ARWC 2012 day 5 – The Mac is back

This was a bit more like normal adventure race style sleeping. We woke to the alarms going off. It was still the middle of the night. We’d had our luxurious 2 hour sleep, with the added bonus of being in tents and sleeping bags (I think I’m starting to like the idea of these being mandatory gear!). We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere on the only sliver of flat ground for miles around. Sure what else would you be doing in the middle of a Wednesday night!

It didn’t take us long to get going. It was feeling pretty cold at this hour so high in the mountains, so there was an obvious incentive to keep moving.  A few hours had elapsed since we saw all the teams ahead of us hunting around for the control in the distance, but we found ourselves in a similar situation again, as another team or two had caught up with us.

We followed the track for another 10 minutes or so, and it took us up to a col. There was a signpost there giving our location and altitude. Navigation doesn’t get much easier than that. Unfortunately it wasn’t where we wanted to be. It was close (only out by less than 1km), but not close enough. As I consulted the map and worked out that we must have walked past a junction within the last minute or two another team walked past us and carried on climbing up the spine of a ridge from the col. The lads decided that they must be right and called me back from hunt for the junction to follow them.

There were cairns leading up the ridge alright, although the path they marked was very hard to see in the dark. After about 10 minutes of this my navigation brain finally kicked into action and I stopped and worked out what was going on. We were heading up a mountain we shouldn’t have been climbing. I called the lads back together and tried to explain to them what was going on using the map, and that the best way to continue was to return to out known location on the col and follow the correct tracks from there.

I led off back down the hill and they followed, with the other team following along as well. When I got to the col I could see the others a bit higher behind me still descending. I carried on down the track we had come up, and within a minute or so had found the track we were originally looking for (within 20 or 30 meters of the point that the lads had called me back earlier). I followed it for a minute or two to confirm for myself that it was heading in the right direction.   When I looked back to check that the lads were still following I saw that they had started traversing across the side of the mountain ahead, and were now way behind me.

A lot of shouting followed as I tried to persuade them of the folly of their route choice and encourage them down onto the path. They may have learned a few interesting new words of hiberno-English! After about 20 minutes they finally made it down to me on the path. 2 minutes later we had walked straight up to the control.

The walk to the next control seemed like it was through beautiful forested hilly landscapes, but as it was nighttime, and occasionally misty it was hard to tell. We made good steady progress anyway. I started getting a little dozy myself as the early morning daylight returned and we approached the next control.  From there we had an open route choice… park rules no longer applying. Most of it was obvious enough, following a track that took us 90% of the way to the next control. As the track ran out we had to traverse over a ridge top. The control was at a river junction on the far side of the ridge.

Another team was just ahead of us on the ridge. It turned out it was my Danish friends in team Scandia. They had been having a bit of a nightmare for the last day or two, as two of the team has become very sick at the same time and they had to stop for a very long time to try to give them a chance to recover.

The route down off the ridge was far from obvious. Unlike the beautiful rolling alpine meadows on the approach, this was a steep slope, with a lot of exposed loose small-rock scree. It looked quite technical to descend, and very dangerous to get wrong. We traversed across the top for a little bit and reached a more wooded area. While it was at least as steep, the ground was a lot more solid, and the trees provided a means of braking if you were heading out of control. The descent through this area was actually enjoyably challenging, since the danger was taken out of it.

From the next control we walked down the river bed to a river junction, and then followed the bed of the larger river for a few hundred meters before climbing to a track on the left bank. That track took us directly to the transition which was only one or two kilometres away.

As usual our time in transition was very relaxed. Frank’s feet had taken a hammering on the trek, so he joined a small queue of racers being having their feet repaired (as far as possible) by the race doctor. The usual task of breaking out the jetboil and preparing a few dehydrated meals was undertaken with the usual zeal and efficiency.

There was quite a lot of people around the transition, which was in a campsite. Pascal, the race director, was directing operations from there at the time. Rob and crew from the sleepmonsters adventure racing website were hanging out there for the morning. I had a good chat with Rob, explaining how I was now more of an adventure tourist rather than adventure racer, and how I was leaving a trail of broken bones. When rob heard how many dehydrated Chicken Korma meals I was getting through he commented that it was no wonder I was losing so many teammates, which made me laugh.

There were quite a few team supporters/reporters gathered there as well, all sitting together taking in the morning sun. They were waiting there for their various teams to arrive in. They were a good fun gang, and we met them at several transitions. The owner of the campsite also decided we needed some descent food and sent out a huge plate of freshly cut fruit… fantastic!

I also had a good long chat with the race doctor. He was able to tell me what had happened to Thomas (as I had heard nothing at that point) and show me the x-ray of his broken leg on his phone. He also told me about an incident the previous day on the mountain biking section. A biker had clipped a low hanging branch on the very technical trail traversing above the steep drop, and fallen over the edge of the trail. He did manage to grab onto a tree before he fell all the way to the floor of the canyon, but had fallen far enough that a helicopter rescue was required. It sounded from the conversation that lots of teams were getting beaten up by the course. I reckoned our relaxed approach, and the fact that we were unranked and therefore under less pressure, meant we were probably enjoying the race more than most.

It probably took 2 hours before we made it out of that transition and headed off on the next cycling stage. This started with a big steep climb up some switchback rough roads, before heading out on more gently climbing forest trails higher up the valley we had just walked down. We were heading back into the national park, so again we had to stick strictly to the trails. Again on paper this didn’t look like a long cycling section. Again reality proved to be different. After an hour or two of cycling the trail started crossing unrideable scree slopes, and these became steeper and more frequent. This resulted in us having to carry the bikes for long periods, making relatively little progress as we did so.

Eventually the effort of all this had a big impact on Phillipe, and he had a major energy crash. By the end of this section of trail he was barely managing to walk up the hill. We had taken his bike and rucksack from him. I tried giving him some gels and other fast energy food. He was so exhausted it took him a big effort even to eat. Probably without him realising they did eventually kick in and he started recovering to a small extent.

We reached the next control at the top of the valley. From there we were under strict instruction that we had to carry the bikes over the delicate ground ahead 800 meters to the sign marking the edge of the park. To my surprise Philippe managed the bike carry without any assistance. The marshals at the check point had warned us that a lot of teams were having problems finding the route from here to the next control. On paper it didn’t look too tricky.

There were obvious trails to follow out from the signpost marking the edge of the park. They were enjoyable singltrack paths that traversed across the side of the high alpine grassy meadows. A little further on and we cut off the trails to do some really enjoyable open mountain across the undulating grassy terrain, keeping high to make sure we would hit the highest tracks when we needed to.

Team Tecnu riding in the Alpine meadows

We rounded one small hillock to see a big double track trail, which was the path we were looking for, take a short sharp direct route climbing for one or two hundred meters. The lads decided to take a short break before tackling that and we sat down on the grass in the sun. The panoramic views around us were, as usual in this race, absolutely fantastic. Phillipe broke out another supply of saucisson and French bread. This would be perfect food for the occasion at any time, but in an adventure race it was a real treat.

After a very pleasant 10 minutes or so we set off again, quickly got the hill out of the way, and then had another fantastic section of high open mountain cycling across the grassy meadows which took us to just below a rocky ridge. The race instructions had vague instructions about finding an unmapped path here, and there was also a blown up section of the map showing trails around the next control to the one after that. That probably meant things would get tricky here! It took 2  goes to find the unmapped trail, as we managed to find another one first that also matched the route book instructions.

The trail turned out to be another steepish highly technical rocky track off the ridge. I was glad to be doing this section in daylight, as it took us a few minutes to align all the trails on the ground to what we were seeing on the map, and work out where we needed to get to within our visual range. I was being cautious on the descent and walked the initial part of the trail, not wanting to risk an over-the-bars transitioning to pointy rocky wallop impact incident. Frank and Philippe’s skills were again in evidence as they gave an object lesson in cycling down such challenging terrain. Once it got less rocky and more grassy everyone was able to cycle again.

We hit another ridge, with a numbered signpost on it that confirmed our position on map. From here the control should be to our left across the side of the mountain. We looked to our left and saw a team in front just completing a traverse along a barely defined track across a steep loose scree slope across the side of the mountain. I had a bit of a (good-humoured) John McEnroe moment looking at this… they can’t seriously think that this is a good idea! But it was signposted, and it did look like the only available route. It was an “interestingly” sketchy trip across. It would have been tricky walking it, so having to drag a bike along as well certainly added to the adventure. I was enjoying the way the race was choosing adventure over caution.

We made it across, slowly and carefully, and were at the control 10 or 15 minutes later. We were still over 2000 meters high, and from here it looked to be mostly descent. Great! There was an obvious route/trail marked on the blown up map to take us to the next control. Looking around where we were it was obvious we would need to find it, as we would be unlikely to find our own route down from here without the aid of parachutes!

The start of the route was obvious on the map, bringing us on an enjoyable technical descent around one hill and then down a ridge from there. A few hundred meters down the ridge the path on the map hairpinned left at a numbered signpost. However there was no signpost or obvious hairpin turn on the ground. We did a little backtracking to where we could do some open mountain cycling downhill, and successfully found the track again. From there the track was obvious on the ground and the navigation became very straightforward again.

The track descended quite steeply through fabulous mature forest. With so much height to lose, it was fast and furious, and a lot of fun. After a signposted junction (on the ground as well as the map this time) the nature of the trail changed significantly. It was now a technical rocky track traversing across the side of near-cliffs with a drop of hundreds of meters to the exposed left side. It made for very high levels of concentration when riding. We hit the next control, and carried on down the trails, where we would intersect a road in a kilometre or two of descent. And boy, what a descent! It was a fantastic trail which changed from rocky Cliffside riding to wonderfully swoopy bermed steep zig zags. It was a blast to ride, especially with such good descenders on the team pushing the pace along. We swept past a more cautious team along the way.

We hit the road (more of a dirt track really) at a small village, and followed it across the hills for a few fast kilometres to the next village. From there we took a turn back straighter down the hill on another off-road track. This track turned out to be simply amazing. One of the most enjoyable pieces of mountain biking I’ve ever done in an adventure race. I would guess that this was the masterpiece of the local mountain bikers. It was steep and technical, but fully rideable with a little commitment. There were often choices between challenging highly technical lines and parallel chicken runs. Frank and Phillipe really went for it and were fabulous to watch as they ripped down tracks in a spray of dust. It was fantastic to follow. Real mountain bike heaven. And with so much height to burn off the fun continued on and on for an impressively long time.

A fantastic descent

The track brought us all the way to the valley floor, where the checkpoint was located just below a road bridge over a river tributary. From there we had to follow the dry river bed under the bridge to the main valley river, which was nicely rideable. We then had to follow the river downstream for a few hundred meters and exit a track on the other bank. This turned out to be mainly bike pushing and carry, and wading through the river two or three times as it meandered through its floodplain. For some reason Frank didn’t want to get his bike shoes wet, and as a result he took an age taking them on and off several times. Even Anthony was getting frustrated watching this from the track edge.

Crossing the river

It was particularly frustrating as it was about 7:30pm by now, and we only had about half an hour of daylight left. The bike stage ended at the transition (an 2nd assistance point) 4 or 6 kilometres down the valley, but we had a few marked and unmarked trails to ride first, so light would make a big difference to our speed. This short-on-paper bike section had also taken a lot more time than I thought it would, and I hadn’t brought along my powerful, but relatively heavy, bike lights as I didn’t think they would be required.

The trail brought us quickly to the next control. We then had to use fixed ropes to lower ourselves (and bikes!) back down into the river, which we had to follow and cross once or twice again. Markers then led us back up the bank, where we had to again use fixed ropes, this time to pull ourselves and our bikes back up to the beginning of another track following down the line of the river.

The track was good to cycle in parts, but required a bit of pushing and hauling at times as it became overgrown or blocked. After about half an hour ran out of daylight and had to stop to dig out or lights and torches. Not long afterwards a short steep zig zag led us up to a small road which rapidly took us to the next control. From there it was mostly a straightforward cycle down the valley to the transition.

The transition was pretty busy, with plenty of teams about.  Being an assistance point as well, we had access to our second assistance barrel, and we also had to stop here for a minimum of 4 hours. We packed away the bikes, and resupplied the various boxes from the assistance barrels, having tried to work out the logistics of what would be needed where (My original team 35 logistics plan had disappeared along with Camila and Thomas, so I needed to recheck everything from scratch again). As usual dehydrated meals were cooked. I also consumed one of Thomas’ goodies from the barrel, the biggest “baby bell” cheese block I’d ever seen. More giant bell than baby bell. Only frank and I bothered to put tents up. The other two just got out the sleeping bags and went straight to sleep outside. After a day like that they would have probably gone straight to sleep in hurricane.

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