Day 11 Wednesday 1st. Arrastra Gulch to Maggies Gulch.
I rejoined the trailmarking team today. Wow, what a big day. We were dropped at the mouth of the Arrastra Gulch which winds up to the first climb of the race. We hiked up the jeep road to where the Hardrock course crosses the fast flowing Arrastra Creek. Below this, the course is on the western (opposite) slope which I had followed the first few days on my own.
Now on the course proper, we continued to follow the road, climbing rapidly switchbacking amongst the trees. The conversation dwindled as the air thinned. This will be the first section of the race. The sun will still be below the surrounding mountains and runners will be trying to find their pace and reign in the excitement and adrenaline of finally racing. I plan to hang well back.
Passing the abandoned mines we left the road and picked our way up the vague goat track. Sometimes the path was clear. Sometimes undetectable. Always rough. Regardless, looking up you could see where we were headed. The low point between high peaks and ridges at the head of the valley. Way, way up there. The faint trail could be seen traversing across the steep grassy slope, punctuated by a couple of snow banks.
It hard to believe they used to haul mining equipment up over this narrow pass behind mules. They also winched a bulldozer up the other side of the mountain in pieces then dragged it through the mountain via a mine shaft to service this side. Hardrrock is all about honouring the efforts of the miners in building the trails and roads that we use in the race.
On the final pitch Jim Ballard was doing trail maintenance on the loose scree slope and got the many hands to help roll some huge rocks to form a huge cairn marking the new trail switchback. I christened it Ballard's Bollard but he wasn't too impressed.
We scrambled up the final loose scree section before reaching the open pass. We all gravitated to the far cliff to view the next valley. Wow, massive, sheer, craggy cliffs plunging hundreds of metres. Way down below we could see the road where Cunningham Gulch aid station would be. Working our way across the ridge it narrowed severely before angling across to a steep snowbank that hung over a sheer cliff. This is the snowbank that stopped me back on day 4. It had melted out significantly but it was still poor icy footing. This is Dives-Little Giant pass number one, 13,000ft.
Larry planted himself halfway across the ledge and dug out the ice/snow to reveal some of the covered path. One by one we edged our way across. I hung back, knowing there were a couple of people a bit twitchy about crossing. We put a confident lead person in front and I followed them as Larry directed them across. All good. Lots of adrenaline. One year, going in the other direction, a runner had refused to cross this ledge at mile 95 and went back down to DNF. It is really that exposed. Hardrock forces you to face your fears. You must respect the environment through which we pass and grow stronger for the lessons it teaches us. This is no place for arrogance. Humility is a safer option.
We picked up the vague trail winding down the steep upper reaches of Dives Basin. This led to a series of steep switchbacks clinging to the sheer slope. Across the creek at the bottom and we were at the site of Cunningham aid station. We all lay about in the baking sun while we waited for Charlie and the rest of the crew to catch up.
The climb out of the valley is on one of the sheerest cliff faces for the entire course. Last year I had come down here in fading light, ignoring the dangers in a bid to get down in daylight. Now it was pure sweat and grind. The course description states: 'For the next half mile the trail climbs between two bands of cliffs on a narrow shelf. Exposure, acrophobia. At one point on this shelf you have a nearly straight down view into the Cunningham Aid Station (about 600 vertical feet)'. Heart in your throat stuff.
Thunder clapped and a few spots of rain had us reaching for our jackets. By the time we reached the first pitch the weather had already passed over us. Just a warning of what could come. The trail leveled out following a creek up the drainage. We crossed and climbed again. Ever up. The race director likes to tell us at the briefing: 'if you see a mountain you go up it, if you see a river you cross it'. The race creators had a sadistic streak. As awesome as this country is, they designed a course to be unrelentingly punishing. We continued climbing up the open alpine meadow over rough tussocks of dirt and grass, punctuated by wildflowers. The footing was terrible.
Green Mountain-Stony Pass ridge at last. 12,989 ft, pass number 2. We could see all the way across to the next climb. We dropped into a wide basin, crossed a jeep road and surprise, surprise, we were climbing again. Buffalo Boy ridge, 13,214ft, climb 3. Magnificent views all around, including down to Maggie Gulch. We wound our way down through rocky outcrops and slippery snowbanks, then traversed cross country before dropping to the road where the aid station will be.
Long, slow, demanding day but priceless trail miles.
Arrastra to Maggies 13.25 miles in 9:31hrs, max elevation 12,980 and 13,214ft.