Epic is the term that mountain climbers use when they talk about a climb that went wrong. The party got lost, gear was dropped, days being snowbound in a tent, destroyed camps, or even death. This year’s Twin Mountain Trudge turned into an epic day for me and all involved in the race. Just like on a good climbing day everything starts out fine and then slowly the situation begins to deteriorate. Some epic tales have a good ending while others do not. When things start to go bad and the situation begins to become dire, will you be ready to survive?
I am writing about my epic Twin Mountain Trudge because I want to share my experience with you so you can also be prepared for when things turn epic. I am very experienced in mountaineering, back country adventures and ultra racing. Through the years I have never had any of my adventures turn epic, but I am always prepared just in case they do. I sure did not think that the Twin Mountain Trudge would have turned into my first Epic adventure.
This was my second year running the Twin Mountain Trudge. The Twin Mountain Trudge has an 11-mile race and a 22-mile race which is two of the 11-mile laps. Here is a quote from Alec Muthig’s email about this year’s race: “The conditions this year could very well prove to be the worst we’ve seen for this race . . . I NEED to stress that this is an “adventure” event and not a typical trail run. You will need to try to be self sufficient. We will have a minimal aid station on the course, but you should carry enough for a long, tough outing. My guess is that the fastest single loop will be around 2.5 hours, with others being out for over 5 hours…yes, for the single loop. Please be prepared to be out that long and please plan on emergency situations. If you get injured it will be quite a bit of time before we can get in and pull you out on a sled. Will you be able to not go hypothermic in the time it takes us to get to you? While only 11-12 miles, this is truly a backcountry adventure. Please be prepared.”
This is a serious adventure event and should not be taken lightly. It is in Wyoming in the middle of winter through tough and challenging terrain. This year I once again signed up for the 22-mile race and I know firsthand from last year’s race that Alec is 100 percent serious about the conditions and the need to be properly prepared. This year my preparedness was put to the test.
As you can see I was well prepared and mentally and physically ready to start The Trudge. From last year’s Trudge I found that many of the 22-mile runners would start to really slow down on the second lap. My strategy was that the adventure really doesn’t start until the second lap and I would use the first lap to keep fueled and stay hydrated. I set my watch to go off every 30 minutes to remind me to eat a few mouthfuls of food. Then on the hour I would take two salt tablets (they are not just for running in the heat). Plus, as I mentioned earlier I wanted to drink the entire 80 ounces of fluid that I carried.
My first lap went just as planned and I was feeling great. Upon my return to the start/finish area I had a cup of warm broth, refilled my hydration pack with another 80 ounces of fluid, and was ready to go out for my second lap.
At this point Josh Fuller and Jen Malmberg tried to talk me out of going out for my second lap. I came to find out that nobody was willing to tough it out for a second lap. It took me about 3 hours and 25 minutes to go 6 miles! That’s how tough it was. But I came prepared and I told them that I came to run two laps and that I’m going out. With this Josh couldn’t let me be the only runner going for a second lap and he got his gear together and took off after me.
The second lap was actually “easier” to run since all the other runners had tramped the trail down. I still was prepared that my second lap would take me at least 4 hours to complete. Having a target on my back and Josh chasing me down made me run a lot more of the course than the first lap.
The Spiral into an Epic Adventure
I was still following my set plan of eating every 30 minutes, taking salt tablets every hour, and staying hydrated. My goal at this point was to stay out of the sights of Josh. Mentally I wanted him to turn every corner, come to every meadow, and start the long climbs without him being able to see me. I was able to do this and I started thinking about how it was going to feel to come in first place under such challenging conditions. I started thinking about the dinner we were going to go to after the race and all the stories that we would tell about our adventures out on the course.
Well, during all my day dreaming I missed the cutoff to head back to the start/finish line and ended up starting to run a third lap. I did not realize I missed the cutoff until things started to look familiar, like I have already run this section. I decided to backtrack to the last intersection. When I got there I was thinking that this is where the cutoff was supposed to be and it wasn’t. I decided to start running forward again and went a little further than the first time. This time I knew for sure that I had missed the cutoff. What really solidified this reasoning is that if I was on the correct part of the course I would have ran into Josh, and I didn’t.
I was already tired, and now I just wasted more energy running the wrong section twice and I was really getting tired. I really started to feel tired around 6 hours into the race and by this time I have already been out for about 7 hours. I started back tracking again and by now it was getting dark. Being prepared, I put my headlamp on and started backtracking. It seemed that I was backtracking further than I needed to. I have to admit I had a little panic at this point but quickly regained my composure.
What was Going Through My Mind
Here is the checklist that was going through my mind: First, I needed to stop moving since I did not know where on the course I was. Making the decision to stay in one place gave me the direction of what I needed to do until I was rescued. Plus, it is mountaineering 101 to stay in one place and have the rescue party find you. Second, Josh and I are the only runners doing a second lap and when Josh comes in Alec will ask him where he passed me on the course. Josh will respond, “I didn’t pass Ray” and with this they will know I am lost. Third, Alec would not leave any runner on the course. Fourth, I knew it took Alec about 6 hours to mark the course. This meant that I needed to stay safe for 6 to 8 hours before I could expect anyone to find me.
The bottom line in all my thoughts was not to panic and make any stupid decisions, and to stay calm. By going over my checklist I had a rational plan that I would be rescued and this gave me a sense of reassurance. However, it was most likely going to be a long time before they found me with no guarantees that I would be able to hike out on my own.
My Plan of Action
Since I made the decision to stay where I was, I was going to need a shelter from the high winds and snow. The task of building a shelter gave me a focus and kept me from panicking. No matter what, I needed a shelter. What would happen if for some reason they could not find me and I had to stay out overnight in temperatures that would be in the low teens. I decided that not only would I build the shelter for the short-term, but I also mentally prepared myself that I might have to stay out overnight.
I started building my shelter’s frame with branches and sticks. I built it about 10 feet off the Trudge course so it would be easier to find. The snow was like champagne powder and was not ideal for building a shelter. I used my poncho as part of the wall facing the wind to help give my shelter the most protection. I was beyond exhausted building my shelter, but what kept me going was that by building it I was keeping warm, and that I MUST have a shelter if I wanted to survive through the night. After over 6 hours my shelter was ready. By this point I had been in the cold, wind, and snow for over 13 hours.
I took my ski poles, crossed them over each other and stuck them standing up the snow on the trail in an “X”. This was a signal that my shelter was here and that I am inside. I could not take the chance that I would stay conscious and needed a piece of mind to know that rescuers would see the poles and explore the area and find me. I was ready to take refuge in my shelter and crawled in and from the inside I barricaded myself in. For those of you who have never made a shelter out of snow it is extremely important that you leave air holes otherwise you can suffocate and die from asphyxiation. On the ground of my shelter I put sage brush and pine branches so I would not be directly lying on the snow. I put on the extra clothes that I brought and then laid on top of my running backpack and the plastic bag that I used to pack my clothes in.
The temperature inside the shelter was warmer than the outside temperature but was still very cold. I knew that I could not fall asleep so I set my alarm on my watch to go off every 30 minutes. To stay warm I did sit-ups and moved my legs and toes vigorously. At this point I knew that I would survive the night but I was going to be miserable. I knew that as the temperature dropped that I would start shivering uncontrollably and that I might lose toes to frostbite. But I would survive.
The Rescue Finally Came
As I laid in my shelter trying to keep warm I heard in the distance two snowmobiles. I did not want to immediately punch out of my shelter just in case they did not come close because I would then have to reseal myself in and I would lose the little heat that I had generated. To my relief they came right to my shelter and stopped in front of my ski poles. It was Search and Rescue and the Sheriff.
When I came out of my shelter they did not think that I was the person they were looking for since I was still a functioning person and seemed to be fine. They asked me if I’m the person that needed to be rescued and after I gave them my name they were convinced I was the right guy. I have a feeling that they were thinking they were on a body recovery mission and not on a real rescue mission. Once we were back at the start/finish line they made a comment that they have never had such an easy rescue.
The Bottom Line – Be Prepared, Always
My epic adventure could have turned out to have a really sad ending. Because I took the seriousness of the adventure event and Alec’s advice I was prepared and survived my epic ordeal. I saw other runners that took less than the minimum requirements set by Alec. If they would have gotten lost their Epic tale would have been of a recovery and not a rescue. If you are not educated on survival skills you should not even think about attempting The Trudge. If you are not willing to take the proper gear because it will weigh you down and you are more concerned with “racing” you should not think about attempting The Trudge. Unfortunately I see people going into the wilderness unprepared all the time and my friends in Search and Rescue are the most frustrated with the people who are not prepared. Don’t be one of those unprepared people.
Editor's note: You can find more of Ultra runner Ray Churgovich (AKA Hawaiian Shirt Ray) stories on his most excellent blog HERE.