Back in May, we were introduced to the sport of adventure racing. Fletcher Hamel, captain of AR team Torti/Aquabound, defined it as “a team multisport event in which teams travel together by foot, bike and boat over an unmarked course using only a map and compass to navigate between required control points to the finish line”.
Fletcher and his team just recently competed in the Gold Rush Mother Lode, taking 10th place overall. The four-day expedition race took place on Sept. 19-22 and was held in the Sierra Nevada region of central California. Fletcher’s elite team (finalized a mere three weeks before the event) hiked, ran, orienteered, mountain biked, paddled and roped their way through mountains, high desert, alpine lakes and old growth forest.
Chelsea Luttral, who acted as lead navigator for the team, recounts their experience:
“Pre Race We had 2 days to get to know each other before the race start. And we got along great! We really enjoyed each others’ company. Whew! We all had about the same measure of ridiculousness necessary to tackle something as ridiculous as a 4 day race. Check. We’re all a little crazy. A good start.
Starting Line: Run & Paddle The race started at New Melones Lake near Sonora California. We did a moderate paced 5k along some winding, shoreline single-track which spread the teams out.
Then, it was time to grab our boats and go paddling. Skoboten! [“let’s go boatin’ ” ]. I was excited about this paddling leg as it would be the longest paddling leg I’d ever done in a race thus far.
We paddled to the South Shoreline where there was a short ~10-15 mile trek waiting for us. We did fairly well as a team on this leg, but the heat began to take it’s toll on Iona (she’s from Canada, thus hasn’t had opportunity to do a lot of heat training), and Fletcher began to develop some cramps on the return to the boats. We worked as a team to remedy both and were able to continue to move forward. Back in the boats, we were able to cool off, hydrate and paddle….and paddle….and paddle. I loved it. But it’s often not everyone’s favorite event. When we encountered a noticeable team low, we began singing. Our show tunes and MontyPython renditions echoing off of the surrounding canyon walls lifted the spirits and kept us moving forward.
At our north most position on the lake, we had to tie our boats to the bouy, then swim to shore. Thankfully, it wasn’t required that we all swim to shore. As everyone found out during our pre-race swim test- I’m the worst swimmer in the world! So, Iona and Fletcher, magnificent swimmers, graciously did the swim for the team.
On shore, Fletcher and Iona were frozen from the swim as the sun disappeared. They got dry clothes on and as we hiked they warmed up. The hike was primarily in the dark with eyes surrounding us and goat shadows perched on the opposite canyon walls. The hike was a mix of running through dark, chest high weeds, hopping through and over mud pits, and scrambling over rocky outcroppings. It was a fun, short hike. Then, we found ourselves at TA1.
TA1: Transition to Biking Our transition was made in decent time, until on our way out we realized one of the bikes didn’t want to behave. We spent many nerve-racking minutes trying to coax it into behaving with each team member giving the fix a shot. Finally, with great relief, Tom managed to remedy the problem and that, happily was the last of our significant mechanical issues of the race.
Out of the TA we were greeted by a big climb. The team stayed slow and steady up and down the dirt roads. We were very close to the last significant climbs of the night (around 3 am) when 3/4 of the team’s stomachs decided to revolt against them. Eating had become tough and absorption seemed to not be happening. I started by trying to encourage everyone to climb these last few hills first and then see how they felt…..but I quickly realized that was pretty selfish. If they hadn’t been able to eat, how were they going to have energy to pedal? We rested 30 minutes, enough time to puke, eat, and allow some time for some caloric absorption. We were soon back on the bikes and the rest seemed to have done the team well.
Dawn came and we were good-morning’ed with some fun downhill single-track. It was great! Fast and free with bird songs and falcon’s screaming in the distance. Then we waded through a chilly river crossing, and pedaled to TA2.
TA2: Transition to Trek We’d made it to TA2. This transition took a while since after the caloric depletion, batteries needed to be recharged. But, soon we were hiking. However, we were hiking in the heat of the day which brought Iona very near to heat exhaustion. We made our way down to the river where we found some cool shade with water pools. She cooled off and we all took our first big 1 hour rest here. Following the nap we had a team meeting to assess health, pace and goals. Once cooled off, Iona was back to her chipper, awesome self. And the sun had set enough to reduce temperatures. The team overall was concerned about making cutoffs, but we seemed to still be making adequate time to make our necessary deadlines. We all wanted to get to the ropes, and there was no real easy way to short course our route if we wanted to include the ropes. So our new goal became: Get to the ropes via the standard route and we’ll decide on the necessity for short coursing once we get there.
We hiked via long stretches of road for hours. We took another break to reassess our current paces, and decide whether we could make the ropes in time. We decided to do our planned route backwards, but abandoned that idea after realizing it wouldn’t be faster.
Continuing on, we needed water, and in searching for a nearby lake we hit the mother lode! A hose on the side of a rich neighborhood’s tennis court rec center! We had to be quiet and sneaky because we didn’t want to be chased away from such a prize. It’s funny how something like this….something so simple as clean, potable water can lift spirits by such a great margin! We were all stoked! Just in time to go do some in-dark, off-trail navigation! I love navigation in the dark. It really requires me to have my wits about me. So the biggest challenge on night 2 of such an event is definitely making sure to stay intensely focused denying the wandering that my mind likes to do when it’s tired. Excitedly we chased checkpoints and made ground on other teams.
Toward the end of the night, we had a crazy rock hopping in the creek vs. thick-bush whacking on the banks route choice. We tried a little of both and both proved to be slow-going. Fletcher made the good call to follow our bearing despite the rubbish and make a b-line for our destination. This was still slow going, and it got a little hairy and steep, but having committed to the route forced us to just make it work—sometimes the only option in rough terrain.
Rain…the beginning of the end. We were nearing the ropes, but sleep needed to be had. We stopped for a 1 hour roadside nap and woke up to sprinkles and wind. We all layered up and got to moving because it was cold. Then, fog moved in. It was really incredible. It looked just like a fog machine was creating the fog and it was quickly descending on us; swirling around us and taking us over.
After some map/trail discrepancy issues, we found the ropes checkpoint. We ventured to the top of the ropes in rain and hail. When we got there, they were shutting down the ropes due to inclement weather. They stated that they would let us do the final rappel down and then we could go on our way.
While waiting for that rappel to be available to us, however, we were stuck on the top of the dome in the wind, rain, hail, and now lightening. We were all shivering. Finally we were able to get down, but the rain came even more fiercely. And while rappelling, all the water was rooster-tailing onto us while we rappelled. We were drenched! And Iona, who was most apprehensive about the ropes section, got the rain the worst, she basically rappelled in a waterfall with lightning all around. No one can say she’s not tough! We traversed around a tricky section to the opposite side of the dome getting thoroughly soaked back to the start of the ropes section. We had a huge decision to make.
It was about to get dark, the temperatures were already 35 degrees, and with darkness, the temperatures were guaranteed to drop. The forecast was to get colder and wetter. Nearly all of our layers were soaked. The next section of trekking was at even higher, exposed elevation. And everyone was frozen & shivering….and we weren’t able to move fast enough as a team to generate enough heat to warm up. Though no one wanted to admit it, the decision was clear….we would need to be shuttled down to TA3. Fletcher, as team captain, made the final call and found us a shuttle to get to TA3.
TA3: Sleep & Bike We walked into the TA, 4 shivering drowned rats. We spoke to the director to figure out our options. He didn’t want us to finish prior to the winning finishers, and because we had taken vehicle assistance, we would finish unranked. But we wanted to continue the course from TA3 to the finish to at least feel better about having to be shuttled.
We chose to sleep (and the camp gave us a cabin with beds to sleep in in order to get us off of their cafeteria floor and out of the way of their party!….”Okay. If we must sleep on real beds,” we said ). Then, we woke up, put our bikes together and biked for 2 more CPs and the finish.
Finish We received 10th place according to the directors because we crossed the finish line under our own power and only took the shuttle for the inclement weather section of the race. So, we were ranked higher than those teams who withdrew from the race after getting shuttled to TA3. It was a tough decision to make, but it was the right one for our team.
And because of that, I’d say our team was hugely successful. Zero fights, pretty good communication throughout, we took care of each other, an excellent and exciting adventure, we finished….and we didn’t die! Wahoo!
- It doesn’t matter how many proper layers you bring if one of them isn’t waterproof.
- “A good rain jacket can literally be a race and life-saver.” -Mari Chandler
Things done well:
- Management of sleep deprivation.
- Navigation under sleep deprivation.
- Team dynamic; we all got along really well.
- Food and water management.”