Last year I was lucky to find teammates for my first winter adventure race, the Frigid Infliction in Vermont. We had so much fun, we decided we should try it again. Sadly, Guillaume moved back to France, and I still could not convince John to join us in the snow. So Laurent and I signed up as a 2-person team. Happily, Laurent's wife Maud and her sister Lorette also formed a team, so we wouldn't be alone in this endeavor.
Winter was almost non-existent this year, but somehow Mother Nature heard that there was this race in need of some snow. Apparently she had some lying around, so she dumped 3 feet of it on Bolton Valley the week before our race. Sweet! And the weather on Friday was good for driving, so it was much easier getting to the race this year. Just a slight bit of wet snow on Saturday morning, but we all made it up the mountain with plenty of time to set up for the start.
Maud and Lorette:
Me and Laurent:
They handed out the maps a few minutes before the race start, so we scrambled to look at the entire course right quick and then focused on resolving the trail map with the topo map for the first checkpoint. We would be starting on skis for the first time, that should be exciting. Hopefully trail nav on skis wouldn't be too hard in the dark (compared to off-trail nav on snowshoes in the dark last year). Ah, to be so lucky...
Here we are rushing to get outside before the whistle at 5 a.m.:
We popped on our headlamps and jumped into our cross-country ski bindings and were ready with the rest of the crowd to take off into the snowy, blowy darkness:
A couple teams seemed to know the road heading up toward the ski trails, taking a right turn that I agreed with. Then they found a trail intersection and stopped to consult. Laurent rescued someone else's map while I told him we were going left, up the hill. We led the way, as this was one spot I actually knew from a little recon with Mom in the fall. That was nice - last year we didn't have a good lay of the land in the dark.
I was looking for another little trail to the right, and it showed up right on time, even with a sign for "Snow Bowl". Oddly, no one followed us up the hill at first. I asked Laurent if he trusted me, and he said of course. Nice to find yet another guy willing to follow me around in the woods. Now, did I get this right?
CP1 would be at a trail intersection. There was only one trail intersection on the trail map in that area of the topo, so we climbed up the steep trail looking for North Loop to the left. Laurent kept an eye on the altimeter and I watched the compass. My main concern was all the off-trail tracks from previous-day skiers who had been all over the woods. We paused whenever there might be a trail going off left, but nothing was obvious.
We made a serious pause at a wide area without many trees. The altimeter said we should be right there. The map seemed to agree. But no checkpoint. No teams right behind us either. Skeptically, we climbed further as the trail got narrow again. Then we looked ahead and saw a big wide open area - the downhill ski slope. Well that settled it - I knew where we were (which was the top end of the Snow Bowl trail), and we had missed the intersection with North Loop somehow. So we turned and started back down, staying to the right to try to find the elusive trail intersection, trying not to fall in the deep snow too many times.
Finally there were lights coming toward us. As we proceeded back down, we heard people comment that they must have missed it too. We skied through the trees and looked hard for the trail, no dice. Back at the open area, we found a couple red markers on trees and I theorized that this must be the North Loop trail (it was only missing a trail sign and tracks from previous days, neither of which was required). So we searched all around, every which way in the blowing snow in the dark, using my bright Fenix light but not having any luck.
What to do? The woods were covered with teams by now. Laurent and I joined another team of 3 guys in following the red markers. Maybe there was an unmarked trail coming off of North Loop? Maybe someone had stolen the checkpoint? As we proceeded along, we took our time, checked out any possible side trails (none to be found), and carefully followed the markers through the deep snow and trees. All 5 of us were surely confused and without a solid plan for how to proceed.
Finally we saw some skiers on a parallel trail below us, and eventually our paths converged. It was daylight now and I had a pretty good idea that we were closing in on the cabin TA that would signal the switch to the "post-hole" event. A team of guys skied toward us on the Gardiner trail, and they disclosed that they had indeed found CP1. They were elusive about the explanation, only saying that they had stumbled upon it and gotten lucky.
Laurent and I debated and finally decided it would be a quick return trip to get the checkpoint, so we started back. Immediately another team came toward us on the North Loop trail, and their story was that they had NOT found CP1, and neither had the other 50 teams that were still wandering in the woods back behind them. That did it for me - no sense in wasting the whole day on this thing, especially if most of the rest of the field couldn't find it either.
So we turned around again and glided into the TA where we learned that CP1 was at the intersection of Snow Bowl and the GOSH DARN downhill ski "trail" - and I learned it well, hopefully I'll remember that trick long into the future! We had been within 30 feet of the CP, probably, and the first ones to turn around because we could see the ski run through the trees. On the bright side, we made the right choice to not go back, because it would have taken me a long time to resolve the idea that the ski slope could be considered a trail. I got it now though.
Time to move on, we had already checked into the TA so it was too late to do anything except look ahead to the next 2 checkpoints. We took off the skis and started toward one of the 2 post-hole checkpoints. A team was wading through a snow track toward us (possibly Untamed New England or GOALS-ARA), so we decided to start in that direction (we could get these 2 CP's in either order). We took a general bearing as confirmation and I started a pseudo-pace count as we plowed our way a couple hundred meters through the deep, deep snow. On the bright side, the team(s) ahead of us had done an incredible amount of work in breaking the trail - imagine if we had been here first?! Wow.
That's a lot of snow:
The tracks toward CP2 split up so I went left and Laurent went right. We both spotted the checkpoint flag across the field and carefully pushed through the snow to it. Yay, one checkpoint down! We high-fived. Slowly back to the TA, one foot in front of the other and trying not to fall into any holes. For balance, all you had to do was put your hand out on either side and touch the snowbank at waist height. Amazing. Where did all this snow come from?
There were more teams in TA now, everyone talking about CP1 (or the search for it). A mass of teams headed for the other post-hole checkpoint, following a track through the woods and then trying to figure out how everyone was supposed to pass everyone else going in the other direction. That was fun (not so much) but most people were friendly and hopefully not too many people got branches swung back into their faces.
Whoever set this track did a masterful job of landing almost on top of CP3, well done. That would have been a lot of pressure if we had been the first ones through here. So we avoided that, yay! Up ahead, Maud and Lorette were at the checkpoint when Laurent arrived. As we made our way back against the tide of more teams coming down, the ladies and Laurent had an animated conversation in French of which I followed very little but it was fun to listen to.
Back at the TA, Maud and Lorette headed out for the other post-hole CP while we got our snowshoes on and started out on the next loop - 4 checkpoints near trails, this time thankfully with something on our feet to keep us from sinking down to the dirt with every step. Let's hear it for snowshoes!
I was excited to start off up the trails that Mom and I had explored last fall. The team ahead of us figured out the right-hand turn on Devils Drop, so there went that advantage. No matter, it was quite fine with me that we could have some confidence in the snowshoe tracks we were following. We trekked up the steep hill to the ridge and then followed the trail around to CP4 at Stowe View. Just before we got there, team Untamed New England came running toward us. Hi y'all!
At the top there was a great view ... of mist and clouds and impenetrable grayness. The next CP was just below us, but it seemed like a drop straight down into nothingness from the CP we were standing at. Very cool. I stopped for a pee break and then we started back the way we had come. Soon I saw an inviting opening in the trees, as it looked like some off-trail skiers had made tracks there recently. Sure enough, Laurent led the way down some steep switchbacks along some ski tracks, and we worked our way quickly down the side of the hill with fun sliding in the deep snow.
Near the bottom we saw a guy heading uphill, and before I realized that he was on skis instead of snowshoes, I asked if he was in the race. No, and in fact he was none too happy with all these dang snowshoers tearing up the Catamount Trail that he seemed to think should be left for the skiers since there had been so little snow this winter. I don't know, sorry dude.
We found CP5 without trouble, and I noticed some non-snowshoe footprints that seemed odd. We learned later that team Untamed New England "swam" past the actual post-hole CP and ended up over here by mistake. Not only did they do all that work to break the trail, but they did it more than twice as far as they needed to. Amazing - and they were still in great spirits every time we saw them.
Our trail-breaking heroes:
We follow the trail map around the back of a mountain and up switchbacks on the Catamount Trail. If I had been carrying a camera, it would have taken us twice as long because the scenery was incredible. The trees were completely covered in snow, some of them leaning over from the weight. They looked like Dr Seuss trees.
And although I can't find a good Dr Seuss example, this real-life photo is pretty close!
Giant rocks were iced over with frozen waterfalls, and it was all white and silent and peaceful. Totally awesome.
Eventually we found a trail intersection and a saddle, turned left and pace-counted. At precisely the right spot, snowshoe tracks led off into the woods. We followed through the dense trees and snow, taking a right branch when we came to a fork in the tracks. That turned into a dead-end thicket, so we came back to follow the other tracks.
A team was coming down toward us, and I think it was Untamed New England again but I'm not as clear on that memory. They claimed to be lost - or perhaps that they had previously been lost (which is what they told us later), but we didn't believe they were currently lost because their tracks led directly to CP6. This winter nav thing is a whole 'nother ballgame, let me tell you. We would not have found it nearly as fast by ourselves.
We briefly considered a cross-country traverse to CP7, and there were some tracks going off in that direction, but Laurent mentioned that whenever he went cross-country instead of on trails he got into trouble. Especially with all the deep snow in the woods - going around on the trail made sense. So we backtracked down to Raven's Wind.
We got briefly sidetracked when I tried to create an intersection where there wasn't really one. Apologies to any team behind us that got confused by that (at least we turned around pretty quickly). See, there's also guilt involved in winter nav. So strange.
As we reached the real trail again, another team was coming toward us. They were doing the loop in the reverse direction. Our side tracks did make them stop to look at their map, so we conferred with each other to confirm that they had indeed come from CP7 (our next stop) and we had come (via that other trail over there) from CP6.
Moving on, we followed the trail (the actual trail this time) around and down toward Olga's Falls. The altimeter and pace counting confirmed pretty much exactly the tracks leading off toward CP7. Back to the trail and a bit of downhill running, and soon we were back at the TA. Nice job, high five!
As we were trekking back into TA, another team was just departing on the post-hole section following the deep track from all the previous teams, and I heard one guy comment "This isn't quite right according to my compass bearing" - that made me giggle. Go for it, make another trail that is slightly more direct! Flashbacks to some nav training in Bastrop State Park in deep vegetation instead of deep snow.
In TA getting a bite to eat before getting ready to ski again:
Back on skis, we confirmed with the race director that we weren't allowed to go get CP1 at this point, then it was time for a long, fun downhill. I should have put on my overmitts, because my gloves were pretty wet from all the snow and soon my hands got cold from all the wind rushing past them. Well, it wasn't a super fast downhill slide, as I'm pretty cautious on skis. Laurent was patient, and we had no problem following Bryant trail down to Broadway and then downhill some more. It sprinkled on us briefly, but the predicted rain showers never occurred, so weather-wise we were really lucky that day.
We discussed the possibility of getting the bonus CP, which was worth 60 minutes of race time. It wasn't much higher than the trail we were on, and maybe a kilometer out of the way. Let's do it!
We followed the ski tracks of team Untamed New England and met them as they were just coming down from the top of a small knoll where the bonus CP was located. Hi again! They were using backcountry skis with skins on them, great idea. I could have used the skins on the way down that steep hill :) but instead I took my skis off and ran down - it was just a bit too much. OK, it was a lot too much. Running down was quick and soon we were back on skis and following their tracks again. It took about 35 minutes for the 60 minute bonus which seemed like a good trade-off.
Skiing down to TA4, Laurent behind the two guys from Untamed New England:
We turned in our skis and they handed us a gallon of water. Something about that made me laugh, like we were going to have to carry the whole gallon back to the finish line, but obviously that's not what they meant.
Back on snowshoes briefly, we crashed through the brush alongside the creek and worked our way up to TA 5 and the Tyrolean traverse. At least we didn't have post-hole next to the creek this year - much better on snowshoes.
Arriving at the Tyrolean:
We donned harnesses and helmets, then the ropes guy said "come with me" - it wasn't until after Laurent got started on the traverse that we learned we were on the toughest of the 3 ropes. Not only was it an uphill traverse (all ropes were uphill), but we pulled the most difficult one. I "thanked" the guy and asked him what it was about me that said "I know, you can have this rope". He claimed it was all random... I suppose if anything, I should have taken it as a compliment, but in the meantime we had this ridiculously hard traverse to do.
Laurent went first and made it partway across before he started having trouble. The uphill tugging was tough! He stopped to rest a few times and I tried to encourage him. Finally the ropes guys on the other side were able to come down to help him, and he made it off the rope.
So ... that was encouraging. The guy at the start of the traverse kept telling me to take it slow and take my time - yep, I totally got that.
A woman with a camera came over, and I told her she would have plenty of time to take pictures. As you can see:
Finally I was close enough to toss Laurent the end of the lanyard I had attached to my harness, and between him pulling and the guys above yanking on his pack and then one of the ropes men putting his arm around me and walking the rest of the way, I was back on solid ground. Wow. In the midst of getting pulled to the top, I said something like "Go ahead and manhandle me" - not something I normally offer to complete strangers.
After that, we had to stop and rest and recover for a few minutes. We worked our way back onto our snowshoes and had a small snack. Laurent looked a bit in shock and he told me I looked pale. I'm pretty sure I can't help but look pale by the end of a winter in New York, but maybe more than normal somehow?
We slowly climbed the steep hill up the ravine, then Laurent stopped with leg cramps. Great, because my legs were just starting to do the same thing! We dug out the salt tablets I was carrying for just such an occasion, and we each took one.
The going got easier and we took our time. There was a long uphill ahead of us, with tracks leading the way again, and some sun actually coming out? Nice!
I initially thought that CP8 (on a deck) would be at The Ponds where we would be having supper later, but that was too close to be it. We did walk around The Ponds and across the road just above it, so that was funny.
The snowshoe tracks ahead of us were still going in the right general direction, so we continued to follow them, through the woods, past a house, and eventually on up until we reached a set of condos. The tracks led around back, and who were we to question the masterful navigators ahead of us? Sure enough, there was CP8 around back.
Two ladies and a cute dog were there, and they (the ladies, not the dog) told us that we had a gear check. This took the form of having to cut a small length of climbing rope in half. Neat! A functional gear check (because you never know when that might come in handy, say if you get tired of going uphill on a Tyrolean traverse) - anyway, besides the sass I just handed out, I actually like the idea of showing that you know how to use the gear you're required to carry.
We got out our baggies of required gear and my first (ridiculous) instinct was to go for the lighter. Because burning something is always quicker than cutting it... the half-inch (-ish) diameter rope along with the women and Laurent all looked at me like "WTF?" OK, fine, I'll do it the non-creative, faster way. So I got out my knife. It was really, very strange being the one to need to cut something - the lack of John on the team was suddenly hugely apparent. Then Laurent handed me his knife with a sharp, serrated edge, and I had the rope in two pieces in no time. John who? :)
That was fun, what's next? More uphill, OK then! We could see the downhill ski slopes above us, so I got out the trail map which had the ski slopes, rough contour lines, and even the set of 3 condos drawn in. It didn't cover the entire downhill ski area because it was geared toward the cross-country trails (although the map is now in about 10 pieces because we kept getting it wet so I can't be for certain about that), but it did cover the area around next checkpoint. Cool.
We trekked up through the trees and carefully crossed the slope, thankful that it wasn't too crowded with downhillers. We were both feeling a lot better, although I did tell Laurent that steep uphill ski slopes are very far from being my specialty. He was patient, and we climbed until we saw an unmarked side path that took off in the direction we wanted, sweet!
Nearing a chair lift, we were suddenly out in the open and exposed to some crazy wind. Yikes, back in the woods please! We hurriedly crossed over and discovered snowshoe tracks heading exactly in that direction. That looks promising.
However, two teams were congregated there to discuss CP9 and how they had been all over the woods looking for it. Teams Untamed New England and a 3-guy team who must have been the NH Trail Vets greeted us, Molly even waving and smiling - nice to see you again!
I had already decided that we were looking first for a reentrant and the CP should be on the other side. We were also looking for a terrain park-type of area where skiers could get off the groomed trails and head down through the trees (according to the trail map). So Laurent checked a nearby boulder (which was the CP clue) while I studied the reentrant in front of us and concluded that we needed to cross it. The other teams headed back out toward the ski slopes.
Laurent and I checked out all the big rocks as we climbed down and back up the other side of the reentrant. We encountered a couple groups of through-the-trees skiers, and I even asked a guy if he had seen an orange flag. Like an orienteering flag? Yes, exactly! No, sorry. Well, at least he knew what I was talking about.
As we crossed ski tracks, team Untamed New England showed up again. Too funny! They found the CP around the next corner and were sweet enough to call us over. We were pretty stoked to have been on the right track for that one.
Heading back to the groomed trails, I stopped for a bathroom break and then to point the three guys in the direction of CP9 as well. More uphill on a steep slope, then we ran out of downhill trails to climb. Top of the lift! Too bad our next CP was further up the ridge.
Luckily there was still a team ahead of us, the expert trail-breakers who must have been getting pretty dang tired of being in the lead all the time. Snow races sure are different. The snow up here was pretty deep and the trees were thick. Even with tracks to follow, it was a bit of a slog (especially after getting spoiled by the groomed ski trails).
The sun was out again, and then it started raining - not really, but all the snow in the trees was rapidly melting and coming down on us. I looked over at Laurent at one point and commented that it appeared he had taken a shower with his clothes on. His hair was plastered to his head. I'm not sure how he could see with wet glasses on. We were plenty warm but plenty well soaked!
The terrain flattened out for a while and seemed to go on for a long time without any obvious contours. Dang the thick Vermont trees. We stopped briefly and another 2-person co-ed team came up behind us (UltraBambi, I believe). We traveled with them up the last steep rise. I checked my compass and was a bit surprised by the bearing. I mentioned to Laurent that he should check over to the right, and he looked over and spotted CP11. Nice one!
Several teams converged on the checkpoint as we stopped to discuss the CP12 situation. It was a quick discussion, because that checkpoint was way higher up and further away, and with these snow conditions we were pretty certain that no one had time to go tag it (we had to be back to the finish line by 3 pm). Even if we had skipped the bonus we would not have had time. Even if we bought a lift ticket to get us back up to the ridge, it still would have been a lot of work to get to the checkpoint (not to mention against the race rules). So that was settled.
One last CP before heading to the finish - all downhill, yay! I try so hard, and yet I still manage to speak too soon so many times...
We took a careful bearing and carefully calculated the change in elevation to the next CP. It was a measly 300 meters away and 200 feet down. Shades of last year's issues with the last CP down a complicated hillside went through my mind. Laurent asked me what the CP clue was, and I replied "a tree" - Thank you so much! Yep, I'm here to help. Laurent led the way and watched the altimeter. 200 feet down didn't seem quite like 300 meters in distance, but it was hard to tell with the snow and sliding downhill.
What was certain is that there wasn't a checkpoint at that location. Lots of trees, but no orange flag. Dang it. The trees were pretty wide open in this area, so it wasn't like it should be a needle in a haystack hunt. Sigh. We decided to stay near this elevation and try to the left (there seemed to be some people over that way). Orange flagging on a tree drew us off. I tried to follow contours, but it was another hillside with plenty of ins and outs that weren't on the map, so that was no help.
Finally we saw a downhill ski slope. That's enough, let's try the other way. Back we went, a bit lower this time. We could see another downhill ski slope on the other side of these woods. As we neared it, team Untamed New England showed up again. Hi y'all! Laurent wanted to keep moving in that direction (as the other team did) but for some reason that I can't explain now I called him back to try again to the south. This is probably my main regret from this race. Even though it wouldn't have mattered in the final standings.
We spent more time traipsing and slogging through the snow, following ideas and checking out the other ski slope and finally coming back to the same general area and going further this time to locate CP10. Argh. Tons of teams had been through (many coming directly from CP8 because they didn't have time for CP's 9 and 11).
Laurent punched the passport and we jumped out to the downhill slope to start running downhill - it's all downhill from here, I can say that now. It was a fun run down the groomed slope, although one of my snowshoes gave up just a little early and came off my foot. Glad that didn't happen in the deep snow! I got the shoe back on and we continued down.
We made a beeline through the downhill ski building at the bottom, congratulating ourselves for picking the right tunnel under the building and then crossing a road to find the way down to the Nordic Center. A little bit of urban nav :)
Molly came out to greet us, that was nice!
And we were done!
Not long later, the winners of the 2-women division showed up - congratulations Maud and Lorette!
Hot tub, shower, Mom and Dad and Renee appeared!, and it was time for supper at The Ponds, very nice.
The final results (in an awesome format that I really like):
Only 4 out of 33 teams found CP1! One of them was the NH Trail Vets, for the overall win. Another was the 3 person co-ed winner, Pain Syndicate. Untamed New England got 2nd in the 3 person co-ed division (they had not found CP1). UltraBambi didn't have CP1 either, but they did have the 60-minute bonus and obliterated us on the final CP. That put us in 5th place overall, 2nd in our division. Not bad! And it was great fun! Can't ask for much more than that.
So as much as I was all like "what the heck was I thinking" at 3 am that Saturday morning, it all made sense 12 hours later. I love adventure racing!