Sunday, August 22, 2010

Climbing Black Tusk

30km north of Squamish in the Garibaldi Ranges sits Black Tusk (2319m) - a squat, black pinnacle that vibrates with prehistoric energy and sticks out sorely like rotting teeth in a mouth of pearly whites. To the indigenous people of the area, it is known as "Landing place of the Thunderbird" because it is believed that its unique shape and charred appearance was caused by the lightning of the Thunderbird. Geologically, it is believed to be the lava core of a cinder-rich volcano. 

The trail to the peak of Black Tusk starts at the Rubble Creek carpark, off highway 99, and climbs through a range of amazingly different landscapes. From the carpark it is all ascent via a series of switchbacks that climb through alpine forest. The trail emerges in the Taylor Meadows (below), flattening out and leading through the blooming alpine flowers.

Below Black Tusk can been seen sitting in the saddle: 

The Glacial lake, Garibaldi Lake, located south of Black Tusk:

The sign cautions hikers that the trail has finished and that the way to Black Tusk is treacherous due to the rocky debris that form the slope. There was also still snow covering some of the flank, making for an interesting ascent and descent:

Hikers can be seen in the top left of the picture, tiny in comparison the the black rock behind them:

Looking East towards Cinder Cone and its 9km long flow of lava. The flow can be seen in the way the earth seems to spill into the valley:

Completely alone on the South summit:

Freestyle descending down the southern rock chimney:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The 2010 Canadian Death Race

Claimed to be Canada's toughest race, I was soon to find out.

I was attracted to the epic nature of the race, and to the brutal statistics. Most years, approximately only 33 percent of racers finish, and most in the 20-24 hour period, just scraping across the finish line before the time cut-off. The race has 17,000 ft (5181m) of elevation gain, 3 mountains to climb, a river crossing, and wild rocky trails that often require you to scramble and slide up or down them. Set in the town of Grande Cache, the town itself sits at 1200m above sea level, meaning that most runners have to battle the effects of altitude as well as the effects of 125km on the body!

At the race briefing on the Friday night, the race organizer, known as "Dr Death" drilled in the importance of pacing oneself, maintaining nutrition and hydration, and not underestimating the climbs ahead. Made up in a costume that was part Grim-Reaper and part KISS, he outlined the race and some of the folklore surrounding the race: Summiting the 2100m Mt. Hammel and having to run along its spine to collect a prayer flag, carrying a silver coin (given to all racers in their race pack)to hand over as payment to Charon, the ferryman of the dead (as in the Greek myth), who would take us across the river (he was also dressed appropriately as a guard to the underworld). If the coin was lost during the race, the runner would not be taken across the river and would be disqualified. Racers glanced around nervously, aware that of every 3 racers, only 1 would cross the finish line. Would I be one of them?

Race Day

The Start

Standing behind race legend Hal Koerner (who would end up winning the race with the record-breaking time of 12hr 45min) I felt like I was in for something epic. After a heartfelt singing of "Oh Canada," the race clock started without much fanfare and soon people were moving, at first a slow walk, then shuffle, then finally the running started

Leg 1 - 19km

The shortest and easiest leg, it took us from downtown Grande Cache, along the highway and into the forest along rolling soft trails, past Grande Cache lake and to the first aid station. I just settled into a steady pace and enjoyed the views.

Leg 2 - 27km

This leg was either taking us steeply up or down, with not much respite. The climbs were often up technical rocky single tracks that went first up the side of Grande Mt., then Flood Mt. Between the two mountains was a section of trail endearingly called the "Slugfest" - mud, roots and more mud. With every mud crossing I encountered bad luck and managed somehow to plunge at least one foot deep into the black slush. The descents were down dusty, unstable trails that many people ended up sliding down using their backside. I was lucky not to twist any ankles, to trip or fall, and descended pretty easily. That said, the last descent to aid station 2 was down a trail running parallel to powerlines and was one long knee jarring experience that broke many spirits. 57 runners ended up not continuing.

Climbing up Grande Mt. below:

Hal Koerner descending from Grande Mt. below (Mt. Hammel is in the background, waiting):

Leg 3 - 21km

After a quick stop at the aid station (involving a small leg massage and cheese sandwich), I was looking forward to the third leg as I had been told by many runners that it would be a "recovery" after the previous section of technical climbing. It ended up being the most difficult leg for me - rocky downhills along a fire safety road that made its way through a mine. Here, the black coal dust absorbed and reflected the heat, breaking many runners who had not come prepared with enough water. I met 2 runners, one of whom had almost finish the Badwater Ultra (he was stopped by pulmonary oedema). Together we squeezed out the flat sections and ignored the heat. The final flat section of trail was on a rail track. Imagine trying to maintain your pace while hopping over railroad sleepers and huge bluemetal rocks. The 3rd aid station was definitely a blessing. Here I took in a quick bowl of chicken soup and prepared myself for what is considered the hardest leg of the race -ascending and descending Mt. Hammel. For many people , the 3rd aid station was where they would be cut-off, as racers were required to check-in by 7.15pm to be allowed to continue. 85 runners would end up dropping out here.

The relief of arriving at checkpoint 3 below:

Leg 4 - 35km.

2 long steady climbs started almost as soon as I left the aid station. Up, and up, and up...The trail was a series of switch backs up the side of Mt. Hammel, coming around a corner to provide runners with a heart-wrenching glance straight up the face of the last climb they would have to endure. At the summit runners had to run along the spine to collect a prayer flag, run back to hand it in, and to then start their descent. At this point, the sun was starting to set, casting an orange-pink glow across the mossy and stone littered top. Pure elation. No other words to describe the feeling of having accomplished the climb and being on the downhill! From the summit I had about 20km of descent, dark setting in and the eerie feeling of being watched by all manner of wildlife. Aid station 4 was a haven of glowing light, cheering and chicken noodle soup. My amazing support (Jan) was also waiting with ice on hand and an icy cold beer.

Halfway up the mountain:

Looking down the spine of Mt. Hammel:

Collecting my prayer flag and feeling pure bliss:

Leg 5 - 23km

Knowing that I would definitely finish, it was now just a matter of time. Following the advice of a veteran runner, I kept telling myself to just be patient, to enjoy the last hours of the race, not to wish for the finish, but rather to savor the moment as it would soon be over. Immediately after the aid station start the calf-burning climbs and narrow trails on soft alpine trail began. A brief respite was had at the Smoky River where we handed over our silver coin to the Gatekeeper and crossed the river via jetboat. More calfburing and then the last 3km climb into town. I did this last section with 3 men, all first time racers (at this stage we were talking absolute rubbish and nicknamed ourselves the "Death Virgins"). We ended up crossing the finish line together at 21hrs04min. I was 14th out of 114 females and 2nd in my age category. Huge emotions were felt and the realization that I could stop moving. Writing this now though, I wonder what I would have been capable of had that finish line been another checkpoint, with more kilometers in front of me...

In the end, 115 males and 34 females finished (149/418 solo racers), with only 49 racers finishing under 20 hours.

At the awards breakfast with my new friend Chris. We crossed the finish line together:

To my amazing one-man support crew, Jan, who not only met me at each aid station with a well set-up transition space (as only a triathlete can), but also mountain biked up Grand Mt. to meet me at the top, and ran up Mt. Hammel to meet me. He had no sleep over the 24 hour period we were out, and had just the right balance of support and tough-love.

To my running buddies in Sydney, Australia for their interest and continual support (James, Andy and Tony).

To my running buddies around the world (John O Regan and especially Anna Hughes who helped me so much along the way with her training and nutritional advice. See her awesome website:

To my parents for encouraging me even though my hours on isolated, bear-infested trails worry them.