Posted by Grant on 8. February 2009 22:38
I'm busy playing catch-up today, but I wanted to get to a write-up about the race this weekend in the Swiss Jura. Pictures will follow when time permits, but here is the website for the region and the race-- but the race website is minimal.
I can start with the ending: my teammate, Christian, and I finished safe and sound with big smiles on our faces. Our igloo was declared the biggest and best of the race, and it was really fun to sleep Saturday night in it, but we crossed the finish line in last place. Getting to that finish line, in any condition, was the race goal and so I was happy.
I was way out of my league with this event: I haven't downhill skied since I was in elementary school and only nordic-skied for a few weekends over this winter . . . this race was essentially a back-country skiing ace and for me, having never actually backcountry skied and only nordic skied on groomed Swiss trails, it was trial by fire.
My teammate is an ultrarunner, but had never done an adventure race; he is a far better skier than me and so our hopes were that his ski and igloo expertise would carry me through the roughest snowy parts and that I could handle the navigation and "adventure race" dimensions. It was a precarious balance because the race instructions were verbally communicated before the start of the race, in a mixture of French and German (neither of which I could make much sense of), and then it was "go" and the usual frenzied first 30 minutes of racing.
Christian handed me the map and I stopped as soon as I got the map into the map case. The start location on the map, marked y the traditional orienteering triangle icon, didn't match with any of the surrounding terrain and I was trying to get comfortable. We should be heading East to the first CP but all the teams were heading West! Christian came over and insisted we should just follow the fast Salomon sponsored team, but my "adventure race" alarm sounded (I know it's tempting just to follow the fast teams -- but years of AR have taught me the wisdom against it) and I ensisted that I needed to understand what was going on with the map. After a few heated minutes, I learned that during the race briefing the Race Director cancelled checkpoints 1, 2, and 3 and explained that the start location marked on the maps is wrong -- the new start location is at Checkpoint 6 on our maps. I mentioned that this is the critical sort of info that the guy holding the map needs to be told, and Christian agreed, and then we settled in towards the first CP (Checkpoint #4 on the race map).
I said this was a back-country skiing event and this first leg of the race set the stage. The trails were not groomed so we were skate skiing through considerable fresh powder (anywhere from 4
inches to a foot of snow). I could make progress, but I was far slower than the experienced skiers around us. Christian was patient with me, and like a good teammate he helped by carrying as much gear from my pack as possible. He had both pairs of snowshoes on his pack, for example!
I broke my ski pole before we reached the first CP. I planted the pole to push off, as you do in skate skiing, but hit a deep patch off the "trail" and the pole just kept sinking until I fell onto it. The pole eventually hit ground, several feet below the packed "trail" and my full weight was too much for the pole to handle. Snap! Skate skiing with one pole is hard, particularly for a beginner, but doing it on ungroomed trails is impossible unless it's all downhill. Christian, the super-teammate, gave me one of his poles and we continued as best we could. It took an hour or two, but we skied to the first couple checkpoints without further mishap and made it to a ski area where we could do a field repair on my broken pole. It took 20 minutes, lots of tape and some parts given to us by the staff at the ski area, but we had recreated a functional pole -- Christian took this pole as I needed all the help I could get on the skiing portions of the race.
At this point, we had a stranglehold on last place in the race, but we were relieved to still be able to race!
After some more ungroomed trails, and some fun snowshoeing through a beautiful snowy valley, my right snowshoe broke. Soon thereafter the left snowshoe broke. And when I say "broke" I mean the bolt holding the foot platform sheared clean away. Same thing on both shoes! For this race, Christian suggested I use his ultralight snowshoes instead of my trusty (and heavier!) MSR Ascent shoes; my good snowshoes were at home for this race and I had just busted both of the light shoes Christian had brought for me.
There were several expletives at this point, a few attempts at field repairs with zip ties and kevlar wire, but the force of my 175 pounds + pack on the shoes made a field repair impossible. So I did a fair bit of postholing up to the top of the Col du Chasseral. I've learned this lesson about gear, and how one should use your own gear that you're comfortable with, so many times in racing . . . but I guess I had to learn it again on Swiss soil! Oh well, we continued racing as best we could.
We experimented with each of us wearing one snowshoe and one nordic ski boot, but that was shared torture. In the end, as Christian is fitter than I am, he gave me the working snowshoes and
postholed during trekking legs. This was tough as the snow was often deep -- but Christian is tough, too, and he did OK with it.
On a positive note, we were hitting checkpoints straight on and not having any trouble with the navigation. This is why, when we had trouble finding checkpoint 11, we paused to re-evaluate. We
could see tracks were other teams had been, and so we were certain this was the right location. We later learned that the race organization was already clearing checkpoints -- only 4 hours into
the race -- and it compounded our frustration. Our spirits were down, but we figured we'd continue racing on.
Soon thereafter, we came to a long and steep downhill through a forest. We were coming down from the Chasseral ridge into a valley and the solitude and snow made for a picturesque moment. The route wasn't groomed at all, but we put on the skis and started to glide down. Mind you, this was no easy trick for me -- using skate skis with my meager ski skills, going down anything besides the most gradual groomed hill, is a tense endeavour. I was hanging in there and we were going pretty good until . . .
I saw Christian collapse about 50 meters ahead of me and start cursing in German, French, and English. It sounded like real agony! My Wilderness First Responder mode kicked in and I approached him asking which leg it was, but he shook his head and just showed me his broken ski. Fortunately, he was OK but his ski was broken about 2 feet from the front of the ski. I guess this is why they make special skis for downhill and other types of terrain -- right? So far in the race, we had not used our "skate skis" on any groomed skating trails! We did, however, have 1 broken pole, 2 broken snowshoes, and 1 broken ski to show for it. Oh yeah, and the orienteering flags were being removed from the course before we could get to them!
If you've raced before, you'll know that scenarios like this can go in a couple of different directions. There's the "this is stupid and we're quitting" direction; we didn't take that route. Instead, we continued on this long downhill and found, to our relief, a network of groomed skating trails at the bottom! This lifted our spirits and, since Christian was now skiing far slower than before, we were actually pretty even on skate skis. So, if you give Christian a broken ski and a broken pole he skis almost as slow as I do with no broken equipment!
We started focussing on the igloo building part of the race, determined to build the biggest and best igloo this race had ever seen. It was our motivation for pushing through to the overnight location.
And we did it. We arrived and built the biggest and nicest igloo in the race (there were only 12 teams total between both courses, but ours was officially crowned the winner). I cut so many blocks of snow while Christian delicately balanced and placed the blocks, that I was cursing his artistic vision on several occassions. It took us 6 hours. The fastest team did their igloo in 90 minutes. But their igloo was small, ugly, and not well-constructed. We made the Notre Dame of igloos and celebrated, at 10 PM at night, with two bottles of wine (the race org staged our overnight gear for us and we packed essentials like alcohol). It was neat to sleep in the igloo, and with a heavy groundsheet and bivvy sack around a heavy sleeping bag, I slept very well. I'm sure the wine helped, too!
The next morning dawned and we elected to race the "light" course on Sunday. This race had two courses, "strong" and "light" and we raced the strong on Saturday. Because of our gear situation and my lack of ski experience, we opted for the "light" on Sunday and finished after 4 1/2 hours. We weren't too far off the back, finishing along with a couple other teams so all things considered I'm proud of our pace on Sunday.
The winning team, I learned, skinned and skied nearly the entire time and were really quick skinning up hill on their skis. I don't even own ski "skins" and have never done it myself, but I guess I have something else to learn! Seriously, the other teams in the race -- certainly on the "strong" course, were nordic ski racers and others with extensive snow experience. It takes a lot of practice to ski all that off-trail terrain and not brake your gear in the process. We learned the hard way.
So I'm pleased with our effort and with the accomplishment. This was my winter incentive to get comfortable on skate skis and, while the race was certainly more technical in that regard than I
was prepared for, I can probably now declare myself a "beginner" instead of a total "novice" when it comes to skiing. The region was really pretty and the snow was relentless, making for a race landscape like I've never encountered.
We took some photos and I'll share the maps later this week, but this is all I have time for now. In the meantime, you can poke around the website for the Chasseral region if you're curious.