I hate sleep deprivation. It’s one of the worst thing about adventure racing. The alarms went off around 7am, which meant we must have slept for at least 4 hours. Jaysus… some teams would probably try to get to the first assistance point with no sleep whatsoever and the lads had already had about 7 hours sleep with me so far, plus, no doubt, some more before I had teamed up with them. At least none of us were likely to be wandering around in a zombie state for a while.
After packing the tents away we headed up the hill into town rather than straight over to the control point. I was being maneuvered into more comfort racing. The lads had checked the opening hours of a little shop/cafe in the town as we passed it last night. So we were going up for a morning coffee (or hot chocolate in the case of 2 of us). It mightn’t be great racing, but it was a very pleasant way to start the day. The tiny shop was also rifled for supplies of cakes, biscuits, and a can or two of coke!
After a somewhat leisurely breakfast it was back to more conventional racing mode again and we made our way back down to the control point, where we were handed via ferrata safety gear to use with our own helmets and harnesses. The 3 lads set off first, with me being tail-end-charlie this time. I would have thought I had reasonable speed on these things, given my one time mountaineering background. However I was being left behind by the speed of the other 3. They’re obviously much more practiced at this!
The via-ferrata moved us through a steep rock sided river gorge. We had to cross the river 3 times on metal-roped bridges The bridges got progressively trickier with each crossing. It felt like it took around half an hour to complete the via ferrata.
At the end we handed back the via ferrata gear to waiting marshals From there we followed a short marked trail back down to the riverbank. The instructions were to go along the riverbed to the next checkpoint. There was plenty of water in the river so walking in the river didn’t look like a particularly good option. The interpretation of these rules can be quite broad, with some people interpreting it as a requirement to be in the river, or on it’s immediate banks, and some people including a river’s entire possible flood-plane as well. Since we were all unranked we were free to interpret it as broadly as we like, and we occasionally used a track on the flood-plane to the left side of the river. From the footprints it was clear that we were far from the first to take this interpretation.
After about 2km we saw the checkpoint on the other side of the river… damn! Two of us waded straight across whilst the other two took their shoes and socks off in an effort to keep dry. The river was just beyond knee deep at its deepest and flowing fast. We had crossed at the widest shallowest point we could find. We carried on downstream for a while but were quickly cliffed out. We could either go into the water and carry on, go back and re-cross to try the other side, or really really stretch the rules by going above and around the cliffs. We chose to go back and try the other bank (with another shoe and sock preservation attempt from 2 of the lads).
Initially the track on the other side was good, but after a few hundred meters we got cliffed out on this side too. Looking down at the river it was now a fast flowing powerful looking river in a steep rock walled canyon. It looked way too dangerous to walk. So we elected to go up and over the cliffs inland a bit. Unfortunately this pattern repeated itself a few times in the next half an hour or so. We eventually ended up at a massive post-landslide steep scree slope about 100 meters or more above the roaring river below. We’d strayed a bit far so had to go back down to the river.
Again, the mountain confidence and ability of the lads was great. They were happily able to scree ski down the slope at a rate of knots without a bother. As a result we made it down in no time at all. Unfortunately when we got there we were cliffed out from further progress on either direction on our (right side) of the river. In front of us was a roaring river in a canyon. Definitely a sticky situation!
Anthony hopped over a few rocks to the highest point above the narrowest section of the river in front of us. He then proceeded to take off his backpack and stripped down to his underwear. He positioned himself at the edge of the rock and jumped across the fast flowing river to an eddie pool between two rocks on the far bank. Oh crap! That was very impressive indeed, but now we’re all going to have to do that! And I hate swimming. And I hate the cold. And I have a fear of heights. Oh crap oh crap oh crap!
The rest of us start careful throwing rucksack and clothes across the gap to Anthony. Everything is collected without a problem. Frank makes the next jump into the eddie pool without a problem. It looks cold! I start biting the bullet and make my way right to the edge of the rock above the river. This jump would be easy if it was from a rock to a grass bank over a grass lawn. Unfortunately it’s not, and no amount of psychological gamesmanship is going to tell my well honed sense of fear otherwise! I make the lunge to jump, but can’t. Try again, and again, and again. The lads shout plenty of encouragement. They know my fears and weaknesses at this point anyway! After about 5 minutes I finally manage to push off the rock and make the jump with a sense of complete disbelief at what I’m doing. It feels I’m going to be dead if I get this wrong and end up being swept down the powerfully running river.
Splash, and now I’m underwater and starting to swim rapidly (or what feels like it anyway). I pop up just short of the rocks, but in the eddie pool nonetheless. A combination of swimming and being pulled by a helpful arm gets me onto the rock where I beach myself and take a moment to recover. I can’t believe I just did that! Anytime I’ve done something like that before it’s been in a wetsuit with a PFD, usually supervised by an instructor. Phillipe then makes it across without any fuss.
We gathered our gear together again and made our way down the river bank. Thankfully the sun is now providing enough heat so that the wet clothes I’m wearing aren’t making me cold. Even on this easier side we still have a few scrambles over small cliffs which we have to complete to make our way down. Just before the canyon widens out to a less extreme valley we have to cross the river again to get around a cliff. This time the water is less confined by the canyon walls, so it is wide enough that it can be waded easily enough. Finally we cross back immediately afterwards to make it to a transition just around a corner.
Here we get to leave our trekking gear behind in the A-boxes, and pick up our wetsuits and helmets for the rafting section which starts here. Another relaxed transition and soon we’re ready for the rafting. We select a raft from the riverbank and drag it into the water and all get in. And then we all get back out again and drag it back to the bank… one of the footloops was broken. So we select another raft and then set off.
I was very happy that in my original team Camilla was a rafting instructor. Given that we were going to be doing the rafting section as just the team of 4 without any race provided guides that provided a huge amount of confidence. Of course now I was in a completely different team with 3 people I knew nothing about. It turns out Philippe had never rafted before (I had at least done it 3 times previously, but always with a guide). However I had lucked out again, as Frank seemed to have plenty of experience and even better Anthony was a professional guide.
We started hitting the white water sections almost immediately, and it never really relented until the last two or three hundred meters of this stage. Confidence built rapidly as Anthony was in total control of the raft at the back. Phillipe and myself were put in the front side by side, as we were the novices. The sight of the rapids ahead, and the river disappearing downhill, is intimidating at first, but after negotiating the first few I relax right into the task, and am happy sitting on the side of the raft, anchored firmly in using a footstrap.
After a while we come to the first of the portage sections, where a marshal beckons us ashore just before some very big rapids. A conversation takes place in French, the result of which is Philipe, Frank and myself walk down the portage section while Anthony and the marshal pilot the raft, with no apparent difficulty, down the massive rapids without incident.
We meet them at the end of the portage section, but we’re warned that the next series of waves are still much more technical than what the rest of us have experienced to this point. In we all get, and Phillipe and myself have the simple task of self-preservation, as we’re told to get down as low as we can in the front of the raft and hang on tight! A thrilling ride through a rapid series of big drops get us down to bottom of the tricky section. We’re all whooping with rush of adrenalin when we get to the end.
We made fantastic progress from that point. Anthony was in such complete control that at times he was standing up in the back of the boat looking around. We all had enough confidence to be perfectly happy whether we were going backwards or forwards through the rapids. We came across two team in quick succession at one point who were having trouble getting through some rocky sections. We breezed easily past them in complete control (with lots of cheering all round… everyone was loving this stage!).
And then just after that we were going down what was by now drop that looked no harder than anything we had don before, and somehow the raft started going vertically into the air as we headed down the rapid sideways. I tried to fight it back to horizontal, but there were much greater forces than me acting on the raft. We flipped over rapidly. Chaos! I was in the water in the rapids. I surfaced to find myself under the upturned raft. In an instant I assessed that this wasn’t good, and dragged myself under the side of the raft and popped out on the outside of the raft still holding onto it. Frank was also holding onto the raft, and between the two of us (but mainly Frank!) we dragged it to the side.
The other 2 found their way to the side and joined us. Anthony didn’t look happy. He had smashed his back against a rock in the capsize, an it was hurting him now. He needed a minute or two to recover. In the chaos I had stupidly let go of my paddle, which was probably now making its own way down river.
We flipped the raft back onto its correct side and all got in. This time I took Frank’s place in the back, since I had no paddle. We carried on down the river, back in full control again. After a few minutes we saw a paddle shaft sticking up in the water next to boulder. The lads maneuvered the raft into the rapid next to the boulder and we grabbed the paddle. It was broken, but usable, so we were back to 4 man paddling. It wasn’t the paddle I’d lost either, but it would do!
About 10 minutes later we saw another paddle at the side of the river. Frank jumped out as we passed it, and grabbed it. This one was the paddle I’d lost, so we were now back to a fully functional raft, with an extra spare paddle! Soon after that the rapids disappeared and the last 5 minutes of rafting were a flatwater paddle to the transition point just after a bridge.
We had a very long transition here. Wetsuits and clothes were dried out hanging on the railings of the bridge. The race doctor was requested to look at Anthony’s back injury, as it hurt him like hell. It turned out he had probably broken 2 ribs. The Jetboil was fired up and hot meals were had (including myself).
After an hour or two we ready to go again. It had been touch and go whether Anthony could continue, but he decided to give it a go. The next stage was a relatively short trek which would take us to the start of the first kayaking section. The catch was we had to use the B-bags to transport all our water gear (wetsuits and helmets) along with all our normal mandatory trekking gear. The lads were using 2 large waterproof bags with their own shoulder straps as B-bags. I took the one that Anthony was originally going to carry, and he took my backpack instead.
The hike was relatively short at only 2 or 3 hours long. It was a long climb, followed by a descending traverse past some cliffs overlooking the deep canyon of the river below. We had cut-offs we had to make though. We would only be allowed do the next kayak if we departed from the transition before 6:00pm. This kept the pressure on for the hike, as it was mid-afternoon by now.
We eventually made it into the transition a little after 5:00pm. Anthony was still hurting and was hoping to see a doctor here, but he would have to be summoned from elsewhere. In the meantime we made preparations to get kayaking. Finally it reached the point where we had to get going, so we packed our gear into the kayaks and got going. I was in the front of a boat with Frank in the back.
Just as we got going one of the marshals shouted out to check that we had our mandatory knives and whistle attached to our PFDs. Unfortunately Frank’s was still buried in his B-bag, so we had to pull in. After about 5 minutes Frank had retrieved the knife, attached it to his PFD, and we pushed off for the second time and got under way. It was about 5:50pm. We had just about made the cut-off. The next target was to reach the intermediate checkpoint on this section. It had a cut-off of 7:00pm. The whole kayak leg had to be finished by 8:00pm, or you would be dark zoned (you would have to pull ashore and not resume kayaking until 6:30am the following morning).
The kayaks we were using were 2 man sit-on-tops. These are generally safe easy boats to use, but are not very fast at all. They’re also not great in whitewater, as you’re easily thrown out of the boat (one of the reasons that they are relatively safe). This was a grade 2 white water section. Frank and myself took a few minutes to adjust to each other at start paddling well as a pair. Even with no common language its easy enough to communicate with someone when you’re both on the same wavelength! We started hitting the rapids and being bounced all over the place. The river was probably quite low, and there were a lot of rocks around. Frank did a pretty good job of steering us down the main channels in the rapids. Occasionally we would come out of line and have to get out and drag the boat bag to the main flow of the water.
There were one or two notably bigger white water sections along the way. At one point we bounced (successfully and stably) through a few big standing waves, with the boat diving into the last one and sending a wall over water over my head. The word “submarine” was well understood by Frank, and we laughed our heads off. The white water sections of the river were good fun. There were enough flatter sections to allow a bit of time to look around and enjoy the view lit by a nice the evening light.
We rounded a corner by some big walled cliffs, and saw the marshals on the side of the bank manning the intermediate checkpoint. We paddled up to them and they called us in. It was 7:02!! After all the days activities, and all the stopping and starting, we had managed to just miss the last cut-off by a mere 2 minutes. We all saw the funny side of missing the cut-off by such a small margin. To be honest, I prefered that we miss this cut-off than to get dark zoned further down the river. A dark zone would have us camping on the shore with just the few bits of food we had left for the night. Whereas missing this cut-off meant we had to pull ashore, and eventually we would be bussed ahead to the next transition, which also happened to be one of two points on the race we would get one of our assistance drums (packed full of food and gear).
Time passed very rapidly on the shore. We were joined by one or two other teams who also missed the cut-off. After about an hour and a half the bus arrived to collect us. The bus was already loaded with teams that had missed all the cut-offs further back along the course (for rafting as well as the kayaking put in). I was glad that we had at least got to do half of this first short kayaking section. The much longer section was still to come later in the race.
There were a few familiar faces on the bus. I was particularly delighted to see my friends from team Dancing Pandas. They seemed in good form. I sat next to Pete and had a great chat with him for the duration of the bus journey. The conversation was so good I was actually disappointed when we reached the transition.
Every team who had not been darkzoned had to have a minimum 4 hour stop in the transition. That certainly wasn’t a problem for our team. Anthony was finally able to get to see the medics, who confirmed that he had more than likely broken a rib or two. We were able to resupply with food bags from the assistance drums. So, of course, we fired up the jetboil and had a few dehydrated meals. I shared out some of the more interesting “real food” that my team had in the team 35 assistance drum.
At some point the lads were joking with another French speaker, and explained to me that they were saying that I was like a black cat, leaving a trail of broken boned teammates in my wake! Alarms were set and we got another 3 or 4 hours of sleep in the tents. We were theoretically only one-third of the way through the race, but it felt like we’d had more than a full race full of action and adventure so far.