Thursday, July 17, 2003

An Outlaw Rides the Big Horn Trail - Tom Noll

One Hundred Miles is the signature distance of endurance riding and to me there is magic in the 100 mile distance that is different from any other ride.

Frank (my horse) and I are relative newcomers to endurance riding. Frank is an unregistered Arabian horse from Basin Wyoming. There are rumors about Frank's heritage, but Frank's past remains unknown. Kathy and Bud Arnold acquired him from friends and sold him to me when I needed a solid and honest horse to teach me about riding and endurance. I have trained Frank based on the knowledge of others and the experience that I gained from endurance running. Frank and I have trained on the same trails. Frank has taught me about horses and riding and I certainly doubt that I'll ever be able to give Frank enough in return.

Frank and I live in SW Idaho and earlier in the year I was honored when asked to join a local PNER endurance team called the "Outlaws." Frank is an outlaw horse. Butch Cassidy reportedly placed caches of especially strong horses with sympathizers and personal friends throughout the mountain west to be used for his escapes. Today we ride the decedents of those outlaw horses.

Riding the Big Horn 100 is an adventure in addition to being a 100-mile endurance ride. The Big Horn 100 travels true wilderness trails. The ride starts and finishes at the Trapper Creek Ranch outside of Shell Wyoming at 4500 feet. The ride climbs to a high point of nearly 10,000 feet and much of the ride is above 8000 feet. Very little of the course can be considered level and there are many climbs in and out of canyons. There are some gravel roads, many single-track and double-track trails, as well as some sections where there is no trail at all. The footing is rocky and the primary water sources along the trail are the natural creeks and steams.

This year the ride went clockwise around the loop and there were four vet checks at approximately 25, 38, 50 and 75 miles. Even though there are only four vet checks, I understand that in the whole history of the Big Horn 100, only one horse has been treated - and that was a long time ago. However, riders must be aware of the challenging trails, the difficult access, the long distances between the vet checks, and ride their horses responsibly. The Big Horn 100 is a very significant undertaking and I did not want to underestimate the terrain or the ride. People will debate the relative difficulty of various rides, but when the discussion turns to the most difficult 100s, the Big Horn 100 is always on the list. A crew is recommended for the Big Horn 100 and my brother Willi and his wife Alice drove up from Greeley Colorado and along with my wife Leslie, the three of them were a very capable crew.

Just like the words in the cowboy song, "I'm up in the morning before daylight, and before I sleep the moon shines bright." I got up early to saddle my horse and ride to the start. At 4:00 in the morning Tom Van Gelder spoke those unforgettable few words "The trail is open for competition." Cindy Collins led us on a nice controlled start. I was riding with the other 100-mile riders looking around at the stars, the badlands, and the cliffs thinking to myself, "This is really cool, I am so lucky." I was privileged to be riding with some rough riders and tough horses on some of the best trails in the mountain west. Soon Cindy released us and we were off and running through the shale badlands. Early on I linked up with Terry Dye and we rode together for the entire ride.

On our way to the first vet check, we passed farms, ranches, and camps as we began our climb out of the badlands from a low point of around 4000 feet on Shell Creek. We came into the first vet check about 20 minutes ahead of the next riders and pulsed down for our 45-minute hold.

Between the first and second vet checks the trail leaves the badlands to climb to the Big Horn plateau at over 9,000 feet. In portions, the trail is nonexistent and you just work your way up to a ridge or saddle through the forest underbrush. Later I heard that Regina, Linda and some of the other riders saw a bull moose on this section of trail. The section between the first vet check at Hudson Falls and the second vet check at Horse Creek is where some of the other riders met difficulties. Terry and I were alone for the entire ride and we were unaware of the troubles facing some of the others except for the short reports that we heard at the vet checks. The trail climbs and descends steeply in and out of several canyons on the way to the Horse Creek vet check. The Horse Creek vet check is on top of the Big Horn plateau and the snowfields and wildflowers were spectacular - especially the tiny blue alpine forget-me-nots.

After 45 minutes at Horse Creek, Terry and I were off to the Antelope Butte vet check at 50 miles. Again, this section is up and down. I don't know the total elevation gain of the ride but I am sure it is significant. During one section the trail was unmarked with only a sign reading "Big Horn 100 Riders - Head for the Peaks" and those peaks looked very far away. Little did I know that much later in the day we would actually be riding by those peaks. We descended off of the Big Horn plateau to the base of the Antelope Butte Ski Area for the 50-mile check and a one-hour hold.

After Antelope Butte it is a long 25 miles to the Jack Creek vet check. We were now in the hottest part of the day and we slowed our horses accordingly. Again the trail climbs to the Big Horn plateau, descends to the Shell Creek Ranger Station, and then climbs the Adelaide Trail to the plateau again. The Adelaide trail is very rocky and part of the trail is in the Big Horn wilderness. At one point in the wilderness a low overhanging log has fallen across the trail. Frank is a small horse at under 15 hands and we were barely able to squeeze under the log. Terry leaned sideways in the saddle as his horse Glory passed under the log. I heard later that Regina Rose had to unsaddle her Percheron-Arab horse Gypsy to get under the log. At Adelaide Lake we picked up two ranch horses that followed us along the trail. Our "herd" of four passed through the meadows and creeks until we cut off the two ranch horses at a fence gate. There are fences on the Big Horn 100 and Terry and I opened and closed many gates over the 100 miles of trail. Before our descent to Jack Creek we reached the high point of the route at nearly 10,000 feet. We were in the Big Horn Mountains and we could see other mountains and basins of Wyoming and Montana to the west and northwest.

Jack Creek at 75 miles was the last vet check. I loped Frank along the road and then got off and walked into the vet check for the final 45-minute hold. At Jack Creek I ate two excellent hamburgers while talking with the others about various 100s. I mentioned that in the 100-mile runs I was never able to get to 75 miles while there was still daylight so this was a first, but there were still mountain trails and slickrock ledges to cross before we reached the finish.

Terry and his horse Glory, Frank and myself left Jack Creek for the final 25 miles of trail. Our horses had worked together all day with each one of us helping the others during the low times. Terry and I had the talk that any two riders would have when they've ridden and shared the trails for 80 miles of a 100-mile ride and we made our agreement.

This last stretch of the trail was magical. The sun set in the west as a golden rider's moon rose in the east. Coyotes called to each other in the twilight as we rode along. Later that night the moon was so bright that in many sections I could see the silhouette of two riders on two horses making their way down the trail. The image was the same as it has been for hundreds of years on countless trails. At times we cantered through the darkness listening to the three-beat rhythm of the feet, always trusting our horses to carry us steadily and safely as they had faithfully done for nearly 100 miles. Around midnight we reached the finish line where Tom Van Gelder had spoken those unforgettable few words so many hours earlier. We finished together just as we had ridden together for the last 100 miles.

Best Regards,

Tom Noll
SW Idaho

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