Last August I competed in the Adventure Racing World Championship, a grueling 7 day, non-stop race that had teams mountain bike, trek/bushwhack, paddle and climb/ropework, 800km across the state of Wyoming all while navigating a wilderness course via map and compass. This was the premier race on the AR World Series circuit, where top qualifying national teams would now vie for title of world champion for their country. I had joined US team Orion as a roster nationality wildcard (3+1 roster composition nationality representation applies at the world series) having raced along side the core team at a 3 day expedition race in Iowa the previous year.
Trekking through the Wyoming Range Mountains
The AR World Series is one of the most extreme race series in the world of endurance sports. Racers have to posses a wide variety of skills sets to deal with everything and anything that can occur in the wilderness of the remote backcountry. They endure relentless kilometers, sleep deprivation, each other and their own exhausted bodies, all while maintaining mental composure to keep moving forward under the most adverse of conditions. Once the race starts, there are no pauses for weather or darkness. You are on the clock since go! While racers tackle a slew of multidisciplinary legs, they must continually orienteer by map and compass to a series of scattered checkpoints. The route choice is largely up to the team to decide and navigation strategy can quickly determine a winner.
Navigating through the Wind River Range: 2 days in and 2hrs total sleep
On day 6, a wicked storm blew through during a lengthy lake and river packrack section. Teams that were on the water made a bee-line to shore and hunkered down under what shelter they could find. Unfortunately there wasn’t much shelter to be had, as we were paddling through the high desert of Wyoming…. Our team took shelter under some sage brush and slept out the rest of the storm, pummeled by hail, high winds, torrential rain and lightning. I even saw a funnel cloud form on the distant ridge!!
Regrouping after the storm
When we awoke, the sun was setting and the evening chill was starting to creep in. Temperatures in the high desert can reach a scorching +40C during the day, but plummet to below freezing during the night. I had all team members strip down and put on their dry clothes, as we re-grouped and got our packrafts ready to continue. We all did some jumping jacks and light aerobics to get the blood flowing and generate some much needed body heat. The shock to them was that right before we got on the water, I told everyone to change back into their wet clothes. The idea being, you always keep a spare change of dry clothes for another situation where you need to keep warm. While paddling, we would generate heat and stay warm despite the wet clothes. This worked perfectly and we reached the landing of the next stage amongst a flurry of emergency personal who were treating racers for various stages of hypothermia. Four teams dropped out as a result of the storm and chill. The Checkpoint staff looked on in bewilderment as we pulled ashore, cheery, chipper and warm.
We assumed we had escaped the grasp of Hypothermia…..
Pre-storm: Getting set for the packraft leg beside Canadian team Storm Racing
Later that night, we were pushing up the backside of Casper Mountain on the final bike leg. We had slept a grand total of 5.5hrs in the subsequent 6 days and needless to say, our bodies were beat. As we were summiting (read pushing/hiking our bikes through heavy clay – a result from the rains), we were joined by several other teams. It’s night, it's dark and all you can make out are the headlamps of others. It can be tricky to peg down who your other 3 teammates are in these situations. After a couple hours of slogging, our satellite communicator went off conveying news from the race director regarding a newly approved use of a paved side road to reach the summit. The newly approved route was a much longer go around (+50km), but in the long run it would be faster than hiking our bikes up 4000ft through tire sucking clay. Upon receiving this news we turned around, but I only counted 2 lamps.... our teammate Jon was missing!! My co-nav, Gregg, communicated that he had spoken with Jon 5mins ago, but had lost track of where he was in the scramble to re-plot the new route to the summit. Scrambling back down, we found him 200m below us, bivyed out in a ditch, alone and asleep. CRAP! Telltale signs something was gravely wrong.
Up Casper Mountian through thick clay
We coxed Jon back on his bike and he attempted to ride down but he could barely keep balance and started showing signs of severe confusion. Gregg and our other teammate, Molly, tried to support him on the ride down as I was pretty useless in this regard (I broke 3 ribs in a bike crash 20hrs earlier). Eventually, after a great deal of struggling, we had descended roughly 800ft to a now paved road. It was 4am and very cold. I would estimate the ambient temp was hovering around freezing and the cold crept into our bones due to sweat and still wet packs/bibs from the intense rains that had swept through hours earlier.
Jon was now in a deep state of confusion. He did not know his name, what we were doing and where we were. He was shivering, mumbling, clumsy and showed signs of a weak pulse. All signs pointed to Hypothermia and Shock. It's important to note that as you become more fatigued and exhausted, your risk for hypothermia rises as your tolerance for cold falls. We assessed the situation and biviyed out in a ditch. We got John into warm dry clothes, wrapped him in emergency blankets and cuddled with him to share body heat. We had him take some fluids, electrolytes and small amounts of solid food which was a slow and arduous process. If we called for an evac, our race (we were mere hours away from being official finishers among a ~45% DNF rate) would be over and we toed a very fine line between doing so. Further, a full response unit would likely take 1-1.5hrs to arrive, so the situation was very much in our hands to control.
Getting Jon wrapped. Emergency blankets galore
When the sun rose an hour later, Jon showed some minor signs of improvement. His pulse strength had improved and he was able to mumble semi-coherently (though he was still confused). We knew we had to get him to a warmer, lower elevation and made a small goal of getting down to the nearest major roadway and reassessing there. After wrapping Jon in multiple layers of emergency blankets, we slowly made our way down the mountain. As the sun crept higher, John’s condition improved. His biking was still erratic and he bailed into the ditch on more than one occasion. The blankets had done the job and Jon's core temperature was on the rise. Eventually, the reflective layers started to peel off and John was able to get more fluids and food down.
John, regaining motor function
Reluctantly, we made the decision to skip the final checkpoint on the summit of Casper Mountain and ride into the finish line unranked but as a team. It was an emotional time crossing that line and I admit there were tears by all. John immediately went to medical and was treated accordingly. As we were about to finalize our race by ‘punching’ the finish line checkpoint, the Race Director came up to us and said, “You know, there are still 3.5hrs left on the clock. If you don’t punch in now but go and grab that final checkpoint within the time limit, you can still finish”.
With this news, we rushed to the medical tent and relayed the info to John. We had decided it was his decision to make, but he responded with a resounding, “hell yes, let’s go for it.”
We were now the last team on course and were considered the best bet to take home the coveted Lantern Rouge award; bestowed upon the last full course finishers. It's a somewhat distinguishable honour as it demonstrates resiliency, grit and determination for sticking it out so long. Rallying, we departed from the relative comfort of the finishline and pedaled off into the backcountry.
Still weak from his ordeal, we proceeded to bike up to the summit of Casper Mountain. Jon was ‘on-tow’ (bike line towing another bike), behind me due to some lingering weakness. Despite my broken ribs, I was still the workhorse on the team and towed Jon mostly up to the peak at a blistering 6-9kph. For the next 2.5hrs, we grinded our way up steep, winding mountain roads, baked and burnt by the now intense sunlight. Quite the opposite of the conditions we encountered just hours before. I was really going through the motions at this point. I went from crying to laughing, to shaking to sobbing to pure untapped bursts of excitable outputs. We were all riding a super high which words cannot even begin to describe.
Long story short, we arrived back at the finish with half an hour to spare and completed the race as fully ranked, World Champ finishers. Jon made a full recovery, but his memory of the ordeal, a span of nearly 7hrs, is almost non-existent.
Hanging out in the finishers tent. Lanterne rouge
Emergency blankets are an essential survival tool. Jon's recovery and the teams' resulting full course finish, is partly owed to this thin layer of shiny material! Us adventure racers swear by them for sleeping, warmth and shelter. Throw one in your pack on your next adventure. The weather can turn quick, even on the seemingly nicest of days. Be prepared to bivy out or warm yourself up. Who knows, maybe you will wind up using it as a wind shelter in a sandstorm.... adventure racers keep finding new uses!
Five star adventure racing accommodations. Waiting out a sandstorm
Team Ecuador has an interesting use for emergency blankets. Space age...