Primal Quest Adventure Race
Team Kagome, consisting of Jen, Roger, Dave and myself just completed Primal Quest, a race touted as “The World’s Most Challenging Human Endurance Competition.” The setting for this new adventure was the beautiful mountains around Bozeman, MT, just north of Yellowstone. The trip there was scenic but uneventful – which is exactly how I wanted it. We were joined by our all-star crew members Rebekah, Ken, and Case, whose help and guidance would prove invaluable.
First off, I want to state that our crew teammates were amazing. They cooked, did bike maintenance, helped with the maps, and basically took care of our sorry assess for 10 thankless days. Rebekah, Ken and Case, THANK YOU!
I also want to comment a bit on my teammates. Living within 100 meters of people for days on end, you get to know them quite intimately. Dave proved as always to be the heart of the team. He always ensures our safety and comfort. I know I feel better out in bush having him by my side. Not to mention his iron will. Dave was not born with an Adventure Racer’s build, but he still succeeds through amazing toughness and endless drive. Jen was the spirit of the team. No matter how dire the circumstances, she always had a smile and humorous comment. She made the whole trip a real pleasure and often gave me a much needed perspective on the insanity we get caught up in. What was even more remarkable, though, was how Jen could be such a free spirit while simultaneously kicking ass. She powered up hills and bounced back with seemingly endless energy. Roger was a true workhorse for our team. He undoubtedly did more carrying, pulling, and pushing than the rest of us. He also kept us focused and driven on the task at hand through firm comments or a healthy pace at the front of the pack. Without Roger, we would not have finished where we did.
I will try and lay out the basics of the race here, but I should preface everything by saying that this was a rather intense experience and it is tough to convey even a small portion of what you experience physically, emotionally and mentally. There were countless annoyances and discomforts: bruises, cuts, dust, aches, blisters, sunburn, hunger, thirst, cold, exhaustion . . . the list goes on and on. Getting through the race really is a process of managing and minimizing suffering. However, the flip side was even richer. While I’m sure I have already forgotten half of it, there were great moments of euphoria as well. We constantly encountered amazing vistas, wildflowers, woodland creatures, beautiful sunrises, scented breezes, good laughs, good camaraderie, and deep, deep satisfaction. Also, the race was just damn long: ten days non-stop. It is hard enough to remember what I did a week ago normally, let alone when you are racing ~22 hours a day.
Check-in turned out to be a real pain. Gear checks and skill tests seemed to never end. They really were precise about the type of locking carabineer you used or what counted as a legitimate “wag-bag”. In the end, there was the typical scrambling, but we made it through OK. One big debate here which now seems silly was the fact that they were going to allow us to carry GPS. Apparently the course was under so much snow that they feared some of the navigation would be exceptionally difficult and some areas would be dangerous. Ultimately, the GPS units were just put in tamper proof bags and carried for emergencies. A few other memorable notes from the check-in is when they made us sit in freezing water for ten minutes and do brain puzzles to ensure that we weren’t getting hypothermic and the fact that my modified boogie board just wouldn’t cut it for the race (so they loaned one out to me).
We got the basic course layout the day before things kicked off and I must say it was daunting; very long legs and dense contour lines (i.e. lots of hills!). We had about a dozen maps that were each giant posters. It was literally several pounds of maps. Some were 100K, others 30K, and the course just ran all over ‘em.
Leg 1 – Mountaineering
As we had guessed, the race started with a climb of Lone Peak, a beautiful triangular 11,200ft mountain that set the backdrop for Big Sky, MT. They had been doing avalanche control, blasting off cornices the previous two days, so we knew someone was headed up there. We comfortably settled into the pack, which was no problem until we hit a narrow ridgeline that required locking into a hand line. This created quite a backlog and we ended up waiting a good hour just to get through the ropes. Once we cleared the ropes we powered to the top and suited up for a big glissade down the backside. We must have dropped at least 1,500ft, using our trekking poles as a braking system. We then cruised back to the first transition area (TA) and suited up for our first of many long trekking sections. I don’t have the maps but I would guess the first leg was 10-15 miles with about 4,000 of elevation change.
Leg 2 – Trekking
The first big trekking leg was about 50 miles and I’m not going to guess on the elevation change, but it was not flat! We cruised through the first third of it fairly smoothly, following a beautiful valley for most of the miles. We then crossed a major river and things got interesting. As would happen many times over, the trails on the maps either no longer exist or have been dramatically changed. In this case, there had been substantial development in the area where our trail was suppose to be so we found ourselves bouncing around roads and new trails. There were teams going in every direction. We ended up just following the topography to land ourselves in the right drainage and eventually found the passage we needed. The next 15 miles were a slow climb back into the snow and elevation. Night fell and our progress slowed. Dave was struck by altitude sickness as we approached 10,000ft again. In his typical fashion, he tossed his lunch and kept trucking on. We shifted some weight around and tried to find a reasonable path down the other side of the mountain range. We hit a few deep, post-hole sections of snow, but eventually made our way into what we thought was the right valley to descend. Our hope was to eventually find a trail once we got back below the snow line. This was difficult, steep cross country travel. Eventually we reconnected with a faint trail and kept descending. Progress was slow as crossed streams and climbed over logs. Roger also had a bout with altitude sickness, but we pushed on trying to get to lower ground. Trail finding was difficult, but we eventually worked our way down to the valley floor where we had two very cold river crossings before climbing up and out the side. We also hit a few sleep demons here and stopped a for quick cat naps. Eventually we reached another ridgeline around sunrise. I consulted the maps and plotted our next leg as we all sat and rested. Dave and Jen had already perfected the instant sleep skill. All we had left was an 8 mile descent and a 5 mile road walk into the next transition area. Other than a beautiful sunrise over snow capped mountains and getting bumped off the road by a stampede of horses, the next few hours were rather uneventful. However, we had all had wet feet for the last 20 hours and the long road walk certainly got the blister train rolling. We got into the TA in good spirits.
Leg 2 – White Water Kayak/Riverboarding
After some quick food, we suited up for the upcoming water sections. The sun was getting stronger and sitting around in a 7mm wetsuit was pure torture, so once suited, I really wanted to get into the water. However, it turns out that they were having trouble getting the boats in time due to highway construction issues. So we ended up baking in the sun for a good 30 minutes until our boats came in. Dave and Roger were in one boat and Jen and I were in the other. The course was 26 miles. At first I thought this would be a nice rest, but I was wrong. The Gallatin River was running at 160% of normal water levels so everything was faster and bigger. There were virtually no stretches more than a minute or two without having to negotiate around or over rapids. The river was moving at over 10MPH. Also, it was mid-day by this point so the snow melt was increasing and the water levels were rising. We were moving through consistent class III features and once we settled in, started to have a really good time. We also tried to catch the fastest currents and move downstream as quickly as possible. As we moved down river, things started to get bigger and we also started to cross some carnage from earlier teams. We passed quite a few unmanned boats on the banks or caught in trees or islands. We also saw a few paddles, but no people! Then Jen and I saw what looked like a helmet under a large strainer. We naturally because increasingly concerned, but couldn’t do much more than try and keep out of the froth ourselves. The last third of the course had a few really big features, a couple would easily fall into class IV by my estimates, but it is harder to judge when you are inside of them! On several occasions I saw Jen get completely buried by 8-10ft waves. I know she said for the next few days every time she closed her eyes she saw giant waves crashing over her. One thing we thought was odd was that there was no one there for safety either before or after the big rapid sections. We soon found out why. Once we finished the coursed and pulled off the river we were told that all other river activities are currently shut down. There were six simultaneous rescues underway and a number of racers unaccounted for. The water levels were just too high and they didn’t have the staff to keep things open. This meant that we would have to by-pass the riverboarding section and move on to the next trekking section. I must say that I had mixed feelings about this. I was partly relieved because I knew the riverboarding would be hairy, but I also was a bit disappointed to miss out on that excitement. It turns out that we ran the river at just about its highest level and accordingly recorded on of the fastest whitewater sections.
Leg 3 – Trekking
With a bit of adrenaline still coursing through us, we headed out on the next trekking leg. It was another beast, at least 50 miles and again all steep. It started out with a gravel road walk which served only to remind us that our feet were a bit ragged from the first trekking sections – mine were probably in the worst shape an odd skin separation beginning on the ball of my feet. My feet were a constant pain that you could box away for a while, but always seem to come back. Eventually we started climbing in search of a ridgeline traverse. We hit the ridge, but as before the trail on the map was no longer in place. This meant a lot of bushwhacking. For hours we climbed over logs and around branches as we climbed back into the snow. After topping out, we slushed down the snow to a creekbed, which we followed to the next checkpoint. After hitting the checkpoint we began a long, gradual climb over the next series of hills. At this point we began debating a quick rest. I had been pushing for the last ~40 hours on basically no sleep and I didn’t want to make any navigational errors, plus we were just moving slowly. We decided to crash for an hour until the sun came up. We threw up the tent and all climbed in except for Roger, who preferred to brave the elements on his own to gain a little leg room. We didn’t get any real solid sleep and I began shivering from lying on the semi-frozen ground after about 45 minutes. So we packed up and moved on. The miles slipped by and except for a dicey river crossing on a narrow log, not much happened over the next 10 hours. Climb, descend, and repeat. At one point we realized that all the wet feet were going to do us in, so we stopped in the sun to dry out our shoes and feet. We had another long bushwhacking section in an area where a listed trail apparently exists, but is not where it is shown on the map. Another quick climb and we stopped at a beautiful alpine lake to eat and discuss the next section. Roger and I wanted to push on, but Jen warned us that she was going to need to recoup soon. Perhaps foolishly, we kept going. After about four miles it became clear that we needed to rest. Jen was stumbling like she had put back a few brews and our overall pace was real slow. We found a rare level spot of dirt and tried to sleep for an hour. I’m not sure about anyone else, but I had a tough time sleeping as the mosquitoes were going crazy. I did drift in and out of consciousness a bit. After an hour we were back at it as night fell. The next seven miles were tricky navigation as there was a maze of trails and ATV roads. After a few quick starts and stops, we accurately pick our way through to the last trail that would lead us to our bikes that had been dropped off for us by our crew earlier. The last few miles seemed to never end, but eventually we hit the bikes. I also noticed about half-way through this trek that I was having a very odd numbness on my right outer thigh. Basically, from my knee to hip was numb – it obviously didn’t hurt then (it was just numb), and it is fine now . . . go figure?
Leg 4 – Bikes
We were a bit ragged, but wanted to get to a real Transition Area and get some comfortable rest, so we decided to get on the bikes right away. It was about a 30 mile ride on gravel and paved roads. It was cold to start, especially since we were descending, but as we dropped out of the mountains things warmed up. Our real problem became staying awake. It was the morning of day 4 and I had only 2-3 hours of crappy sleep under my belt. If I stopped pedaling and coasted for a bit, I would quickly fall asleep. I wasn’t alone. I was watching Roger weave all over the road and I found it hilarious . . . until I fell asleep myself. It was an endless game of drifting off and then jerking back awake. Luckily, after an hour of this we passed a little general store and were able to get some food and sugar to revive our systems. We plowed through the next 15 miles in a fog – we were all too out of it to pace line. Looking back, it was really dangerous to try riding in that condition, but somehow we all made it in to the next transition area.
Leg 5 - Bikes
We all slept for 2-3 hours before hitting the next leg. It was suppose to be a 70 mile kayak section, but the rivers were still busting over their banks and raging out of control with logs and rapids everywhere. For safety reasons, they changed this leg into a ~100(?) mile bike leg. It was mostly on roads, but there were a few long scenic gravel road sections. Roger and I took turns plowing wind and made fairly quick work of the section. We were enjoying a great tail wind on the homestretch when we got a flat tire, after killing a fresh tube we knew there was a thorn or other issue with the tire but couldn’t locate it. We only had a few miles to go so Dave and I switched bikes and we just rode the flat into the TA. For me this section was a real pleasure. It was great to be off the feet for a bit, and given that cycling is my best discipline this section was almost a rest (if riding a century on a mountain bike can be called a rest?).
Leg 6 – Bikes/Trek
I had my feet taped up at the Transition Area (which was a huge help), and we packed up for the next section. We would be riding our bikes ~25 miles up to a trail where we would drop our bike and continue on foot for a very mountainous 35 mile trekking section. We made one bad turn on the bike leg, but corrected it a half mile later. However, Dave had one of his cleat bolts slip out and he took a pretty nasty fall. He had to ride the remainder of the segment without being able to take one of his feet out. It was a long climb with heavy packs to the bike drop, but we eventually rolled in. We rested for 30-45 minutes before heading out in the Wild Mountains. It was dark as we hiked in and the sleep demons were in full force. Dave took a few caffeine pills and proceeded to go crazy for 10 minutes, followed by even more exhaustion. We tried to take a few trailside 15 minute catnaps on this section. Some were able to pull this off; I am not so good at it. We soon hit the snow and began climbing in a truly alpine setting. In my opinion, this was the most scenic area of the course, but also one of the most brutal physically. There was a lot of snow, river crossings, scree and generally uneven, loose terrain. We also encountered a few low 5th class scrambles to attain ridgelines. As we were approaching a mid-route checkpoint we heard a powerful rumble and watched a giant avalanche sweep down a distant vertical wall. It certainly woke us up a bit. Even at a mile away you could feel the force of the avalanche in your gut. We enjoyed another nice glissade and then suffered through a long walk out of the mountains and back to the next TA.
Leg 7 - Bikes
We got our best sleep yet (~4 hours?) and hopped on the bikes at sun-up of day 6. We had a 100 mile ride in front of us. All in all, the ride went well. Our only issue was that we passed through a few towns that were hoping to use for resupply, but they were actually ghost towns. I also ate a rotten GU packet that made me want to vomit. On the upside, I found a great technique for tying gear to your handlebars and getting it off of your back. This helped ease the saddle sores a bit. Very scenic country. We actually finished so quickly, we beat our crew to the next TA.
Leg 8 – Trek
Despite all the cold nights, it was now very hot in the valley as we packed for the next trekking section. It was the shortest yet (30-35 miles), but we knew this terrain was exceptionally difficult. Also, we would be on a ridgeline for most of the distance and were warned that there was absolutely no water on the course (i.e., carry enough to make your knees shake). At this point we also started to think about how the whole race was shaking out. As we left the TA we were in the top 20 teams – a position we were happy to find ourselves in. The trek began with a 4000’ ascent, and since we were told to bring crazy amounts of water, we ironically had to cross a stream at least half a dozen times just to rub it in. As night fell, we hit yet another ridge line. Our passport instructed us to follow the ridgeline south, so off we went. Things were moving well, but then after a few hours the ridge began to narrow and eventually became a knife-edge scramble with lethal exposure on both sides. We spent a few hours trying to find a safe passage but kept getting rejected by cliffs or vertical snow. Frustrated and exhausted we tried to sleep for a few hours with the plan to attack again with the advantage of daylight. It was a very cold, exposed night as we spooned in the tent trying to stay warm. I know Jen and I shivered quite a bit and I ended up with basically no sleep – despite Dave rubbing my legs to keep me warm! At the first hint of light we packed up and attempted to cross the ridgeline again. We made it a bit further, but it became clear that without proper protection continuing would mean rolling the dice with a death fall. We had wasted at least 10 hours and a ton energy trying to get through, but in the end we chose to loosely interpret the route rules and drop onto the slope well below the ridgeline. In retrospect this must have been the intention of the race directors, unless you have local beta on how to get past the cliffs. The second half of the trek was long and grueling. We passed a few peaks and regained the ridge for the last 15 miles. It was slow moving with a lot of snow and hills to negotiate. Also, Dave had lost his glasses, which created a real risk of snowblinding in the snow and I had broken one of my poles, which made balance difficult. Roger lent me his pole for most of the traverse and by some miracle, Dave found another pair of glasses as we passed the top of the Bridger Bowl Ski area. I can’t speak for my teammates, but by the end of this trek it was no longer a race mentality, but basically just felt stuck out in the bush wanting to get back. My thought process was that I have very limited water and food, the exposure (sun, wind, elevation, etc.) is draining, and I just have to get out of here. Racing was not really front and center in my mind. We topped out on the last peak and dried our feet for the brutal 4000-5000’ descent back to the valley floor. Jen took my pack for a good portion of the drop to help my bum knee. It was a rough leg for us given our difficulties with the first ridgeline and we lost a few places, but all in all our spirits were still fairly high. We got food and slept a few hours before heading out on the next bike leg and the homestretch of the race.
Leg 9 – Bike
Again at first light we hopped on our bike for a 50 mile bike leg. We cruised through some fast flat sections and then ground our way over a long slow climb. Jen’s collarbone was really hurting here, so as in the whole race, we moved weight from pack to pack. We were treated to a beautiful, rocky descent and rolled into the next TA. Our team proved to be one of the stronger biking teams. It was unfortunate that the low snow levels eliminated much of the technical riding from this race, as that would have surely played to one or our strengths.
Leg 10 – Climbing
We were all excited to hit the climbing section and had a quick transition. As we left the TA we had gained back the spots we had lost on the earlier trek and were again in the top 20 teams. We had decent sleep banked and had plenty of time to complete the full course (a rarity for Primal Quest). In our excitement, it turns out, we may have been a bit too hasty to move on. We walked the first few miles towards the climbing area and stopped to pinpoint our route. We had received instruction to simply follow the marked trail so none of us seemed too worried about navigation. When we went to pull out the passport, which provides coordinates and route guidance, it turns out that we had forgotten it. We did have a checkpoint plotted from before the race began, but it was in at the top of a peak . . . an odd spot for a climbing section. Jen wisely suggested that we just walk the extra four miles and go back to get the passport, but we ended up trying to find the climbing section without it. We thought we had seen teams go a certain way and didn’t want to give up the time or energy to go back. To make a long story short, we went the wrong way and ended up climbing and descending 2500’ in blazing heat for nothing. Plus, we still had no way to figure out where the climbing section was. Eventually, we lucked into another team that pointed the way and we found the bluffs. I guess we just weren’t in the game mentally at this point. It is clear that those little things start to catch up with you after days of racing. We proceeded with the climb, but another issue that had arisen was that we had only brought food for 6 hours and it now looked like we would be out for at least 10. The ropes course was spectacular. Amazing views, beautiful rocks and heart pumping exposure. We free climbed and jugged about 1500’ vertical feet. The course ended with an amazingly exposed rope walk along a fin ridge. As I was delicately negotiating the last ridge walk ominous clouds were moving in. Huge wind gusts and lighting began to descend upon us. I topped out, but Roger, Dave and Jen were still on the face. They were forced to descend to safety while I was stuck up on the ridgeline. They wouldn’t let me descend on my own, or let them continue in the storm so we just had to sit. I was out of food and water sitting in a cold rain and strong wind. I didn’t have the team tent or sleeping bag, so I took a bunch of logs and piled them on top of me to try and make a crude shelter. It was certainly a miserable, low point after such a stellar ropes section and it really sapped our energy. A few hours later the weather calmed down, but they still wouldn’t let anyone on the ropes so I had to scramble down and around to reconnect with my teammates. We then began the 4-5 mile scramble back to the transition area. It turned out that the segment that we thought would take 6-7 hours took over 12. Plus, all the teams behind us, who did didn’t get separated and stuck on the rocks got a free pass to go in front of us without doing the ropes and without being penalized. This also killed our ability to do the full course. We still had a 30 hour trek in front of us followed by a 3-5 hour bike ride, plus transition time, and we had just about that much time left, but we were all fairly beat down from the exposure on the rocks and the extra climbing we had done and also needed some sleep. Frustrated, we got a few hours of sleep with the plan to skip the last trek and complete the final bike leg in the morning.
Leg 11 – Bike
Speaking just for myself, we kind of had the wind knocked out of our sails with the two major setbacks on the rocks (lost route/passport and lighting storm). We now couldn’t do the full course and we had lost at least 8 spots in the rankings. Nonetheless, we wanted to power through the last bike leg, which consisted of a 30-35 mile climb to 7500’ and the finish line. This section was fairly uneventful, but very scenic. Montana sure is a beautiful state. Then, with just a half mile to go, Jen got a flat tire. She pushed her bike and pedaled the last section on the flats and we cruised through the finish line in a little over 9 days.
It was great to see our stellar crew at the finish line full of smiles. The race seemed to end rather abruptly as I had my mind set on also tackling the one last trekking leg that we missed. But it sure felt good to sit down, kick up our feet, eat some warm food and finally relax. I believe the whole course was ~540 miles and comfortably over 100,000’ of elevation gain and loss. We did ~505 (including bonus miles!) and deducting the 30 mile trek we missed and riverboards. We ended up in 28th place out of the 59 teams that started. Of course, we have arguments as to why we could be ranked as high as 19th place, but I guess that really doesn’t matter at this point . . . you can’t control the weather and they have to place value on certain checkpoints over others.
All in all, I think we faired quite well physically. Asides from an insatiable appetite, we are all moving around like normal. I have not weighed myself, but I’m sure I lost a lot of weight (~10-15lbs?). I also put in a few nights of incredibly deep sleep, but my legs feel almost normal now.
It is still too early to check in with how I feel about the race emotionally or mentally. There is always more you can you and mistakes you can avoid, but all in all, for my first Primal Quest I would have to call it a success.
I wanted to thank my amazing crew again for all of their tireless work, the PQ staff and volunteers for putting on a great race and, of course, my kick-ass teammates for sharing the fun suffering with me.