Wednesday, May 29, 2013

mixing up the medicine

Can anyone guess what I did last weekend? Well, there were two different canyoneering trips which bookended an easy dog run on Sunday. For the dog run we did Sycamore Cove via the newly signed Starnes Branch trail. The old Mtns to Sea Alt sign never made any sense and I am glad to see this sweet little trail now has a proper name.

For the first canyoneering trip I met up with Edmund from Atlanta and we did Big Bradley. There were two different commercial trips out there which led to some delays but after a little wait the first group was nice enough to let us clip into their rope and down we went. This was my first time doing the rap all in one shot which meant we avoided most of the spray on the way down. Different from rigging it in two drops but still fun. After we made our way down all of the Big Bradley canyon we went across the street and hiked up to Little Bradley falls where we rigged up a rope and rappelled the waterfall a couple of times. This wasn't a 'canyon', more of a chance to just play on the rope in the water.

Little Bradley:







On Monday Joe and I led a recreational group of seven down Tombstone Blues. Terri even made it out with us for a grande adventure. The first rappel is deceivingly hard and the first four of us down all picked up some scrapes and bruises. In the future we'll likely skip the first rappel and enter the canyon just above the big waterfall where the canyon really starts. It is this middle section of the canyon that is truly amazing. Three back to back rappels down a 120' waterfall and then you are right into the thick of it with lots of big boulders and narrow shoots. It was a great day to be in the woods!












Thursday, May 23, 2013

sit in the mud if it feels good

When my alarm went off at 4:20am Saturday morning it wasn't raining. When I pulled up to the start of the Pisgah 111 mountain bike race a half hour later the rain was coming down in buckets. Memories, and nightmares, of pmbar just two weeks before flooded me and I sat in the truck in the dark for half an hour before I could convince myself to get out and get on the bike. I had spent the previous week sick for the first time in years and wasn't planning on rain. If I would have been there to race I probably wouldn't have bothered to get out of the truck at all but I wasn't there to race. I was there to pre-ride the course to ensure that it was marked correctly and had not been vandalized intentionally or unintentionally. Eric was depending on me so I got out of the truck in the pouring rain and made my way over to the start where I picked up flagging tape, arrows and x's, and then headed out hwy 276 by myself in the dark early morning rain.

The first few hours were simply insane. Climbing Clawhammer road was more like attempting to paddle up a muddy river than riding a mountain bike. My plan for the day was simple: maintain a slow pace all day and finish the ride. Due to my illness earlier in the week I was at only about half of my normal strength and no matter how tempting it was to bail I wanted to stick it out to prove to myself that no matter how I felt or how bad the conditions might be I could ride 65 miles in Pisgah. It really isn't that far of a distance and there is no reason why I shouldn't be able to do it. A thunderstorm greeted me at sunrise as I made the right turn onto black I turned my music up load, declared it a glorious day, and hightailed it across the top of Black and then across Turkey Pen Gap. It was now light out but the rain was unrelenting. Somewhere along the soggy way I looked at my watch and noticed that the race had started. I had been hoping the sunrise would burn off the rain but since that didn't happen I took a little solace in the knowledge that scores of p111 racers had now joined me in my glorious misery.

I don't remember much until I hit Yellow Gap and it stopped raining. Those first four hours had been very trying, to say the least, and I relished in the warmth of the sun and lack of rain as I passed through the North Mills River Rec Area and then on up to Spencer Gap. Although there was some sort of race going on somewhere behind me I wasn't in a race and focused on survival over speed. I knew I would be caught - that was unavoidable - so I didn't worry about it. I focused on checking the course markings and having fun in the woods. When I felt like walking, I walked. If I had to stop to put up some signs or flagging tape, I stopped and enjoyed the break.

At the first river crossing on North Mills River Trail Sam K. and David W. passed me as if in a dream. Before I could react they were gone. I stopped at the second crossing for lunch and to wait for more racers to come through. Eventually some did and I had reason to continue my march through the madness. Up Yellow Gap trail and then up Yellow Gap road trying to play carrot for Dicky who I knew couldn't be too far back there. I rode some, walked a lot and as predicted Dicky came by me right at the switchback.

When I finally made it up to Yellow Gap it was decision time: stick to the route and head up Laurel Mtn. or go ahead and bail on that part of the ride and hightail it for Black Mtn.? By this time all the front runners had caught me and a whole bunch of other racers were right on their heels. I was out of flagging tape and signs and couldn't see much of a point in going up Laurel to check the markings so I decided to skip Laurel > Pilot and headed out Yellow Gap Rd. instead. I was joined for some of the long spin by a racer who had decided to bail as well. We chatted for a bit and then I encouraged him to pull ahead. I found myself walking some of the short pitches on the road, because I could, and when a truck pulled up and offered me a ride I considered it for a few minutes before I told the driver "It is all downhill from here, so I think I can make it." I stopped at the rest stop at the gauging station that Mike R. with Suspension Experts was running. He re-hydrated me with beer and conversation and I sat in the mud for awhile before slogging on up South Mills River.

Many of the same racers who had passed me earlier in the day passed me again as I climbed up to Buckhorn Gap and then on up to Black Mtn. which would take me back to the finish. Somewhere in between Clawhammer and Black Mtns. it started raining again. By the time I got to the cave it was pouring and I needed to put on my rain jacket so I stopped under the rocky overhang. It was dry under there and I was tired so I did the unthinkable and just laid in the dirt and rested for awhile. I thought some racers might come by but they didn't and as the rain slowed I made my exit and headed on down the trail.

After ten hours on the bike Black was a blur. Some more racers passed me and my hands started to hurt. The rain must have stopped somewhere along the way as after I crossed the finish line I plopped down in the mud and sat there for a long time watching as racers finished. The P111 was the best race I didn't do in a long time! Thanks for the good time, Pisgah Productions!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Checkpoint #7

With pmbar long over and nothing left to not train for last Saturday I went out with Joe for some more east coast canyoneering action. Our choice in canyons was obvious: Avery Creek. Hiking in was like returning to the scene of a crime. A week earlier the trip out and back to the upper falls was a scene of utter chaos - mud everywhere, a driving rain and racers trying to pry themselves from the forest's clutches. This time it was a casual afternoon walk that allowed plenty of time to reflect on the race.

The canyon itself was surprising. I wasn't expecting much: a lot of tight rhodo and then a big waterfall and that would be about it. I was right about the tight rhodo and the big waterfall but there was also a lot of very interesting terrain. This creek was the most narrow we have done - at times as little as four feet wide - and the heavy vegetation meant there was a lot of crawling involved. Stuff like that might be as close as we'll get to a slot in this area.

We only had to rope up for the big waterfall and just reaching the anchor site was sketchy to say the least. We wanted to set our anchor on the right side of the creek but could not safely cross at the top of the falls and there did not appear to be a good anchor on that side anyway so we opted for a bomber anchor on the left that would require rappelling straight down the main flow of the waterfall. The water was very high and was moving very fast and Joe was a little concerned about potential hazards and even volunteered to go first. We didn't know if this was the big waterfall or what the rappel down it would be like. I assured him I would be fine, he gave me a quick swift water prep talk and after turning on the gopro camera the Hub was nice enough to loan to us down I went. It was a very intense rappel. I had to stop to check rope length and then again I had to stop and lock off just above the final drop to take off my vt. prusik so I wouldn't risk the very real possibility of drowning at the bottom while still attached to the rope. I made it down without only one very big hitch - when I went to turn the camera off I saw that Joe had neglected to start the video rolling!

Once Joe made it down I broke the news to him that we had to go back up  and do it again. This time with the video going so we could get the footage we were after. It was a ridiculously hard bushwhack back up to the anchor and then my second time down the waterfall was only a little less intense. We got the footage and called it a day.








Thursday, May 9, 2013

I've got a bike

PMBAR. You never know what you are going to get or how it is going to go regardless of how many times you have done it or how well you think you've got it figured out. After last year's finish that saw us just seconds off the podium this year Yuri and I went into the race this year with high hopes. As regular readers of this blog know my training recently has mainly consisted of canyoneering, which doesn't necessarily translate well to mountain biking, but I still have fitness and perseverance and figured that would be good enough for a single day in the woods with a bicycle.

At the start there were no wooden nickles but instead Eric told us there would be seven checkpoints this year, three mandatory and you had to get at least five. At that announcement I confirmed with Yuri that would be getting all seven no matter what and he agreed. Charlie R., who was standing next to us, asked the important question as to what the bonus was for additional checkpoints. The answer - one hour - meant that this year you didn't have to get them all to win. In fact if you went for all seven it would likely mean you would be placing lower than teams who only went for five or six. I confirmed again with Yuri that our goal was all the checkpoints and not trying to see how well we could place. That wasn't what it was about for us this year.

We were so confident in our decision when Eric said we could open the passports we read the rules (no wooden nickle) and looked at the checkpoints but did not bother to notice which were mandatory and which were not. We quickly processed the checkpoints into a route that would mean the least mileage and least amount of elevation gain possible. It would mean a whole lot of single track and gravel only at the end but we were sure it was the right route. We started up Black Mountain trail before any other teams that had taken the time to look at the passports at the start but behind the teams who had just taken off blind and were waiting to look at the passports further on up the trail.

We took the first part of the climb up Black a little too fast. I was watching the splits and had to keep reminding Yuri to tone it down a little to a pace we could hold all day. On the hike up from Pressley Gap we fell in with Brad K. and Matt F. and chatted until the trail leveled out enough to ride our bikes again. I opted not to try to ride any of the technical stuff on the saddle between Black and Clawhammer mountains and instead put my running experience to use. Several other fast teams had caught up to us and Mark S. at one point remarked "this is rideable", he got on his bike and then immediately crashed.

The first checkpoint at the top of Clawhammer was pretty much a freebie. From there it was down the flat grade to Wolf Ford before heading up Squirrel Gap to cp. Mark S. and Kelly K. were on South Mills River spinning furiously and while I was happy to sit on their wheels and take a free ride Yuri felt we should be using our gears so around them we went. In hindsight that was a mistake - drafting them and recovering from the climb up Black would have been the smarter thing to do as once we started up Squirrel I started to feel the first hints of cramps.

Checkpoint number two was uneventful as well. We just rolled right through and then on down Squirrel to the river and cp3 which we went right through as well. At the first river crossing on Bradley Creek there was a line of racers carefully trying to pick their way across. I took one quick look at them, jumped off the bike into the waist deep water and ran across the river. As the freezing cold water caused my quads to cramp another racer trying to find his way across remarked "You guys are awesome," but he didn't know about the cramps my heroics caused.

Bradley Creek is always a pleasure to be on. Lots of people hate it because of all the crossings but you will be hard pressed to find a more beautiful stretch of trail. That slice of heaven brought us up to Yellow Gap Rd. for a short stretch of gravel before we hit the crux of the day - Laurel Mtn. Laurel has become my nemesis in recent races and this  year was no exception.  It was getting cold out as the wind picked up and it started to rain. I had to stop to put on my rain jacket which I didn't want to do (I was hoping to not stop at all during the race) and got passed by several fast teams on their way up. Sometime later my bike stopped cooperating and wouldn't shift properly and became almost impossible to ride. The smart thing to do would have been to stop and try to fix it but that would require stopping so instead I just got off and walked. As if the bike problems were not enough my body also stopped cooperating and I proceeded to bonk as I walked my way the mountain. Eventually I told Yuri of my plight and we swapped bikes. I pushed his as he fixed my shifting problems. With everything  a little better we rolled through cp4 and on up through the rain and mud.

Pilot Rock gave me a chance to recover a little and by the time we hit the connecter over to Slate Rock Creek I was feeling all right. Along the way we started discussing our route choices and pondered which checkpoints were mandatory. We hadn't bothered to check and assumed 225 had to be mandatory - why else would anyone go all the way out there? As we paused at the checkpoint to get our passport signed we were surprised to see that 225 was not mandatory. Interesting to say the least.

Out on Yellow Gap Rd. we were caught by Brad K. and Matt F. and after a long stretch of nobody saying anything the silence was broken. Brad asked me if we had one or two checkpoints left. He didn't ask how many we were going for - he knows me and knew we would be going for all of them no matter what. I told him two and he said all they had left was 225. With them ahead of us in cp count we offered to try and help them make time by having them draft us. As we all headed for 276 together my mind started to wander and have crazy thoughts. Could we hit the checkpoint on Avery Creek and make it back to the finish an hour before Brad and Matt could get to 225 and then back to finish? The answer was yes. That would mean we would beat them. And if we beat them we would beat a whole lot of other teams as well. Getting six would mean a top ten finish. But the question was did we want to see how high we could place or did we want all the checkpoints?

Yuri remarked that the rain was coming and I dreamed of beer and burritos but we both knew what we had to do. We made the turn onto 276 and then coasted right by the left onto 477 and committed to all the checkpoints by making the right onto 475B. The rain started coming down and the race started to get real once again. It was a long way out to the checkpoint and once we got there we were both freezing. Some very helpful checkpoint volunteers helped me change into warmer clothes and we left freezing in the pouring down rain. Hypothermia was a legitimate concern as we both had opted to pack as light as possible. Out on 276 I watched as Yuri was shivering uncontrollably and couldn't help but think we had made a big mistake by going out to 225. Not only did 7 checkpoints ensure that we would not be finishing in the top ten - it also now appeared that even just finishing the race could even be a challenge.

I knew where the checkpoint on Avery Creek was but in my hypothermic state was not thinking clearly. Jonathon L. and Joe P. where on their way down and I asked how far it was. Jonathon said "not too far" which was reassuring but then when I asked a second rider he said "quite a ways". Great. I vowed not to ask anymore questions and just get the race done instead. The checkpoint was right where I knew it would be - not too far after all - and came as quite a relief. All we had to do from there was get back down to the road and then back up to Black and on down to the finish. An end to the suffering was in sight.

Clawhammer and Maxwell Cove roads were nice because they were climbs and let us warm up. It was approaching dark and I was not looking forward to having to stop to fumble with lights for the final downhill so when we hit the top of Hickory Knob right at 8pm and dusk we rolled right over the top without bothering with lights. Black was a muddy mess and what we normally rip right down was now treacherous and we chose frequent dismounts and walked long sections instead of risking a crash at that point in the day. By the time we hit the final section after Thrift Cove it was dark and I was riding off of memory and faith. We crossed the finish line in the pouring rain after twelve and half hours - my longest pmbar to date - with all seven checkpoints. Good enough for 30th place!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

at the waterfall clearing my head

Last Saturday I met up with who else, but Joe with Pura Vida Adventures for a little cayoneering action. He has a new hotshot cowboy guide out from Montana for a month and wanted to know if I could show him the Big Bradley adventure canyoneering trip. While Cory surely could have figured it out on his own I was eager to jump at the chance to get onto the trip. This is the standard cayoneering route in the area. Located just outside of Saluda, NC near the Green River this adventurous route was pinoneered by Pura Vida Adventures and was featured in National Geographic Adventure magazine. It has a spectacular entry with a double rappel: first you drop 35' down a rocky shoot into a deep pot hole that leaves you perched 3/4 of the way up a 120' waterfall. The only good way out of that pothole is to drop to the bottom via a second rappel that takes you straight down the waterfall. From there you get a sketchy traverse and then are faced with lots of boulders, log jams, and shorter rappels. An excellent route.

It rained on Saturday and the water was high. I got to take the dubious honor of being first down all the rappels. The first drop down into the pothole went well. The second 75' drop took us right into the spray of the waterfall and with the high water it was exhilarating to say the least. Once down at the bottom it was my job to help set the rope length with Joe via rope signals and then to fireman belay Corey who would in turn fireman belay the clients on the trip. It immediatly became very clear to me that a fireman belay was going to be very difficult. There was nowhere to belay from where I wasn't looking straight up into the spray of the waterfall. No matter where I stood, which way I tilted my head or how hard I tried I really couldn't see what was going on above me. I knew Corey was on his way down and had to hope he knew what he was doing because if he started to fall I likely would not know it until it was too late and he landed at my feet.

He did know what he was doing and after remarking that this was the most extreme thing you can do in this area we came up with a plan for belaying the others: Corey would stand with the rope in a fireman belay while I stood well off to the side - where I could actually see what was going on - with my whistle in my mouth. If something went wrong I would blow my whistle which would signal Corey to pull the rope and stop the fall. Another case of tragedy narrowly adverted except the two clients were very competent and no belay was needed.

After standing in a chest deep pothole for twenty minutes and then right in the spray of a big waterfall for another half hour in April in a steady rain it became very cold. In fact this was the coldest canyoneering day to date that I have done. A little suffering never hurt anyone and this was still as much fun as I could have possible had that day.

First rappel down into the pothole:


In the pothole:


I stopped halfway down the second rappel to snap a picture:


Looking up from my side vantage with Corey on fireman and my whistle in my mouth. Imagine what it looked like standing directly under the rope:




The traverse:


Big Bradley:


The things you notice along the way:


Everyday a holiday, every meal a banquet, another excellent adventure with Pura Vida Adventures!