Sunday, May 30, 2004

Hot and cold in the Utah desert

If you don't like heights, especially the precipitous unguarded edges on crumbling rough trails climbing up the sides of canyons, then don't go on the Land Rover G4 Global Challenge.

I hate those kind of heights, but I did go. Through the canyonlands of Utah with Irish participant Paul McCarthy and his team-mate for the last leg of the month-long event, Canadian Kitt Stringer.

And though there were times when I was terrified, as I knew I would be, I wouldn't have missed the experience for anything. Because it was an awesome trip. And that was just the scenery.

They call south-eastern Utah the 'Colour Country'. For very good reason, because I was immediately gobsmacked by the variety of the colouring in the landscape on only the first day we got into the area after wending our way from Las Vegas.

In particular, Snow Canyon State Park was a wild wash of sandstones - white, pink, red and purple - punctuated by some unusual volcanic black rock uptrusions. The vegetation on the rough floor of the canyon has an extraordinary blue-green tint, seeming almost artificial or even mutant to an Irish eye.

It was here too that I got a view of the kind of hardship which the G4 Challenge contestants had already put themselves through during the previous three weeks in the eastern US, South Africa and Western Australia.

By the time I joined the global 'wagon train', Dingle stonemason Paul McCarthy had come out 8th, 6th and 5th in the three previous legs.

Earlier in the year he'd qualified for the trip in an elimination International Finals held at Eastnor Park in England. That was also a training exercise for the participants - and their finals colleagues from each country who were eliminated then - in outdoors pursuits that included climbing, abseiling, orienteering, mountain biking, running and, naturally, offroad driving.

There had been one casualty. The original Canadian competitor had cut himself badly at the start of the second leg in South Africa, and his colleague beaten in the International Finals, Kitt Stringer, had been drafted in.

Paul had chosen Kitt as his team-mate for this leg, having previously partnered Tim Pickering from Britain, ??? from Germany, and Nancy Olson of the US.

He had also gained a reputation as one of the most laid-back of the contestants, some of whom were taking their race for the prize of a top-spec Range Rover very seriously indeed.

"This is such a big competition that everyone taking part is a winner," he said at one stage in the last week. "Where else would you get to travel around the world for free?"

In Snow Canyon the competitors undertook a Maximiser, a one-and-a-half hours slog at speed over the challenging terrain of Snow Canyon, 'dibbling' into electronic sensors hidden around the area and which they had to find through a series of map coordinates.

The effort concluded with a race around a convulated course on their mountain bikes, where time was vital towards gaining the points for the event.

Paul and Kitt did poorly in the Maximiser, coming in 6th out of the eight teams. Kitt was disappointed that he'd picked a wrong location and lost time which pulled both of them back. Paul displayed the sanguinity which had given him his reputation.

"Life's too short to be worried about things like that."

And then it was time to navigate the Land Rover Discovery convoy of around 50 vehicles - each team had a support vehicle and a number had several Discoveries carrying news media covering the event - to camp for the night. Accompanying Paul and Kitt there was only myself and a Canadian photographer. I travelled in the back seat with the lads, while the Canadian travelled behind with support driver Karen McDonald.

The camp was several hours away, in another Utah National Park, the Pink Coral Sand Dunes. Unfortunately we got there at dusk, and there was no opportunity to take the Discos offroading in the dunes as had been suggested by the organisers.

"You really don't want to be going in there and find yourself having to dig out a vehicle in the dark," Paul warned Kitt, drawing on experience gained by his spending three months of every winter in Morocco over the last several years.

For yours truly it was time for a couple of new experiences. Setting up my G4 Igloo tent, which is an excellent patent but needed Karen's help for me to learn about, was the first. Then there was the 'dinner' of freeze-dried food in foil bags, reconstituted by pouring in boiling water heated by 'volcano' kettles that use a drop of diesel for starting and which are subsequentially fed by twigs and scraps of paper.

'Texan BBQ Chicken' was hot and spicy, but quite glutinous, and by choice I survived each of the next few days on bread and fruit and the odd snack grabbed when we stopped at service stations to refuel the somewhat thirsty 4-litre V8s.

In the dark, knackered after just three hours' sleep in the previous 42, I hit the sleeping bag ...

... and woke at dawn to the unmistakable pitter of snow on the tent.

It's no fun breaking camp in the semi-dark in snow, particularly when you've been expecting the 'desert' to be hot..

But when it was done, Paul and Kitt and the other teams headed for the 'Strategy Pit', where they were given a number of 'Hunters' for the day: six locations to be plotted, at each of which there would be a task lasting anything from 30-40 minutes and involving one or more of the disciplines at the core of the competition. All against the clock.

The scoring system was complicated by the requirement for teams to 'predict' in what placing they would arrive at each of the Hunters, compared to other teams. Extra points would be available for successful predictions, and the element of strategy in this aspect often ended up in negotiations between teams at the location about swapping or sharing the points.

We set off in still-snowing conditions for the first Hunter, in a small canyon about 30 minutes away. Kitt drove, while Paul tapped in way-point coordinates to the GPS unit as if he was playing a Nintendo game.

Once again, the location was quite fascinating, bright red weather-smoothed rock all around, but with the added contrast of snow lodged on the shanks of the formations. And the greenery again had that very blue tinge, almost fluorescent, adding its own eeriness.

The Hunter involved the teams running through the narrow canyon, then scaling a rocky wall to find the hidden tag, and then getting back to the start again. As Paul ran home through the narrowest part, I could see him limping.

"More bloody running," he grimaced.

Running on the flat, he'd found, had resurrected an old surfing injury to his knee. "I'm OK running on rough ground, though, and often I can pass out the others then."

But there was no time to small-talk. The thing about Hunter days was to keep moving, because the more of the events they could finish in the day, the better the points. Strategy came into deciding which ones were feasible, taking into account that teams also had to reach the next camp by a certain time or forfeit all points gained during the day.

That had already happened to Paul and his partner in Australia, but they had appealed the decision on the basis that they had been held up by a request from one of the Land Rover photographers for a picture opportunity. And they retained their points.

The G4 Challenge was as much a media event as it was an adventure race. Naturally, the idea is that it gains publicity for the brand, and while there were just 16 contestants, more than 200 people were involved in the event, many of them Land Rover personnel preparing the way and providing logistical support.

Equally as many were people waving still and movie cameras, and poking microphones and scribbling notes. Land Rover had their own full TV crew and a number of still photographers, and almost every move made by each contestant was recorded over the course of the event, pictures and copy being made available to journalists around the world on a daily-updated media website.

Every time a competitor finished an event, he or she was interviewed by the TV people, clips that will eventually find their way into several documentaries of the Challenge.

Anyway, Paul and Kitt decided the next Hunter to do would be one located near Bryce Canyon, about an hour and a half's drive away. So off we went, with the weather improving by the mile. By the time we got to the spectacular canyon itself we were somewhat mesmerised by the landscape and took a wrong turning that brought us towards the top of the thousand-foot 'wall' which has no less than 60 discrete colours in its sandstone.

The GPS unit kept pointing towards where we were supposed to go. It was only 12 kilometres away ... but right over the canyon edge!

Considerable time was lost, and when we finally got down to the right location, although we'd seen parts of the trip that others hadn't, there were points to be made up. The Hunter was a relatively easy one, requiring a navigation on mountain bikes to a series of sensor spots.

"I ended up dropping the bike and running through the rough fields," Paul said afterwards. "It was the kind of place where that worked better for me."

After that - and these guys didn't bother with waiting to have food - there was time for one more Hunter before we had to head for the camp. That turned out to be a 'scramble' on what looked to me like a seriously dangerous rough rocky cliff. The targets which had to be reached were in a sequence which meant the competitors had to do a lot of cross-travelling on the face.

And they enjoyed it! Actually, I shouldn't use the exclamation mark, because these people enjoyed every difficult and dangerous activity, quite a few of which Paul, for instance, had never done before. I guess it takes a sense of adventure first ... and then fearless nerves.

The first I have ...

And so to camp. Except that it was three hours' drive away. And the only way to make that trip on time was on what was called The Burr Trail.

I was already suspicious of anything called a 'trail'. The signs at the beginning ('Travel at Your Own Risk') didn't help.

But there were spectacular views of various canyons. It was some time after the tarmac had changed to dirt that we came to the bit that required us to drive from one canyon floor level to another, a mile of track downhill with sheer drops. Very loose, very hairy. I kept my eyes closed most of the time.

Our camp for the night was at Lake Powell, which had been formed by the damming of the Colorado River to provide water for much of mid- and Western America.

It was a lovely spot, but I was curious about the site where we parked our tents, because it seemed to me that it might have been under water some of the time.

"Yup, the water level is 95 feet lower than it should be, because of drought here over the last three years," a passing Park Ranger confirmed. "There's not been enough rain to keep the lake full, and there's too much draw off of the water, before and below it."

It seems that there is a very serious water problem developing in this part of the US, and the stuff may well become more scarce and more contentious than oil in a not-distant future.

It was a situation later confirmed by a couple of rangers I met upstream near Moab on the Colorado River. They'd been checking on the numbers of a particular pike native to that river, but which is now an endangered species because of changes in the river habitat. That day, they'd found none.

"It is no longer the 'mighty Colorado'," one said.

Meanwhile, back at Lake Powell, I slept again the sleep of the exhausted ...

And the next day followed much the same pattern as before, though prefaced by a warning from G4 organiser Nick Horne.

"Four vehicles were pulled over for speeding yesterday, and the local cops are getting anxious," he said. "It would be a real shame if this event was pulled because we didn't observe the speed limits."

I'd been warned by Paul at the beginning that the Discovery would be getting rather smelly by Thursday. He was so right. The mixture of sweating competitors and their sweaty clothes, and the sweet rotting of abandoned apple butts and banana skins, was building up a very rich environment indeed.

The guys seemed to mostly live on Power Bars which had been provided by the local Land Rover organisation. Maybe they provided physical boost, but they tasted vile, in any of the three flavours available. And somehow those flavours also seemed to permeate the vehicle. Maybe secondhand.

Anyway, after more running and abseiling, and more running and rock climbing, and more running and mountain biking, we eventually drove to the penultimate camp in the hills above Moab, 'The Adventure Capital of America'. After the last Hunter, because the Canadian had abandoned us to have dinner in town with a friend, I travelled with Karen to keep her company.

Her vehicle smelled an awful lot better. Mind you, after three days of not washing properly, not bothering to shave, and living in essentially the same clothes, I probably didn't do much to keep it that way!

The drive to the camp involved another of those 'trail' sections which had my nemesis sheer drops off dirt roads. I didn't like it, but Karen is an off-road instructor who was also the first woman entrant in the much-tougher 'Camel Trophy' adventure races of the mid-90s, and I managed to keep my eyes open almost all the way.

In the early hours of the morning, when I woke once again in a little tent, I came to an important decision. I wasn't going to do the camp bit any more.

Not because of the tent hassle, or the discomfort. It was a problem of my workstyle.

Out in the wilds of southern Utah, for all its dramatic beauty, I was suffering withdrawal symptoms. Not from fear of high places, or even agoraphobia - the psychological allergy to wide open spaces - but from being 'unwired'.

Apart from a very occasional use of the Iridium satellite phone with which every vehicle on the Challenge was equipped, I'd not been able to talk to my outside world.

My cellphone didn't have coverage. I couldn't access my email. I couldn't find out what was happening in Ireland, in the Gulf War, or even in the State of Utah.

I couldn't upload the stories I'd been writing.

Now, that's REAL roughing it.

So, when dawn broke over the Manti-LaSal State Forest where we were then parked, I went to find my apple and bread bun and requested that, on the grounds of essential deadlines, I get into my near-Moab hotel a night earlier than planned.

"I'll see what we can do ..." I was told. Politely, even sympathetically. But not with any degree of definite.

And then we had another tough day of events. Toughest for the contestants, of course. By now in the kind of weather I'd originally anticipated. Hot. Sunny. Non-Irish.

There was just one very hairy trip left, as it turned out. Which was up the side of a canyon on a road mostly disintegrating, and along much of which were those perpendicular drops. I was still with Karen, and when it got rough I just closed my eyes again. I was sure she wanted to get home safely too.

But when we got to the venue for the Hunter, it turned out to also offer the most fabulous view of the trip, with the canyon through which we had climbed framed in the distance by the Rocky Mountains.

It was worth every fearful flutter I'd endured on the way up. On the way down, I again kept my eyes closed until Karen hit a particularly hard set of bumps, then opened them involuntarily, said 'Oh Shit!', and closed them again ...

And that night, instead of a tent where I couldn't 'wire up', Land Rover DID get me into my hotel.

After checking my email, and showering and shaving off four days of white beard, I went to the restaurant and ate a rib-eye steak and trimmings, drank a bottle of wine, and then strolled back to my room and worked for five hours.

Elated, not by the food and wine, or even by a prospect of a real sleep, but by being 'connected' again.

In the following day's 'Separator' event, where the competitors were no longer teamed and were fighting to improve their final placings, Paul McCarthy enhanced his position by two levels to finish sixth in the overall competition.

He went on to 'chill out' in Los Angeles with family and friends for two weeks. And he didn't expect to eat any more freeze-dried food.

It was great. But when the next G4 Challenge comes up in 2005, it is only fair that somebody else gets a chance to cover it.

I've been there. Done that.

Didn't bring home the T-shirt. It was too sweaty.

(This article first appeared in the Summer Edition of Irish 4x4 & offroad.)


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