Texas is still baking under a long stretch of 100 degree days, so I am grateful for the opportunity to escape for a few days into the La Sal Mountains. The occasion was offered to me by Richard and January to crew them at their 100 mile attempt at the Ute 100 just outside of Moab and within sight of the San Juan Mtns of southwestern Colorado, where I'd been only 2 weeks ago. It was much more docile to fly this time, and even fun to share company with R&J, as well, as Matias (also running), and Cyndie, who would be crewing as well.
I'd never been in the La Sals before, but I have been to nearby Moab, Arches NP, and Canyonlands NP. I flat out love this area for all the wonder of the huge natural red rock formations. Moab is an oasis in the middle of the desert, thriving on the mighty Colorado River that powers through her, adding water sports to the other outdoor sports (mountain biking, hiking, running, rock climbing) that boom here. It's a town with an edge to it, young, cocky, strong, confidant... reflecting that persona. And it turns out, the same sort of edge that the RD and his crew also wear. A fun and happy bunch, with a big sense of adventure, laughing and drinking, and certainly up for the sort of challenge that would take a group of ultrarunners traipsing around the high mountains for a 40 hour run. I think R&J are up for it too, and just as importantly, they like the feel and the atmosphere of the race organization.
We all fly in together, Austin to Salt Lake City, then drive to Moab, and beyond, to the tiny one horse burg called La Sal. Our cabin is well off the paved road, at Hang Dog Ranch, hanging over the edge of Hang Dog Canyon. The back porch offers up perfect sunrises and front porch, brilliant sunsets. The cabin has all the amenities we need, as long as we don't plug in the coffee pot. We quickly learn to disconnect the refrigerator beforehand.
Getting to the cabin, we pick our rooms and beds, toss our gear in, then head back to town for dinner and groceries. R&J were just here a few weeks ago, so we take their recommendation for a Mexican restaurant, then off to the grocery to buy the race day fare for the runners, as well as what we may want at the cabin during our stay. Its dark by the time we get back to the cabin, and we each go about hauling in the groceries, and making ready for bed. R&J take the two downstairs rooms. Upstairs has two rooms, one with one bed, the other with two. Earlier, Cyndie had announced, she's taking the single bed room, so I assume Matias and I'd share the other room with two beds. I had left my gear on one of the beds before we headed back into town. But, I must have missed the handoff somewhere along the way, because I now realize Matias and Richard are downstairs, leaving me upstairs with the girls. I was just about to take a shower when I put together that Cyndie thought my gear (on one of the beds) was January's, and January thought my gear was Cyndie's. I quickly walk in, collect my gear, and ask where I need to be. The single bed room was now mine, and the girls had the two bed room. I am so glad I realized all this before I hopped in the shower.
In the morning, we find a couple of old but functional ice chests in the shed, as well as a few cooking tools to add to the crew kit. I brought a small camp stove and cooking pot with me from home, but need a few more accessories from town. Moab's 40 minutes back, and with a late check-in, we decide to wait a bit to drive back into town for dinner, race checkin, and the outdoor store. We still need to pick up a few odds and ends for crewing, cheap folding chairs, a tarp, propane, and whatnot. We have plenty of time, so Richard takes us on a drive into the mountains to help us figure out how to drive to the crew only station at Geyser Pass. The drive's ok, if there's only one car on the road, but a bit sketchy if there's car's going both ways, or the weather gets bad, or in the dark, but I understand the route. It takes us about an hour to drive up, and another to get back down, and we still have plenty of time, but I'm a bit nervous going further up and/or getting stuck, when the runners need to be in Moab in a few hours. So, we head home, and relax into it.
The runners sort through their drop bags, run packs, hydration & food, shoes, clothes, poles, and so on. We have some fun with each other, play some cards, and sling verbal crap at each other with lighthearted ease. Cyndie's a bit put out when she realizes exactly what is meant by Hang Dog Ranch. She sees the big metal sign leaning against a barn wall, depicting a dog hung from a rope. She walks over there in one state of mind and comes back in another, fuming. A bit later, we gather up and head back into Moab. We stop for dinner, buy the outdoor goodies, gas the car, and then to packet pickup. The runners get their bags, bibs, and spot-trackers, then we stop for ice and head home, to arrive just as the sun sets.
It's not all that easy to get to sleep, with the excitement and nervousness running high. A few of us play cards, but we're all to bed by 9 or 10. There is no way that any of us got much sleep with a 2:00 am wakeup and a 3:00 am start. The drive from ranch to start is only 15 minutes, and we blend into the thick dusty air with all the others driving in. We park, walk some 30 yards to check in, then stand in the dark and the dirt, not seeing much of a damn thing. It's a new moon night, dust fills the air, and I can barely keep my eyes open, and I'm not surprised that the pictures I took here at the start are all too blurry to see. 10 minutes later, the RD shoes up, yells at the crowd of runners for a few minutes, climbs in his car, and starts the race.
I know their route well, even though I have never been on any of it. Fact is, when I was asked to crew, I started digging and searching everything I could find about the race and the route to learn what I could. I know they are to run a short ways up the dirt road, turn right and run more dirt road, and then turn left on their way to aid#1, which I am not allowed to crew. Makes sense to me. I am also not allowed at aid#2, and aid#3. Matter of fact, I won't see these guys again until mile 32 at a crew-only location that is a non-aid location between stn#2 and stn#3. What this means immediately is I can go back to bed. I have many hours before I'll see any of them one-third into the race. Cyndie and I head back to the cabin, where we wordlessly head off to our own rooms for the rest of the sleep we did not get earlier.
Up at 7am, a shower, and some cereal, we begin to prepare and load our crew kit into the car. Besides all our own crewing kit and coolers, we have all of the runner's roving drop bags that we had intended to take with us as an aside just to keep in our care in case they can use any of it. No big deal really, as it's just nice to have the in-case stuff. We also load 3 chairs, 2 coolers full of drinks, lunch-meats, cheese, bacon... all on ice. Another cooler is just for ice. We also have a tub just to contain all the dry foods, plates, cups, utensils, stove, propane, seasonings, and a load of odds and ends. It's crowded, but it's all packed in. The thing is, last night at packet pickup, the runner's had each received a new map with all the aid stations listed on it, and although I had seen the map, it wasn't until we got back home when I turned it over and realized the directions to aid#1 were changed completely. We had already explored the route around the East side of the mountains, which was the directions posted online, but now we are being told to go around the West side of the mountains, back towards Moab and up from that side. So, now I'm a bit anxious. With no reason to hurry, I'm nervous and eager to get started, especially not being certain of where the hell I'm going on the new route.
We drive out earlier than expected, but there is no way I want to miss them at the crew only station. This is a very important stop for the runners, and so we go. Back towards Moab, I follow the new instructions as listed, 11.7mi up 191 and then turn right onto an unnamed dirt road. No sign (unnamed, right!), but I turn right at the mile listed, and we roll down a dirt road 1.1 miles not knowing if we are even close, but in a short period, turn right again onto Geyser Pass Rd/La Sal Loop Rd/La Sal Mountain Loop. I have no idea why this road has three names, but it's paved, and we take it. Cyndie's driving, because she has no intention of navigating. I have, at least done some upfront research beforehand, albeit for the wrong routes. I have even printed out maps and bought a topo map from the website in which I have drawn both the run route and recommended drive route. 8.9 miles to Geyser Pass Rd is dead on, and now its dirt for another 6.3 miles. We keep driving until we see a woman in the middle of the road telling us to park. She tells us the crew access point is another half-mile up the road. Well, from everything I've read, it's this exact point where we are supposed to crew. So, we park, and figure to walk up and see exactly what we're dealing with. It's about 0.3mi to the spot where all the other crews have gathered. We turn back to the car, and then start thinking about what all we really need. We certainly don't wish to haul the ice chest or the tub, but we need at least 2 of the chairs. Don't need the cooking gear yet, but need to haul all 3 of the runners roving drop bags. So, we gather up a mixed set of things, but not all, pack it as best we can into what we have. Had we known in advance, we might have bought a small wagon, or at least a large pack, and we would have been more selective of the runner's roving drop bags. So we strap the packs on our fronts and backs, hang the chairs on a shoulder, grab a full gallon jug of water, bread plus pb&j, a few cold cokes, Matias' Monster drink, and all kinds of other odds & ends. It was a full load.
We hike up, get more than a few odd stares from other crews, assuming we're crewing for one very needy runner. We find a shady spot, spread the tarp, set the chairs, and lay out what we have in as organized a manner as we can. After checking the spot tracker, we see that Matias has gone through aid#1 forty minutes ahead of R&J, and is about the same again at aid#2. So, we expect Matias within the next hour. And so he is. He comes in looking a bit raw, dirty, wild eyed, and functional, if not a bit used. We give him a sandwich along with his Monster, then take off his shoes and clean his feet. They're filthy with dirt caked on, and it's some work scrubbing it off. Some Cheetos too, while we load his water bottles and send him back out. We figure we have another hour before R&J, so Cyndie heads back to the car with Matias' gear, while I go looking for a bathroom bush. For reasons of altitude, low humidity, stress, or whatever, I'm having some very odd bowel problems that are quite uncomfortable. Anyway, I go deal with it, and get back just before Cyndie does, and then go about cleaning up the mess that we made with Matias.
Forty minutes later, R&J came in, and we do a repeat for them what we did for Matias. Richard needs his medical kit to repair a blister, but eats while he doing this. He wants a coke and I give him one, but he wants another in his bottle, which I cannot do. We had not brought that many cokes up from the car. We explain about the car and the aid but don't want to go into detail about it. Hell, he has 100 miles to run and doesn't need to know about our issues. We're just the stinking crew after all. Richard is obviously having some problems with his shoes, so he changes into the other pair we had in his roving drop bag, and he tells us to toss the ones he removed. Cyndie is working January: feet, pack, water, food, et al. while I help Richard, and between us, we get them serviced and out in good time. We didn't know until they got up to leave that there was only one other person behind them. We're only at the first crew stop, but this trend will continue.
Again, we clean up all the mess after they leave. The goop from Richard's blister repair is nasty and adds rather nicely with the filthy baby-wipes, bits of jam, and everything else. I fold the tarp with all the mess on the inside, pack up all the rest, load it all up on our bodies and start our hike back to the car. We're the last of 2 cars in the lot. And now our next adventure begins, driving to another mountain lot somewhere up on another part of the mountain, following the directions I now have on the sheet of instructions in front of me. 6.3 miles back the way we came, then right and 2.7 miles to La Sal Loop Rd/Wilson Mesa Dr for another 4.7 miles. This would be aid#4, and just up the road from aid#8, which we'd have to hike into much later. The runner's still have to go through aid#3, which we're forbidden from, so we have a good bit of time to get there and sort our gear out. I had printed out a topo map of the area so I have a good idea of the lay of the land, which made no sense to me when we arrived, because the aid station is missing! We look around, find only cars, and a shit house.
I walk over to the road and find a man sitting in a lawn chair at the intersection. He says, the RD decided to combine aid#4 and aid#8, so they are now in fact the same aid at the same location, up the road a half-mile. No shit? Another flipping hike. I was expecting one for aid#8, but not for every damned aid station out here. So, we gather up our gear once again, and maybe just a bit more, but we cannot take everything. I badly regret not having ice cold drinks for these guys when they arrive. As well as the meat and jam, and other odd things that need refrigeration. Oh they'd be ok without all that stuff, but had I known, I would have made some other plans, a small ice chest, a bigger supply pack, and all that rot. Still, we have tons of time, so I take my hammock along too, and string it up as soon as we get there. We need to make some time for sleep or we'll get as punchy as the people we need to crew. I lay down for a bit, then give the hammock to Cyndie for some sleep too. Checking the tracker, I can see Matias as now an hour ahead of R&J, but they're all still hours out from us.
Matias arrives with his eyes vacant, looking right through us, so we sit him down and offer up what we can. But, he wants nothing more than to be left alone. The medical person comes over, seeing his state, and starts asking questions, offering advice, basically gets between me and Matias, so I'm forced out of the way, until she leaves. I give him a cracker, tell him to eat it, but he doesn't want it. I tell him to eat it anyway. Nibble a corner! Here's some ice too. How about some Cheetos? We get him some broth. Basically, we run the array of options past his eyes and keep at it until he takes something and begins to eat. It's slow work and takes most of an hour before he's back amongst the living. R&J came in and we have to switch gears to help them. Richard's in great shape and positively bouncing, but January needs some coaxing. Midway through the servicing, Matias decides he's good but will wait for R&J. But it takes longer than he's willing to wait, so he takes on out, RUNNING down the road. Ten minutes later R&J are up and going too. And so we clean up the mess, take down the hammock, load up, and hike back to the car.
It's late, the sun going down, and we're in a hurry to get to the next place while we can still see. Remember, we're still in the high Utah mountains, on dirt roads, and obscure routes, in places we've never been before. But it's no big deal really. 4.7 miles back the way we came, right onto La Sal Loop Rd and then another 6.4 miles to ... It doest say where. You see, up until yesterday, we were not to crew at aid#6 and aid #7, which are both at the exact same place. They had just added these in as crew accessible, and none of us had bothered to even look at the route, or what we we're looking for. I could only assume we'd know when we get there... and so we did. The aid is right on the road, but everything is marked for NO CREW PARKING, so we drive past it, up a road on the right, past twenty or more cars to the end of the road and park at the end loop. And oh what a surreal setting, looking down into Castle Valley, with the sun setting, and the bad light, and the desert colors, and pastel color tint in the air. I immediately pull the camera and start snapping pictures. The light is so bad, that I expect nothing, but its too cool looking not to keep on.
When the light finally fades to nothing, I pull out the tarp and start sorting and cleaning what we have on the tarp. The runners will be many hours once again, passing through aid#5, which we cannot go, and then on to us here at aid#6. With headlights on, we haul what we need one more time another 0.3 miles down the dirt road, and then further past the aid on paved road to a spot which we claim on the edge of the paved road we had just driven down. Cyndie decides to get some sleep, so she goes back to the car, while I set up and get as comfortable as is possible, which is not all that damned comfortable. Its dark now, and Richard has been asking for pancakes for a while, so I figure its time to set up the stove and see how it goes. I am no cook, but maybe I can work this out. I search around and find a good sized flat rock for the stove and another for the pan. I start with boiling water for some hot cocoa, which goes rather well. I then try my luck with a quesadilla, tortilla and cheese, but the tortilla is too big for the pan, so its more mess than it is edible food. It's a backpackers stove, so it's not all that big a space, and the pot is small too. This time, I trim down a couple slices of bread, and with some cheese, make a round grilled cheese sandwich which turns out brilliantly. Ok, now for the pancakes. Richard bought a pancake mix that only needs water, but I also put some butter in the pan for grease and non-stick, and then pour it in. So, this would be a pancake that is three inches in diameter, and it looks good, but there is no way to dig it out to flip it. I fuss with it a bit, and it turns into a mucky mess, with some burnt edges and well, it just looks like hell. So I take the pot off the flame, sit it on the rock, and let it be.
Cyndie comes back down to see my masterpiece and asks for hot water for tea, so I boil her a bit of water, just to feel like I'm doing something functional. Soon after Matias arrives out of the dark, coming down the paved road, and done in. Complaining about his stomach, he says he doesn't want anything more than to just lie down, and so he does. Lying in the road, he says he's done. Later on, he asks me why I didn't try to talk him out of it. I think I was done in too, but I also figured he was trapped there with us for the time, and if he changed his mind, there'd be no problem simply going on, regardless when he decided to go, that is, up until the cutoff time. I talk Matias into trying the ugly pancake, and he promptly spits it out. Soon after, he goes up to the car to get some sleep. Now that we have Matias with us, Cyndie rearranges the gear so the back seat is empty for him.
R&J come in 40 minutes later, and some 40 minutes before the cutoff, and as willing as Richard is, it looks like January is not there in her body. Still, we service them, minus the pancake, but do make them some hot cocoa. They leave for the Miner's Loop 30 minutes under the cutoff, are gone for two hours and come back with an hour under the cut. January looks a lot better, and we all have high hopes they'd be able to keep on. Once more, we take care of them, but just before they leave, I tell Richard, they need to be at the next station, aid#8 by 6:30 am, sunrise, and it stops him cold. He disagrees for a moment, pulls out his own chart, sees it matches what I said, then lets out a big exhale. Well, damn, that's not much more than 3 hours to get over another mountain plus the miles! Yea, that's about right. He asks if he should put on his cold weather gear and I suggest he wait until he has to. Still a lot of sweating to do before you get to the cold summit. And so they go, spinning up another mountain trail, while we go about our business of crewing.
At this point, they've passed a few people, so there are now a few people behind them, but all that is irrelevant. All that matters now is they arrive at aid#8 before 6:30am, and it's not going to be easy. This may be the one that bites them, I tell Cyndie. If they can get past this one, I think they'll be good to go the distance, but this will be no easy task. We clean up, load up, and hike back to the car. Matias had brought the car up a bit, so it's not as far away as it had been, but at this point we're numb to the whole process of humping and hauling. I evict Matias from the front seat, so I can once again navigate while Cyndie drives. Matias goes into the back seat to sleep some more, while we drive out. It's way into the wee hours now, our body clocks trying to put us to sleep, our stomachs rumbling, and my bowels still not settled one damn bit. Already half blind, struggling to check the map, and watch the roadside signs I can't see. The directions from the crew map are unintelligible. This is what is written: Head southeast on FR4650 toward Forest Rd 0063 .1 miles, then Turn left onto Forest Rd 0063 .3 miles. I'm not too good at math, but I would suppose these two distances add up to 0.4 miles, and I know damn well that makes no sense. But we're simply going back to where we had just come from, so I should be able to reverse the directions... I hope. I try, but my mind is not connecting the dots. I think we need to drive about 6.4 miles to Forest Rd, which I thought was Warner Lake Rd, and I know what it looks like, but now that its dark, I worry I'll know when I see it, if I see it. So, we drive, and I can't see any damned think in the inky blackness. But I do recognize when I get to the big sweeping turns just before Geyser Pass Rd, so I get Cyndie to turn around. From Geyser Pass, its 2.7 miles back, so we set the car trip odometer, drive 2.7 miles, and turn up the correct road. Now, we just drive until we get there.
We park in about the same place as we did earlier, and Cyndie is done in. She needs some sleep. I grab my hammock and a few other things (including my pillow) and start hiking up the road, while Cyndie and Matias sleep. There is nobody out, no runners, signs, crews, and I begin to wonder if I'm going the right way, even if there is no other way to go. Of course, it is the right way, and I arrive at a very silent aid station, and sling my hammock directly across the road from it, on exactly the same trees I had slung it earlier, such that I can lie in it and see into the aid station as well as up the road the runners approach from. I have a lot more clothes on now, with the temperature dropping into the early morning cold at high altitude, it's a tad bit nippy. Hammock up, I tuck in the pillow in just the right place, and climb in. A few moments later, I'm asleep. I wake now and again, as each runner comes in and the aid volunteers make some noise. At one point, I ask about the tracking device, and they tell me they've mislaid it. The last shift must have taken the scanner with them when they left, so they have no means to scan and thus track anyone. In this case, if I go to sleep and miss them, I'll never know until hours later, when they reach aid#9. Messes with my head, but what choice do I have. I get a few minutes sleep here and there that doesn't really add up to much, and when I see the time at 5:30am, I walk back down the road to fetch the rest of the gear. I wake Cyndie, sort and load the gear, cooking stuff too, and head back up the road. I'm setting up the stove when Cyndie arrives. Together, we make ready for R&J with the idea in our minds, that if they do make, it will have to be a quick in and out. Water's boiling, Richard's gels are laid out, January's pack is handy, the chairs are waiting, and we can do no more.
We are still waiting as the sun rises and the clock rolls through 6:30am. It is done, they are done, but they are not here yet. I take down and put away the hammock, and everything they might need to keep running, but leave the hot water on, thinking they might want some hot cocoa still. And so they do come in about 12 minutes after cut. They walk down the road together, come over to us and sit down.They remove their bibs and hand them to the aid volunteer, and relax into their chairs. Matias had come up the road too, from the car, so we're all there together again. Matias runs down to the car one more time to bring it up, so we don't have to hike down that damned road one more time. Initially, I drive, and I do slowly get us off the mountain, without missing a turn, or driving off a cliff, but I had my doubts. We get back onto 191, and about to Hole in the Rock before I must pull over and allow somebody else to drive the rest of the way in. I simply can't keep my eyes open and I'm terrified I've made it this far and will kill us all within a few short easy paved road miles before bed. I couldn't even tell you who drove the rest of the way. I didn't go to sleep, but I was not awake either. More of a ghost floating somewhere between the physical and spiritual planes