The first thing everyone seems to want to know is whether I thought the course was unsafe, so I’ll start with that. The short answer is NO. Rock fall is a freak thing that can happen anywhere, anytime, and can’t be predicted or controlled. You may have heard that there were also some pretty crazy bike-wacking sections, and that’s true. They may have been annoying (actually, I thought they were pretty funny) but I wouldn’t call them unsafe.
Having said all that, this was a very different race. In my memory, everything is divided into two parts: what happened before the accident, and what happened after.
BEFORE THE ACCIDENT
Orcas Island was a great choice for the race start/finish. We stayed at Rosario Resort, right on the water with the spectacular views the San Juan Islands are known for. HQ lost that spread-out big-city feel it had last year in Tahoe and became a little tent community, where you saw your friends on other teams on a daily basis. We came over on a 5:30 am ferry on the 16th in our rented Penske truck, and were into the registration and skills testing by noon. The water skills testing in particular was very thorough this year, and Luther aced the navigation test, answering some pretty technical questions about reading ocean charts and route finding in tides and currents. That left us all day on the 17th to relax, have massages, eat well, and generally enjoy Rosario.
Our team included Dave Moon, an ER doctor from Denver; Bruce Wong, an engineer from Phili; Luther Papenfus, a Special Forces Officer living in Miami; and Tim & Allison Weiss, an experienced brother & sister support team from Denver. Everyone had a good four or five years of AR experience, including at least one or two expedition-length races, and Luther had quite a bit of race management experience with Odyssey.
On the 18th, we muddled our way though the prologue. Dave had an IT band injury, so we couldn’t run. We knew it didn’t matter in the long run, since the latest start wave was only 18 minutes behind the first, but it was hard to come in 52nd out of 56 teams with all those TV cameras in your face. We stuck to our guns, however, and didn’t let Dave run. After the prologue, we went to the race briefing, which had the usual adrenaline-pumping videos and updates from each of the course directors. Unlike last year, we also got maps and rules of travel for the entire course all at once.
The race start on the 19th was at about 8:00 am, for us. The 51-mile paddle through the islands to the mainland went unbelievably well. We had worried plenty about wind, tides and currents on this section, but the weather was balmy and we made the potentially dangerous crossing of the Rosario Straits in near-perfect conditions. Bruce was the only strong paddler on the team, and we had to switch boats once to even them out. We finished the paddle at about 9:00 pm, a total time of 13 hours. For all of us except Bruce, it was the longest continuous paddle we had ever done, and Luther’s wrist blew up almost immediately with tendonitis.
At the take-out we were directed to unload our boats and trek a mile or so to a campground where our support crew waited. We weren’t prepared for this and struggled to carry everything from our overloaded boats. After the first of many excellent meals from Tim, and a two-hour transition (transitions were definitely our thing to work on in this race), we headed out on foot for an eight-mile trek. The rules of travel this year listed max times for each section, and we used this to estimate our times for Tim and Allison. For the eight-mile trek, a max time of 11.5 hours was listed, so we knew there would be some sort of difficulty to it. It turned out to be a navigational nightmare; a maze of logging roads going every which way, not represented on the map. At every trail junction, five or six teams were congregating over their maps, completely confused. This was the only time in the entire race we were lost, but we recovered quickly and took a logging road that got us to the elevation we wanted, then did a short bushwhack to get to the CP from there. We finished the section quite a bit ahead of the other teams we were traveling with and found ourselves in something like 36th place (we’d been in the low 40’s on the water, so this was good news).
After dawn on the second day we picked up kickbikes at a gear drop and scootered a 17-mile road section, reaching the second TA in the early afternoon. We hadn’t slept the first night, despite resolving to sleep at least a little bit every night, so we decided to sleep in the TA. Unfortunately, the afternoon sun (the weather had been unbelievable good so far, except for the cold at night) and the noise of the transition area made it impossible for me to fall asleep. When we left the TA in the early evening everyone had gotten a good four hours in except me. I knew that meant I was going to be a problem for everyone during the night.
We headed out for a nine-mile ride & tie along a bike path, with Dave and Luther riding the bikes and Bruce and I alternately running and walking, sometimes on a tow behind the bikes. We figured it would save Dave’s knee to keep him on the bike rather than switching off. He was doing OK so far, but the knee had pained him a little on the trek the previous night.
After the ride & tie, we picked up our other two bikes in a church parking lot. The section we were on was listed in the rules of travel as covering 87 miles in a max time of 40 hours, including the ride & tie, a mountain bike section, and a mountaineering section. However, the mountaineering section on Mount Baker had been cut out due to dangerous conditions on the glacier. Although we were disappointed to miss what would have been a beautiful section, we didn’t regret not having to carry our crampons, ice axes and a thirty-pound rope throughout the bike section that followed.
As the bike turned into a hike-a-bike, and then a brutal bike-wack, we were even happier not to have any extra weight. We followed a rough, rocky trail up a mountain in an area called Three Lakes, eventually gaining about three thousand feet in elevation. I struggled with sleep monsters, and at one point we lay down for a short nap, but it was too cold to sleep for more than twenty minutes.
We reached the CP at dawn, and then followed the well-worn path of other racers to the bushwhack down the other side. None of us had ever seen bike-wacking like this before. I would hold on to the branches of bushes for dear life, my feet slipping out from under me every few minutes, my bike periodically tangling up in the thick brush. Sometimes the slope was 75 degrees. Occasionally we’d hit a steep rock section and pass our bikes to each other. With every fall, I laughed, and Luther swore. After a while, we lost the trail of other racers. Logs and holes threatened to roll our ankles. Sometimes the brush was so thick that you could throw your bike ahead of you and know that it wouldn’t go very far without you. Sometimes you could kind of throw your body the same way.
Sometime around mid-day, we emerged on a logging road. No one had any bike damage, although I heard later that other teams were not so fortunate. We biked on dirt roads through the Mount Baker/Snoqualmie recreational area, arriving at a bike drop area on Baker Lake in 28th place. Once again, due to Luther’s excellent navigation, we had passed a number of teams that were much faster than us, including Crested Butte.
The next section of the course was a hike around Baker Lake to a TA at Kuishan campground. I thought this was perhaps the most beautiful section of the course. The trail followed the lake, with numerous stream crossings and waterfalls, and wound through lush moss-covered forest. It reminded me of New Zealand. We hit TA3/CP17 at about 9:00 pm on the third day and bedded down in Tim and Allison’s comfortable tent trailer for another four-hour sleep.
AFTER THE ACCIDENT
Allison woke me up just before midnight to tell me she had been summoned to a meeting in which everyone was told about an accident near CP 21 that afternoon, and the course was shut down. She said directors would be coming around to talk to each team. I sat up. “You guys. I think someone must have died.”
We went back to sleep until Scott Maguire, the water director, arrived to talk to us at about 2:00 am. Scott told us that he couldn’t release names yet, as the family hadn’t been notified, but there would be a meeting the next day at 11:00 am at CP20, which was also TA6 and housed the on-course race HQ.
We loaded up at 9:00 the next morning and hit a restaurant for breakfast along the way. TA6 was located in a campground in the town of Rockport, and race management had been set up there since the race start. Four or five local TV stations milled around looking for anyone willing to talk to them. The briefing was very emotional, with Dan Barger occasionally breaking into tears, unable to go on. No details were given; only that Nigel Aylott had been killed on the orienteering course, and John Jacoby from Montrail had also been injured. Nigel’s AROC teammates came up and told stories about him. “He annoyed and frustrated the crap out of us, but we loved him,” they said, with typical Aussie directness. They took turns speaking, often breaking into tears. Montrail, including John Jacoby with his leg in a cast, stood up front with them.
After AROC spoke, Dan said we would have a procession to throw flowers in the river, and then we would have the day off. At 4:00 there would be a barbecue in celebration of Nigel’s life, and then at 6:00 pm there would be a briefing on race logistics. It had already been decided that we would go on, at the request of AROC and Nigel’s family, but it hadn’t yet been decided whether we would continue as a race or a memorial procession.
After the river procession, we got a motel room nearby and the boys stayed to sleep and do laundry while Tim & Allison and I went back to TA 3 to pack up the tent trailer and bring it back to TA 6. Back at TA 6, Avril Copeland from Gerber Legendary Blades told me more about what happened. She had been closer to the accident and had heard the details through the grapevine. Montrail had been scrambling in a boulder field on the orienteering course just above AROC, and Jacoby dislodged a 300-lb boulder with his foot. AROC, who hadn’t slept at all yet, scattered in the path of the boulder and only Nigel was unable to get out of the way in time. The team had been helicoptered off the course, and Skagit County Search & Rescue had gone in for the body that morning.
During the afternoon, David Kelly, who headed up the advisory board, held a captain’s meeting (which I missed) to gather feedback from the teams on how we should proceed. Apparently, the discussion about prize money got a bit heated, with some teams advocating giving first prize to AROC, and others protesting that the race had by no means been decided at that point. David Kelly decided to call each captain into the HQ tent one by one to give an opinion, and I arrived just in time for that. I didn’t know that I was going to be asked for my team’s opinion, so I hadn’t gathered any feedback from my teammates. I told the advisory board that I did not think a team in 30th place had any business commenting on the prize money, but that we hoped to continue on as much of the course as was logistically and safely possible.
We had the barbecue at 4:00 pm and I was touched to see team AROC members handing out sodas and chips to racers waiting in line for food. At 6:00, David Kelly opened the meeting by having all the Kiwis and Aussies from every team come up and sing a song they had written to the tune of “Down Under” by Men at Work. They sang about how Nigel never took a shower, and wore his helmet crooked, and how they were trying to find him a wife. Then Dan announced that we would continue the event as a race, beginning at midnight. We would all start from TA6, regardless of where we were when the accident happened. The top ten teams would be spaced out within a two-hour period between midnight and 2:00 am; the next ten between 3:00 am and 5:00 am; and the remaining teams would be dividing into three waves and have a mass start ten minutes apart from the next wave. We were in the first mass start, with 11 other teams, starting at 5:30 am. The course was to be shortened in order for everyone to finish by the final cut-off; the bike and orienteering section on which the accident had happened was cut out, and half of what we had been calling “the monster trek” was cut out (this was a bushwhack with a ropes section that had been estimated at a max time of 48 hours). A road bike section was added to get us from our current location to the middle of the monster trek.
We went back to our room, got a pizza, and slept until 4:00 am. We knew the advantage we had built up through strong navigation would be wiped out by the new start, but we also felt that it no longer mattered so much, so we didn’t really talk about it.
It rained the next morning, and for some reason, most of us were miserable on the 60-mile bike section that followed. We formed a pace line with three other teams. My back ached and I couldn’t keep up, and Bruce, always our workhorse, put me on a tow. Dave and I snapped at each other in an inexplicable state of bad humor. Paved road turned to fire road, and there were a couple sections where bridges had been washed out. They were marked with orange flagging; I could see that the race officials would continue to be very nervous throughout the rest of the course.
It was about 11:30 am when we arrived at the bike drop where the monster trek would begin. The first few miles were on dirt road and trail, but we knew better than to get used to it. The bushwhacking began after CP 28. I enjoyed it at first; someone fell down every three minutes or so, giving me an excuse to laugh hysterically. Dan had warned us that we might find ourselves frequently cliffed out on the section, and we were pleased to have this happen only once. We had worried about Dave’s knee, but it held up well, and in fact he didn’t have any more problems with it for the rest of the race. We skirted a mountain called Devil’s Thumb, and descended to Helen Lake, where we were forced to walk in the water because the banks were too steep and rocky in places. Then we began to climb through a boulder field where Bruce fell and cut his leg. We bandaged him up and went on. We could see several teams ahead of us, ascending through a very steep gully, and we picked up speed to try to catch up.
Dusk was approaching, and we knew once we reached the top of the gully we would have a tricky bushwhack down the other side, where we had to avoid an off-limits area that would DQ us if we accidentally ventured into it. Luther told me to go ahead as fast as I could and see what could be seen from the top before it was dark. It got very steep, and I held on to branches to keep from sliding back down in the mud. When I reached the foot of the gully, I could see that there were actually two route choices, and that rock fall would be an issue on both of them. Another team was ascending the gully to my right, so I chose the left one. Rocks crashed down through the gully behind me, so my teammates pulled off to one side and waited. About halfway up, I came to a huge overhanging boulder that I couldn’t negotiate my way around. Standing under it made me nervous; I thought of Nigel. I yelled down that I thought we should take the other gully, but Bruce answered that the other team said it was worse over there. A burst of adrenaline and I found a way up. It was during the last bit of daylight, and after that, no one could negotiate the boulder in the dark, so we had to set up a chain of lanyards for an assist.
Sometime during my scrambling in the left gully, two teammates from the other team, Mandatory Gear, lost their footing and took a horrifying slide down the right-side gully. Their fall was stopped by tree roots, but then they were stuck, one of them at the base of a tree. They called to Bruce for help, and he broke out our satellite phone to call HQ for help. While this was happening, I was close to taking my own slide. The top part of the gully had become very slick mud, with nothing to hold on to. I tried it, got stuck, and nearly came crashing down. Still shaking, I found a route around to the left and memorized it. Then I came back down to the overhanging boulder. I had failed to get to the top and see the other side before dark, but at least I had found a route up the gully that everyone could follow.
Bruce called up that he thought he’d gotten through to HQ but couldn’t be sure. The reception was bad. He and Dave wanted to stay at the bottom, thinking it was too dangerous to keep going in the dark, and that we should stay with the team in distress. I begged and pleaded with them, thinking that I would become hypothermic if we were to spend the night there. I suggested we get to the top and re-try the sat phone call there, since reception might be better up high. Police Defenders had arrived by now and offered to send a teammate up with their sat phone. We let him pass, and then my teammates came up. We had Police Defenders send lanyards up with Dave so we could re-rig the boulder for them, and we instructed them to do the same for Towanda, who had come up behind them.
When we finally reached the top, a CBS camerawoman was somehow there, interviewing the two teammates from Mandatory Gear who had made it to the top. She interviewed Dave, who hates exposed heights and was visibly shaken. I talked to Marnell from Mandatory Gear and asked her what she wanted us to do. Without rope I couldn’t guarantee that we could help her teammates, but I thought we could make a chain of lanyards and try to come down from above. She said she would prefer that we go down to the next CP, where we could send SAR people up from the ropes site to help. Meanwhile, Police Defenders was still trying to get through on the satellite phone.
The bushwhack down was brutal. We climbed and slipped on moss-covered logs into hidden holes that threatened to break ankles and held our hands out in front of us to keep the dense brush from poking our eyes. Sometimes it was so thick that we turned back to find another route. It was about 2:00 am when we finally came out on a rough dirt road.
Once I didn’t have branches snapping in my face to keep me awake, the inevitable sleep monster hit. I have begun to accept that this is my biggest racing challenge, and I’m at a loss as to what to do about it. We had slept plenty over the past two nights, and I shouldn’t have had any trouble staying awake for one night. I began to stagger and stumble and pinball off my teammates. At one point I fell asleep walking, and woke up just in time to hear myself say to Bruce, “You know what? I don’t think they’re going to have the basketballs at the transition area!”
At 3:00 am, we reached the ropes site. Mike Gibbs, the ropes director, told us there was about a two-hour back-up and we should go to sleep; he would wake us up when it was time to head up. Police Defenders had finally reached HQ, so they knew about Mandatory Gear and were sending rescuers at first light. My teammates fell asleep, but I was too cold and sat shivering in my space blanket. The delay was longer than Mike estimated and it was about 7:00 am when we were finally sent up.
The ropes section, overall, was much easier than expected. Of the reported 1400-foot ascent, only 400 feet of it was vertical. The rest was assisted scramble. We hit it at sunrise and it was absolutely beautiful. Most of the vertical section was against the rock, with only a short section of free-hanging, and we were all surprised at how easy it was. However, a woman from another team got stuck on the rope above us and caused quite a delay. Dave waited the longest, hanging on the rope for perhaps an hour and a half, his harness becoming painful.
We rappelled back down in pairs, and it was afternoon by the time we followed all the assisted scramble ropes (to which you had to re-affix a prussic after every section) back to the bottom of the mountain. We hiked out on a dirt road with Canada Post, an unranked team who’d had one member drop out after the accident. Our crew was waiting for us at TA5 in Darrington, a scary little town where rough-looking biker types called me “blondie” (my teammates teased me about this for the rest of the race), and Tim and Allison said that going to the store was an exercise in dealing with hostility.
The next section was a short bike on mountainous dirt roads that took us only four hours or so, and brought us back to TA6, where race HQ was located and where we’d had the ceremonies for Nigel. Tim & Allison had managed to score a bunkhouse there, which was supposed to be reserved for volunteers, and between that and the tent trailer we all slept very comfortably for about five hours. The river paddle was next, and we were in a dark zone, so there was no point in getting up until our appointed start time of 6:38 the next morning.
With only two-minute intervals between departing teams, it was like the race was re-starting for the second time. We were late getting organized and didn’t take off until 7:15. Two hours into the river paddle heavy fog descended, and after team HYPE was caught in a strainer and rescued we were pulled off the course along with ten or fifteen other teams. Someone built a fire, and we sat around it, telling stories. We had heard about the finish by now; Nike and Seagate had traded two team members and come across the finish line together, sharing first place. We talked about the possibility of finishing together ourselves, and decided we would wait to see what groupings we were in by the end. Two hours later, we were finally released, and this time no one bothered to stagger us. We were re-starting the race for the third time.
We paddled until mid-day or so. Luther played a trick on us, just as Dave and I were about to jump overboard, telling us we had nine miles to go when the CP was just around the corner. At the takeout, we struggled to rig our portage carts because I had forgotten to pack the straps that went with them. Then we portaged our kayaks down a busy road for several hours. Friendly locals honked and cheered on their way by, and a man who owned an apple orchard gave us apples.
The portage ended at TA7 in Bay View State Park, where Tim had yet another excellent meal for us, and Allison had a full update from race officials. We had been planning to sleep a bit, but Allison said that fog was coming in, and the course had been closed for much of the day. If we didn’t get out soon, she said, we might not get out until late morning the next day. After our usual lengthy transition we headed out into the ocean at midnight with Team Towanda. AR Calgary and AR Concepts were right behind us. I had bad sleep monsters again and literally screamed to keep awake, afraid that if I dropped off to sleep I would capsize our boat.
Less than two hours into the paddle, a PQ safety boat stopped us. Scott Maguire told us a tanker was about to pull out and we should take a certain route to avoid it. He also told us fog was expected any minute and we should be prepared to pull over on Guemes Island and spend the night.
When we saw the tanker go by, I was terrified. It was enormous, and completely impervious to our tiny presence. It moved swiftly, and you could see that if you were in its path there would be no chance of getting out of the way. The fog was rolling in and Luther wanted to try to make it further, but several of us protested. It was time to call it a night.
We pulled up at a ferry dock on Guemes Island at about 3:00 am, where there was a little waiting shack with a heat lamp on a thirty-minute timer. Heaven. The eight of us from Towanda and Tango crammed in and spooned on the cold cement floor, some of us in sleeping bags. Every thirty minutes, the timer would click off and someone would wake up and turn the heater back on.
In the morning it was still foggy. AR Calgary and AR Concepts were in tents on the beach, and we heard that BMC Racing and Police Defenders were also down the beach on the same island. Scott Maguire’s boat was moored offshore with a Coast Guard boat, and they let us know that we were not going anywhere in the fog. We spent the day eating well at a charming little general store up the road that served huge, fresh cinnamon rolls. We ate and slept, ate and slept again. Rich from Towanda fell asleep in his dry top and the gasket cut off his circulation and swelled his face. We roared with laughter as he held his collar open to drain his head. Shari from Towanda told us what happened after we left the gully where Mandatory Gear was stuck. Police Defenders, after getting their own team up, told Towanda it was too dangerous and they should spend the night. Canada Post also spent the night. It was cold, and they perched on a narrow log and shivered all night, too cold to sleep and too afraid that someone might start sliding. At some point, one of the stuck teammates from Mandatory Gear cried out in exhaustion that he couldn’t hold on any longer and was going to let go. The other teams reassured him and begged him to hold on. In the morning, they rigged up a chain of lanyards and helped them self-rescue, just as a helicopter was dropping ropes from above. The CBS camerawoman was still there and caught the whole thing on film. Because Mandatory Gear self-rescued before the ropes were dropped, they were allowed to continue as a ranked team.
Finally, at 2:00 pm, a race volunteer came on shore from the safety boat and told us that we were to be escorted across the upcoming shipping lanes as a group, since the fog had still not lifted. We had been on the island for almost 12 hours and it had begun to feel like a group camping trip. I would say this was the fourth time the race re-started, except that no one raced this time. We crossed Rosario Straits as a group of six teams, paddling to reggae music from the safety boat, and when the boat let us loose at the last CP, just an hour from the finish, we decided to stick together. We paddled up on the beach in a synchronized line of boats and paused before the finish tape to make sure everyone was ready to cross at the same time. Our final placing was 34th, and it was our eighth day of racing (seventh if you eliminate our “day off” after the accident). The last finishers also came across in a group, not long after us.
The awards ceremony and banquet the next night was very emotional for me. Nigel’s family was there and they spoke to us about Nigel’s life. PQ’s excellent media team had done a memorial video, and a memorial trust fund was announced, with the race organization donating $50,000. Teams Nike ACG and Seagate made touching speeches and presented team AROC and Nigel’s mother with gold medals.
I heard more than a few disgruntled racers saying they will not return to PQ next year (assuming there is one). My own opinion is that Dan Barger is a race director who is very responsive to racer feedback. People complained that Tahoe was too easy, too “on-road,” so he responded accordingly. Now everyone is complaining that this year was too rugged. I have no doubt that less than 50% of the teams would have finished if the course had not been shortened; at our current pace, there’s no way we would have finished the full course, nor would any of the teams around us. But there was a short course option for mid- and back-pack teams. I think Dan made a good effort to have something for everyone. And I also think the company as a whole responded to the accident with the utmost integrity and concern. If there’s a PQ next year, I’ll be back.
Anna DeBattiste– Team Tango–2004