Monday, November 15, 2010

SPACE BALLOON

SPACE BALLOON - 2010

Flight projection:

Actual flight path:

The recovery climb (I am up in the branches):

The launch:

Landing spot:

Flight shots:








In early October my sister sent me an email with a story about a guy who had sent a camera into space and captured amazing photos on a shoestring budget. I immediately wanted to try it myself. Not only would this be an interesting challenge, but it would also be a great project for kids.

After a bit more reflection, however, I realized that this would not be such a breeze to pull off. The mission was to send a camera attached to a weather balloon outside of our atmosphere to capture the blackness of space. Eventually, the balloon will expand due the lack of atmospheric pressure, burst, and the “payload” will float back down to earth via a parachute. The electronics involved would have to survive 100mph winds, hours of flight in a wet environment, temps near 60 below, and the real risk of a water or hard landing. In addition to the camera, we would have to receive GPS tracking coordinates via a SPOT locater beacon. Needless to say, there were a few variables to overcome.

My friend Kevin Spence and I ordered the weather balloon, borrowed a SPOT tracker from another friend, Chris Bailey, and watched the weather to find a suitable launch date. I also took a cheap digital camera and loaded aftermarket firmware on it. This was basically a script that booted when the camera turned on and controlled the basics (shutter speed, flash, display, etc.), but also allowed us to create a time-lapse program that took a picture automatically every ten seconds until the 4GB card was full. We also used some chemical hand warmers to keep the electronics from freezing and hopefully to extend the life of the lithium batteries.



We had some nerd fun with the physics involved, as you can see from Kevin’s notes below:

Question: How full should we fill the balloon initially to get it up to 100,000 ft given its bursting diameter of 15 feet?

Analysis: Universal gas law: PV=NRT, P= Pressure (kPa), V= Volume(m^3), N= Mols, R= Gas constant (8.314 J/KMol), T=Temp in Kelvin

At 100000ft, P=1.10 kPa, V= bursting volume of 15 feet diameter or 50.03m^3 (volume of sphere 4/3*pi*r^3), N = ?, T =-46.5 Celcius (229.5 K) So we are looking at .0288 Mols of Helium will cause the balloon to pop at 100,000 ft. At 500ft elevation, .0288 mols of gas would be a volume of .685 m^3 (V=NRT/P). A volume of 685m^3 translates into a diameter of about 3.28 feet.

Answer: Filling the balloon to a diameter of 3.28 feet will get us to 100,000 ft. Unfortunately, I don't think this will lift our chicken as this volume of helium can only lift half a kilogram of weight which is how much the balloon weighs.

Question 2: A bottle of Helium will fill 70 12" balloons. How high can we get on one bottle of helium? (insert high school pot head joke here).

70 12" balloons represents a gas volume of 1.04 m^3. At sea level, 1.04m^3 of helium = .04376 mols. Bursting volume is the same at 50.03m^3, assuming it is around -56 degrees celcius (this temp seems to be the same over a large range of altitudes) so do the math and..... the pressure of this gas at the bursting volume = > 1.63 kPa. Look at the atmospheric charts and this is a little over 90,000 feet. (Interesting note, the atmospheric pressure drops by almost half between 90,000 and 100,000 feet)

Answer: One bottle of helium that will inflate the balloon to about 4.12 feet diameter will get the balloon up to 90,000 feet.

Question #3: So... how much will we be able to lift with a balloon that is 4.12 feet in diameter?

One litre of Helium can lift 1 gram of weight. We have about 1040 Liters of Helium so we can lift about 1.04 kg or 2.2 lbs. The balloon weighs .5KG so we have about a pound of weight to lift.

Answer: No chickens in space, we can only lift an additional pound of weight.

Anyway, based on the weather patterns and balloon projection models, we were certain that the craft was going to leave Eugene and head northeast. Our estimate was a flight of 50-80 miles and a 3 hour flight time. Our ship actually flew 70 miles over 4.5 hours.

After the kids made some drawing on the side of the ship and wrote a note explaining that it was not a danger, we slapped the components all together and let it fly on a overcast Saturday morning. We watched the craft sail out of sight and then followed it online via the SPOT tracking website. It steadily flew north for two hours and then (we presume) got well above 50,000 feet and was no longer able to pick up or transmit GPS signals. There was a long hour of complete darkness and then finally the track picked back up near Detroit Lake. Twenty minutes later we received multiple readings from the same spot . . . the craft had landed near Breitenbush Hotsprings, roughly 70 miles from Eugene.

Imputting our coordinates into Google Earth, we immediately saw that the ship was only a few hundred yards away from an unnamed logging road spur. It looked like the recovery was going to be a breeze. This was dead wrong. The recovery turned out to be ten times more involved than anything else. Despite clearcuts and young trees all around, the ship had landed in the top of some GIANT douglas firs. They were not old growth, but they were as close to that as they come for a second generation forest. We couldn’t even see the ship from the ground without binoculars. The tree was easily 200ft tall and the ship was about 150ft up. To put that in perspective, that is about the equivalent of a 12-15 story building just to the ship. The tree was simply a beast. We were clearly unprepared to get the craft down on our first visit.

After talking to a few arborists and doing some quick research, we decided to return with a full tree-climbing assault kit. I do a fair amount of climbing and mountaineering so I am quite comfortable with rope systems, but I had never attempted to climb a living, swinging thing like this before. Our plan was to use a giant slingshot to send a 60# monofilament fishing line over a strong branch, then drag a climbing rope over the branch, secure it, and ascend it as a fixed line. I would also be trailing a second rope that I would anchor through slings every 15 feet as a back-up. This second rope, my trailing line, would also extend above the fixed “top rope” and I could lead climb above the “top rope” using double rope pulley techniques or by climbing the branches and anchoring around the trunk.

It proved to be quite difficult to get the fishing line in place, because the lowest suitable branches were at least 100ft up. The line would get tangled, the drag would prevent it from descending back down to the ground, or the shots would simply be too far from the trunk (which I needed access to while climbing for additional protection). Even once we got the line in place it was equally hard to pull over a heavy, wet 80 meter 9.8mm rope. The weight and drag of the rope was immense. We also discovered that the 60# fishing line was not strong enough, so we pulled over nylon cord first, and then the climbing rope third. Eventually, after a lot of trial and error, we got the fixed line in place.
The lower part of the climb was difficult, the swing on a 100+ foot pendulum is huge and I had to keep myself near the trunk to tie on protection slings. Kevin was trying to belay me on my second rope while also keeping me in place on my fixed line. The fixed line was also super bouncy. The branches, while strong, did move when I tried to step up on the rope. It got easier as I got higher and was anchored in to the lower slings. It was definitely a gut wrenching ascent.

I eventually hit the canopy of the tree and all of the branches. This allowed me to almost place protection at will. I reached the top of the 80-meter fixed line which was at about 130 feet (Yes, we used every inch of the rope!). I removed my ascenders and began simply climbing the branches, setting anchors every ten feet. I finally reached the ship at about 150 feet. I swung a long sling with a carabiner out and pulled it in. I cut the remnants of the weather balloon free and finally had the payload in hand!

Some quick downclimbing and I was back to the fixed line. I put the free line through an anchor and got my rappel device on the fixed line. Kevin was able to belay me down while I simultaneously rappelled on the other line. I recovered every sling on the way down and finally touched sweet dirt again.

The electronics inside the ship were remarkably dry and we got over 2,000 pictures (although at least 600 of them are of a tree branch). A number of the shots are in the upper stratosphere and clearly show the blackness of space and even a bit of the curvature of the earth.

There were a ton of things that were sub-optimally designed or executed, but in the end we pulled it off for under $150. My son Boden seemed to love the pictures and the parachute, and who doesn’t like balloons? All in all, it was a cool, quirky adventure that may just have to be repeated!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bolivia Mountaineering - 2010






















Bolivia Mountaineering - 2010

I know . . . another long report. I have found that these write-ups help me remember not just what I did but also how I felt at the time. I don’t know if it is old age, lack of sleep, or what, but I am starting to appreciate just how fleeting memories can be. Plus, it was a 35-hour trip home and I had nothing else to do. Videos are at the bottom if you want to spare yourself the blathering.

This was definitely an odd summer for me in terms of outdoor pursuits. Unlike previous years when my summer has been chock-full of events, this year was pretty much an open slate. This was not by design; the cancellation of several major events and the arrival of a new family member slowed things down.

After competing in the National Rogaine Championships I had my eyes fixed on Raid the North Extreme, an expedition-length adventure race in the Canadian Rockies. This race was “postponed until next year,” so I scrambled to find something else. What I fell upon was a ~110-mile ultra-run through the Bolivian Andes. I was intrigued by the remote terrain, high elevation and self-supported nature of the event. I passed on a few other shorter sponsored adventure races throughout the summer to focus on this event. With about a month to go before the race, with my airline tickets purchased, vaccinations done, and vacation time squared away, the ultra-run was also “postponed until next year.” So my plan A fell through and now my plan B was gone. My teammate for the race in Bolivia decided to go race on another fully sponsored team in Costa Rica and I was left with a non-refundable ticket to Bolivia with no firm plans and no one to go with me.

After life had tossed me a few lemons, I was determined to make the most of it and see what could be done to make some “adventure lemonade” this year. It turned out to be half sweet and half sour — just the way I like it.

While Bolivia is definitely growing as a tourist destination, the rating as a “high crime” country by the U.S. Department of State, the continual political instability and the country’s general dislike for the U.S., and our “anti-drug” policies make it a somewhat unpopular spot at the moment. Additionally, U.S. citizens get the special privilege of paying a large entry visa fee. For me, however, the general lack of infrastructure made things easier in a way. There are no permits, fees, or restrictions in almost all of the wilderness areas. Unlike most of the major mountain ranges in the world, it seems that you can just camp and climb wherever you want. This is exactly what I wanted to do. With several 20,000ft+ peaks within striking range of each other, my new plan was to head down there and bag three major peaks: Pequeno Alpamayo, Huyana Potosi, and Nevado Illumani. All three are in the Cordilla Real range, with Illumani being the highest in the range. With just 14 days I figured all three was a long shot, especially since I would need almost a week just to acclimate. September is also the very end of the climbing season there, but our chances of decent weather and stable conditions were still fair.

A friend recommended a climbing guide who could speak Spanish, English and some of the very common indigenous languages there (Aymara and Quechua). We discussed the schedule and he seemed excited about the plan. Everything I had read stated that you absolutely need someone local with you, not just for safety, but to deal with road passages, porters, food, etc.

Arrival
Landing in La Paz was a rush for several reasons. Not only is it the highest commercial airport in the world (at about 12,500ft), but the runway was lined with the skeletons of old abandoned airplanes, trucks and other debris. I knew right away that this place was going to be quite different. To put all political commentary aside, I will just say that Bolivia is an amazingly “colorful” place, in both beautiful and inspiring ways and also desperate and ugly ways. I also could not help but take a step back and analyze just what I was doing. I was spending substantial time, energy, and money towards something that really did not benefit anyone in any way except perhaps my own personal psyche. The term “conquering the useless” came to mind. This point was hard to ignore, as I was surrounded by so much poverty and so many people struggling to just survive(Bolivia is the one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, second only to Haiti). I did feel good about spending money on a local guide, local food, and lodging. It was also cool to know that my modest tips could be more than a typical month’s salary for some. However, there is no debating the point: outdoor athletic pursuits are simply a selfish endeavor. I felt guilty for sure and could totally understand the general disgust for our gluttonous, myopic American ways. There are certainly many more altruistic pursuits out there. Perhaps another time once I mature a bit more . . . .

I spent my first two days just trying to acclimate as quickly as possible. I hiked to some ruins on the first day and took a shuttle to an abandoned “ski area” to hike around the second day. I couldn’t really sleep at all given the altitude, but I could move around slowly and didn’t have much of a headache. I was optimistic at this point because I had felt much worse at similar altitudes in the past. Public transportation was quite a trip; we were so packed into one small bus one time that I had someone’s child on my lap and my legs were intertwined with an elderly lady. What made things worse for me was my height. I was about a foot taller than everyone so things really were not built for me.

I also came down with some stomach problems on the second day, which apparently is completely unavoidable. For the most part, they don’t have any water sanitation systems. If someone flushes a toilet at a higher altitude than you, your tap water is going to be comingled with that water. Furthermore, all the agriculture uses human waste and much of the livestock lives on human waste and trash. Basically, you can’t touch anything fresh, and even cooked stuff could be dicey. There were a few streets in the outskirts of La Paz that almost made me gag because it smelled like I was walking in a sewage system. If the wind blew the wrong way I had to hold my breath. Dysentery is a major problem in Bolivia. In some areas over 1/3 of the kids don’t make it to ten years old and lack of sanitary conditions is big part of that.

My guide, who only lives in Bolivia part time, actually came down with an even more severe form of dysentery. He was shitting blood and had to go on antibiotics. This freaked me out for many reasons, but mainly because I thought my chances of climbing were done. Luckily, he had a friend who was willing to take me, who was also a certified guide, but here’s the catch . . . he spoke no English. My Spanish was decent about ten years ago, but it had all but disappeared since then.

Climbing is a very intimate act. Not only are you sharing a tent with someone and spending day and night in close proximity, but you are also working as a team and quite literally trusting your life to someone else. While the routes we had planned were not exceptionally technical, there were many serious components. I knew we would be facing long slopes well over 50 degrees, crossing a number of crevasses, and — on Illumani — climbing a large ice wall over a bergshrund. But expecting the unexpected is what made me worried. If one of us was hit with severe altitude sickness, if the weather got really bad, if someone got hurt, if we got lost, etc., I was not confident that we would be able to collectively make the right decisions if we couldn’t properly communicate. Needless to say, I was quite nervous. I was about to undertake some of the biggest climbs of my life in an area with no safety nets (rescue, patrol, helicopters, etc.) with someone I had a difficult time speaking with and didn’t really know at all. I also knew that sound judgment is notoriously scarce at altitude when your brain has limited oxygen to work with and I wanted everything to be routine, not novel. As a result of my fears, I ended up always carrying more water, food, and clothing than I needed. I also always moved more slowly and methodically than normal. I figured safety trumped efficiency.

Pequeno Alpamayo (Condoriri Range)
Our first objective was Pequeno Alpamayo, an absolutely gorgeous peak nestled in a very diverse collection of peaks known as the Condoriri Group. After hours and hours of driving down a horrible gravel road we reached a tiny, remote farming village that had a few burros we could use to haul our gear up to our base camp. We loaded up and spent a day hiking towards base camp. The hike was amazingly beautiful. We followed a steep valley and passed a number of alpine lakes on the way. About three hours in we came upon a herd of alpacas on the edge of a lake with one farmer trying to lasso a particular one. Apparently, one of the neighboring family’s alpacas had gotten mixed in with his herd. It was quite a sight and I got a little video of it. I was surprised to see anyone out there. We passed a few small stone structures along the way. There are nomadic farmers who follow the best grasses based on the time of year and temporarily use the huts. They were all empty at this point, but it was interesting to imagine life in such a remote area.

We eventually, reached what would serve as base camp on another beautiful alpine lake. It was nestled right in the middle of a bunch of towering peaks. We had the whole place to ourselves and maybe it was just the altitude (we were at about 15,500ft), but it felt kind-of magical. I just couldn’t believe that we could have such a spectacular place all to ourselves. I had this same thought many times throughout the trip. I guess solitude is the upside to vacation travel in a politically unstable destination!

I quickly realized why people travel with burros around here. While they couldn’t get up into the steeper parts of the mountains, they allowed us to set up a base camp with two individual tents and a kitchen tent. I had never camped in such luxurious conditions, let alone at that range of altitude. My guide, Eulogio, and I settled in for the daily rituals of camp life. We boiled a lot of water, set up tents, sorted climbing gear and cooked dinner. Edible food was tough to find near the cities, but out here things were made quite simple. We usually had rice with a can of tuna, sardines, or various “Bolivian” luncheon meats on top. It is hard to eat up high, but it is especially hard with such unappealing food. The one thing I did eat a lot of was quinoa soup. This soup is basically some type of animal fat boiled in water with quinoa and spices. I also had quite a bit of coca mate. I also resorted to my classics, Clif Bars and Pringles. The first time I opened a can of Pringles however, the top shot off like a cannon from the change of atmospheric pressure. A cloud of Pringles dust settled all over my gear scattered throughout the tent. It is funny now, but was kind of annoying at the time. With the exception of one heavenly half frozen avocado with salt, the food in the mountains was quite disappointing. With the lack of appetite and increased metabolism from the altitude, the exercise, plus the unappealing food, I probably lost about 10 pounds over the course of the trip.
I couldn’t sleep a lick that night at base camp. Partly nerves I guess, but also the altitude was rough. My heart rate as I just laid there trying to sleep was close to 100bpm. Also, oddly, whichever part of my head was touching the ground seemed to ache. I guess my brain had swelled a bit. To make matters worse, I made the mistake of drinking a ton right before going to bed and I totally filled up my pee bottle and had to go again an hour later. It sucks getting out of a warm sleeping bag and stepping into way subfreezing temps. From then on, I brought two bottles with me to bed!

Anyway, the next morning at 1:00am we headed off for Pequeno Alpamayo, a 17,618ft beauty. We had about two hours of easy rock hopping and hiking before we hit the base of the first glacier. We roped up and began the ascent. All was going well. We had to jump a few small crevasses and skirt a few larger ones, but the first two hours of climbing were rather uneventful. The snow was nice and firm. We then hit one larger crevasse with a dicey snowbridge and then a five foot step on the top side. This was the first obstacle that required a full belay. Eulogio and I had practiced all of the commands in Spanish so we moved through things rather quickly. He took the lead on all of the more difficult features. Not only was he way more technically proficient, he also was not absolutely smashed by the altitude. There were points where I would get totally wasted just coiling rope or running the belay or yelling out a long sentence.

We eventually hit a saddle at about 17,000. I had some continued stomach issues that were exacerbated by the elevation, and I certainly got dizzy and weak rather quickly, but all in all I was feeling good. We crested one of the ridges and were sitting on the top of a rocky outcropping with our first full view of Pequeno Alpamayo. She didn’t looked “pequeno” to me at all. This was a big, damn sexy mountain. In fact, if you ever saw the Everest IMAX movie, they actually used this mountain in the background of the title shot because it is so stunning — a perfect pyramid top. I know this is not a totally obscure climb, but given that we had not seen a soul for a day and half and that there was not another footprint on the mountain, I had a great sense of wilderness and adventure while we were out there.

We scrambled down the 3rd class rocks (which were tough with crampons and a light head) and began our assault on the summit via an airy ridgeline. This is where I had my first encounter with nieve penitentes, which are amazingly beautiful thin blades of snow and ice that orient towards the sun. They can be as big as a person and were a real trip to walk through. They also do amazing things with sunlight, ice, and shadows. The final summit push had a few steep, icy sections that exceeded 50 degrees. The climbing wasn’t too rough, but the exposure was gut wrenching. Eulogio led two long pitches and protected them with ice screws. At this point my head was just banging with the altitude. It was like a troll was playing drums in head. My heart would not slow down and I could hear every beat rattling in my head. I felt as though I had just finished a 100 yard sprint after every few steps and it took forever to recover. The atmosphere was just empty, and breathing hard just didn’t seem to help. After the steep slopes we had a windswept spine of exposed rock and snow that was mostly easy scrambling but had two sections of 4th class moves that required protection. Each one exhausted me. Even just belaying Eulogio took all my concentration. Eventually, though, we reached the top. The summit was about the size of a dining room table and had one of the most amazing views I have ever seen. There were countless jagged peaks in every direction. The weather was great and surprisingly warm (maybe in the teens?). We could also see a slight electrical storm over the Amazon basin as some of the clouds randomly flickered.

The descent was quick and painless. I seemed to get stronger every step we took down. Some of the crevasses seemed a bit scarier now that we could see how deep and big they were, but with the exception of the one mentioned earlier most of them were a simple jump across. We were off the glacier by about 10:00, just when it was really starting to heat up. The temperature swings were a real pain. It could get up to the 80sF during the day and then be around 5-10F at night, or worse if it was windy. I am not sure whether the hot or cold was worse.

We spent the rest of the day eating, sleeping, and enjoying the views.

Huyana Potosi
The day after we climbed Pequeno Alpamayo, we headed off for the two-day trek to Huyana Potosi. I was getting stronger at the altitude and the scenery kept me entertained enough to make the hikes a pleasure. It was also nice not to labor under a heavy pack because of the burros. I would have preferred a rest day or two before tackling another big peak, but the schedule just did not allow it. I did learn one important lesson on the way: if you are staring off in the distance to enjoy the views, don’t walk right behind a burro or you may step in something steaming.

Huyana Potosi is over the 6,000M mark, but less than 20,000ft by only 20ft. I have heard that it is one of the easiest 6,000M peaks to bag because of the short approach and lack of technical features. However, I was still nervous about the altitude. I have read aviation guidelines that state that a pilot has 3-5 minutes of “useful consciousness” at 20,000ft. I was sure hoping for more than that. I had felt like my chest and head were about to explode on Pequeno Alpamayo and this was a full 2,400ft higher.

One nice feature was that instead of setting up a base camp, they had a “refugio” — or small hut — we could sleep in. It was awesome to sleep on something level and not have to listen to the tent rattle in the wind all night.

The next day we hiked up to high camp at about 17,500. It was a long, cold sleepless night at high camp before we left for the summit at about 2:00 a.m. My watch had frozen (maybe literally), so I spent the whole night waiting to leave, unable to sleep and unable to tell how much time has passed. It was miserable. We got into our tents as soon as the sun went down because of the cold, at about 7:30, so it seemed like eons passed before we got up to leave at 2:00 a.m.

We had another rather calm, clear night. Eulogio thought it would take us six to seven hours to reach the top, but we made it in 3:45. There was a steep summit block that required some ice climbing, but the route other than that was pretty much a walk up. I felt great physically. We were able to keep a strong, steady pace, unlike before when I had to stop to recover every ten steps. I was amazed at what a difference a few days had made. We were both feeling so good we were even able to joke around a bit in Spanish as the language had miraculously come back to me. We passed some amazing ice formations on the way and, just like on Pequeno Alpmayo, we had the entire mountain to ourselves.

The top was a very thin spine that we could literally straddle. The opposite side of the mountain was a several thousand foot near vertical wall. Just staring down it made me dizzy.

We bombed all the way back down the mountain in good spirits. I was quite thirsty as all of my fluids had frozen despite being in my inside pockets, but they eventually turned into slush and were amazingly refreshing. We had some fat and quinoa soup at high camp and then packed up to head lower. I was tired, but I knew I couldn’t really recover up high so I was eager to get down.

At base camp we ran into another climbing team and another American. It was really nice to be able to speak to someone in English. Steve, the other climber, was the only other American I met on the whole trip, and he and his guide happened to be heading to Illumani in two days just like us. While we would be climbing on separate rope teams, we agreed to share some resources (stove, tents, kitchen, food, porters, etc.). Apparently, it is also best to have a number of people around the base camp at Illumani to prevent getting robbed.
Illumani
After a shuttle back to La Paz, we had one rest day before heading out for the four-day attack of Illumani. I had not really had a chance to see the city, so I foolishly spent much of the day walking around instead of resting. I also ate a ton. The food was so cheap I could basically eat whatever I wanted for free. That night Steve and I went to one of the nicest restaurants in the whole city and ate well for about $10 each.

Early the next day we began the long and treacherous drive out to Illumani. It was many hours on more horrible gravel roads, often with huge cliffs to one side. There was one spot where there was a horse in the road and no room for us to pass it due to the cliffs, so we had to follow it at about 3 miles per hour for what seemed like forever to find a suitable spot to pass. We skirted by a number of self-sustained farming villages that were quite interesting; we saw farmers plowing dirt using oxen — or in one circumstance three women — while the farmer followed with what looked like a whip. Quite a time warp!

We eventually made it to another small village and rented some more burros for the approach to base camp. It took forever to get the animals because there was a party going on in town. It was my impression that the rural Bolivians are always drinking and partying hard. They played some kind of constant “jazz music” that was going non-stop the whole time we were there. People would come and join or leave as they liked, but the music never stopped. I guess you need a special ear, because to me it just sounded like noise. For the next three hours, as we hiked up a valley leading towards Illumani, we could hear them jamming away in the village below.

Late that evening we made it to base camp, a beautiful alpine meadow with waterfalls and giant mountains to one side and an endless valley to other side. An hour later Steve and his guide joined us, followed by an Italian climber and his guide. I was glad to see some other people, because this is the spot that is reportedly unsafe to be at without a large group. We ate some llama meat and noodles together and talked about the upcoming climb in broken English, Spanish, and Italian. The Italian guy was hilarious in that he would not shut up about the fact that the Scorpions were going to be playing in La Paz and we all needed to go see them together. He even sang us some of the Scorpions hits to get us in the mood. That guy had way too much energy.

A small storm swept through that night and hit us with a few inches of snow and a ton of wind. I was worried about the climb, but I was also concerned that we would never get back to La Paz if those steep dirt roads were covered in snow. It turns out we had one other problem. The porters who were supposed to meet us that morning were all hung over from the party the day before. Only one guy showed up for all three climbing teams. We discussed just bailing on the climb because of the poor weather and the fact that we would have to go super light. However, Steve and I were adamant about just trying to get to high-camp to see what we could do.

We sorted gear and then began the seven-hour trek up to high-camp. It was a long, exhausting trip. The rocky trail was covered with just enough melting snow to make it slick. The last 1,500ft of vertical was along a rocky ridgeline that was half scrambling, half walking. The heavier packs and the thin air made the trip a real pain, but we eventually made it. High camp was a small platform on the top of the long ridgeline along the edge of a major glacier. There was just enough room for the three tents and a small cooking area.

We shared some quick soup and got into the tents for some rest. Steve and I were sharing a tent and we heard three distinct avalanches that night. We gave each other the eye each time but never said anything about it. I also “fired off” another can of Pringles right before we tried to go to sleep. I was exhausted from all of the previous hiking and climbing and my inability to sleep and recover. I was worried that I had taken on too much in too little time and wouldn’t have the energy or strength for the summit.

Also, the wind was ripping that night and I feared that we would not be able to make a summit attempt due to the weather. I slept in short stints and 1:00 a.m. eventually came. I had some coca tea and even chewed on a few leaves for some much need energy.

The Italian had already started his climb and Steve’s team and Eulogio and I left about 45 minutes later. Right from the start we were on some severe 45-55 degree slopes. The footing was decent on the steeper stuff as no snow was able to accumulate. But in some areas we were in very fluffy soft snow about shin-deep that was nerve racking in that we could never fully trust our footing. However I never had to break trail. The local supermen — our guides — took care of that for us. It was a clear night, but with very little moonlight, so we could not see what was below us. It was just a black abyss. We caught up to the Italian team at the base of what would be the biggest obstacle of the climb, a large bergshrund. They had traversed several hundred feet in each direction trying to find a suitable way up. There was about a four- or five-foot gap with a large vertical to overhanging wall on the far side that was maybe ten feet high. I thought we were done for, but Eulogio was confident he could climb it. Even if he could, I was worried that the last person coming down it, without a top belay, would be in a big fall scenario. Eventually the confidence of Eulogio and Steve’s guide, Eduardo, convinced me that we should give it a shot. I belayed Eulogio as Steve and Eduardo double anchored me to the slope. Eulogio made it look easy. One big lunge across with a simultaneous double ice tool swing and he was on the wall. A minute later he was up and dropping in two snow pickets. The step across was even easier for me because I was about a foot taller, with long monkey arms. However, I was nowhere near as graceful as I kicked and pulled my way up the step. Eulogio protected the other four climbers as I caught my breath and managed the ropes.

The rest of the climb was long and steep but easy compared to the bergshrund. Like on Huyana Potosi, Eulogio and I felt strong and made great time. We quickly separated from the other teams. There were two slopes of 50-60 degree ice where we ran leapfrog ice ax belays for several pitches, but eventually we reached a long gradual ridgeline to the summit at about 21,125ft. It was really cold with a slight wind that just cut right through us, but physically I felt great. We waited for Steve and Eduardo to catch up and watched the sun light up the world. This area was not a scenic as Pequeno Alpamayo given that the peak was relatively isolated, but the views were still damn cool.

We were getting cold, so shortly after Steve and Eduardo arrived Eulogio and I started heading down. I did notice that my steps were getting sloppy so I really focused on each foot plant to prevent a fall. On some of the steeper slopes Eulogio set up an anchor station and allowed me to rappel down. I then protected him from below, but if he did fall from the top it would be one hell of a whipper. His strength at altitude was amazing and quite humbling for me. I guess that is what growing at up 13,000ft will do for you. He also belayed me down the bergshrund, which was easier to manage in the morning light and now that we had kicked most of the loose snow off the lip. He had used one snow picket and an ax up top and I did the same from the bottom. He down climbed quite well and then made a graceful leap off of the wall and across the gap. I was quite impressed and glad to have this guy on the other end of my rope. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the Spanish word for “badass,” but I did give the “I am not worthy” bow.

In some ways going down on the steep slopes was even harder than going up. Each step was a negotiation with gravity: “I want a little help, but not too much help!” Also, in the daylight I could always see the steep slopes falling away from me and the crevasses and rocks below. It was a constant mental strain and motivation to be climbing above those dangers. A few hours later we finally made it off of the glacier. It was such a good feeling to finally step off the ice, knowing that all of my technical climbing was done.

We had some soup and more coca tea and rested for a while. An hour or so later Steve and Eduardo came down. I never saw the Italian again, but could see his speck way up high on the mountain moving down very slowly. I was eager to get down into some heavier air to recoup a bit. Eulogio and I packed up and began the long hike down to base camp. It was a slow careful process, but about four hours later we made it. As mentioned before, we ate a half frozen avocado with salt that was f*&k%$g amazing and boiled some water to rehydrate.

Our plan was to camp there and recover for a night before leaving the next morning. We slept on the soft mossy ground and washed a bit in a nearby stream. However, the day passed and there was still no sign of Steve and Eduardo. Eulogio thought it wasn’t safe to stay there by ourselves for the night so we packed up and kept descending all the way down to the village we left from a few days earlier. Eulogio knew Eduardo, and he figured that they could sort common gear later. By the time we reached the bottom, I was smashed but feeling quite good about what we had accomplished.

Departure
By the next evening we were all back in La Paz. Steve, Eduardo, Eulogio and I had a fancy five-star meal for about $10 per person. (This trip was cheaper than traveling in the states because once I got to Bolivia everything was amazingly cheap – I’m sure I would have spent more if I spent even just a weekend in any major US city.)

I really wanted to just relax the next day, but while I was gone one of the buildings a block away from my hotel had just randomly collapsed. There was debris all over the streets. Things like that kept me slightly on edge and ready to head home and get back into the soupy thick air at sea level.

All in all, it was an amazing trip. The wilderness and climbing was spectacular, the people were very nice and endlessly interesting, and aside from a few stomach bugs and a batch of altitude headaches, I made it through with no physical issues. I will never know what the cancelled races would have been like, but I was happy with what I done with those lemons.

While there were many moments where I said I would never do this again, with a week to reflect I now definitely think I would go back. Funny how that works.










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Monday, August 31, 2009

More PQ Pictures








Primal Quest Badlands - 2009







Primal Quest Badlands – 2009

After years of racing and a number of expedition races I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into when I signed up for Primal Quest Badlands. The beauty of adventure racing, however, is the unpredictability of the whole sport. Not only do you not know the course, but there are always dozens of unforeseen challenges to confront. This race was no exception. While the actual race was certainly brutal (600 miles and around 124,000ft of elevation change), illnesses, injuries, weather and equipment problems made it one of my toughest races ever.

I will try and lay out the basics of the race here, but I should preface everything by saying that this was an intense experience and it is tough to convey even a small portion of what you experience physically, emotionally and mentally. There are constant, critical decisions being made that can make or break your race – some personal, some must be debated and agreed upon by the team. That whole mental component of adventure racing would be impossible to detail in anything short of a full blown novel. There were also countless annoyances and discomforts: bruises, cuts, dust, aches, blisters, sunburn, hunger, thirst, cold, exhaustion . . . the list goes on and on. Getting through the race really is a process of managing and minimizing suffering. However, the flip side was even richer. While I’m sure I have already forgotten half of it, there were great moments of euphoria as well. We constantly encountered amazing vistas, wildflowers, woodland creatures, beautiful sunrises, scented breezes, good laughs, good camaraderie, and deep, deep satisfaction. Also, the race was just damn long: ten days non-stop. It is hard enough to remember what I did a week ago normally, let alone when you are racing hard ~22 hours a day.

This year Primal Quest, a race that is known as the “world’s most challenging human endurance competition”, was set in South Dakota. At first I was a little disappointed by the location, but now I think it was a near perfect venue. The Black Hills, Needles, Grasslands, and Badlands worked together to provide amazing scenery, wildlife and diversity to the race. South Dakota also has really lenient access laws that allowed a huge portion of the race to be completely “cross-country”, which means we were in remote wilderness with no trails or roads at all. Because of this factor, navigation became a huge component of the race. The disciplines for the race were trekking/running, mountain biking, spelunking, swimming, flat water kayaking, river kayaking, rope work (ascending, rappelling and high-line traverses), and foot/bike/kayak and cave orienteering. This was also one of the longest adventure races ever held at approximately 600 miles. The race would continue, non-stop for ten days.

I was racing with professional Team Tecnu Extreme / Staphaseptic this year. It is always a bit dicey to jump into an expedition with teammates you don’t know all that well. You are literally within 100 meters of them for 10 days straights in very stressful environments. As you can imagine, it often does not go well. After a week of sleeping an hour or two a night some people can be a little bit less than chipper! However, our team dynamics worked out marvelously. This contributed not only to our success in the race, but more importantly, to our enjoyment of the whole experience.

I was racing with Charlie Kharsa, a super experienced white-water river guide who also happens to be the strongest pound for pound hiker I have ever known. He probably weighs less than 150 lbs, but I can say with certainty that he carries more weight than 95% of the racers out there. And he does it with a smile! Charlie also has a never weakening focus on the goal at hand. He was the real task master for our team. Mark Richardson was the third male on our team, he is a very resourceful firefighter from California. In addition to solid navigation and endurance, Mark has expertise in everything from white water rescue, wilderness first aid, plant and animal data, bike mechanics, and rope work. He was a true asset to the team. Melissa Griffiths was our fourth teammate. True the stereotype, she is a nails tough brit. In addition to rocking the course physically in every discipline, she kept our spirits and determination high. She was the real heart of the team.

The day before the race was jammed with gear checks, skill certifications and packing. Also, in a cruel maneuver, the race organization didn’t give us the maps of the course until the evening before the race starts. This meant that we spent the whole night before the race trying to plot a giant course on over 12 poster sized maps. Like most teams, I imagine, we got to the busses for the start at 3:00am with less than two hours of sleep. This may sound dumb, but that map work is much better done before the race than with a hazy sleep deprived brain five days into the race.

TREK
As some kind of joke, the race started with a 27 mile “marathon” over mostly rolling grasslands.
I guess this was just to give you perspective. The “marathon” was only 4% of the total race distance. After a rifle gun start, we settled into a comfortable shuffle and made our way through the first half of the segment with no issues. We ran the flats and downhills and power hiked the uphills. We still had on decent size packs and were often on uneven, offroad terrain, so we were not exactly “running the marathon.” About 18 miles in we were hopping a barbed wire fence. I went to grab the top wire and someone let go of it at the same time. It sprung up and sliced/punctured the palm of my hand. This would turn out to be a huge annoyance over the next 10 days, especially in the paddle and mountain biking segments. After the bleeding stopped, I filled the hole with super glue, slapped some duct tape around my hand and we continued on. Over the next ten days we would cross at least 100 fences, from short to giant, barbed to electric. It simply became a way of life when you are traversing cross-country. The last ten miles of the “marathon” were rather uneventful except for an exceptional headwind. It was so strong we actually formed a pace line to help ease the struggle against the gale. Melissa also had an unfortunate encounter with some poison ivy that would turn out to be an annoyance days later.

We wrapped up the 27 mile run (which would be the easiest miles of the whole 250+ trekking miles in the race by far) and began plotting for the next discipline, which was a ~17 mile orienteering course. We also had to shoulder our full mandatory gear that we would need for the rest of the race. This meant bulging packs and slower paces from here on out. At times it seemed crazy to be forced to carry a storm shell, fleece, thermal layer, base layer, thermal gloves, and thermal hat when it was over 100 degrees out, but there were also quite a few times when I had on every stitch of clothing with me. The winds died down and were replaced by a light drizzle, which eventually led way to sun and heat. After about six hours we left the orienteering course to begin a mountain bike leg. There was a caving section down the course that we wanted to make sure to do during night so as not to burn any daylight while we were a mile under the earth!

MOUNTAIN BIKE

In this race we were forced to assemble and disassemble our bikes at each transition so that they could be transported for us in secure bike boxes. Who ever thought that being able to mount and adjust a derailleur quickly would be a great race skill? Anyway, after about 30-45 minutes of sorting gear, eating and assembling bikes we were off on what would turn out to be an almost three day ride. We had a bunch of moderately technical singletrack climbing for the first ten miles. About 90 minutes in we noticed that I had a large tear in the sidewall of my tire. The tube had not punctured yet, but that was just a matter of time given the plumb sized bulb sticking out of my wheel. Unfortunately, I was using slime tires, which make it difficult to let out a bunch of air and then reinflate. The stem often gets jammed up with the slime. So after I took the tire off to put on a clif-bar wrapper/tape/super-glue patch for the sidewall, we had to use a fresh tube. Not a big deal at the time, but down the road this would become a huge issue. There were a few really nasty climbs on this section that forced up to push our bikes; steep grades on very loose boulders. All in all, though, we made good time and got to the caves about an hour after sundown.

CAVES

The caving section was exciting in that none of us had ever navigated through a complicated cave network before. However, as we entered we heard that a few of the teams in front of us had gotten lost and found it to be quite frustrating. Crawling through the caves definitely did slow things down a bit. You had to move slowly to keep from cutting yourself to pieces on the sharp rock. It was also often slick and wet from water and bat guano. Also, there were a number of worm holes where you could only go one at a time anyway, so the idea of passing others teams was simply out of the questions. We definitely got turned around a few times and did a fair amount of backtracking before we fully understood the 3-D nature of the map. Luckily compasses work under the earth! Anyway, after three hours of crawling around with the bats we were more than ready to get out of caves and back to the fresh air. We got out at about midnight and had been pushing hard since the 5:30am race start. Add that to the lack of sleep the nights before the race and we were ready for a cat nap. We curled up on the ground for about 90 minutes of rest. Apparently my snoring meant that my teammates may have gotten only 60 minutes of sleep!

MOUNTAIN BIKE

We jumped back on the bikes at about 2:30am into a nasty network of gravel roads, cat tracks, trails and deer paths. We made a few wrong turns and ended up doing hours of unnecessary climbing. As the sun came up, we were back on track. The next eight hours would have a ton of hills. Some rideable, some impossible. We made a few more wrong turns, but ultimately pushed through in the right direction. We rode hard all day long to finally roll into a mountain bike orienteering course just before 5:00pm. Just as we were going over the maps for this section the weather started to turn south. Rain and wind gusts motivated us to keep moving to stay warm. We also knew we would be climbing into the mountains (6-7,000ft) that night and were a bit concerned about a bad storm up high. After just a few hours in the bike orienteering course we started a gradual climb to South Dakota’s second highest point. This normally wouldn’t have been a bad climb at all, but the rain had turned some of the trails into an impossible muck. Not only could you not ride up them, you couldn’t even push your bike up them. The mud would stick to your tires to point where there would be no clearance against your frame and your tires wouldn’t rotate. We ended up spending hours carrying our bikes or pushing them in the grass along the edge of the trails. This really slowed our progress and sapped our energy. After reaching the highpoint, as darkness fell, we were descending a dirt road, but couldn’t ride it! Pushing your bike downhill after hours of pushing it uphill was more than frustrating. After a few hours of this our patience started to grow thin and we attempted to ride a few of the segments. We knew the danger this presented to our derailleurs, but just could resist. Sure enough, Mark’s derailleur got jammed in the clay/mud and twisted right off. The severity of this situation took a while to sink in. We had at least 80 miles left on this bike leg alone. Even if we could fashion a single-speed, this would absolutely crush our race hopes. For the time being, however, it didn’t make much of a difference as none of us could ride our bikes anyway. The rain and mist didn’t leave and we had all become quite wet and cold. We eventually dropped to a gravel road that was ridable, but we were all pretty wiped out from the effort. It was too cold and wet to stop without some kind of shelter, which we didn’t have. But we were able to find some dry wood at the base of the larger fir trees. Also, there was a bunch of dry old-man’s-beard like moss clinging to the trees that turned out to be rather flammable. It was about 1:00am at this point and we decided to try and warm up a bit and see what we could do to salvage Mark’s bike with a clearer head and warmer digits. The temps were dropping down into the lower 30’s and we couldn’t stop without shivering to work on the bike in our current soaked condition. The fire was a true lifesaver, but not really enough to make us really comfortable. We tried to dry off a bit and warm up, but I don’t think anyone really got much rest. I was curled up next to it in my mylar bivy sack. I was so close to the flames, trying to get warm, that embers from the fire kept landing on me and melting my bivy sack to my clothes. In a few hours, my sack was turned into swiss cheese. I was also taking hot rocks out of the fire to put by my feet, but these ultimately melted the sack as well. With all this melting going on you would think I would be warm, but the cold ground and the side of me away from the fire overpowered any heat I received and I ended up shivering violently. After an hour of shivering we all decided we had to just get moving. It was really difficult to shorten Mark’s chain because the mud was so clingy and thick you couldn’t even make out each link. Think about dry gum all over the bike. Plus the cold metal made your fingers quite clumsy in no time. Eventually I was able to shorten the chain to what I thought would work for a reasonable gear ratio, however it turned out to be just a hair too loose. We tried several dozen chain-length and gear ratio combinations but we just couldn’t find anything that would hold as a single speed. Eventually we hit a few that we thought would work but they were so tight that they ended up busting the links open in the chain. After hours of back aching effort, we resigned to just walk the bike on all the flats and uphills for the next 40 miles. We tried pulling Mark, but even with a three-person train in front of him you just can’t pull that kind of dead weight up a hill. All in all, the loss of the derailleur probably cost us at least 12 hours not to mention the additional effort of walking miles and miles in bike shoes.

However, the adventure racing gods were smiling on us. Around 12:00 the next day we were able to swap Mark’s bike for another bike. This was critical, because there was a shortcourse cut-off three hours later that we never would have been able to make if we had to walk/run the next twenty five miles. We hammered the next few hours on what was mostly singletrack and were making good time. It looked like we were going to miraculously make the cut-off despite the mechanical issues earlier. But then Charlie got a flat tire. Despite slime tires and Teflon tape, we had worked our way through all of our five spare tubes over the previous two days. We threw a quick patch on Charlie’s tube and raced on to beat the cut-off.

We had decided to risk a shortcut through a very twisty, narrow canyon that would drop us off on a main trail to the next checkpoint. There was no real trail in the canyon, but there was an old abandon railroad bed. I have no idea how a train ever could make it through such rough terrain. We bushwhacked and zigzagged across the river at least a dozen times. The cold water actually felt great on my tired legs, but it also kept the patch from properly sealing on Charlie’s tube. This was an amazingly cool section with huge twisting walls boxing us in on each side and a roaring river beneath us. We finally hit the main trail that would take us straight into the next checkpoint. We had about four miles to go and twenty minutes left. We didn’t really have time to wait for another patch to dry on the tube, plus it was only leaking slowly, so we began a crazy circus show. Charlie would sprint in front as far as he could make it before the tire was inoperable and Mark or I would rush up to him with a pump in hand and furiously pump away at the tube until he could ride again. We must have repeated this process at least six or seven times. It was exhausting for us all, but after a tremendous team effort we cruised through the last bit of singletrack and sprinted our way to the checkpoint, just two minutes before the shortcourse cutoff. These cutoffs turned out to be a major part of the race, we ultimately were one of only ten teams to make all of the cutoffs and to complete the full course.

It was great to make the cutoff, however the cruel part of the whole situation is that the endless bike leg was not over! We would continue riding for the remainder of the day and much of the coming night. Given our full expedition weight packs and the rough terrain we had been covering we all had sore asses! After nailing the first checkpoint we were cruising along a very well maintained trail when Charlie got another flat. A full blown nail was sticking out of his tire. Does that really happen? I guess so. The hole was too big for the slime to fix, but another issue with slime tires is that they are hard to patch because you have this viscous goo all over the hole and it is tough to get a dry spot to adhere the patch. We went through four or five patch jobs and at least 90 minutes trying to get his wheel fixed. Normally this wouldn’t be that big of deal, but after days of racing with little to no sleep and dealing with tire problems, mud and derailleur problems for the last 30 hours this definitely tested our patience. Everything just gets harder as the race wears on, and little things like trying to get a patch to seal to a tube can become a real chore.

We eventually rolled on and tagged the last bike checkpoint in the dark (at the top of another mountain of course) and rolled another 15-20 miles into the transition area where we would grab our trekking and climbing gear and head off the next leg of our adventure. After days of non-stop riding with hefty packs none of us were sad to disassemble our bikes and pack them away.

CLIMB/TREK

We tried to grab 120 minutes of sleep before heading out of the transition area, but it was still bitterly cold. I was tired enough to fall asleep, but I woke up shivering twenty minutes later. All I had was a thermal sheet and we were lying on the cold ground with no insulation. I actually did some pushups to warm myself enough to fall back asleep for another precious twenty minutes. This stupid process repeated itself for a bit over an hour and then it was time to move on as the sun was coming up.

While this was the first true trekking leg, we had already put a lot of time in our feet. We hiked the bikes quite a bit due to the derailleur issue and unrideable trials, we walked/crawled the caves, and of course did the marathon and foot orienteering course to start the race. This next leg had some rugged off trail navigation to the top of the highest peak nearby (of course) and then we would head over to the Needles area for the ropes course, followed by much, much more trekking. I don’t know what the total mileage for the leg is (maybe 50-60? with plenty of hills). Before we left, we realized there would be an opportunity to buy more food about a third of the way through the trek, after we bagged the big peak. We discussed this, but in the chaos never really made a group decision about how many calories to bring. It made sense to not carry as much weight up the big peak and just buy food later, but this is not quite how it worked out.

We chose a more direct attack route on the peak rather than following a ridge, who knows if that was the faster route? We then hopped logs and virtually slid a few thousand feet down to a road that would lead us to a trail and the climbing site. We should have stopped to get food on the way, but we were in a hurry to get the climbing area and no one really mentioned a need for more food. We climbed up Little Devil’s Tower and got the basic directions for the ropes course. We would first have a ~300 foot rappel followed by a 200 foot ascent, then a Tyrolean traverse to a 150 foot free climb, followed by two more high-lines and then another 200+ foot rappel. A world class ropes course to say the least. I had been looking forward to this for some time. We zipped down the first rappel in no time and made our way over the ascent. The wind was really howling so once you got 100 feet or so off the ground you didn’t have to worry about overheating despite all the work involved to jumar. About two thirds of the way up I noticed that one of the wire loops that connected a chock anchor to the rope had frayed open. Everything was triple anchored, but I still thought they would like to know. After a quick yell, they inspected the site with binoculars and shut the course down below us temporarily. I was glad our whole team had made it past that point. Asides from Charlie losing his rappel gloves in the wind (which could mean quite a bit of rope burn!), the rest of the course went smoothly for the team. I think we made it through the whole series in about three hours. It was odd, but given the extreme sleep deprivation, it was hard to get excited about the exposure after the first ten minutes. I basically ignored the 300 feet of empty space below me and just went about my business in a very casual manner. I might as well have been manipulating anchors in my living room.

After the climb we were repacking our gear and looking at the maps and we began to realize how little food we had for the mountainous 40 miles of trekking we still had left. We managed to buy some scraps off a guy in a parking lot, but we were still desperately short.

The next section involved some difficult navigation. Trails and roads on the maps generated in the 1960’s simply no longer existed. We decided to just follow a bearing for miles through the trees, swamps and hills until we could get a reliable handrail. This technique worked out well and we made our way straight to the next checkpoint at around 10:00pm. By now, we knew how bitterly cold it got at night, so if we were going to sleep for an hour or two tonight we figured it would be best to do it in early evening before the real cold set in. We crashed at the checkpoint for ~90 minutes and then took off for a long, cold, dark walk through the night.

At this point I started to feel an odd ache in knee. It had started a bit on the last bike leg, but with navigation, technical riding, and everything else going on I had not paid much attention to it. However, I discovered that over the several day bike leg my seat had slipped down almost two inches. This had put some serious strain on my knees. They felt OK as I packed up my bike, but they were feeling it now that we were trekking in earnest. I felt like a complete idiot for making such a rookie mistake.

We walked through the night with just a few quick stops for foot care. Luckily, my feet were in awesome shape. I have battled with blisters in the past (even to the point of complete maceration, or the loss of all the skin on the bottom of your feet), but this entire race I never even got one blister! This was a real blessing as I had some other issues to deal with. My feet definitely got sore and bruised from the constant pounding. Also my toes went numb from the swelling and pinched nerves, but that stuff is unavoidable and minor compared to blisters.

At about 4:30am we rolled into a campsite that may be our last chance to find some food. There was only one guy awake. We asked him if he had any spare food he could sell and he just quietly said “no” and walked away. I don’t really blame him. At this point we were four stinky, filthy, cross-eyed racers hiking at 4:30 in the morning and trying to buy food off of strangers in the middle of the woods. We were on our way out of the camp, completely dejected and dreading the impending starvation when the dude’s wife chased us down and told us to come over to their camp. She then loaded us up with luncheon meat, sardines, bags of tuna and some nuts. Not exactly fine dining, but we were absolutely thrilled. The luncheon meat did taste like cat food, but it was damn delicious cat food at that!

The trek kept rolling on through the morning. We skirted buffalo (who were in the rut and quite frisky), prairie dogs, antelope, deer and some beautiful country as we made our way out of the mountains and into rolling grasslands. We hit another checkpoint, climbed a giant buffalo fence and hiked through endless hills and prairies to the next transition area by Wind Cave.

MOUNTAIN BIKE

The next bike leg should be fairly routine, it was less than fifty miles, a net loss in elevation and basically just a way to get teams to a giant reservoir for a swim and kayak segment. However, it didn’t turn out that way for us.

After assembling our bikes we reviewed the maps to verify our route choice. We were under the impression that a nearby highway (with glorious pavement!) was illegal to travel on because it was forbidden during the previous trek. Because of this we had a long, bushwhack filled course plotted. However, as we began our plotted course we soon discovered that the route we planned was virtually impossible. The trails and roads we identified on the map simply did not exist. Plus the terrain in front of us was unridable due to sand, cacti and other vegetation. Primal Quest is known for ridiculous, tortuous segments, but we really doubted that they wanted us to carry our bikes for twenty miles. We reviewed the rules of travel and concluded that the highway was now open to travel and was simply closed for the previous trek. Maybe this was obvious, but with our hazy, sleep deprived brains it really did not seem clear. Anyway, after about an hour of riding uphill the wrong way, we were on course and hammering away to the next checkpoint. Along the way we startled a herd of pronghorn antelope. These dudes can run 40MPH for four hours straight! I don’t know why you would ever need to be 160 miles away from a certain predator, but they can do it! Anyway, the herd took off at full speed straight towards a barbed wire fence. Most ducked the lowest wire, but a few of them hit the fence and bounced backed with a wicked recoil. It sure looked ugly, but they adjusted and regained their run like nothing had happened.

After a checkpoint in a semi-ghost town and another 20 miles of rolling hills we arrived at th edge of a table top over the reservoir in the dark. Our map showed a road twisting down the bluff to the water’s edge, but of course there was nothing but faint animal tracks. I was navigating this segment and I’m sure my teammates thought I was nuts as I turned my wheel down the steep slope and began dropping. While we couldn’t see it, I knew the lake was down there and it was at least 15 miles and more mystery roads to find another way down. We unfortunately did get one flat from riding on the open terrain, but eventually, after hopping a few fences, we bushwhacked our way down to a frontage road that circled the lake and made our way to the next Transition Area.

We had a ~5 mile swim in front of us in a pitch black night and it was getting colder by the hour, so we decided to get few hours of much needed sleep and get up at 4:00am to tackle the swim as the sun rose.

SWIM

Like all my previous attempts, I spent an hour or two shivering on the ground. I’m not sure how beneficial that type of rest is, but I know I floated in and out of consciousness so at least my brain got some rest. I did stop moving long enough for my knee to really stiffen up. It was beginning to look like the damage I did from riding my bike with a low seat was going to be more severe than I thought. I had a nasty case of ITB (Illotial Band Syndrome) flaring up. I have had this before so I knew the issues with it, but the downside is that it is damn painful with no real quick cures.

As we put on our wetsuits and grabbed all our other swim gear (drybags, fins, kickboards, etc.) a crazy windstorm began. Some of the gusts were so strong that food and other gear were being blown away. I certainly held onto the maps with an excessive death grip!

Given the crazy whitewater and basically because we thought it would save time, we were going to hike the shore of the lake and then attack the swim checkpoints from the nearest point of land. As we were leaving, one of the officials stopped us and asked if we were going to attempt to swim in the storm conditions. After we said yes, he told us that there was no way to launch the safety boat in the whitewater and wind, but they technically couldn’t stop us from trying to cross the water. Then they said they did have one guy who could help us in terms of safety and the official pointed to a man who literally had on full snorkel gear. He had a full face mask, snorkel and full length diving fins. Normally, this is where you would find this situation rather absurd, but in expedition races like this you encounter dramatic situations all the time. Each day you are near hypothermic, potentially starving, lost . . . or in this case about to swim in a storm too bad for the safety boat to launch in. The thing is you really don’t have the time or energy to get worked up about any of these things. You kind of just let them roll off your back and you keep plowing along like it is the normal course of business. It turned out that the dude who was following us is some type of navy seal rescue diver (Dan Mann the race promoter is a former Navy Seal). We didn’t really need any help as the crazy winds died down shortly after we hit the water. By the time we had hiked around much of the lake and were shooting a bearing to the last checkpoint the water was downright pleasant. This was typical of South Dakota – crazy and random burst of violent weather followed by complete serenity.

Following the swim was a short, optional flat water paddle section. We looked at the future short-course cutoff times and decided that with the time and energy lost in simply transitioning to kayaking (with packing gear, sorting food, plotting points and changing clothes), that it was just not worth the time. This turned out to be the right decision.

MOUNTAIN BIKE / RIVER PADDLE

We had a short (~10 mile?) bike ride to a bridge over the Cheyenne river for the upcoming paddle section. Other than the fact that we had to carry all of our paddle gear (heavy and wet from the swim) and another freak storm of rain and wind, the ride was totally uneventful.

We disassembled our bikes and geared up for the ~40 mile river paddle. We didn’t know what to expect. We knew we were not going to get any help from the current. The Cheyenne was barely a creek at this point in the year. Often, it wasn’t even ankle deep. We were told that this would be an “adventure paddle” which we thought meant we would be dragging our boats on slippery rocks for the next 15 hours. We weren’t too far off the mark. There were occasional “ponds” where the water seemed to simply stop and got deep enough to paddle through for a consistent period, but for the most part we were in and out of the boat every five to ten minutes. This was quite painful on my knee. Another issue was the fact that there were around 40 barbed wire fences that crossed the river that we had to avoid. Luckily they had been flagged by race staff. Without this, especially at night, we would all have been bloody messes. There were some upsides, the scenery was cool and we had crazy carp that would jump out of the water to attack our paddles and bounce off the boat. That was cool.

This paddle never seemed to end. After 12 hours on constant effort it was now 3:00am. We were all quite cold and exhausted. You could tell our delirium was catching up to as we took turns screaming as loud as we could or simply making strange animal noises or any other bizarre distraction from our current hell. We really were in a prison of sorts. We couldn’t stop paddling or you would instantly start shaking from the wet cold, but we were also all too exhausted to keep our eyes open. There were dozens of occasions Charlie and I simply both fell asleep either to wake up shaking or bouncing off a bank somewhere. We were actually really lucky that we didn’t fall asleep and float right into a barbed wire fence. I know for many teams that this paddle was an absolute low for them in the race.

Just as the sun was coming up from a long brutal night we finally hit the exit point. As we were dragging the boats up the steep muddy bank we all began shaking uncontrollably from the cold. We checked in, stripped off our wet clothes and fell into a delirious sleep.

TREK

I’m not sure how much later (maybe 2 hours?) we started packing and getting ready for a monster trek (~75 miles) that would include the notorious Badlands. My knee was not getting any better; I could barely hobble around between our gear bins. Luckily the first 20 miles of the trek were not too hilly. I also got some military issue 800mg ibuprofen from a friend earlier that I was popping like candy. Also, my team really came to the rescue. Mark did an excellent job taping up leg to support my knee and giving me a deep tissue massage. Charlie took the weight off of my back. I had been on the other end of towing and weight sharing many times in the course of adventure racing, so I knew they were happy to do it, but I still felt a little bad for adding an extra burden to my teammates at this point. Things loosened up for me on the flats and after an hour or so I was taking big, smooth strides again. We were totally off-trail for the next twelve hours simply following valleys. We stopped once to try and get some water, but the streams were so full of clay and silt that it clogged the filter in seconds. We were working off of a 1:100,000 scale map in this section which made accurate navigation difficult. We lost an hour or two by going up the wrong valley, but were back on track when night fell. The problem was this was a completely moonless night, so we couldn’t even make out the silhouettes of distant mountains. We knew we had to go east to get closer to the checkpoint, but didn’t know exactly how far and pacing was impossible on this terrain due to giant ditches and rolling hills.

At this point in the race, we were all so tired that anytime we stopped for more than a few minutes, there was a decent chance that someone would fall asleep. We decided to try and get some rest and clear our heads before making a potentially long, mysterious trek through the night to the next checkpoint. After 90 minutes of shivering (sound familiar?) we headed east over steep terrain. We eventually did get close enough to see the checkpoint across a large valley, but we also had run into a band of cliffs. Rather than battle the maze of hills, we hunkered down and waited for sunrise. The daylight confirmed that we were where we thought we were, so we simply picked the easiest path down and across the valley to the next checkpoint. It turns out that there was a 7:00am shortcourse cutoff at this checkpoint that we were unaware of, but luckily we made it there with just a few minutes to spare! We were in 10th place at the time and it looked like no other teams would make it through. So now our race was down to 10 teams as all the short course teams would be ranked below us. (It turns out one other team would be let through on the long course, but they got lost in the Badlands and were shortcoursed eventually anyway).

With a surge of energy, we ripped off the next flat 10-15 miles quite quickly (with a little stop at a tiny convenience store in the middle). We could now see the jagged peaks of the Badlands looming off in the distance. Things were going quite well until I started to have some gastro-intestinal issues (which I now know were the result of a giardia infection I caught early in the race). Our leading theory as to the cause of my problem is that because I was putting NUUN tablets (an electrolyte additive) in my water before the iodine had 30 minutes to take effect, the iodine tablets had been neutralized by the NUUN. In rather short order, to put it nicely, I “lost” several gallons of fluids. This was going to be an issue because we were heading into a terribly hot and rugged environment, with no potable water. Staying hydrated was critical to not only a quick team pace, but simply for health and safety. Let me just say that Giardia sucks. Giardia on day 8 of a 600 mile expedition race in the middle of the Badlands REALLY sucks. This just was not turning out to be my race.

Luckily, and with the help of a few pills, my digestive system calmed down. However, I was already quite dehydrated and it was really heating up. I was doing my best to rehydrate, but with the 90-100 degree temps and constant exertion it was tough to get caught up. I was not sweating at all and felt a bit lethargic from the lack of fluids and stomach cramps. Mild heat exhaustion was setting in.

This was amazingly beautiful and bizarre terrain. It really looked like it came right out of a Dr. Seuss book. Mark did a great job of navigating us through the maze and canyons and peaks. Just as the sun was setting, we finally made our way through the last chain of peaks and slid down a steep face on our butts to freedom! This was fortunate because apparently no team had been able to get out of the Badlands at night.

We lucked onto an old, maybe abandoned barn and were able to get two hours of great sleep without shivering! It held in the day’s heat quite well.

At around 11:00 PM we took off to tackle the remaining 25 miles of trekking before the final 100+ mile mountain bike ride to the finish. This last part of the trek was just a death march. We were jostled awake a few times by two rattlesnake encounters and a short navigation error, but mostly we just hiked endlessly. It was great to see the last transition area. I knew my knee could hammer out the last bike leg and I was starting to taste the finish line.

MOUNTAIN BIKE

We assembled our bikes for the last time and ate as much as we could. Over the course of the race I had broken both of my bottle cages so I had bike bottles duct taped all over my frame. We had 24 hours to get the finish line and only 100 miles of biking to go – no problem right? Well, apparently there were some real challenges in this last leg. Some teams even got lost for several days trying to navigate through the maze of trails.

With determination and a little of bit of fear we hammered out of the Transition area. The first segment was ~50 miles and mostly on gravel roads. My stomach was feeling better and now that I was properly hydrated I had my energy back. The ride started with a series of steep hills adjacent to the Badlands parks. This was amazing terrain, but the views could only distract you so much. It was getting hot as we were out there in mid-day heat. At one point Charlie checked his bike computer and it read 108 degrees. We did have an occasional tailwind, which really helped. As it turns out, we did amazingly well on this section and put in the fastest split time of any team.

At the next checkpoint we were back mixed in with a bunch of shortcoursed teams. It was good to see other racers, as we had been totally on our own for several days. We passed a few teams at the checkpoint and kept on rolling. We were now on an abandoned railroad bed that was partially grown over. It was dusk and the mosquitoes were out in full force. This really motivated us to crank even faster, but we kept hitting fences that we had to jump which gave the blood suckers plenty of time to catch up to us. As night fell, we hit an unmapped road that we would need to take. After over 24hrs of constant navigation Mark gave me the maps for a well deserved break. The next 20 miles were in an area that didn’t have any mapped roads. To assist us, race management had crudely traced in a suggested route which only loosely followed that actual roads. This is the area where a number of teams had become seriously lost. As we entered the area I could see why. There were faint and significant roads everywhere and none of them were marked. We caught up to and passed a number of teams who were riding in all different directions. One team was up on a hill simply yelling: “Help us! We are lost!” We basically followed a cardinal direction on the largest looking road we could find and it ultimately delivered us to the exit point. We walked and pedaled up and down hills all night watching a distant lightening storm. Just as we were descending out of the hills the storm was on-top of us. With each lightening flash I would begin counting to see how far away the strikes were. A few times the flash and boom were basically simultaneous. We spread out so that if any one of us was hit at least the others could respond and rescue. We also debated whether it would be better to be on our bikes (with rubber tires below) or simply away from the bikes. At least the excitement of the storm kept us awake as this was going to be another sleepless night. The storm came with a little rain and we started to get the same mud problems as before, but luckily we hit a proper gravel road only a few miles later.

Now, all we had left was a long ride back to Rapid City and the finish line. We got a few more flats along the way and I think we all rode a few miles while sleeping, but we finally hit concrete and the main road into Rapid City. We were only 8 miles from the finish! We hit the last Checkpoint before the finish line and realized that they had devised a special course for us to follow to the finish line; a special demonic course that is. We were forced to climb every big hill around the city on our way into the finish. I guess this was supposed to create drama in case there were any neck and neck finishes. For us, however, it was just more endless hills. They did eventually end and the finish line finally came into sight – what a beautiful view! We crossed the line with big smiles, hungry bellies and 10 days worth of stink, filth and memories.

FINISH

All in all, this was an amazing race. The site was beautiful and amazingly diverse. The course was challenging, but not in a pointless way. I didn’t have my best performance, given my knee and stomach issues, but with great teammates and a good amount of stubborn, stupidity I was able to make it to the finish line for a top ten finish against the best teams in the world. There is always more you can do and mistakes you can avoid, but all in all, I would have to call it a success. I probably lost about 10-15lbs over the course of the race, but with some antibiotics and some rest I should be back to 100% in a few months.

I wanted to thank Charlie, Melissa and Mark for sharing the fun suffering with me and being great teammates, all the people of South Dakota whose hospitality was unbelievable, my friends and family at home for amazing support, and finally all the staff and volunteers of Primal Quest for keeping the dream alive.