Tuesday, July 20, 2004

2004 Big Horn 100 - Tom Noll

Before the Big Horn 100, Tom VanGelder gave some advice for finishing the 100, "Spend your horse like I spend my money - a little bit at a time." The Big Horn 100 is a unique ride consisting of a single loop through the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming. It is classic endurance with four vet checks spread over the 100 miles of trail. The trail is tough and the ride attracts some rough riders and tough horses.

The Big Horn 100 is not a ride for everyone. Do not plan to show up to the Big Horn 100 without a crew or a clue, and a plan to take advantage of others for personalized guide service, personalized pacing, and personalized crewing. And, if you are the kind of person who can do those things, and then abandon your partner to cut and run for the finish at the first sign of hardship when your partner's help is no longer needed for your own selfish purposes, then be prepared for your trail partner to question your character after dragging your sorry ass through 100 miles of Big Horn trails.

The Big Horn 100 is reported to be the oldest sanctioned 100-mile ride in the AERC. A handful of people put on the ride and the ridecamp is graciously hosted at the Flitner Trapper Creek Ranch. The trail goes from the shale badlands to alpine meadows on trails from graded roads to primitive wilderness tracks. It is one of the few 100s where the 24-hour cutoff is a true concern. Like last year, my brother Willi and his wife, Alice came up from Colorado to crew for me and enjoy the atmosphere of the ride. No one could ask for a more pleasant and capable crew.

About a dozen 100-mile riders and about a dozen 50-mile riders started in darkness at four in the morning. The big bear hung low in the northern sky over the sandstone cliffs and occasional shooting stars streaked through the blackness. Tom VanGelder again mentioned those magic words "The trail is open" and we were led on a controlled start through the ranch property and on to the badlands.

The morning was pitch black and we trusted our horses to carry us safely through the darkness across the shale badlands. Sunrise found us at the 25-mile vet check outside of another magnificent ranch near Hudson Falls. This year, the ride management and the vets decided to try something different for the 25-mile ride. There was only one entrant in the 25, a tough lady from Fort Collins, Colorado on a big ranch horse. She was lucky enough to ride through the canyons from Hudson Falls to Antelope Butte on probably the toughest and most scenic LD ride sanctioned by the AERC in 2004. She started her ride with us at Hudson Falls and she went on to finish the LD at Antelope Butte in style.

At Hudson Falls, we were held briefly to allow Bud and Kathy Arnold and the rest of the Wyoming riders to catch up and guide us through the next section of the trail. The weather has been difficult this year, and the Big Horn 100 has a very small staff, so it was not possible to mark the entire trail prior to the ride. It was an honor, and one of the highlights of the trip, to ride through the canyons with Bud, Kathy, and the rest of the Wyoming riders. It was true old-time endurance with rough riders, tough horses, a cow dog tagging along for style, and wilderness trails. A person could not ask for better companions on the trail and some of the images from that portion of the ride will stay in my mind for a long time. Sitting here at my computer, I wish I were back out on the Big Horn trail with those enjoyable and trail-savvy characters.

After the canyons and alpine meadows, we made our way to the Antelope Butte ski area for the 50-mile hold. This was to be our only hour-long hold so I took advantage of the time to let Frank (my horse) rest. He was alert but hungry and we let him graze while watching the drama of the 50-mile ride finish.

Beyond Antelope Butte there are still 50 miles of trail including the wilderness section of the Adelaide Trail. The sky was dark and the thunder was rolling, so I packed a turtleneck and a shell as well as rump rug in case we got into a spell of cold rain and hail. The good weather held for us and we made our way through the deadfall and around the snags on the Adelaide Trail. Some people complain about the difficulty of the Big Horn trails and point out that if the trails were not so tough, perhaps there would be greater participation in the ride. No doubt that is true, but it is the Big Horn 100 and the Big Horn 100 is not a ride for sissies.

After the Adelaide Trail section we came to the alpine lakes and Boulder Basin. I glimpsed the shadowy figure of a large gray canine silently disappear into the trees. Was it a coyote or a wolf? The image was too fleeting to know for sure.

Again, because of the difficulty of travel this year and the small staff, this section of the trail somehow remained unmarked. My horse and I remembered the trail from last year and I consulted the maps and my GPS where I might have had questions. We were the front-runners at this point so there were no tracks to guide us. I became concerned about the other riders, and I got off to set trail markers at certain key junctions. My partner chose to stay mounted on his horse while I set the trail markers. I later heard that Sue Horn and Jocelyn Stott followed our tracks and trail signs. I imagined them getting off their horses and tracking us like the Pinkertons in the Butch Cassidy movie. Perhaps Butch and Sundance should have walked their horses backwards to add to the confusion.

The top of the ride is nearly 10,000 feet at Boulder Basin and from the top of the ride you can look far back to the north and see the alpine meadows near Antelope Butte in the distance. At the top of Boulder Basin we again picked up the marked trail and continued on down to the last hold at Jack Creek. Jack Creek is one of my favorite holds. Doug VanGelder cooks burgers and two of the veterinarians caught trout for the supper. Leaving Jack Creek is bittersweet because you know there are no more stops and these are the last miles of the Big Horn trail.

We saddled up and left Jack Creek to continue on down the trail. Just as we left, Sue and Jocelyn rode into the vet check. It was good to see that they made it safely and quickly through the unmarked section in Boulder Basin.

My horse had been completely sound physically and metabolically throughout the entire ride. He was pulsed down on arrival at each vet check and received nearly all As on the vet card. But, at about 90 miles I thought I felt something off with his gait. It wasn't constant and it wasn't very noticeable, he could still canter up hills, but I felt that something was amiss. I got off and checked, but there were no stones in the hoof. Still, I thought that something might be awry. I thought about the AERC motto and I thought about the AERC finish criteria. The goal is to finish with a sound horse - everything else is secondary. My horse, Frank has done a lot for me and we have a formed a partnership on the trails. Even though we had ridden 90 miles, I thought, "I've run 100s, certainly I can walk these last 10 miles." I looked at my watch and realized that I had nearly 8 hours to complete the last 10 miles. The person who I had guided over 90 miles of unfamiliar Big Horn trails and waited for patiently while he and his horse took extra time to pulse down and recover at the vet checks saw his opportunity, feigned concern, and raced off for the finish while I led my horse in those last few miles. That was the last I saw of him until well after sunrise the next morning in camp. The words of Robert Service came back to my mind, "A promise made is a debt unpaid and the trail has its own stern code."

Sue Horne and Jocelyn Stott passed me on the way in. They asked if all was well. I explained that my horse might be slightly off. Jocelyn mentioned that she thought that his gait looked fine and she encouraged me onward. Those two rode an excellent and savvy ride, and Jocelyn Stott received BC in the 100. They are both classy riders who would make wonderful trail companions.

Just before 11:00, I was the fourth to finish the Big Horn 100. About 100 feet before the finish, I remounted and Frank carried me across the finish like the true horse that he is. He trotted out fine at the finish and we received our completion. Perhaps I could have ridden him those last ten miles, but to me, no first-place finish is worth that risk.

Later that night, three members of the Johnson family as well as their friend Charlotte became the final ones to finish the Big Horn 100. The Johnson family is an endurance legend and they showed their style at the Big Horn 100. Joyce Anderson led them through the tough sections but unfortunately, Joyce had to pull at Jack Creek because of a possible broken ankle. Joyce is another tough rider and she rode many a hard mile with that bad ankle.

The Big Horn 100 is a very special ride hosted by a few special people. As I said earlier, the Big Horn 100 is not a ride for everyone. If you expect ride amenities and concierge service, then there are other rides. But, if you want to ride classic endurance on some of the most beautiful and tough trails in the Rocky Mountain west, the Big Horn 100 might be your ride. On the right day on the right year, the Big Horn 100 could probably be ridden cavalry style by someone with true wilderness trail savvy, but it is a good idea to arrange your own support well before the ride.

On my way home I thought about something that happened last year. Last year my wife, Leslie and I stopped at a roadside rest area in Wyoming. As usual, we opened the trailer to let the horses look around. A woman and her two kids came up to the trailer to see the horses. She asked about our trip and I talked about the Big Horn 100. She then explained how she had moved from New York to Colorado and such. In the middle of her conversation, she stopped talking, looked me square in the eye, and said with real emotion in her voice, "You are living my childhood dream." I am so lucky.

Best Regards,

Tom Noll
SW Idaho

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