Friday, October 6, 2017

Cowboy Tough - leg 6 (trek)

(Photos by Tom Turley and John Beard)

One last big effort before our mid-race cutoff time of 72 hours.  Dave in particular had always been concerned about making it through this part.  30 hours to trek 40 miles, barring major catastrophe we should be able to accomplish that, especially since we started it relatively fresh.  So we focused on moving efficiently, with a low level of urgency, always watching for signs of impending catastrophe so we might avert it if possible.

Leg 6 - "Where Team Vignette navs the shit out of one section"
[40 miles of trekking, mix of trail and gravel road, 6200' gain and 6870' loss]

We rode into TA and dropped the bikes (no bike boxes this time - the bikes were getting transported without boxes).  No John either, it's the one transition he missed, but I think he was helping someone else with something important, as is John's way (thank you John!).

However, we found something else exciting - the TA people handed us a note when we arrived.  A note from our friend Robyn!!  She lives in Texas but must have driven through the area to do some Wind River backpacking (without telling us beforehand).  What a joy to receive her note!  Thank you Robyn!

Another bonus - the TA folks were cooking hamburgers, for us, yes please!  I don't eat a lot of red meat, but when I do, it's in the middle of an expedition adventure race, and it's delicious.  Thank you all!

Well, that was an awesome start to this leg.  We made a reasonably quick transition, counting gear boxes to see that we were still ahead of perhaps 20 teams, nice.  We saw a couple teams sleeping in the TA, and although the sun was starting to come up, the air was damp and chilly and we were once again thankful for our Pinedale hotel decision.  Time to carry bear spray once more, happily no tent or sleeping bag at least.

We walked up the road, not seeing any teams immediately behind us (besides the ones probably just waking up back at the TA).  We checked out one possible trailhead, but decided we liked the northern option better.  But first, Leslie posed for a product placement opportunity.  Leslie, let us know if Coke ever decides to pay you for this:

We continued up the road, found the Crows Nest Trail we wanted (not super obvious from the road but it worked great once we started up it), and were soon on our way into the wilderness.  Well, not actual wilderness (no travel allowed there), but into the woods anyway.

A well-used and crinkled map from the start of this leg.  These map pieces got quite a workout in the next few hours:

The instructions for this leg suggested that we follow the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) but it was not required.  Those are the orange dots on the map, the suggested route.  The Crows Nest Trail climbed gently up and T'd into the CDT, a spot that gave us a bit of hesitation due to ambiguity in an open field.  It didn't take us too much pondering to find checkpoint 8.  Excellent, now we should be on the CDT.

Lovely morning scenery:

Trying to follow the trail across fields wasn't straightforward.  It took some map checks to get the right general direction, good spotting of markers from a distance, and Leslie's ability to follow trails and tracks.

We were really happy to be doing this in the daylight.  Each time the trail entered the woods it was mostly fine, with orange diamonds and a generally obvious trail.  We'd go over a spur or a saddle in the woods, then come out at another field to cross tall grass through a drainage.

Following along on the map, with Leslie ready to put her trail sniffing skills to work:

We got used to following racer tracks, trusting but verifying as we went.  Gentle hills, shallow drainages, find the marker into the next section of woods, repeat.

Leading ladies of the team:

Popping out at one large open area, we spotted a team up a ways ahead.  We followed their direction, through a large creek bottom where we filled some water bottles, then up another wide field.  We lost the trail briefly, then spotted a large post with an orange diamond on it.  OK then!  We should be looking for those.  Back on track.

We found a comfortable log for a second breakfast of Subway sandwiches:

We were hoping to cut across through the middle of the next drainage, but it was full of willows.  And we knew how challenging and slow (and wet) it could be to push through those.  Fine, we'll go around on the road.  Here's the next section of map:

The team we could see ahead of us did the same thing.  I'm sure all of us were hoping for at least a bridge across the creek in exchange for the added distance.  No such luck.  Wet feet, and some dust from passing off-road vehicles.  To top it off, when we got around to the spot that was just past where we had started, we looked over to see a clear shortcut path across the creek and a giant post with an orange diamond on it.  Dang it.  Ah well, moving on.

The day was warming up and the road was mostly wide open.  We were making decent time, at least.

This is what we were following that morning:

Coming up the hill for yet another up-and-over, with mountain scenery in the background:

Dave and I worked together well; happily he had recovered from the altitude challenges of the first trek and we figured things out with occasional pauses to doublecheck the map:

We climbed up along a creek, then started looking for a way to cross it.  We were now on the section of map that I had guessed we would follow.  I certainly did not predict the detour up to CP8, having scouted something different out of the previous TA.  This next portion I had studied on satellite view, so I had a vague idea what to expect, mostly just verification that the roads existed as drawn on the map.  Otherwise not much scouting help for this leg.

Leslie found an interesting spot to cross the creek.  John would have been all for it.  Dave and I didn't waste time guessing if we might be able to manage this and just got our feet wet.  Tom hung back to film the potential comedy:

Nope, Leslie maneuvered around the last little branches and made it without falling in (not sure she completely succeeded in keeping her feet dry, maybe she remembers):

We saw a couple other people in the area, I think they were hunters.  After seeing nobody except a few other racers in the first trek, seeing humankind throughout trek #2 was kind of a novelty.  There were some dark clouds gathering, so we paused to set up our packs and put the jackets on top in case of rain.

So, I've been wondering ever since the race - where exactly did we cross the Continental Divide?  Today, just now, I finally sat down to figure it out.  And all be darned, it was in this exact spot.  At just over 8800' in a generic saddle near Block and Tackle Hill.  Certainly not the 10,000' pass that was advertised (that item gave me trouble when trying to figure out the course, things got a lot easier when I finally gave up on it).  It would have been amazing to travel through the Wind River Mountains, but we weren't allowed in wilderness areas so that idea had to be nixed.

Anyway, continuing on, down a hill, T'ing into a more traveled road at the bottom.  Civilization!  Campsites, anyway.  And around the corner, a real bathroom!  This was very exciting.  It even had a trashcan so we could lighten our loads in a couple ways.  It was a nice place to take a break.

And good timing, because things were about to get interesting.

We made a turn but Leslie pointed out there were no orange diamonds in that direction.  Hmm.  Dave and I got ourselves reset to agree on where we were on the map, and the team headed back to the bathroom where the trail was supposed to have gone to the left.  I guess we had gotten a bit distracted with the excitement of seeing a bathroom.  Dave suggested we could have continued the way we were going and just cut cross-country to find the trail again, and that's true, it would have saved some time.  For some reason I got the idea in my head that I needed to go back and follow the actual trail where it left the road.

A team came walking toward us, hey, it's Wedali!  We had a quick chat, they said they had seen no sign of the trail, and confirmed the last orange marker back at the campsites.  Thanks!  We backtracked, verified everything one more time and made sure we knew where we were.

There appeared to be some vague racer tracks across the field and through the bushes, so we followed them and studied the contours.  Yes, this is exactly where the trail is supposed to be.  But no trail, just cowpaths.

The wind picked up and it seemed like a storm was brewing.  Time to put on jackets.  Dave and I continued to work the problem of the missing trail.

Hey!  I know what's going on!  My brain worked out all the various pieces from my scouting study, the orange dots drawn on the map as the "suggested route", and why the CDT this morning had seemed kind of "not really the long distance hiking trail" that it was billed to be.

Because it wasn't - we had been following a lower, variant version of the trail (later explained as the winter/snowmobile route).  I remembered (finally) that the hiking version of the CDT was higher up in the mountains, at least until it came down out of the wilderness to the east.  I had been expecting to be routed onto it later, guessing we'd be sent over the last high pass on the CDT before it descends to South Pass City.

Instead, the race directors put a checkpoint in a location that required us to cross over to the "real" CDT now.  And this traverse was most definitely not a trail of any type, just a suggestion of where we might consider bushwhacking directly east toward checkpoint 9.

Now that I understood what was going on, we could make a decision.  Should we attempt the direct route?  Or should we go around on roads, adding distance and descending/climbing?  This option itself wasn't super straightforward, a bit of a maze in places and still requiring some cross-country travel to connect things.  The direct route would supposedly return us to trail/roads after a couple kilometers anyway, maybe it wouldn't be a complete bushwhack.

Checking out the contours, I told Dave that I was confident in our ability to follow the topography and make this work.  Just like all the rogaines we've done.  Tom was skeptical, but Leslie was ready to help make it happen.  Dave was happy choosing the option with less distance and climbing.

What we were working with on the map:

We'd be coming onto the map from the left, just south of the dark red line that we figured was some kind of boundary.  We were curious about that, but mostly just expected to be following the topography as we trekked east.

With a plan in place, we made our way around the end of the spur by the lake, into the Blucher Creek drainage.  There were racer tracks all through here, folks who had worked their way through like we were doing now.

While we're next to a creek, we should make sure we have plenty of water for the upcoming cross-country portion of the trek:

We spent a few minutes going upstream along the creek looking for any signs of the faint dashed trail that was drawn on the map, but that trail must be so old and unmaintained that it's completed grown over and invisible now.  What did we see up in the woods instead?  Lots and lots of downed trees.  This could be really slow going.

To minimize that a little, we turned around and headed downstream, pace counting and counting side drainages until we found the one that would lead up to the orange dots and "boundary line".  Time to get into the thick of it.

The initial climb up the side drainage wasn't too bad, some deadfall, a bit of climbing.  Leslie pace counted, Dave followed the contours, and I monitored the altimeter.  We found the side drainage to the right and took a bearing to aim for a wide spur about a kilometer to the east.

Heading that way, we stepped over log after log, deadfall everywhere:

Then Dave said, "Come here!"  We were like, what?  We can see you.  No, he insisted we come to that exact spot.  Standing right there, we looked both ways to see this:

A wide open clear path through the trees!  We had found the boundary.  We were pretty dang excited about this discovery.

Following the boundary, very cool, also a possible bear claw mark on the near tree, not as cool:

We even found a very old sign (close your mouth for the photos, Marcy):

And a survey marker.  As is probably obvious, we wanted to document all of this because we were rather proud of ourselves  :)

We followed the boundary cut to the top of the spur, but from there it turned overgrown.  Tom found the trail one more time, too bad that didn't last either.  It was fun while it lasted.

We continued east, back to climbing over tree trunks.  Dave and Leslie called out, "Shhh!  Don't move!"  "What?" I whispered.  They told me they heard something and thought it was a bear.  Well for heaven's sake, I'm the one carrying the bear spray back here, and why are we whispering?  The point is to let the bear know we're here so it can choose to leave.  Go bear go!  We decided it was probably voices from another team.  Well, that's a better reason for keeping our noise down.  We never did see them though.  Is it time to start hallucinating yet?

I think we took too long trying to follow our exact location through the next kilometer instead of just pushing east to find the next road.  In fairness, we couldn't be certain the road would exist, and we really didn't want to end up not knowing where we were.  But I probably looked at the map too many times instead of moving forward faster and pace counting.

Occasionally we passed through open areas with tall grass and racer tracks would appear.  Then back into the woods and we were back to clambering over downed trees.

Happily, the road does exist.  Yay!  We followed it, but then it ended when it wasn't supposed to.  So our concern about possible missing roads was valid.  We dropped through a drainage, then traversed east, ending up climbing more than necessary but that's where the easiest travel through the vegetation took us.

Our reward was popping out on a real road, the real CDT finally.  Sweet!

We were practically dancing down the hill when a team appeared, coming toward us - ???  It was the Sneaky Weasels from New Zealand, and they had started this trek the evening before (!!!).  They had been all over the woods trying to find their way to CP9.  We asked if they hadn't see the checkpoint on the road below?  No, but some "tourists" (?) had told them it was up here.  I explained where we were on the map and that we were going to continue downhill.  They opted to keep going up.  Good luck!  We had all kinds of questions about that encounter.

Not far down, we came to an intersection and the checkpoint flag.  Awesome!  We were stoked that we had all worked well together, methodically figuring it out (even if it wasn't fast).  Dave and I agreed that we had "navigated the shit out of that section," taking a cue from Matt Damon in The Martian.

Each leg, the race course seemed to lull you into following an easy path and you get complacent.  No problem, just follow the markers.  Then BAM, all of sudden you're stuck or lost or need to figure something out.  If you're lucky (i.e. paying attention), you know exactly where you are when that happens, or else you're doubly screwed.  There seemed to be one "crux" spot in each leg, and it helped if you're ready for it, or at least can recognize it when it appears.

We chose the road to go down the hill instead of the trail, since it looked more direct on the map.  Partway down we greeted some campers who apparently had seen a lot of racers that day.  Perhaps these were the "tourists" that the Sneaky Weasels had talked to.   We stopped at the next creek to refill water and take a short break.

Just a few more minutes of navigation and one more creek crossing, then we found the CDT again.  Now it's THAT'S a real trail.  Finally!  Complete with real CDT signs.  And this isn't even the goofiest that Dave will look during this race (stay tuned):

There was even a bridge over the next creek!  Such luxury.

Now we're just hiking along a trail, for real.  Here's about where we are on the map (the left edge), and this is the last map we saved for a while:

My legs started to tire on the uphills and I had to work to keep up with everyone.  We stopped at a high point to admire the sunset, very nice.  I still kept track of us on the map but I could relax from the navigating for now.  So we all just talked for a while, that was nice.

We crossed over/under a few trees that had fallen over the trail, I need to talk to our CDT trail work man (John) about that.

The trail intersected a road labeled as "location approximate" on the map and I thought that was pretty humorous considering what we had seen so far that day.

We chatted with Team Wedali again a couple times, as we passed them and then a while later found a nice place for a nap.  They walked by as we were rolling out the foil bedrolls, admiring our choice of sleeping spot (if they only knew).  We invited them over but they decided to keep hiking.  It was a good flat spot, the bivy sack was warm, and it was nice to have my shoes off.  I was out cold for 30 minutes until I heard Dave calling my name.

We got moving again as I was trying to get back up to speed.  It's dark now, good timing for following an easy trail (and good timing on the daylight for that tricky section earlier).  My "talk mode" switch had turned off so I wasn't saying much.  My brain was on and I was following the map, just quietly following along.

We stopped to refill water at what might have been Little Sweetwater Creek.  It was good tasting water, whatever creek it was.

I had to work on a few little things, retying shoelaces or filling/drinking SPIZ or whatever, and I would run to catch back up to the team each time.  My legs were still doing great except being a bit tired/slow on the uphills.  We saw racer lights behind us around a big curve in the trail.  Then it was just a long walk.  Sometime around here I heard Dave mention he might be getting some blisters.

There was a big creek crossing at the start of the long, long uphill that defined the first half of our overnight trek.  Let's do this.  There was a lot of topography around us as we began the climb, but it was hard to see exactly what was going on.  A drop down to the left, then one over to the right, little hills, as the trail went up, down, up, and then split.  We divided up and met again further up (always within talking distance), and it was all rather odd in the darkness.  I wonder what it looks like in daylight.

All evening we climbed over blow-downs.  Go around, step over, crawl through.  But at least we were on a trail and moving fine.  My legs gathered steam as we continued to climb.  Then the trail switchbacked downhill to a bridge, I see now that we were probably crossing a large side gully.  More climbing.

We caught back up with Wedali and talked with them for a while.  It was nice to have company.  One of their guys was moving slower on foot, but they would end up passing us (for good) on the next bike section.

The trail finally got serious about heading directly uphill, and we never saw an intersection we expected, but we were going the right direction.  Finally we crested the top of the pass - big group hug!

We went downhill a bit until we found a good creek for filling water.  We weren't sure how many water sources we'd find on the way to TA so it was a good place to fill up.  We met Team DART just leaving that spot, and catching up to them was a surprise for us.

At the creek we were treating water, talking, making noise, and I remarked, "gee, this sure looks like a nice place to camp" - OOPS! - there's a tarp, looks like there are people camped here right now!  Sorry y'all.  We quieted down and got out of there, with me whispering "sorry, sorry" as we left.

We went downhill on trail to checkpoint 10.  From there we started out slightly the wrong way, quickly realizing that it didn't seem right.  No footprints, just orange diamonds again.  We backtracked up to a field and cut across over to a doubletrack trail, ignoring other orange diamonds.  All of a sudden there were no CDT markers anywhere.

The direction was good and I figured we should be OK (we just needed to get down to the valley), but it took more descending before I was more confident about it.  Tom was looking for a nap, and I think we stopped briefly but mostly we wanted to get to the TA.  Dave's blisters were starting to cause him pain but he gamely marched on.  We were very thankful that it wasn't a hot sunny afternoon in the wide open land we were walking through.

The road matched the map until it didn't, but at least there were occasional CDT markers again, for example on fence posts next to a gate here and there.  Not enough to easily follow, and that started to become a question as we came to a few intersections.  Mostly we followed the more "main" roads, and I tried to match them to the map but things seemed off.  Somehow the zigzagging worked, and I even spotted a CDT marker on the backside of a tree to help verify our route.  I think the trail was signed better for travel in the other direction.

Finally we had the paved road in sight, and checkpoint 11 was on a gate next to a tall snow fence.  It was kind of a freaky structure to come across in the middle of the night.

Somewhere not far from here, John passed this sign along the main road the previous day:

We crossed the main road to continue on doubletrack trail, not there yet!  We were all trying to be patient but we are all really ready to stop walking for a while.

We went around some muddy, swampy spots.  More walking.  We spotted some lights way up ahead, maybe a team starting the next leg on bikes.  We tried to follow the route on the map down to South Pass City, but ran into a gate - was it locked or labeled private property?  I can't remember why we couldn't go through it, but it annoyed me greatly that we couldn't just follow the orange dots on the map to the TA.

Back up the hill and around, geez, I would have diagonaled us over here to begin with if I had known the marked route would be problematic.  We were so ready to be done with this dang road.

Leslie spotted an Easy-up tent and we almost cut over to it but decided to go downhill first to be sure.  Yep, that would have worked, missed another shortcut.  But at least we had arrived!  In plenty of time to beat the 72-hour cutoff (which was at 1 pm that day, and it was still dark).  Thank goodness for that!

They call it a city, but I'm not so sure:

"Population - about 4 people, roughly 3 cats, approximately 3 dogs"

We walked into the historic part of the mining town, found our gear box and the bathrooms and the "sleeping barn".  We secured ourselves a stall and fell asleep on the hay for a couple hours or so.

After leg 6 (trek #2, CP12) = 64:33:36, up to 30th place

Excellent trekking and teamwork, y'all!

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