Articles: Real Stories About Living the Dream
Icy Adventure - A survival of the fittest on the slopes is heating up winter sports in TahoeSan Francisco Chronicle
November 27, 2005
They entered like two garden gnomes left out in the snow too long. Their pointed hats were ice encrusted, tools hung haphazardly from their bulky, padded clothes. They shed clumps of snow as they ambled into the lodge from the mountaintop ridge that was still being blasted by 75 mph winds.
"That was fun!" said Sandra, with nodding agreement from Anne, her partner in Team Wrong Way. They had just finished as the top (and only) female pair in the first annual Big Blue Winter Adventure Race at the Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort in January.
Winter adventure racing is a recent introduction to the world of extreme sports. It combines wilderness navigation with the disciplines of downhill and cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, snow- biking or any other self-propelled snow transport necessary to cover a 4- to 40-mile race course. Like a triathlon, the competitors finish one section, ditch their equipment and strap into another set for the next stage.
Traditional adventure racing first gained prominence in 1989 with the Raid Gauloises event in New Zealand. Co-ed teams of five were challenged to get from Point A to Point B through a remote landscape, with no fixed path, via means including river rafting, mountain climbing, hiking and biking.
In September's Raid World Championships, 40 teams of four raced 360 miles across, and 14 vertical miles over and around Mt. Blanc, from France to Switzerland. Organizers described the course as an "impenetrable fortress that the raiders will probe both day and night." The winning team covered the distance in 120 hours, sleeping about one to two hours a day. Isabelle Moretti of the second place Swiss team apologized to her teammates for sleeping too much, and regretted that her severely sprained ankle slowed the team down for the last 50 miles.
With names like Beast of the East and Primal Quest, these races evoke the ultimate in type A, survival-of-the-fittest mentality. So it's no surprise to find that racer Mark Burnett, who created the Eco-Challenge, followed it with the no-holds-barred competition of the "Survivor" television show.
The winter adventure race "circuit," such as it is, consists of only a few scattered races around North America and Europe, but the popularity is increasing as adventurers seek new challenges in the off-season. Unlike the primal, beastial, eco-terrors of the major-league summer circuit, winter races encourage beginners to join. Todd Jackson, organizer of the Tahoe Big Blue Winter Adventure race, says he wants to build the sport by "making the course challenging, but still easy enough that novices can actually finish." Jackson also runs a popular set of Tahoe-area summer adventure races, culminating in the Tahoe Big Blue 24-hour team competition of hiking, biking and canoeing.
On Jan. 8, a dozen teams of pros and amateurs entered the inaugural Winter Blue race, including Anne and Sandra of Team Wrong Way, and their opponents from Team Shrinkage, Team My Toes Are Freezing and Team Brewski Brothers. Their mission: to reach a dozen checkpoints in an 8-mile mountain course around Northstar-at-Tahoe "by any non-mechanized means possible." They had to combine orienteering skills with ability on downhill and cross-country skis, snowshoes and, for a couple teams, inflatable sleds.
To add to the challenge, a blizzard had blanketed the Tahoe area with 3 feet of snow the day before, and another 3 feet fell on race day. High winds and whiteout conditions closed highways and ski lifts throughout the weekend, sending tourists (and writers) scrambling for lodge fireplaces.
"It was a success that we were able to hold it at all," said Jackson. "We really didn't want to lose any people on the first running, so we cut it a few checkpoints short for safety reasons." Jackson also requires all teams to carry a minimum set of safety gear, including helmets, snow shovels and avalanche beacons. Resort staff and volunteers ensure the course is safe, and track down wayward teams to keep anyone from turning into a permanent snowman.
Even with the monitoring, Eric Nichols and David Lively of team Got Adrenaline? were a bit overwhelmed by the course: "Look at us," Eric said, struggling to take off his gear at race end. "We each weigh over 200 pounds, plus we're carrying all this crap. It's our first time on snowshoes, and we had to carve a path through 5 feet of fresh powder."
"Plus it was a little embarrassing when the two girls had to stop to help us when we were stuck in the snow," David added. "But you have to say, it's a pretty respectable showing, getting through the whole thing. Once we let the other guys break trail, we could pretty much ditch the map-reading duties and follow the path."
Eric said the pair of first-timers had joined the race for the spirit of competition and the mental challenge. "It's not just who's trained the most, who's an Olympic biker or not, you've got to use your head, adapt to a changing environment, find all those checkpoints."
Some had it easier on the orienteering section than others. The winners, Team Northstar, included a ski patroller, Dan Warren, who worked the course area on a daily basis. His ability to find a path for the final leg of the race may have accounted for their 5 minute margin of victory.
That, and some old-fashioned blood and guts. "Those snowshoe guys really put us to the test," he said. "We had to give everything we had to make the finish. When your partner has a bloody nose and is puking at the final checkpoint, you know it's been a race." The top four teams finished in two hours or less, all within 15 minutes of each other.
The second place team, the sponsored Team Atlas Snowshoe from Colorado, had kept pace with the cross-country skiers using only their snowshoes. "It was tough on the downhills, but we could fight our way through drifts better than the skiers," said Ross McMahon.
For race-course volunteers, the blizzard conditions posed special challenges. Not only did they have to crawl through snowdrifts to reach their checkpoints, they had to stand next to pre-identified locations for several hours as winds whipped the snow around them. One staffer assigned to a ridgetop actually burrowed a hole in the snow for the duration of the race. "We knew weather would be a factor," said Jackson. It always will be for the winter races. But that's why we chose Northstar to host the race -- it's one of the more sheltered resorts in Tahoe, and they have great staff and facilities."
The blizzard-shortened course consisted of more than 4 miles of on-slope and backcountry terrain. Elevation gain was 600 feet, with 1,500 feet of descents. That's where the sledders made their move. They rode airboards, which are essentially inflatable snow versions of a bodyboard with grooved bottoms and handles on top. One racer's strategy: "I just hopped on and pointed my head downhill. And I could sort of steer it, I guess. The trees were kind of a problem." Validating the let's-have-fun-while-we-compete spirit of the event, one checkpoint volunteer swore he saw sledders intentionally veering from the main course so they could enjoy an extra dive down a powder-covered slope.
For the 2005 winter season, Jackson plans to hold a series of three Winter Blue adventure races in Tahoe, likely based around the Northstar and Sierra resorts. He may be adding a specialized discipline of skate-skiing, or avalanche signal beacon search and rescue. Aspiring adventure racers can check his Web site at www.bigblueadventure.com for updates on time and location. While it's not much of a spectator sport (think of waiting at a spot in a snowy forest for racers who have chosen another route), the climax is always near a lodge and provides good glad-that's-not-me entertainment as ragged racers literally hurl themselves toward the finish line.
With continued sponsorship and increased participation, the Winter Blue prize money is expected to grow from the initial $1,000. It's still certainly below the $250,000 purse offered by the international Primal Quest racing series, but in Tahoe nobody's going to complain if you sneak in that extra sledding run.
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Bill Fink is a San Francisco freelance writer. You can read about one of his own winter (mis)adventures in Lonely Planet's recently released travel humor anthology: "By the Seat of My Pants: Humorous Tales Of Travel And Misadventure."
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