After moving to New York I started looking around for interesting races, and came across the Frigid Infliction in Vermont. It sounded quite different from Texas racing - snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, something called "post-holing", even a mid-winter tyrolean traverse. Plus it takes place close to where my parents live. I debated figuring out how to coax John into doing it with me (even though he's way better at downhill than cross-country skiing), when I found a familiar name already on the team list - Guillaume, a coworker in Albany, racing with his friend Laurent. I wondered if they might want to form a 3-person co-ed team, and they graciously agreed to let me join them even though we hardly knew each other. Luckily we got along great and it turned into a really fun team to be a part of. Thanks for taking a chance on me!
The drive to Vermont on Friday before the race was pretty atrocious - tons of snow falling, wind blowing it across the roads, snowplows out in force. It was slow going, but we all made it to the area. My teammates did another favor for me and brought my required gear up to check-in so I wouldn't have to drive up the mountain and back down to my parents' house that night.
On the downside, I didn't get to participate in the humorous pre-race team photo shoot:
Up early Saturday morning to better weather (simply cold, no more precipitation). It turned out that the Bolton Lodge had lost the room reservation for the guys, highly annoying, so they actually ended up in Waterbury too. I picked them up at the Best Western and we went up to the resort to get ourselves ready.
I was using rental skis and boots, and while many people were planning to race all day in their ski boots, I wasn't sure it was a good idea to try that without any training in them (besides knowing they would be fine for the skiing portion). So I started with oversized Salomons and thick wool socks. And quite a few layers of clothing for the freezing cold day of playing in the snow.
The pre-race briefing was quick, including a look at what we would be looking for - familiar enough:
We had about 10 minutes with the maps before the race start. First challenge was figuring out why there were no roads anywhere near the "S/F" symbol. Dang old maps.
Here's me with my hands all over the map, per usual:
Guillaume and I would work together on the navigation, and we eventually had some semblance of a plan for the first leg (3 snowshoe points in any order). We initially thought we would start uphill to get warm, which sounded good in theory.
Time to get outside in the dark and stage the skis for the second leg:
Not much waiting around - thank goodness - and go! Some racers near us took off toward the woods like they knew what they were doing, so we chased after them. I checked my compass and learned we were going west. And soon it was obvious we were headed downhill into a nearby creekbed. So much for starting uphill!
Our skis waiting for our return:
The descent to the creek was quite spectacular - steep, snow-covered, slide on your butt while hanging onto any little tree or branch you can find. Or just pick up your feet and let rip (and then suffer the snow-up-your-back consequences). Darkness, headlamps all around us, cold snow, trying to make it to the bottom in one piece. That was really the epitome of adventure racing right there.
Finally at the bottom we started following tracks down the creek. It was a whole lot easier following someone than leading the way, that much was immediately obvious. We did spend a few seconds checking the map so we could get a distance and heading to the checkpoint. This turned out to be right up my alley - following turns and pace counting. Right where I figured the CP would show up, there was a team off in the woods punching it. Nice. Someone's tracks led past that spot, which was an interesting twist to normal group CP hunting where you don't see where everyone else has gone. First checkpoint, done!
We climbed up the opposite steep bank and up to a "trail". It was labeled as the Long Trail on the (old) map, which I knew couldn't possibly be true based on my one handy piece of local knowledge. Other than that, we had to use the ski trail map to try to figure out the area. This proved challenging.
We following tracks, grateful for someone else's work ahead of us, but then it was time to head uphill toward the CP and the tracks kept going straight. What to do? We went back a ways to recalibrate our location, and we were still fairly sure we should be heading uphill to the left. But the snow was so dang deep over there. Instead we continued on with the tracks until they went up. As we climbed we could see teams all over the woods. This CP was just "somewhere on the side of the hill". I'm not really good at these types of points because Texas terrain is typically so full of features that the point placement is easier to hone in on.
Instead we worked with Guillaume's altimeter, and I became very thankful that he had brought it and calibrated it. I need to dig mine out for future racing in mountains. We got to the right elevation and started working through some of the underbrush, listening to other teams also searching around. Eventually we made our way to an open area with a bunch of people hanging around the CP flag. It was nice to finally get it, as we felt we had been floundering for a while.
It was now light out, so that was helpful. We run down the slope and over to the area with the third CP. After following a couple trails to get to the right general spot, we saw racers coming down the hill on a well-traveled trail. It was a simple matter of heading up it to the CP flag. Much easier, as I'm sure our first CP was for the folks going in the opposite direction. On the other hand, this CP was also not on any real feature and created problems for the teams that started to that one first. So by luck we went in the better direction. Can't argue with that.
We thought we were rather far behind, but then there were still a bunch of skis at the TA so we realized we were actually doing OK. Cool!
I changed to the ski boots, which were now super cold. I didn't relish the thought of carrying my shoes nor changing into cold footwear again, so I took a chance and ditched the shoes in the car. Here's hoping the ski boots would work for the rest of the race, because we weren't coming back to that TA again until the finish line (end result = they worked just fine, that was really nice).
Time to get on the skis and go. CP4 was canceled from the course, so we were now aiming for CP5 up the hill along the ski trails. The snow was simply awesome for cross-country skiing, beautiful powder on pretty trails. This section was all trail navigation, which suits me just fine, and Guillaume did a great job of translating the CP locations on the topo map to the trail map.
We headed uphill, while Guillaume discovered he wasn't so happy with his rental skis. He kept sliding backwards. The rentals reminded me of the cross-country skis I had grown up with, so I didn't mind them. Plus I was no longer the slowest one, so that gave me a nice break in that section. Laurent led the way and soon we found CP5 at a trail intersection.
The next trail, called Cliff Hanger, was challenging. Lots of little, steep downs and ups, twists and turns. We even took off our skis and walked up a couple of the steepest spots. Another racer was having problems staying upright, but he kept laughing about it, and we were all in a pretty good mood. If you fell down, there was so much snow that you wouldn't get hurt. It just might take some time to get back upright on the trail!
The trail nav got interesting, and we took one wrong turn but quickly realized it and backtracked to the right location. Laurent spotted the checkpoint just past where we theorized it might be located, so he punched it and came back to the intersection where Guillaume and I were discussing the map. A couple other teams showed up and turned right, up the hill. We opted to go left and take the low road to the next CP.
So we followed Telemark down to Maple Loop and then up Goat Path along a small creek. Along here my teammates noticed that there weren't many ski tracks ahead of us, and none of them were going in the opposite direction (which we would all be doing as soon as we punched CP 7). We figured either we were lost or we were doing well. Happily it turned out to be the latter, as 3 or 4 teams came toward us as we approached the checkpoint. Hi everyone!
We tagged the CP and followed them back down the trail. This turned into a super-fun section with some great downhill, nice rolling slopes, just enough to pick up speed but not fly out of control nor require much braking. In one spot the tracks led up around a tree to the right, and it turned out that the lead person knew enough to go around a wet hole in the middle of the trail. Thank you to that person, and I guess they've been here before because I didn't see it coming.
More beautiful downhill, sailing down through perfect snow in a bit of sunshine. Awesome.
We reached the next TA at the lower "lodge" and took off the skis to leave them with the volunteers for the next 3 legs. All of us were having issues with our water freezing, between Camelbak hoses and bottles icing up. On the bright side, Laurent's metal container plus my insulated Nalgene were still OK, so we shared liquid along the way. We were told there would be a water hand-out up ahead, so that was nice to hear.
The course designer hanging out with some skis:
Back on snowshoes, we followed the lead teams down on a trail toward the creek (Joiner Brook) which was now a large drainage system. Stopping at the edge of the creek, we looked down to see the intersection we wanted, plus other teams moving around at the bottom. We didn't see their tracks where they had dropped down, so we said "what the heck" and jumped over the edge in the deep, steep snow. Laurent demonstrated his telemark snowshoe technique I neglected to mention earlier, and we slipped and slid our way to the bottom.
Working over to the other side of the drainage, one of my teammates spotted the checkpoint flag above us. Nice! We debated going straight up the other side, but that looked too steep even with some snow to help out, so we headed for a small spur that everyone else was scrambling up. Soon Laurent was punching our passport at CP8 as Guillaume and I checked out the map.
We joined the lead teams making a trail above the creek, and my teammates decided that a couple of them were going slower than they'd like, so they ran around them. This involved some rather deep snow and trying to run while kicking up a bunch of white stuff, but with enough concentrated effort I managed to follow. We were headed for the tyrolean which was first come, first served, so I wasn't about to argue with the extra effort.
We reached the main road and debated which side of the creek the tyrolean traverse might start on. Racers ahead of us had gone around to the left, while we could see a parking area down to the right. We decided to stick with the folks in front of us, working our way around and through some small inlets until we came to the top of the tyrolean. Well, that worked out.
Even better was the news that there were 3 ropes and we were the 3rd team to arrive. We followed a ropes guy through some brush and over to the hidden 3rd rope to get geared up. I hadn't been looking forward to this section because I thought we might get cold with all the gear-up and gear-down time, but at least we were quite warm when we arrived and we hurried to get our harnesses on.
I pulled my harness out of the bag and joked that it was getting a rude shock - the last time I wore it, it was 110 degrees out, and now this! One challenge was figuring out how to secure the snowshoes to my pack and wondering why I had brought poles on this leg, but the biner on my pack helped ensure I wouldn't lose any gear into the ravine.
Laurent was ready first so we got to witness the procedure where he stood on the volunteer's pack to get closer to the rope, then wrapped his feet around the rope to get close enough to hook on the carabiners. They had strung the rope very tight, which is great for less work on the other end (less pulling uphill to get from the middle sag to the other side), but made for a more difficult time getting started.
Laurent was across quickly, then it was my turn. No problem, just a bunch of pulling along the rope, remembering how it feels to sit in a harness, and not looking down...
They didn't get a picture of our team, but here are a couple other races on the ropes:
I let hang a long lanyard so Laurent could help pull me the final few feet, and soon I was sitting on the snow detaching the biners from the rope. Nice! Guillaume followed us across, and we tried to get ready quickly before getting too cold. Just as I started shivering we were good to go, so I was happy that this hadn't been a freezing sufferfest section.
We had to leave the snowshoes attached to our packs for this next section called "postholing". And there was plenty of deep snow to posthole through. Luckily there was still a couple teams ahead of us so it wasn't nearly as difficult as it was for the first ones through. We still had to plow through the snow and be really careful not to step into big holes as the snow gave way between rocks. It was clear that our snowshoes had been helping us tremendously up to that point
The drop back down to the creek was steep and interesting as usual, then we followed the creek for a short ways. I pace-counted and we followed the contours to be sure, but the lead teams led us right to CP9. We followed the creek a ways further, walking on snow/ice while looking at running water a few feet away. We didn't spend any more time in that area than necessary, keeping light on our feet and hoping that the ice would hold. The water was only a couple inches deep but it didn't take dipping your feet in it to know that it was excruciatingly cold.
After jumped over a small side creek, we climbed the bank and clawed our way to an upper level. Soon we located a little road that wasn't on the map, which made the next couple hundred meters much easier going. We passed a team who was looking at their map while I kept up my pace count until I spotted the checkpoint flag up high. I finally got one!
We got up to it and back down to the road before the other team showed up, and continued on the road until it turned up toward the main route (which we weren't allowed to walk along). I noticed the footprints from the lead team heading back into the snowbank, so we followed them - they hadn't led us wrong so far. A bit more plowing through snow drifts and we eventually spotted the CP11 flag on the other side of the creek. Helpfully, there was a bridge to cross to go punch it, so none of us had to get our feet wet.
We ran up to the main road and crossed over to find TA5 where a photographer was waiting:
A volunteer checked us in, let us have some bottles of water, and helped me open my frozen bottle cap so I could dump the useless water weight that I couldn't drink. He also verified with the race directors (over the radio) that we could get the next 5 points in any order. We stopped for a bit of a snack while Guillaume studied the map for the next section, a big climb on snowshoes.
I moved Gatorade from my camelbak bladder to the insulated Nalgene bottle, while Laurent drank directly from his:
I also took advantage of the break to mix up a Spiz, so I'd be good to go for the upcoming 1000-foot climb that Guillaume was promising. There were 5 CP's in this leg and it looked as though we had plenty of time to get them all before the 3 pm finish deadline. On the other hand, two of the checkpoints were up high on the ridge, while the other 3 were midway up the slope in various places. We would pick up our skis at Bolton Lodge when we were through:
The most obvious "connect-the-dots" route also meant descending from the ridge to pick up CP15 before going way back up for the last 2. We tossed out the idea of getting CP15 first, then coming back for CP14, ascending to CP12, and then going 2 km across the top of the ridge for CP13. The final CP was only slightly lower than Bolton Lodge and therefore not too much out of the way.
We looked at each other and decided to take a chance with this route. It would save a lot of climbing, but we wondered if we would be the first team across the ridge and therefore be breaking trail by ourselves for the first time. Nothing to lose by trying it, we figured.
We got a slightly inauspicious start by heading out of the TA the wrong way, toward what I thought was the main drainage. At least it gave me a chance to duck behind a snowbank for a pee break. Back through TA (hello again!) and then up some snowmobile tracks for a short ways. I noticed the tracks of the lead team(s) heading south, so I knew they were going in the loop pattern we initially had considered.
Another couple teams came up behind us, as we stopped to check the map where the snowmobile tracks took off to the west. The other racers continued to follow the snowmobiles, while we decided to follow a trail next to the creek instead. No one had been on this trail, but it was wide and not too difficult to break a trail on. Well, hopefully it wasn't too difficult, but Laurent didn't seem to mind.
We pace-counted, watched contours and the altimeter, and then Laurent spotted CP15 up ahead on a spur. Nice job! We were pretty excited to be the first team there, for the first time.
Instead of contouring around in the woods making our own trail, Guillaume suggested it would be a lot easier to follow our own tracks back down to the snowmobile trail and go up from there. Sounded good to us, so we ran rather joyfully down the hill, pretty proud of ourselves for knocking out the "center" point so easily.
Back on the snowmobile tracks, we continued uphill until the machines had turned south and we saw snowshoe tracks heading off west/upward. I floated the idea of continuing south until we found the next drainage and the following it up to the checkpoint, so we tried that. A couple other teams were just ahead of us in that drainage. As we climbed, we could see some racers above us debating about the map. The team on the other side of the creek also seemed tentative.
We climbed to the right elevation but there was no checkpoint in sight. It sure was nice having the altimeter to stop us from extra climbing. We also saw a creek junction that should not have been there, so we theorized that we had crossed the actual drainage down below but it must have been too faint to recognize as such. Instead of discussing it further, I suggested we just check 100 meters to the north - we'd be following tracks of a team that had just gone that way, and it would be a quick thing to check.
Sure enough, we can over the hump to see CP14 in the next "creek", such as it was. It still seemed rather faint, but we had hardly wasted much time so we just moved on. Time to climb straight up to the ridge. This took some work, but again we were following tracks so it was mostly just like climbing stairs for a while.
We tagged CP12 at the top and watched other teams as they took off to the northeast down toward CP15 that we had started with. No one had gone north along the ridge, which didn't surprise us based on previous tracks. Time for a long slog by ourselves.
Across the big valley it seemed like dark clouds were gathering and it was a bit windy at times, but we decided not to let that bother us and to just focus on the task ahead. Laurent and Guillaume took turns breaking the trail, and eventually we stopped for a quick bite to eat. One bright spot of winter racing is that I can carry chocolate and it won't melt - have to take advantage of that while I can!
I suspected we might find the Long Trail up here, but I never saw any sign of it (and it turns out that it drops from the ridge further to the north). We followed the contours and worked up and over one hill and to a big saddle.
Not much to say about the next 45 minutes except that it was a lot of work. Eventually we started heading east, so that was a good sign. Guillaume wanted to cut off a little distance by going down/up through the top of a reentrant, so we were OK with a drop and re-climb. We pushed up to the top of the next hill but didn't find the checkpoint. I thought that was fine, as my pace counting suggested we weren't quite as far along as Guillaume had thought (the small number of contour lines in the area were not allowing for great accuracy with the altimeter for location pinpointing).
So we went down and back up the next little hill. Surely that was enough - but no, still no checkpoint. Now we were rather flummoxed. I looked further east and saw yet another hilltop, so I asked for a map check - yes, sure enough, the checkpoint should be at the easternmost edge of the ridge. So we had to go down and back up yet again. I even led the way making a trail for part of this, as I was pretty interested in being right about where we were headed.
From way off, I suddenly thought I could see a checkpoint flag on top of the next hill. Or was it just orange flagging that seemed to be everywhere in these woods? Laurent thought maybe yes it was the CP? Or maybe not. We hurried closer until we all finally agreed that yes! We had found it! Awesome! That was a big relief.
One checkpoint left and then we could head back to the skis. One other team had been to CP13, but they had gone back down to the south for some reason (the same way they came up). Guillaume wondered if they had found a trail or an easier way to find CP16 while on their way up to this one. Still, we didn't like that direction. Another team was just arriving as we decided on our strategy.
Mostly, we really, really wanted to hit this CP that was located on the side of the mountain in a tiny creek that may or may not be obvious. So we aimed southeast to try to drop down within the larger drainage area, and use the altimeter to know when to stop descending. This seemed like a decent plan, and Guillaume recalibrated the altimeter from this known point.
So we started downhill, having fun sliding down on snowshoes and rapidly losing elevation. The problem was that my compass kept telling me that we were going south and not so much southwest. We reached a pivotal point where the guys were thinking about going more to the right, while I convinced them that we actually needed to go more left. We were still a short ways above the right elevation at that point.
Right then, we should have at least agreed that we were probably within 300 meters of the CP. In open woods, we didn't need to be super-exact, but we did need to head the right way. We started east, hoping to find the big drainage we were looking for, but didn't find it over the next bump. What we did find, unfortunately, were some trail markers. Guillaume thought it might be the "Jake" trail on the trail map, which should actually go pretty close to the checkpoint. It seemed reasonable to follow the trail for a couple hundred meters to see what happened.
Well, that didn't work and the big drainage still never showed up. We were starting to think that we were at risk of walking over the top of it, so we descended a ways before trying a bit more to the east. This was getting frustrating, as we could be in one of two areas - several hundred meters to one side or the other of the checkpoint.
I'm not sure exactly how much more bumbling we did, but it took a while and we got more hopelessly confused. Finally we heard voices below us, so we ran down to find a well-traveled snowshoe track and teams coming toward us. Someone took pity on us and answered the CP16 question - yes, it was back behind them, contouring around to the west. Arrgh, we had wasted so much time, and yes, we had walked across the top of the big drainage without seeing it at the start of this search.
My teammates took off running down the trail and I tried to keep up. Other racers came from the other direction, and I knew we were suddenly running short on time. We were supposed to be back to the finish line by 3 pm and it was now after 2. But we had gotten so close to getting all of the CP's that nothing was going to keep us from CP16 at this point.
Finally we found it and turned around to start toward the finish line. It was nice to have gotten all the checkpoints but we had no time to celebrate this nor any time to relax. We pressed the pace back up the trail and followed it to the main trail above Joiner Brook. I noticed the spot where we had dropped down for CP8, which was now a highway from all the other racers who had followed us down the steep drop. That was our trend-setting moment, apparently.
We speed-walked uphill, aiming for the TA where we would pick up the skis. I still had enough brain energy left to pose for a photo (although I would have preferred that I had used that brain power to help find CP16 instead):
There were a bunch of racers at the TA (many had skipped one or more of the CPs in the previous leg) and the volunteer was telling us we could make it by 3 pm, but we would have to hurry. No kidding! It wasn't super far, maybe 2 kilometers, but we had to climb over 400 feet in the process.
Laurent led the way, while Guillaume was still unexcited about his skis. He gamely followed, and we moved up the hill the best we could. We did pass a few other racers, while a couple passed us here and there (including a guy pulling a woman using the longest towline I have ever seen). The groomers had come through and we had a beautiful wide trail to work with. It sure would have been nice to just enjoy this jaunt to the finish line, but no, we had to really work it. I guess it was a race, after all?
After checking my watch a few times, it was clear that we wouldn't make it by the time limit. Ah well. According to the instructions we wouldn't be officially ranked. It didn't come into play in the results, as they didn't "unrank" anyone in the end, so it was good that we went back for CP16. So we finished 3rd out of 5 in the 3-person co-ed category and not far behind 2nd (who was also over time, with all CPs). If we had nailed CP16, it might have been a tight race for the lead, although you really never know. So close!! On the bright side, we still really like our strategy for the last 5 points. We were only lacking in execution on one of them.
We skied in at about 8 minutes late, pretty tired - especially from that last dash to the finish!
Cecile met us and took this nice photo of our team:
At the excellent dinner/awards ceremony that evening:
Huge thanks to Guillaume and Laurent for letting me join them and for being such fun teammates! I had an awesome time, laughed a lot, and really enjoyed spending the day with them.
Also props to the RD's for the interesting, fun, challenging but doable course. I would totally recommend their races (and I'll start training with an altimeter).