[Photos by John Beard and the volunteers at CP23]
We hiked into the TA at Sugarbush Outdoor Center, after passing a convenience store that was inconveniently closed, sadly preventing a much-needed purchase of bug spray. Gear boxes, bikes, and racers everywhere! At least it was a big parking lot. I was also happy to see John again. We hurried onto our bikes as it was getting dark (I did manage a good foot cleaning, at least), holding out hope that we might somehow beat the cutoff the next morning to stay on the full course.
Druce and Dima would be navigating the bike-O course on the "flying spaghetti monster" mess of X-C ski/bike trails. Dima asked me to figure out in what order to collect the points, a task that was right up my alley. At least we had the X-C ski map, that was most helpful in figuring out the various numbered and colored trails. Druce took that one, Dima took the topo, and we were off into the maze.
We started with the nearby points that were close together, to hopefully figure out the map workings and gain a bit of momentum. Immediately we had questions about the trail intersections. John thought he saw us came back near the pond right at the start, which is entirely possible as it seemed like we were going in circles for a few minutes; although I think I was mostly confused because we went under two different X-C ski bridges that I assumed were the same one until I saw them again the next morning.
We worked our way to the area of trails # 2, 7, and 21 then rode uphill to look for a convergence of two trails. After briefly checking the woods, the guys went over to look at another intersection. I glanced up to see a MAP ON A TREE - how does this happen in two races in a row?? Is this a New England thing? Too crazy. I called the team back over so we could study the "you are here" arrow and immediately figure out how to find the CP flag just up the hill. One down! This could be a fun section!
Back down to trail 1, as Druce studied the map, then hit the biggest hole with his front tire and flipped over the front of his bike! Druce, are you OK??! He got himself untangled from the bike and didn't find any major damage. Although when he chose to walk up to me to ask about the bump on his forehead, while Val (a nurse) was standing right there, I had to question whether he might in fact have a concussion...
Druce seemed to be fine, and continued to navigate well, so we continued on in search of the next checkpoint. We needed to trek a ways up a stream (the clue said only 50 meters, but the plot had it further up that than) so we did a bit of rock-hopping and kept our feet dry while locating the checkpoint. It was an "all punch" so we took turns punching our wrist bands before heading back down to the bikes.
We found the next checkpoint next to a bridge, then backtracked to climb trail #24 for a ways. Druce and Dima were careful with the nav, since it's a long trail and the point was 10 meters away from it. We didn't want to pass it up and have to come back down. However, we ended up wasting time looking for it, as the CP was perhaps 200 meters higher than we believe it should have been. And it was completely obvious in the dark, the reflector lighting up nicely in our headlamps.
As a side note, I was impressed with Druce's ability to read the trail map that was basically upside-down (up was south instead of north). Whenever I took a shot at helping with the nav, I would call out the wrong direction (southwest from here - wait, really?) and then have to correct by 180 degrees. Dang this north-facing ski area...
We climbed up the nice grassy slope to trail #21 and rode a short way to find our 5th checkpoint (out of 8). We knew the remaining 3 were a lot further apart, and we needed to get to the eastern part of the map to look for them.
As all of the trails had been so lovely up to that point, with the exception of Druce's Pothole, we figured on a nice traverse on trails 21 and 22. Well, trail #22 sucked. Where did all this mud and water come from? We went from "nice and grassy" (and fun) to picking our way across bogs with our bikes. So much for the dry feet. And any semblance of "speed". Urg. Our mood dropped significantly.
Then we came out at the next set of trails (which were in better condition, thank goodness) and met up with team GOALS. They were pushing their bikes, because one of the bikes had a dangling rear gear ring (I believe - it should be obvious that I'm not a bike person). It had happened pretty far from TA so they were resigned to completing the bike-O by walking and coasting. OK, so a little mud is nothing to complain about!
More excellent nav from Druce and Dima, and we found trail #50 to follow around to the next checkpoint, leaving the bikes and hiking up when it got steep and unrideable. From there we rode down to a small connector trail that put us off the edge of the X-C ski area and relying on the topo map. My main memory of the next trail is that it seemed to end at a drop-off into a creek. Actually the bridge was out, hmm... We carried the bikes across some rocks in the hope that the trail continued on the other side, and it did.
Here my brain started getting fuzzy. I had been wide awake for almost 2 days and nights, which I was amazed about to begin with (the nap at the ropes might have helped, even if I only dozed off in between getting awoken constantly). After the depressing mud on trail 22, the whole team kind of dove into a bit of a funk and now I was having a hard time staying awake.
The next checkpoint was near a pond or a lake with some loud frogs. Dima found it handily, then we rode northward to check out a possible road on the topo map. That worked out great, leading us all the way out (via dirt road) to the main paved road on a fun, long downhill ride. It was hard to believe we had climbed that high to begin with, but at least this was one downhill I could easily handle.
We rode on the highway back to the Outdoor Center entrance (no cheering fans there this time) and up past the TA (we'll be right back!) over to trail #10 for our final bike-O CP. The trail was a bit technical, hilly, and slow, and I tried to keep up with the guys. We were lucid enough to find the trail sign and the checkpoint flag in the trees behind it.
Overall I really enjoyed the bike-O section. Having a good trail map was key, and our whole team worked together well to figure it out. An excellent section, I must say.
Riding back to the TA, we were having a discussion about what to do next. It was somewhere before 4 a.m., and our cutoff for finishing the next trek was around 10:30 a.m. (based on our bonus time from waiting at the ropes and searching for CP 7). The lead teams had been taking hours on this alpine trek up to the top of Burnt Mountain and then Sugarbush Mountain, and we didn't imagine we would be any faster. So the chance of us actually making the cutoff was slim-to-none, as far as we could tell. And most of us were really feeling the effects of not sleeping for 2 days.
Back at TA, we decided to do the conservation project, which involved a hike over to a section of illegally-created trail where we would "undo" the trail by raking it up and covering it with brush. The work part was quick and easy, and the hike gave us a chance to discuss strategy. We finally came to the conclusion that we should sleep a couple hours (there were big tents set up for the teams, and it was dark and cool) and then get up to start hiking at 8 a.m.
We crawled into sleeping bags in a big tent and I was immediately dead to the world. No interruptions this time, I was out!
About 3 hours later we dragged ourselves out into the morning sunshine. It was starting to heat up, a perfect time to get out of the tent and get going. Our feet were dry and doing much better, our brains were back "on", no mosquitoes bothered us while we slept. If not for that stupid cut-off time that we bemoaned missing, we would have been in great spirits.
John stalked me with the camera:
Good morning sweetie!
Dima and Vlad:
Getting ready for the next trek:
OK, where are we again? And what is this mess of trails I'm looking at?
Trekking poles, yay!
We were back to smiling again - AND not carrying packrafts this time, sweet!
I'm coming, I'm coming...
Where we were eventually headed:
We started out swatting mosquitoes, taking turns getting really annoyed with the little buggers, and hiking up the bike trails. No issues following the right trail, especially after seeing part of it on bikes last night. Druce made an awesome catch at the turn-off for the Burnt Mountain hiking trail (we had walked past it) so I proclaimed I owed him a beer for that so now we were even.
This trail didn't appear to be used much, being somewhat overgrown, but still an improvement over bushwhacking. One notable incident happened as we were standing up from a break. I tried to use my trekking poles to hoist myself off the ground, but they sank deep into the sandy ground. So deep that I couldn't get one of them out because the bottom section was stuck (it's collapsible, like a tent pole). Holy cow, it was a good thing the cord holding the pole together is strong. Val and Dima helped me dig it out, all of us amazed at what I had done. I promised not to do it again.
Further up, the trail disappeared into a mess of logging activity. Druce followed contours to a spur up the other side and quickly relocated the trail, nicely done. Further up, somehow we never noticed the "creek" that the next CP was located on, reaching the treeline near the top of the mountain before realizing we had gone too high. This was the most we missed any of the checkpoints by during the race.
Back on track, we greeted team GOALS who had finished the bike-O on foot and recovered well to move on ahead of us. Way to stick with it, y'all!
We were so happy to finally be above treeline for some excellent views! A little bit of "real mountains" in the middle of the race, awesome. We reached the next checkpoint at a large saddle between two peaks where there were a couple volunteers and their campsite (the blue tent barely visible in the middle of the photo):
They captured a nice picture of us on the approach:
What a fun place to camp! Sugarbush (our next destination) is in the background:
Yep, it was all worth it for the views:
Back to the task at hand. We needed to get up to the top of Sugarbush for CP24. The initial strategy was to follow the ridgeline around a small peak and then go straight up the side of the mountain. Or follow the ridgeline and then contour around to the ski road to the top. However, we had heard reports of difficult bushwhacking (the benefit of not leading the pack) and the vegetation in the immediate vicinity was plenty suspect.
I started putting on my O-pants and gaiters, as I was game to try the direct route if that was what everyone else wanted to do. Then they asked my opinion, and I told the team that if it were just me, I would definitely descend down the trail, find a way to cross the ravine, and go up the ski road from lower down. I've been on plenty of "avoid the bushwhacking" routes and have never regretted it. We decided we liked that idea better, while a volunteer hung out listening to our conversation. He admitted that teams ahead of us had done both options, but wouldn't be more specific. I'm curious how the bushwhacking option went, but not enough to try it myself!
So I took the O-pants back off and we moved down the trail, stopped to fill our Camelbaks at a creek, and continued down until we found a large cut where a new ski slope (or something) is being built. This was good enough for us to jump off the trail and go straight downhill. When we could see that we were close to the ravine, it was an easy crossing and then a couple hundred meters of crappy (but low-lying) vegetation before we emerged onto a real ski run. So far so good!
The hard part of this strategy was getting back up the mountain, in the full sun on a rather warm day. Val, who was normally so strong, had a hard time with the steep and hot climb. Dima and Druce took some of the heavier things from his pack, and I regretted not bringing the tow rope. We hiked upward, working from dirt road to ski run and back, watching the names of the runs so we could get back down easily enough.
One last haul and then we were at the top at CP24 - yay! An even better view (but no photos) from there. And a beautiful, cool, bug-less wind. Too bad we have to go back down.
But we had to, so we did. I was extra glad for the poles on the steep downhill. We kept an eye on the map and the terrain below to figure out how to get back to the Outdoor Center (which was in a different area from the downhill ski town). Then we found wild strawberries - oh my gosh, what a treat! The guys even picked a few for me, very sweet :)
Toward the bottom we made our way to the right and found a condo subdivision where we could access the X-C ski trails. It was fun to see one of the bike-O CP's again, and we also helped a team on bikes find the CP that was too high on trail #24. We were happy to be hiking down the soft grassy trails, although I think we were all glad when we finally got back to the TA. It was certainly a warm afternoon, and although our feet were doing tons better because they had been mostly dry for many hours, we were looking forward to biking again.
We officially missed the cut-off for staying on the full course, meaning we would not get to paddle for ~12 hours on Flagstaff Lake. Hmm, talk about bad news and good news...
Even better news was that the little store was still open (thanks for pointing this out, John!), so we bought some cold drinks and I happily sucked down a key lime popsicle. Heaven.
To close out the Sugarbush section, here is a discovery John made at a cafe in the ski village - Anadama bread made into an egg sandwich. Looks yummy!