but we had a decent shoulder to ride on. A local rider on a road bike also zoomed past.
At the bottom of the steepest part we took a break to eat, then we climbed some more, partly walking, partly riding. One of the guys got a flat tire near the top (who knew that would happen?) so we stopped to quickly change it. We were all excited about getting back to the crew but we had to temper it in order to get up the rest of the hill. Finally we were at the top and starting down the descent to the TA. On pavement I was much happier, riding closer to a speed that hopefully made everyone else happy too. We cruised into the TA (CP9) to be greeted by a cheerful crew. Welcome home!
We ate, drank, changed socks and shoes, applied sunscreen and various lubricants, and regaled the crew with tales of FRED and how we thought our race was in jeopardy. Jason met with the medical staff and they gave a cautious "ok" for him to continue racing. He was put on an aggressive regiment of ibuprofen and bravely agreed to keep going. And the crew fashioned some duct tape padding for Jason's bike seat, which helped remove pressure from sensitive areas. We were buoyed by the knowledge that we had remained in about the same placing even with our troubles.
Without too much ado, we repacked and headed out. The wind picked up and dark clouds rolled in. Making sure our outer jackets were available, we biked further down the paved road until we found a turn-off to Ilium valley. After a fast, easy decent we arrived at CP10 which was the same place as CP6. We greeted a couple other teams who were near us at the time.
It started raining as we rode along the creek toward the main road, so we put on our "purple people eater" (PPE) jackets and put up the hoods. Our butts got sprayed with water and mud, but the liners in the bike rack bags and packs kept our gear dry. It rained harder and we mostly rode in silence except to verify where we were headed. At Highway 145 we had to ride down about a mile next to traffic, so I took a deep breath and led the way. All external surfaces got completely soaked from the rain and the spray of passing cars, but we found the turn-off without incident.
The side road headed toward Last Dollar Road in the area of Telluride Airport. There was some traffic but mostly we had the road to ourselves as we alternated walking and riding. I had incentive to stay on the bike as long as I could because the bike seat was dang cold after walking next to the bike in the rain. John continued to tow my bike whenever we walked, saving me from pushing it. There was thunder and lightning around the next mountaintop and we wondered if someone else was caught in the middle of it. Kip led the way with the map and pointed us in the right direction when the road ended in a "T" with another road.
As we rode up the next slope we could faintly hear sheep bleating. We weren't exactly sure what the sound was until we looked across the hillside to see white fleecy coats dotting a nearby field. We also saw planes landing and taking off and eventually we were higher than they were flying. Green valleys and pretty homes spread out below us and soon it stopped raining so we could remove our hoods to take it all in.
We found a campsite with a great view and almost continued up the wrong side trail but caught our mistake. Back on the real trail we continued to walk our bikes uphill. We could see another team on the switchbacks above us and everyone was moving slowly. Our team stopped so I could put duct tape on impending blisters on my heels and we ate something. Then we walked some more. The wind picked up so we knew we were making progress in the upward direction. We were even able to ride some of the gentler switchback slopes and eventually we made it to the top.
We rode down the trail on the other side, taking switchbacks through the woods. Kip's bike got a flat tire partway down, so we were able to give our hands a rest from braking while John and Jason quickly swapped the tube. Then more downhill, some it of bumpy, some of it rocky, but most of it easy to ride if I applied my brakes enough.
In the next valley we found ranches and horses. We also saw a red plume of smoke on a distant plateau and guessed that lightning may have sparked a tree. Near the end of the race we heard about a forest fire that started that day in the same area, so we think we may have seen the first signs of it. As the wind blew in our faces we biked onward.
The road changed off and on to somewhat bumpy and then a decent surface. We were not able to converse much with the wind in our ears but we did smile at each other and point to the beautiful sunset around us. The clouds made interesting shapes and the sky turned many colors of orange and red. We went up and down small hills and headed north toward the main road, route 62.
The paved road had a good shoulder and it was easy to ride on. I don't recall when the headwind died away but we definitely moved faster on this road. A caravan of PQ crew cars came by with people waving and then we realized it was our crew! It was great to feel their presence and anticipate the next "feed" in transition. But we still had a ways to go.
First we had a luxurious, long downhill on a paved road to the next CP. It was getting dark but we didn't need the bright lights yet. And traffic was light so we could ride without much worry. At CP11 we put on warmer clothes, grabbed a bite to eat, and turned on headlamps and handlebar lights. We started along the dirt road toward the mountains. Even though we could only barely make out the outlines of high slopes ahead of us, we could feel the mountaineering section looming.
We almost went up a driveway but luckily a woman in a car told us that it was a private drive and redirected us to the road. That saved us some time trying to figure out the various intersections in the area. The road was rocky and went up a long hill. Soon we saw, heard, and smelled cows. We knew we needed to fill up with water but there wasn't much of it in the area. The small creeks were full of cow dung and not appetizing at all. So we walked and rode and walked and walked up this hill.
It wasn't a particularly long hill compared to many that we climbed during the race, but it was deceptive and I had not studied the map enough to understand how far we would be climbing. I also had not finished the SPIZ bottle that John had mixed for me a while back. Mostly I was thinking about getting to the TA...
After walking past some wide-eyed calves and walking over a few cattle guards, we entered the National Forest and left the bovines behind. Still the trail climbed and we pushed the bikes some more. It seemed like a long time but finally we rounded a corner and came upon CP12. It looked like a rather lonely place to be stationed. We signed in and out and asked about a water source. The volunteer pointed us up the hill to a small stream. It was on the way, so up we went.
I counted Aqua Mira drops to treat the water and the guys filled the Camelbaks and bottles. We rested briefly and then someone started ferrying bikes up the next steep incline while I closed my eyes. It was nice to be able to lie on the ground without worrying about bugs and leeches. Did I mention that I was glad there was no mud? John nudged me awake and we trekked upward. I was feeling slower.
The next section was a singletrack trail and I found someone else's write-up later that described it as "fun". I would not agree, but I suppose it's a matter of opinion. Someone who likes to ride over knarly roots and clamber over logs while trying not to slide down the steep slope next to them probably would enjoy it. My disposition went downhill as my energy ebbed. The worst parts were the very-short sections that actually could be ridden, because I was having trouble balancing on my bike and I felt silly walking through a meadow.
As I moved at a pace that gradually wound down, I told John that I felt exhausted. At the time it seemed like we had been pushing too hard up to that point and it had all caught up to me. Looking back, I'm sure I was getting tired but that didn't explain the sudden drop in energy and inability to think clearly. I had missed a SPIZ "feeding" and the water in my Camelbak didn't have Gatorade except for the initial refill at each TA. On bike sections it is difficult to eat because your hands are always on the handlebars and I had been tending to other things (clothes, lights) on our short rest breaks. The result was a food "bonk" where you run low on calories and your body shuts down.
The condition of the trail made it difficult to deal with my problem, but I really wanted to get to the TA so I tried to keep moving. Somehow Jason and John managed to carry my bike through a major portion of the trail while I plodded along. Everyone was very patient and helpful. At one point I got to the top of a climb and I collapsed on the ground to recover. John got me to drink something but I didn't want to eat. He helped me get up and continue. We reached a steep uphill and John confirmed that we needed to climb it. The one thing I could think clearly about was the map. I had studied it before my bonk so I had a better idea what to expect for this leg. I was ready for this hill because it meant we were getting close to the TA. I mumbled some sort of agreement about needing to climb the hill but I'm not sure if anyone understood me.
I don't remember how my bike or I got up that long incline, but I expect we had some help from my wonderful teammates. John relayed a story later where Jason was climbing close behind Kip when Kip informed Jason that he was "fixin' to fart" (the declaration was probably because of the relative location of one of his body parts to Jason's face). Jason said "What?" and I mumbled in a soft voice "He SAID 'I'm fixin' to fart!'" and giggled, but only John heard me. The retelling of it made the crew laugh later that night.
At the top we may have actually ridden some of the next section? I'm not sure, although I recall fallen trees that we had to go over or under. John watched the map and led us closer to the creek. I wasn't looking forward to a ride down switchbacks at the end of the trail. John tried to find a shortcut but there was no obvious trail so he stayed with the one we were on. I may have walked most of the downhill, but at the very end my teammates managed to get me on the bike to coast into the TA (CP13). Sorry about that section, y'all!
The crew had put the big Texas flag on one of the vehicles and it was a welcome sight! They bounced up and started feeding us and asking us what we needed. We sat and ate soup and I drank Gookinaid to recover, then we crawled into the SUV's for some much-needed sleep. I immediately crashed and slept soundly for about 3 hours.
After what felt like 10 minutes (but it was light out so it must have been longer), I think it was Steve who opened the back of the SUV and handed us soup to eat. It was made of noodles and chicken broth, really yummy. We also got oatmeal for breakfast. Our crew is awesome. We had a good breakfast and slowly got our stuff together. Kip worked with the maps for the next section and John compiled our ropes gear bags.
Back on our feet, we were ready to head out when Kathy Duryea and Marc Coppedge rode into the TA. It was fun to see other racers from Texas. We went through a gear check with the TA volunteers and discovered that we were moving up the ranking by virtue of other teams dropping out. Soon we started walking up the road. We had to return briefly to pick up the trekking tow system and then we were really gone.
Again the morning daylight helped wake us up and lift our spirits. I felt much better and I was glad to be walking sans bicycle. It's a good bike but it sure can get heavy at times. There were several small creek crossings and I walked right through while the guys hopped on rocks. My shoes drain and dry really fast and it helped keep me cool. We followed a trail toward the peaks that rapidly grew larger in front of us.
Kip had a good plan for this section. We followed the trail as long as we could, then we headed along the edge of the slope and stayed at about the same elevation for the traverse. We saw many signs of other teams doing the same thing. Sometimes it almost seemed like there was a trail (more like an animal path) but then it would disappear and we would climb over tree limbs and brush. We crossed several drainages and sometimes had to pick our way over piles of rocks. I pace counted so we could estimate distance traveled and John monitored the altimeter.
We came out of the woods above a deep drainage and determined that we needed to cross it or head down it and find the next creek over. We hedged our bets and crossed it at an angle, heading down the rocks to the trees on the other side. The next section was clogged with downed trees but it was still passable. We emerged about 10 feet above the creek we were looking for and John helped me climb down to it.
We could see a creek intersection above us. The CP should be in between those two creeks. We refilled the Camelbaks in anticipation of an extended time above tree line with no water sources. The creek water was cold and clear, a constant source of amazement for me compared to Texas waterways. We hiked upward and then pulled ourselves up the steep slope to the checkpoint tent.
There we found Diana Mann, another racer. She was handling CP14 while other members of her team helped evacuate a racer. We talked with her about the challenge ahead of us: to get up and over the mountain that loomed high above our perch. She gave us some information about where other teams had gone. It wasn't obvious exactly what we needed to do and I was concerned because it was almost noon. It is generally a good idea to avoid high ridges in the afternoon due to almost predictable thunderstorms. We had seen some weather like that in the previous days. But the sky looked OK from what we could see.
I hung back and tried to figure out a way to avoid this section, although we obviously had to do it, whether now or later. Jason really wanted to get moving because he was concerned about the mountaineering section too. Our different reactions caused a bit of a conflict. Jason pointed out that we should talk to the mountaineering volunteer who was further up the hill trying to get radio reception. That finally moved us to put on our helmets and get out of the shade and up the slope. The volunteer wasn't much help but it did give us some momentum toward the bottom of the rocky slope. John took his best guess with an outline of a route and I couldn't think of a better way so we started along the rocks.
The rocks were mostly loose but they didn't slide very far. The lower part of the slope was not very steep so it wasn't too difficult to make progress. I stayed connected to John with our bungee towrope and we took frequent breaks to catch our breath. I tried using the "rest step" to pause slightly between each step and that helped me maintain some semblance of a pace in between breaks. I queried John about what to do if a lot of rocks started sliding or if I started falling and we talked about flattening ourselves against the mountain and digging in with hands and feet. I never had to use this technique but thinking about it made me feel better.
It was disconcerting to have almost every step result in one or more rocks change position - whether just a wobble or a tip or an actual slide of several rocks. I followed John closely and stepped where he stepped. Much later in the day I came to realize that you could actually read the rocks and make a good guess about which ones would be solid and which ones were tippy. But sometimes you had to cross a bunch of rocks that would slide no matter where you stepped. It seemed best in that situation to keep moving until you found a more solid location. We also had to cross sections of thin dirt where a rock slide had passed, and that usually required coaxing from John, scrambling movements, and a lot of angst on my part. John moved toward large boulders and we rested above some of them where he knew the rocks wouldn't slide.
Kip and Jason followed us up the slope and seemed to be doing OK. My guess is that the biggest danger is from dislodged rocks that bounce down on people below. Luckily we were the only team on the hill at the time so we only had to worry about each other. We could see a couple people on the ridge above us but we weren't sure if they were racers or volunteers.
John thought about trying a couloir (sort of a slide-shaped indentation or gorge in the mountain) that had a big section of white. If it was snow it might be easier to climb. My concern was that it was ice instead of snow (another racer verified later that it was) so we stayed on the rocky section. As we climbed the second half it widened out but stayed steep. I rested with feet anchored on rocks that could move if I shifted my weight, and I never, ever looked down!
As we slowly neared the top we saw that Shaun Bain and his team were traversing the scree slope above us to get to another part of the ridge. We greeted him as they passed. One of his teammates dislodged a small rock that hit my left palm on the way down. Gloves would have been a good idea, but for some reason it took us a while to fully understand that we needed them on the whole time on the scree slopes. The rock left a scrape to complement the wear and tear on my fingertips.
When we reached the top I sat against a rock and tried not to look over the other side. John exclaimed that we had a good path down, but then he reconsidered based on how far we would have to go down. Our goal was to move around the inside of the basin below us and then go back up to another part of the ridge near Mount Teakettle. He wanted to stay at the highest elevation that we could to avoid climbing back up as much. This particular descent would require that we go below a rock face that extended halfway down. We decided to do it anyway instead of trying to follow the ridgeline like Shaun's team. The ridge did not look passable as far as we could tell.
The descent was on the best possible surface compared to everything else we experienced during the race - deep sand. John told me to just walk down it. I took it slow but soon found that I could stay upright and take sliding steps. The sand stopped my feet before I slid very far. Kip jogged down the steep hill and I followed tentatively. Finally I decided that I liked this kind of a "scree" slope and I could do it again with no trouble. Unfortunately, that was the last we would see of the sand.
The terrain switched to rocks so we emptied out our shoes and began walking diagonally toward the valley floor. Looking at the peaks and saddles around us we tried to come up with a plan for the next ascent. The directions were very vague and could apply to several routes. The most direct route that might lead to CP15 looked like extremely loose rock and dirt that had already slid most of the way down. We decided to avoid that couloir.
The next option to the left seemed to come out on a saddle with a short traverse to the plateau where the checkpoint was located. The shape of the couloir and large rocks seemed to suggest that we could climb it. Another wide slope to the left might work but then we might have to drop down into the valley on the other side and find a way up to the checkpoint. Based on the map and what we could see, we picked the middle option.
As we rock-hopped in that direction, the character of the rock changed so that it moved a lot more. We had to be careful to keep from stepping between rocks that might fall on our ankles. Still, the terrain made it look like we should go in this direction. Clouds were coming in from the top of the ridge so I wanted to get this over with.
John stayed with me again and we started climbing. He tried for the right side of the couloir where there were large, solid boulders. The loose rocks underfoot slid a lot and made it difficult to climb upward. So he headed left and we had to cross a bare dirt area. Back in the loose rocks we kept trying different approaches. I think Kip did some easy rock climbing in this section to stay off the loose stuff for a while, but I wasn't very comfortable with that. It was good that the boulders had many jagged edges and we could gain foot and hand holds when ascending next to them.
Nothing we tried worked very well. Occasionally a large sheet of rocks would break loose above us. We had the choice of riding it downward or walking to the side until we found better footing. John and I tried to coordinate our movements because we still had the towrope between us. We took turns helping each other regain our balance. I started a running commentary about my footing - whether I wanted John to climb quickly or slow down to wait for me, what I thought of the quality of the scree we were on at the time, and any suggestions I could think of for making the situation better. Sometimes large sections of rocks would loudly slide a LONG way down the slope and I pondered what it would be like to be on or below those rocks.
As difficult as it was to go up this mess of scree, it was more difficult to be climbing below somebody else. When all attention is on your footing you forget to yell "rock" to the people below you, and eventually it became redundant anyway. The couloir narrowed and forced Jason and Kip closer to our path. At one point a large rock bounced toward Jason and almost hit him as he looked up. This gave everyone, especially Jason, a huge scare.
Not too far from the top, John asked Kip and Jason to wait so we could finish the ascent and hopefully not knock any more rocks down into their path. We were learning how to manage the danger of the situation and make group climbing safer. Nothing like on-the-job training! Personally I will need some instruction on climbing scree slopes before attempting something like this again. John and I scrambled up the last part of the slope, pushing rocks around the whole way. We found a fairly wide, flat place to sit at the top. I lay down to contemplate what the heck we had just done (I also didn't want to look at the other side yet).
John called down so Kip and Jason could follow us up and soon we were reunited at the top. Jason said something about not enjoying that at all and I replied that I might puke. The photo that John snapped shows me bent over and Jason looking pale. On the bright side, John was very proficient at helping me and Kip turned out to be a Mountain Man!
CP15 appeared on a plateau to the right. Kip scouted a route down the slope to it, which was helped by signs of other teams passing the same way. He started down and Jason followed him. John helped me get started and we headed down on a diagonal, aiming for a large boulder. After passing below the boulder we moved across the scree field. This must not have been too difficult because it isn't burned into my memory like the ascent up the other side.
Finally back on solid ground, we headed to the checkpoint tent and greeted the volunteers there. We talked briefly about the route, while noticing that Shaun's team had found their way down to the valley below us and were about to climb up to the CP. The volunteer mentioned something about how they expected people to go over a different couloir, to the left of where we had gone up. Then we were supposed to go down into the valley and climb up the slope to the CP. But teams were approaching the checkpoint in many different ways. We discovered that this guy was the head of the mountaineering section and he had given explicit directions for us to follow. However, the race organizers apparently wanted teams to figure it out themselves so they printed up vague instructions. I guess we were not adequately prepared.
We received directions about the ropes section ahead of us, and then we turned to greet Shaun and his teammates. Shaun is always smiling, which was really nice to see. His team had followed the ridge until they had to descend and apparently it was not an easy route choice. We chatted briefly and then our team headed toward the ropes.
The first part of this section involved two long ropes tied on both ends, the lower side at some large boulders and the upper end at a ledge next to a "keyhole" in the mountain. We were instructed to put an ascender on the rope for safety and two teammates would follow one rope at the same time. John and I took the one to the right. The rope was horizontal at the bottom so we had to hold down the back of the ascender for it to move smoothly. Kip and Jason coordinated movements on the other rope and climbed toward the steep part. John followed me as we walked over large rocks. When it became almost vertical we took turns climbing to the next small ledge, doing a very basic and easy version of rock climbing. The backup system was nice to have, although it tended to constrain our movements.
We reached the top of the short climb to find Team Total Gym waiting for a team ahead of them to finish the rappel and traverse. Apparently they had been there for three hours, waiting for one person to get off of the ropes. That must have been frustrating! We hung out behind them for several minutes and we were ready to get moving as soon as possible too. The wind chilled us quickly.
Team Total Gym moved quickly once they got started. My teammates let me go next because I was shivering, so I climbed through the keyhole and hooked up the rappel system. The rappel rope was only 40 feet down, after which we would transfer to another rope for a long traverse across the top of a scree slope. Then we would unhook from that rope and descend into the valley below.
The volunteer next to the rappel rope verified that everything was set up correctly, but he didn't give me much additional information. He seemed disgruntled, quite possibly because of the difficulty in working with a racer earlier in the afternoon. In general the mountaineering volunteers did not impart information, seemingly expecting us to know what we are doing. I'm not sure they realized the number of people coming from Texas to race! It's not unfair to expect us to be more proficient than we were, but the reality was that there were a bunch of rookie mountaineers up there and it would have been nice to get a little more help. Anyway, enough whining...
So I dropped down the rappel line and hooked onto the next rope with a carabineer attached to my harness via a lanyard. The main purpose was to keep me from falling down the slope below. However, it did nothing to prevent motion down the length of the rope, so I had to hang onto the rope at the same time. It took me some time to remove the rappel attachments while gripping the second rope, but I was motivated to demonstrate that I could at least handle the ropes (I've been on them a few times, after all), if not the scree slopes.
As soon as I was free from the rappel rope I swung out from the rocks and had to fight to keep my feet in place. Luckily I had a rappel glove on so I could hang onto the rope without getting rope burn. I tried to make my way along the rope but it was an awkward setup. The volunteer yelled down that I needed to lean back on the rope and move my feet along the rocks. That was useful information, thank you. The rocks shifted under me (no surprise there) so I hung onto the rope and did the best I could to keep from knocking my knees into rocks. I found out later that a lead team did this section in the dark and thought it was a free-hanging traverse where you slide along the rope until you reach the low point, then you pull yourself to the other side. A couple of racers on that team got rather beat up on the rocks and had to stop themselves at the rock face where the end of the rope was tied.
The difficulty did not stop there. When I finally drew near the end of the rope, the guys yelled to me to unhook. I found good footing and took the carabineer off the rope so John could start the rappel. I decided to be just a little independent and attempt to descend by myself until John arrived. I slowly stepped down sliding rocks and tried to be brave. Meanwhile, John did not have any gloves on, so he put rope burns on his palms as he tried to control his movements on the traverse. At least he managed to complete it at a decent rate of speed. He unhooked and stepped down the rocks to join me.
We moved at a diagonal to give Jason and Kip and place to come down without being above us. However, this meant that we were moving under the path of the traverse rope. As Kip came across he accidentally knocked loose several large rocks that came bouncing toward us. We heard them coming and braced ourselves to move out of the way. Luckily they were not heading directly at us so we did not need to make evasive maneuvers. We started communicating better with each other to prevent another such occurrence, and once everyone was off the ropes it was easier to spread out enough to do that.
The descent was long but eventually we reached grass and a slightly flatter grade where we felt safe from falling rocks from any teams following us on the ropes. I took a deep breath and decided I wasn't cut out for a mountaineering type of race, or maybe (I decided later) I needed some training before traveling in that kind of terrain again.
We practically frolicked on a flat meadow with the promise of the valley floor ahead. However, we still had to descend another steep slope. At least this one was covered mostly in grass so it was easier to maintain footing. It delayed the arrival of "solid ground" but soon we could see a dirt road and then we were on it. Hooray! I lay down in the middle of the road to celebrate. John refilled our water containers and I sat up to count Aqua Mira drops. It would be dark soon, so we pulled out warmer clothes and grabbed some food. A couple deer bounded very close to us, no doubt surprised to see people just hanging out there. Even though we were on a road, it seemed that we were quite a ways from civilization.
Everyone got up slowly and we started walking along the road. Kip and I discussed how we were going to follow the various roads and paths in the dark. It was mostly straightforward, but we took care to use the compass and pace counting to be sure we didn't miss anything.
The road followed the creek and headed downward at a steep rate. We jogged a little bit and talked about how some of us didn't enjoy that last section. We soon found the side road we were seeking and turned toward the next area of ridge and peaks. It was nice to follow a road on foot for a while. Somewhere along the road, daylight left us. After a section of creek crossings we started trekking uphill. I turned to say something to John and noticed that he was walking with his eyes closed. We decided to take a brief nap, since I knew that 10 minutes of sleep was usually plenty to make John alert again. However, it was windy where we were walking and the sides of the road went steeply down and up on either side of us.
I told John that we would stop at the first good spot in the road where it was relatively flat and without wind. It seemed like that was a lot to ask for, but John was on a quest and he walked a bit ahead of us in search of a suitable spot. After a while we heard "woo hoo!" and looked up to see John waving his arms and doing a little dance. That must be it! Indeed, there was a flat area next to a hill that blocked the wind. Jason set a timer for 10 minutes and we crashed on the side of the road. We had not seen a car for hours (nor would we until we arrived at the next TA) so we slept contently.
Kip woke up when he got cold, since he was wearing less than the rest of us. Apparently Jason had not heard his alarm, so we slept perhaps 20 minutes. It was very refreshing and we got up with more energy to tackle the rest of the incline. We found a side road to the left and followed it further up the hill. After that we were looking for a small trail to the left.
The trail should have appeared within a short distance, but it did not. We consulted the map and compass and decided to go look for the trail. The checkpoint was supposed to be on the trail, as opposed to the road we were on that went over the same ridge but at a different location. I strongly preferred to avoid cross-scree slope travel in the middle of the night, especially when there should be a trail to follow instead.
A short walk in the woods led us to a creek in a deep ravine. It seemed that we had missed the trail, so we talked about options and decided to follow the creek downstream until we found either a) the trail where it crossed the creek or b) any good place to cross so we could find the trail on the other side. Not long after we started walking we found a good place to drop down and climb back up the other side. There we found an abandoned house. John and I scouted a short way up the hill where John found signs of a faint trail. The rest of us climbed up to look at it.
The trail was about as abandoned as the house we had just passed. We tried to follow it but soon came across a rock field. It was a flat rock field, but we were about to find some contour lines and Jason determined that it did not make sense to try climbing on that surface when the trail was obviously gone. So we started back toward the creek to follow it as far as we could.
We crossed a small stream of water and found ourselves on a really nice wide trail or narrow road (it wasn't quite one or the other). At this point we figured it must be the trail we were looking for, but mostly we were confused. So we started uphill to see what we could see in the dark. John towed Jason and me in turn, as Kip and I discussed map possibilities. After a fairly long climb between piles of rocks, the trail leveled out and headed to the right. When we started moving downward we stopped to reassess the situation.
It became apparent that the trail was gone, we were actually on the road that we started on, and somehow the deep ravine-of-a-creek had transformed into a shallow waterway not far above where we crossed the first time. Very odd. I would love to go back and figure out what really happened. Maybe someday!
We could barely make out the ridgeline a couple hundred feet above us, so an educated guess might put us in the right place. However, immediately off the trail there was a scree field as far as our headlamps could illuminate. Without a clear idea about how to approach this, we held our position and set up the tent. The night was clear and cold and there were an amazing number of stars visible above us. Occasionally we were able to marvel at the wonder of nature around us.
The tent averted the wind, but it didn't keep the chill from the ground from seeping through below us. Sharing the sleeping pad and sleeping bag between 4 of us, we huddled and tried to stay warm. I must have slept but I awoke frequently to get closer to John in an attempt to stop shivering.
At first light we dragged ourselves out of the tent and John and Kip packed everything up while Jason and I tried to get warm by jumping around. It was now easy to see the various peaks and the saddle we were aiming for. It was also obvious in the daylight that the slope was mild and the scree turned into grass and boulders partway across. There was a faint trail coming up the hill at that point, but the best route seemed to be to follow the road and then traverse to the saddle like we did. Ah well, sometimes you find that playing it safe is not necessary, but we are learning!
Just over the top of the saddle we found the checkpoint (CP16) and woke the volunteer to sign us in and out. It had been some time since any team came by there and no one passed us during our bivouac. We were treated to a pretty sunrise as we started down in the direction of the transition area to meet our crew (yay!). The hillside was covered with green grass and the view was awesome so we just had to twirl around and sing "The hills are alive...!"
The sun warmed us and soon we stopped to remove excess clothing. John took a couple pictures of us stripping down. Then we were on our way down the hill. It was steep in spots but not bad (no mud AND no rocks!). We found a trail with switchbacks through the aspen trees and followed it to the road at the bottom. Everyone was feeling good so we jogged down the road and into the TA (CP17) to locate our crew.
It was really great to see them and relay a brief synopsis of our journey over the mountains. They fed us delicious soup and some leftover pizza and we talked about the next bike section. Steve took food orders in case they could find particular restaurants in Silverton. And then we were off on our bikes.
There were two possible routes up and over the next set of peaks, one which looked longer and one that seemed to have a better trail because it was colored black instead of red. This is where pre-race scouting and map study (and a better memory) would have come in handy. For future reference for anyone doing this race with this map: Solid red trails are usually very good in terms of being able to find them and follow them. Dotted lines and thin black lines can be questionable. Not all singletrack is created equal. Oh, and do not always believe the instructions given to the crew that says "your team will go this way" - feel free to choose a different route than the one suggested.
So we picked the gulch with the shorter route/thin black line and which was written in the crew instructions. Kip took the lead and found the correct turns through a campground. We started up the hill on a wide trail, assuming that this particular bike section would not be very difficult. Another thing, assume everything will be hard and you may be pleasantly surprised.
The trail ran above a creek and up into a gulch. Then a side trail appeared, which was odd. We chose to ignore it for the time being, and we continued upward. Then the trail came to a 4-way intersection. We explored the right branch and it ended immediately. We tried the left branch and it started back downhill. So we went forward and figured that it was correct. But soon we were stymied when the trail petered out in the woods. Ok, not sure what to do next. We went back to the first side trail and followed it up a switchback, only to come out at the 4-way intersection again!
As a last-ditch effort before switching gulches, we went back up the "straight" option to where the trail seemed to stop. I found bike tire tracks in the grass and then chain ring marks in several logs across the road. We tentatively followed it upward and the trail reappeared. We were back on course. Team Tampa Bay Thunder met up with us and traveled with us for a while. We enjoyed talking with them and comparing notes on the course. They had lost a teammate so they were unranked but still in good spirits.
After climbing over downed tree after downed tree, we started to realize that maybe this trail wasn't such a great thing to be following. However, the only other option was to go back down and try the other route. Each time we considered it we decided that we had come this far, so we might as well keep going. But the topic kept resurfacing! It got a bit ridiculous when the slope turned steep and we were STILL lifting our bikes and bodies over large logs. We even put together a two-team effort to ferry bikes across a large rootstock that was suspended over a ditch.
Finally the trail was just steep and the obstacles were behind us. We stopped in the shade to eat and chat with Team Tampa Bay Thunder about various problems each of us had encountered. Team Total Gym caught up to us and we had a laugh about their experience in queue at the rappel. All of us pushed on up the hill and then came to a spot where the trail seemed to cross the creek. We spent a little time figuring out that it didn't and then found the trail on the other side and continued on.
At an abandoned mine we FINALLY found a decent road to follow. Not far from there we found the top of the hill. Thank goodness! After a brief descent we came to a road intersection where we could see cars traveling in various directions along the valley around us. We could also see a bright orange creek below us. The color came from mineral deposits from the mines in the area and we made a note not to drink from that particular water source!
Riding down the road toward the next checkpoint I had a lot of trouble with my speed and my brakes. The back tire kept sliding to the side, which made me nervous because we were riding next to a steep drop-off. Jason helped me understand that I was still not braking correctly. The road had loose dirt and rocks on it, it dropped quickly, and we were passed by several 4WD vehicles. Did I mention the drop-off on one side? It scared me but I had to try to get on my bike because everyone else could ride it and it would be pointless to walk and use up energy and leg strength. At one point I cried a little but my team encouraged me and slowly we rode down the hill.
At the bottom we found CP18 on a main road. From there we rode down a really nice road (not many pebbles and it even turned to pavement eventually). The main concern was cars, but I was able to ride without using my brakes TOO much. It was a long, long downhill at a mostly-gentle grade and we enjoyed the break.
We located CP19 within the town of Silverton and happily greeted our crew again. They had found some real food (turkey/rice/veggie wraps, I think) so we ate, pulled on dry suit bottoms, and worked on gear. We determined that we would be spending the night on the river because we didn't have time to paddle the whole way before the dark zone that started at 9 pm. Plans centered around being warm in the tent.
After a flurry of activity we ended up with a pile of gear in front of the volunteer who would verify we had everything. She explained that there was a hike after the river section, which we had not realized. None of us had spent any time looking ahead to this section, so the fact that we would be walking over 10 miles with all of the gear except the boats was a surprise to us. On top of trying to get out of CP19 to beat the dark zone to Camp 1, we were now scrambling to figure out what shoes to wear and how to cut down on gear weight. The extra sleeping bag - gone; Thermarest pads - gone, extra clothes - removed. Someone had the great idea that we had dry suits and PFD's with us, so we could sleep on top of them to reduce heat loss to the ground.
We had several dry bags, but still too much stuff to fit everything within them. After several queries to the race officials who were not quite clear about the rules, we finally got word to the effect that if we cared about keeping something dry, it should be in a dry bag. Fair enough! Once we figured out the shoe question (Kip and I put our shoes in our packs and wore neoprene booties, while Jason and John wore their shoes in the water with Sealskinz socks), we were ready to go.
In the afternoon sunshine we were sweating and excited about getting in the chilly water. Our crew helped us down to the shore, took our photo, and we were off! We sat in the inflatable boats and started floating slowly down the river, sliding over rocks in the shallow water and walking the boats. It wasn't much of a grand exit.
The river remained shallow around Silverton and then headed toward a canyon. Drought conditions had made it difficult for the race organizers to have a paddle section at all, but the Animas River was just high enough for a shortened version. We lugged the boats and gear around a minor waterfall at a railroad bridge and found deeper water on the other side. It was never more than waist deep in any spot as far as we could tell, but it was enough for us to paddle and steer. Large rocks dotted the river.
While significant water flow was lacking, the gradient hadn't changed. The water was moving fast so we had to react quickly to the rocks and current patterns. Luckily the "duckie" boats are virtually indestructible, so when you hit a rock you mostly just bounce off or get stuck. John and I had fun with the challenge of maintaining forward movement. He steered the front of the boat to move it around rocks while calling out directions and I tried to get my kayak paddle in the right place at the right time to steer from the back. "Draw strokes" were very effective and my technique improved with John's instruction. Mostly we had fun because we weren't concerned with swamping the boat, breaking the boat, tipping it over, or getting it stuck.
On numerous occasions the boat hung up on a rock and we tried various in-the-boat methods such as rocking from side to side or sliding back and forth to get it off. When that didn't work John would hop out and push or pull the boat off. Occasionally I had to get out so John could move it through a shallow section. The best parts were the rapids that had a good, deep line. We had a blast driving through them, leaning and steering and bumping off of rocks. That river must be a lot of fun with another foot of water in it!
Shadows rose up the canyon walls and the water was very cold, but we stayed comfortable with dry bottoms and vigorous movement. In a little over three hours we made it the Camp 1. We would not be able to leave until 6 a.m. due to the dark zone rules, so we pulled the boats onto the shore and found a place to pitch the tent. Other teams chatted with us as we hung up the packs to dry. Most of the items in the dry bags survived the deluge of river water and we had warm clothes to change into.
We got a brief glimpse of a coyote running along the hillside above us, which was neat. Another good sign was a rainbow coming from a nearby hilltop in our direction. I commented that there may be a pot of gold on the top of that scree slope, but I wasn't going to go find it. A brief windstorm blew us into the tent where we shared MRE beef stew, crackers, and cookies.
I slept well that night and the extra padding kept me warm. It was the most comfortable night in the tent for me, which was good because we were stuck at camp for 11 hours. We slept for about 8 of them. What a luxury! We awoke around 5, pulled on dry tops and bottoms, ate breakfast, and stuffed everything back in the dry bags. Although there were about 7 teams in camp with us, only one other team was ready at 6 a.m. with us. They let us start first and soon we were alone again on the river.
The distance to Camp 2 looked on the map to be about the same as what we paddled the day before, perhaps a tad longer, but it seemed to take forever. As hard as we tried to maintain a good line through the rapids, we would invariably get caught up on rocks and the boat would spin and stop. We went backwards between rocks several times because that was the easiest way to shove the boat to get moving again. The guys were careful with their footing every time they got out of the boat, and John mostly wanted me to stay put.
One time I was instructed to get out and wait on a rock while John extracted the boat yet again from the clutches of the rocks and current. As soon as the boat got loose I realized that I probably should be in it, but by the time I decided that I needed to jump, it was too late. John looked back and laughed as he moored the boat on the shore. He came back along the shoreline and helped me jump across a short space of moving water instead of having to ride rapids downstream. Thanks John!
Resignation and a mostly-positive attitude kept us in a light mood. At 3 miles from the end we had to portage around a large tree lying in the river, then a mile later we had a long portage around some Class V rapids. I struggled with the heavy boat but made it the 400 meters with only a couple rest breaks. It was worth it to avoid the large drops between large rocks that we could see from the shoreline.
After climbing down rocks back to the river we continued our slow progress and our two boats alternated between "stuck" and "waiting for the other boat because it's stuck". Eventually the river widened out and we waded through a long section of rocks. Finally we could see a footbridge and the river take-out! Thank goodness!
As we pulled up to shore we were met by Leiza and Jim of Rattlesnake Racing in north Texas! What are you doing here?! They told us they were visiting the state so Jim could take care of some business and they decided to come watch part of the race. It was awesome and completely unexpected to see them.
We pulled the boats up on shore, dumped and rearranged the packs, pulled off dry suits and dressed, then checked the map for our route along and out of the canyon. The paddle section was originally going to run to CP20, but the lack of water required the organizers to shorten it. Otherwise some teams may have been stuck in the dark zone twice since it took so long to move downstream!
Leiza and Jim had camped at the boat take-out and decided to walk out with us. We carried the paddles, dry suits, and all of the paddling gear for quite a few miles. Later we realized that we were lucky to have the dry suits instead of heavy neoprene wet suits like other teams. We chatted with Jim and Leiza about the race, the races that they organize, and various other topics. Time passed quickly although I did start to get hot. I tried to focus on drinking water to keep from getting dehydrated in the heat.
We trekked along the creek for several miles, then found a footbridge that led to CP20. One of the volunteers also knew Jim and Leiza! While the team rested I went to the river and walked in, going as far into the chilly water as I could stand. I doused my shirt and the Buff for my head. It was hard to put the shirt back on, but I really appreciated the drop in my core temperature because of it. It was also exciting to realize that we had gained several places in the ranking overnight.
We headed up the trail along a side creek, finding a significant elevation gain for the first time in 24 hours. I led the way up the switchbacks and started feeling great. We took rest breaks until the trail leveled into a more gradual grade high above the little creek. Jim and Leiza rejoined us after talking with their friend at CP20 for a while and running to catch up.
The trail meandered through a pretty meadow and I felt like I could even run, but the guys didn't want to hear about that. Jim and Leiza went on ahead to meet us at the TA. We started up another hill and I determined that I wasn't carrying enough weight because I had too much energy compared to my teammates. I took two paddles from Kip because they were awkward but not too heavy. More switchbacks and then we came out at the main road across from the Purgatory ski area.
After a brief detour due to a CP plotting error (we think on the original map) we headed up the road toward the checkpoint/transition area. A couple people came to meet us and ask us what team we were. They ran ahead to inform our crew. When we arrived at the parking lot Sheila, Steve, and Rob were scrambling around, yelling "We're not ready!" They had been told to expect us much later in the evening, while we had finally pulled off a section in decent time to surprise them. I was hoping to make them proud by being the first team off the water to get there, but they were too busy at the moment of our arrival!
Jason was drawn to the leaderboard that listed all the teams and their status (what time they arrived at and left from CP21, ranked or unranked, etc). He stood there staring until Kip and I yelled to ignore the information for now and get moving in the TA. Kip apologized to him later for being so vehement about it, but it did seem odd for him to be standing there wasting time. We hustled to the tent and helped the crew spread out tarps for the gear and pull out something to eat and drink. It was fun being a part of the action for once, especially since I was in a good mood and had energy. Jim and Leiza hung out and watched, filming various angles of our transition.
Jason ate and drank a lot, then told us he wasn't feeling well. In fact, he thought he might throw up. He didn't want to because then he would have to eat all over again. We should have made him do it anyway since we were at a well-stocked TA and it probably would have helped him recover faster. He had been dehydrated and his body could not absorb the amount and type of food that he just consumed. He lay down for a bit, then decided to head to the med tent since he was feeling so bad.
The pace around our camp slowed down at that point. The crew finished with our bikes and gear and made us some hot soup. We got periodic updates from the med tent that Jason might need an IV to combat dehydration, but they were waiting to be sure. An IV takes time to administer and then we would have to wait an additional 4 hours of penalty time, so everyone preferred not to do it unless we had to.
Finally the doctor determined that Jason would be OK on the liquid he was drinking and some rest. Sheila found the Gookinaid, which would help Jason's stomach absorb liquid (which he should have had before anything else). The rest of us lay down in the trucks to nap. I was antsy and couldn't sleep. Only Tampa Bay Thunder had come through and left. They are very nice folks, by the way. Although we had been there for several hours we didn't see anyone else come into the TA. As soon as Jason was ready, I was excited to get out of there. So I grabbed the maps and plotted routes for the last two sections.
The bike section looked straightforward, all roads and trails, with one part that might take some work to figure out. The trekking section, on the other hand, went right over some saddles that could easily be steep and scree-covered. Steve offered to look at the GPS plots for teams ahead of us to see what routes they had chosen. The race headquarters in Mountain Village were always open to crewmembers and there were terminals with access to the web page. The race web page showed the progress of each team and even which route we had taken based on our GPS downloads.
Jason moved back to the TA and we resumed preparations for takeoff. He was feeling a lot better but we still needed to take it slow until he had fully recovered. Luckily we were about to get on the bikes, his favorite mode of transportation. While Kip was prepping his bike, he noticed that his front brake was not attached. Good catch! Someone else had helped our crew with bike assembly, so we figured they had not been careful enough. Loaded up and feeling better, we started a slow ride up the hill.
We followed the road along several switchbacks next to the ski runs and alternated between walking and riding. Darkness fell and we found our helmet lights and jackets. Jason continued to eat and drink a little at a time. At the top we climbed on our bikes to ride for several miles as the road flattened out and then gently descended into a valley. It was a little bumpy but apparently FRED was not disturbed. Into CP22. Back out of CP22 and up a drainage we went, still following a road. The pace slowed as the slope got steeper and eventually we were climbing switchbacks again.
Kip was walking his bike when he heard a "ping" from the front of it. We took a minute to see whether a pebble had just hit it, when Kip realized that his front brake had come undone. This would probably explain why it wasn't attached earlier either, not due to accidental negligence. Jason inspected it and said he had never seen a problem like that before. We had a small pair of pliers so Jason used it to straighten out the connector to the brake cable and that seemed to hold it. Amazingly we caught the problem while walking uphill instead of riding down, which could have been much more interesting.
We found out later that one of our crew had driven under a low-hanging (but luckily free-swinging) sign with two bikes on the roof of the truck. Kip's bike came off the roof rack, and we are guessing that the point of impact was in the area of the front brake. It was fun talking with the crew after the race and hearing all of their adventures. They managed to keep it to themselves during the race and it seemed to us like a completely smooth operation. Nothing to worry about!
At the top of the hill we entered a section of roads/trails that could be confusing. I monitored the odometer and worked with John on the map. There were two possible routes, one on a road and one on a trail. The trail would be shorter but we didn't know if it would be in good enough condition to make it worth the chance. I spotted one side trail next to a lake, but we passed it up since it seemed like it might be hard to follow in the dark. Then we searched for the main trail but never found where it intersected the road. After a short debate we opted for the road and the longer route. Jason was anxious to get to the TA and we didn't want to take any chances with getting lost or taking a slow trail.
Starting down the other side of the hill, I used my brakes a lot because there were large rocks all over the road and it was really bumpy. I could see just fine with the bright headlamp, but I wasn't keen on hitting any of the big rocks so I struggled to stay on the bike and ride slalom-like through them. Soon we were treated with a sharp drop-off on the left side as well, which as you know is the bane of my bike riding. It was slow going and I got off frequently when the road became steep. Jason finally told me that I would have to ride faster if I was going to have momentum to make it over the bumps. That was enough for me! I got off and started walking in earnest.
Obviously that wasn't what the rest of the team wanted and I could hear them (whether they were actually talking or I imagined that they were) trying to figure out how to get me back on the bike. It was going to be a long walk down, but I had already determined that the fastest method was for me to jog next to my bike. It was very upsetting to realize that others were unhappy about this situation and finally I started crying and telling them that I was a wimp. John hugged me and told me that I was doing fine, that we would walk one mile and then reassess the situation. So I jogged and sobbed and felt silly. And they followed without saying much.
Finally we reached a slope that wasn't quite as steep, and I had stopped crying long enough to be able to see. So I got on and tentatively rode downward. After another mile or two the road got even better and I eased up on the brakes. A couple quick map checks at intersections, and we were gliding down toward Highway 145 where we had been a couple days before. Turning right on the highway, we started up the gentle grade toward the last transition area.
This time it was dark on the paved road and there were almost no vehicles. The smooth surface, the lack of rocks or cars or controversy, and the darkness lulled us into a sleepy state. Time slowed down. We rested and ate briefly and then tackled the main hill. We finally woke up for the long, fun descent to the TA/CP23.
Our crew was really happy to be taking care of us for the last time of the race. They were exhausted from a 2.5-hour car ride back from the last transition area and they were also lacking in sleep. Even so, they continued to show amazing energy and enthusiasm for our team's progress. We fed on their strength. They did so many things that we asked (Sheila even washed my shoes when they were filthy!) and we never heard a single complaint. These people are a big reason behind us finishing the race and having such a good time doing it.
At CP23 we determined that Jason needed more rest and recovery, so we hopped in the trucks for about three hours of sleep. After that there was more hot food, some gear and provision discussions, and we were on our way again. Thanks y'all!
It was dawn when we checked out of the last transition area. Our placing was in the low 30's and it was not likely that we would pass any team or be passed by anyone. We only had to keep moving and find our way to the finish line. We located the road behind the TA and followed it around a pretty lake. The morning sun made everything new again.
Several cars passed us on our way up the road toward the trailhead. We saw some of them again, parked at the trailhead. A woman with a spastic little Jack Russell Terrier started just ahead of us and we chatted briefly with her. Occasionally the dog would catch up to us, run around in circles, and return to the woman. We passed many small creeks and I used almost every opportunity to douse my shirt or my Buff, or at the very least to cool off my feet. It was going to be a hot day but so far I felt good.
The trail was well-maintained and well-used by other trekkers that day. I enjoyed following it as it wound back and forth up the slope, near waterfalls and above a pretty valley. We kept a good pace and John timed our periods of movement and our breaks, which helped a lot. Above treeline there were more switchbacks and a few rocks, and then we popped out at an area above Lake Hope. The lake was very low and sat quite far down into the valley. We could see dogs down there, cavorting with their owners in the grass. It was a great place to stop for a break. I determined that I want to go back there someday. A suggestion of a post-race hike back to that spot didn't work out, so we'll just have to go back to Telluride another time!
One last push up the slope brought us to the saddle and a view of the valley on the other side. It was also really pretty. The Hard Rock 100 ultramarathon comes through this valley, although the race was cancelled this summer due to wildfire dangers. We followed a trail along the hillside with Jason leading the way. Idle talk turned to "name that tune" based on a song lyrics and we sang to our hearts' content to pass the time. I continued to cool off in many of the creeks and we walked along at a good clip.
By the time we reached the bottom we had polished off our water so we took a break to refill. We let Jason sleep for a few minutes while we took care of things that you save up for breaks (cleaning out shoes, eating, personal hygiene, etc.). We saw camp sites through the trees and heard a vehicle or two go by. Jason arose refreshed and we started a long climb toward the next checkpoint.
We thought we might take a shortcut up the hill to the first switchback, but initially walked up the wrong trail. A woman coming down told us we were headed to Ice Lake, which sounded great except we wanted to go to Clear Lake. We debated trying to find a small trail that would cut over to the road, but based on previous issues with the map we decided to take the safe route and go back down. One more try and we were on the correct road (a real road this time, not a trail).
More climbing up switchbacks, stopping occasionally to rest and eat, more climbing - this must sound like a broken record. For us the scenery changed constantly and I do not recall finding anything repetitive or boring. I liked the course design for the most part. We came out of the trees and looked back to the trail we had come down. We expected to see another team along the expanse of the valley, but it was quite empty. We got a closer view of other humans in trucks going up and down the mountain. Very brave people!
When we finally came over the top of the road we scanned the slopes above the lake to see that they were covered with grass instead of rocks. So far, so good with the terrain. The lake was pretty, and unexpected among the high peaks, and it attracted campers and fisherman. CP24 was placed near the water and we talked briefly with the volunteers. They definitely had a nice place to hang out and wait.
Without further ado, we set out on a light trail toward a grassy slope that led up to our target saddle. Once over the saddle, we should be able to see the road to CP25. The trail started easy enough but gradually got steeper and soon John was picking his way up the slope at an angle. I followed, intent on watching his footsteps and staying close behind. During each rest break we discussed our strategy for getting to the top. The grass clods helped our footing but we still had areas of loose dirt to work with. John tried climbing around some large boulders, while I provided feedback about what type of footing was easiest and most comfortable to climb. Kip helped Jason climb up below us.
I was very hopeful that the other side of the mountain would feature the same grass clods and relatively stable footing. That idea was dashed when John and I reached the top. Scree and a huge drop greeted us, along with a strong wind. John went to investigate while I hung out and swore a few times. The valley floor was a long way off, and the top of the slope seemed to disappear immediately. But we didn't have a lot of time before darkness would arrive, so we were motivated to figure out a plan as quickly as we could.
Kip and Jason came over the top of the ridge and Jason appeared to be in bad shape. He was also disheartened by the view of the next valley, and his reaction actually calmed me down. His energy level was low and he seemed to be bonking, something that had happened each time we went over about 12,000 feet. We ate some food while John explained that the scree slope actually wasn't too bad. Soon it was time to get moving again.
With John holding my hand, we stepped onto the moving rocks and worked our way down the slide. I was actually getting more comfortable with the motion, especially with John and I helping each other keep our collective balance. There were still "bald" sections to cross, where other teams had moved all of the rocks out of the way, but there were also a lot of rocks left in most places. Soon we reached some clods of grass and I even considered moving back onto the rocks for a faster descent. But we were still very high up so I stuck to the more-solid footing.
We moved diagonally away from the top so Kip and Jason could follow without being directly above us. Then we took some zigzag routes down, down, down, to the lake below us. I finally had the sense to wear gloves the whole time on the rock slope. The only tiring part was having our feet at an angle for much of the descent. Near a lake at the bottom, in a field full of pretty wildflowers, we stopped briefly and considered our next move.
We still had some distance to cover before reaching the road. The obvious route was to follow a creek down the valley. But then we would have to climb back up on the road to recover the elevation loss. John noticed a faint trail traversing the middle of the slope, winding in and out of drainages and following the contours at about the same elevation. This made sense based on the feedback from Steve about where other teams had traveled. Luckily we still had some daylight to follow the trail.
So our mountain goat once again led the way and I followed without looking down. Kip hung with Jason and let us know when we were moving too fast. Once we were on the trail it was difficult to know how far we still had to go. But with each bend we found another section that we could follow, so we continued onward. Occasional small shrubs and trees made me feel more secure. Looking across the valley, we could see the sky turning bright red as the sun dropped lower. It looked like a storm was brewing in the distance, but the wind would move those clouds away from us. We later heard that a large fire had mushroomed in that direction, possibly the source of the bright-red sky.
As we neared the road, we stopped so John could mix SPIZ shakes, including one for Jason. Jason's energy was stable, although the level was not high. After a short drop across a field, we scrambled up a small incline to reach the road. Success! CP25 was visible a short way up the road in Ophir Pass, so we moved in that direction.
At the top of the pass we found wind gusting and whistling between the steep hills. The volunteer at the checkpoint came out to check us in and out, and we had to speak loudly to ask him what he did wrong to be stationed in that spot. He wasn't sure, but he had been there for several days! There was nothing but a dirt road, wind, and rocks as far as you could see. We told him we might be back if we didn't find a good place to set up a tent. At least at the checkpoint there were jeeps to hide behind.
Once we started down the road on the other side, we realized that we were not going to climb back up to that checkpoint. The road wound along the edge of the hill, slowly making its way into the valley toward the town of Ophir. Rocks of all sizes littered the sides of the mountains. Apparently other teams had gone up or across the rock slopes, but we were intent upon finding the trail, even though it meant going quite a ways downhill and then 3000 feet up. But first, we needed to find a place to pitch a tent so Jason could rest.
We descended along with the darkness. A couple trucks slowly crawled past us, at which point we climbed several feet up the rocks to let them by. I was extremely happy to be on foot instead of in a vehicle. John and I talked about the map and how to make sure we found the trail that went up the mountain to the right. We also tried to figure out where to get more water. We found a couple streams but the rocks were bright orange from mineral deposits. There were several mines directly above us. We finally filled a couple bottles with the water to make sure we would not run out. I nursed my camelbak to see if I could avoid drinking much of that water.
One guy driving by asked us if we were OK or needed help. John inquired about the trail that we were looking for, and the guy replied that "It's a f**kin' mining road!" which apparently meant we would have no trouble locating it. After repeating that a couple times, he drove off with John's thanks. We worked with the map and the contours to make sure we didn't go too far down the hill. The race rules of travel were clear that we could not go below the trailhead, and we didn't want to have a route in our GPS that broke the rules.
From the second area of streams I counted paces. We passed a couple small roads, but the main trail appeared in the correct location. Yes, it was definitely a mining road! Up until this point we had not seen any spot of ground that was flat. Every single surface sloped one way or another, from the road itself, up the hill, and down into the valley. Luckily, at the trailhead we found a spot that was almost level, so we quickly set up the tent, put on all of our clothes, and settled down to rest.
Again I was cold, shivering and huddling against John. But I was consoled by the thought that this was probably our last night of the race and the last time I would be in that situation. Soon a watch alarm went off and we were up, repacking and stretching our limbs. Then we started a long trudge in an upward direction.
It was still dark, so we could only see that the road went up. I had a feeling that we would have been treated to a view largely made up of rocks above and below us if we could see. Although there were switchbacks, it was still one of the steepest roads we had climbed. Each short break (timed at 1-2 minutes to keep us from losing momentum) required us to lean on rocks to keep our balance. I'm pretty sure John towed me for a significant portion of this climb.
We could vaguely make out the mountain skyline above us as we gained altitude. Our main hope was that the mining road held all the way to the top, as the map was drawn. We had brought along the Nite Rider bike light to assist in nighttime scree slope walking, but the light had turned fickle and would not work consistently. Go trail, go!
After perhaps three hours we finally crested the top of the ridge. Wind greeted us at higher elevations again, but we were warm even minus several layers of clothing that had been shed on the way up. On the other side of the ridge a familiar valley appeared. We were back in the same area of mountain lakes below CP1 from the first day of the race. The best part was that I knew the scree slopes were over!
We traveled down a short slope into the valley as the dawn brightened the sky. The light was helpful in locating the correct route down the long slopes, between the lakes, and toward the main trail to Bridal Veil Falls. We started a long, gradual descent with ever-changing scenery. We also got the chance to review our roundabout route from CP1 to CP2 and redeem ourselves by staying on the trail this time. It was interesting to watch the pipeline parallel our route above us and eventually cross an impassible slope to take a sharp turn downward. It verified our decision to turn around and find the trail several nights earlier!
As we were walking/jogging down hill, an ultra runner trotted past us going up. He looked very fit and in great condition to be running up a hill we only would have considered walking. We continued down the hill and finally found the top of Bridal Veil Falls. It was great to see Telluride below us again!
We located CP26 and woke up the ropes crew. We talked with them as we put on our harnesses and gear. They helped us onto the ropes for a long rappel. One of them mentioned that we should try to keep the ropes over the duct tape on the sharp rocks, and if we had any problems with the rope to holler so they could set up another line for us. That was not exactly reassuring. Apparently previous teams had run into problems with frayed ropes from the sharp edges, but luckily I didn't hear the details until later.
As we were about to drop over the edge, I asked about the length of the rappel. We had heard that it wasn't a big deal, maybe 80 feet with no overhang. The ropes crew corrected us - it was a 300-foot rappel, and "the overhang is the best part because you can go faster." Great, this is getting better and better! Time to get moving and get this over with.
At least I had done something like this before in Borneo, so I was ready for the work of moving the rope through the rappel device (ATC) at the top. A long rope is heavy and requires that you lift it and practically push it through the ATC. We started down and I concentrated on moving as quickly as I could.
The guys exclaimed that the view was incredible, that you could see the falls close by, and the whole experience was amazing. I'm glad somebody enjoyed it. We were supposed to stay even with each other, but I kept moving and figured they could keep up. John took several photos so I gave an obligatory pose and told him I would meet him at the bottom. Frays in my rope were not helping my comfort level. The overhangs were fine, although once I rotated 360 degrees and had to shut my eyes until I was looking at the wall again. Walking down the wall, we were soon at the bottom. Yay!
After unhooking from the rope, we followed a rough path over the creek and down to the road. It was great to be so close to town and breakfast! We were excited because our favorite restaurant, Baked in Telluride, was open. So we walked and ran down the switchbacks to the main road at the bottom of the hill.
Back in civilization again, we marched into town and up the steps of the bakery. Several customers told us congratulations on finishing the race, but we had to inform them that we were just stopping by before heading up and over the ski lift to the finish line. People got a kick out of hearing that we had stopped there even though we were still racing. Doughnuts and muffins were the order of the day! And since our crew had been feeding us for a while, we got some muffins for them to start returning the favor.
Out the door, toward the gondola, and then we were back on a trail. This one took us up switchbacks across various ski slopes. We heard people cheering for us from the gondola cars above, which was really cool. We cut up one steep ski slope to avoid an extra-long switchback. The gondola house at the top kept getting closer, but it was a hot morning and it took a while to reach it. After some walking and several rest stops, we could see part of our crew waving at us from the top. Finally we turned the last corner and had a happy reunion with them. Jason gave Sheila a flower we had picked on the way up, and I gave Rob the muffins.
CP27 involved one last gear check (sleeping bag, tent, jackets) and some instructions about following flagging tape down the other side of the mountain. Our crew hopped on the gondola to meet us at the bottom. Down the hill we skipped, happy to be almost done. We got to see some of the bike racing on the way down, the end of the cross-country race before the crazy downhill competition started. And then we could see the finish line at the bottom!
We jogged the rest of the way, through the chute and then we were done! We got hugs from our crew and some of the PQ staff. I was handed flowers and a bottle of champagne. Amazingly, Mike Kloser, one of the top racers, also came through to congratulate us. That was really classy. People took pictures of us with various cameras and we got one with the crew, minus John who had to leave early. Then Sheila hustled us off for pizza and stories for lunch. Delicious!
The next several days were taken at a slow pace: a couple showers, lots of sleep, good food, and gear cleaning and packing. We had a great opportunity to talk with other racers and compare notes, including a wonderful discussion with Darran Wells, our Borneo teammate. Our crew scattered and made their way back to Austin. Kip, John, and I stayed for the awards ceremony where we got to talk with more people and cheer all of the amazing accomplishments.
Every night for a week I dreamed I was racing again. The exact setting moved around each night in no particular order, but it mostly revolved around the scree slopes. One night we were camped at Town Park near the park road, and I was dreaming that we had pitched our tent on the road below Ophir Pass. Then a car came along and I awoke thinking it was going to run into our tent! It really was a car with headlights coming our way, but it was on the road and not about to hit us. The funniest thing is that John also awoke with the same thought in mind. It was a relief when I finally stopped dreaming that I was racing.
The race was an incredible experience. I learned so much about the Colorado mountains and trails. I found new skills to learn and improve for future races. And I came to appreciate my team and our crew even more than I already did. They are awesome people. And this is quite an awesome sport!
Sheila Reiter, Steve Daniel, Rob Butler, Brandi Bridgeman, and John Moellenberg, the most incredible crew a team could possibly have, for feeding us soup, moving our gear, putting up with our moods, putting us to bed, getting us up, and pushing us on!
Kip, Jason, and John, the most versatile, flexible, supportive, creative, interesting, funny, strong, and caring team I have ever met.
And most of all, thank you to my husband John, for holding my hand and my heart, for helping me when I'm petrified, for carrying my stuff, for towing me anywhere, for being a rock when times are tough, for laughing at my jokes, for your patience when I have things to learn, and for being an inspirational, amazing adventure racer!