This year’s Hoodoo Voyager field was virtually taken out on Boulder Mountain, save for one rider Rick Jacobsen, now three time Hoodoo Voyager finisher. While the conditions were very demanding, it was not an impossible situation. Not for the experience and caliber of riders signed up for Voyager.
Before I get into that, I should mention that there were only 4 Voyagers signed up. I am kind of puzzled about this. For the past year I have read and/or written about events all over the country that describe heroic amounts of climbing, thousands of feet of elevation etc. It seems like ultra cyclists have an insatiable appetite for challenge. But when presented with an opportunity for a uniquely challenging experience on IMHO the most stunning course in the country, it’s like “where did everybody go?”
We know what happens to under-attended events. They disappear…
The Hoodoo Voyager is an outstanding [and very affordable] race put on by the PlanetUltra folks who have been putting on ultra cycling events for over 10 years. I for one would love to see stay on the ultra calendar.
A race where you have to figure out how to support yourself and stay out of trouble, on roads and in a location you are not intimately already familiar with, and without any assistance adds a whole new dimension to ultra cycling. Average speed, power meter output, HRM analysis go out the window when you have to figure out what to carry, to keep well fed, hydrated and warm, especially considering there are stretches of hellacious climbing. When asked what my goals were for Hoodoo Voyager 2013, of course I wanted to better my time from 2007 but my answer was “Stay out of trouble.” That is the key to finishing this most demanding of 500 mile events.
For this reason, I consider the Voyager a greater logistical challenge than RAAM even though it is a shorter event. There are practical limits of how much you can carry on your bike, and it is easy to overlook or underestimate the demands of the environment. So you have to make some difficult choices and stretch your resources well beyond what you would as a supported rider.
To explain how the Voyager works, riders do not have a support crew, and if they accept assistance e.g. water or food, from another support crew or rider they are penalized 15 minutes until their fourth violation and then they are disqualified. There are lots of stores (mini marts anyway) for the first couple hundred miles, at least one every 30 miles or so. However, from mile 200 to about 375, much of which is ridden at night, there are virtually no services and often no cell phone service. Parts of the course go through national parks with very few full time residents. It also has the toughest climbing section of the route, Escalante to Loa of which the first 40 miles has over 6000 feet of climbing. And it is quite chilly up on the mountain.
I was the first person to complete the Voyager in 2007, the inaugural edition of the Hoodoo, and there was a lot of luck involved with that. No severe weather over Cedar Breaks (elevation 11k), and Boulder Mountain was cold but not frigid. No rain at all the entire weekend. This time, in 2013, I thought I was better prepared for my second Voyager attempt. Nope. I DNF’d at the summit of Boulder Mountain around midnight, shivering with cold, thankful for the first van to come along and let me climb in.
Below is my “Shoulda woulda coulda” list that I wished I had this year.
- [Chould have] carried less water and worn less layers in the 30 miles to the town of Boulder. The Sinclair gas station on the left coming into town has a nice little bathroom outhouse with lights and running water, working toilet open 24 hrs a day just 20 feet to the left of the little store. And there are some very steep grades on this stretch between Escalante and Boulder so no need to weigh yourself down needlessly. You do need to bring lots of food though because there is nothing open past 9pm (most Voyagers do not get to Boulder before then).
- [Never should have] put on a rain jacket climbing to compensate for not enough layers. In general never wear one when climbing no matter how cold you feel. You will ALWAYS be worse off as your perspiration, even with jacket unzipped and sleeves rolled up, from hard climbing condensates on the plastic and soaks back into your clothing.
- [Should have] carried newspaper to absorb moisture, since it weighs like nothing, so I could put this under my jersey before descending
- [Should have] had two extra long sleeve layers to swap out with sweaty layers just below the summit. (It is wise to leave some climbing to warm back up after stopping to change clothes). Dry layers also weigh very little!
- [Should have] brought a second pair of gloves, lined, heavier than the ones I wore up the mountain. If you think that is excessive it is not. Climber on Everest and other Himalayan giants keep their packs to an absolute minimum but bring an extra pair of gloves, because losing even a single glove means dying on the mountain. You can’t climb with frozen hands. Besides shivering from head to toe, and almost certainly facing hypothermia on the 15 mile descent in 40 degree temps, I didn’t think my hands could hold out squeezing metal brake handles for that long.
- [Should have] unpacked and refolded my space blanket before the start of the race. At the top of Boulder Mountain, shivering and desperate, I tried to make a poncho out of my space blanket but couldn’t unwrap the thing. It turns out these space blankets are very tightly vacuum packed and the extreme static cling causes it to keep folding back on itself. Don’t expect much luck with frozen fingers in the middle of the night if you happen to need it.
A brief recap of [my] Voyager experience.
The weather Saturday at least started out very pleasant. It never got very warm and I managed to ride at least near other riders for much of the first 100 or so miles. David Haase was hours ahead of me and Rick who were never more than 10-15 minutes apart for the first day. Rafael was a bit behind us (not sure how far). Then around the 140 miles mark I was riding alone till the supported riders started catching my up on Boulder Mountain. A few afternoon showers soaked me to the skin but it was a gentle rain, no wind or hail (yet).
There were several points along these first 100 miles where road crews were out repairing damaged roads. This has been a crazy weather year, even by Utah standards, according to the locals. The bike path along Highway 12 which the Hoodoo riders take on entering Red Rocks Canyon had numerous mini mudslides criss crossing the path. This was not so much a safety hazard as it was an annoyance to have to dismount and get our cleats gummed up with wet sticky clay-ie mud.
However, things changed as I climbed over the summit before Escalante. The skies turned frighteningly dark. A nasty squall was headed my way to my left. I wanted to get over the summit before the squall hit but the upper slopes of this climb were quite steep and slowed my progress considerably. At the top I was pelted by a series of hail showers. I must have looked pretty silly to the few cars out on the road, soaked to the skin in my short sleeve jersey and bare legs, although it wasn’t that cold. The big concerns were being in an open meadow in an electrical storm and the roads were getting slippery with the accumulating hail. The riders behind me may not have gotten the hail but I’m told they got absolutely dumped on. The hail stopped (it was very small hail at that) after about 10-15 minutes and the rain even petered out as well in another 20 minutes. I was kind of surprised that I got through it not that much worse for wear and tear.
After a hot shower in Escalante, because I did get chilled on the 14 mile descent into Escalante, I was ready to take on Boulder Mountain. I left Escalante around 7pm happy to see the clouds part and the sun appear. But it was 5 long hours later, and much much colder temperatures to deal with, when I made it to the summit 40 or so miles away around midnight.
I was getting scared at how cold I was. Suddenly I was very aware that there were homes, no businesses, no buildings, and nobody up there. Also no cell service and I hadn’t seen a car or another rider in at least a half hour.
I decided it was time to bail out. Descending would almost certainly bring on hypothermia and so was out of the question in my current predicament. I climbed into the first van that came along (2nd place men’s solo rider Alex Suchey’s van). Had I been thinking more clearly I could have asked his crew to borrow a jacket and pair of gloves and attempted to descend with their rider to Loa. This would have cost me a 15-30 minute penalty for accepting assistance, but hey, at least I would stay in the race!. But it honestly did not occur to me.
And here is where my story ends. I told you it was a brief recap. Not because I am a person of few words, I only got halfway around the course. Waah.
Rafael made it down to Loa but was too hypothermic to continue. David Haase was picked up by Loa Time Station volunteer (“Tony”) after getting caught in a freezing rain high up on the mountain. After 45 minutes he was still shivering inside Tony’s van, unable to continue.
PlanetUltra is putting on a Voyager event at least for one more year, but now they will require a drop bag inspection to insure they have adequate warm clothes. Event directors get night sweats and gray hairs worrying about riders getting into a serious medical situation.
I hope you are by now convinced of both the exquisite experience of the Hoodoo Voyager, and the need to be very respectful of the precautions you must take against the elements. Voyager is definitely on my calender for next year (“unfinished business” as Dex Tooke would say). If you also decide to sign up for it, let’s make a pact to make Brian and Debi very proud of us by putting all the necessary things in our drop bags and backpacks so that we don’t need to be rescued off any more mountains!
Filed Under: Race Stories
About the Author: Bio Member of the San Diego Luna Chix which promotes cycling for women and raises money for the Breast Cancer Fund. Ultra cycling resume Furnace Creek 508 solo - 2003, 2004 Hoodoo 500 (Voyager solo) 2007 RAAM a bunch of times (2 x Woman team and 2 solo finishes between 2007 and 2012)