August 15 2009
It's now twenty-four years and still counting for the Eastern High Sierra Classic endurance ride near Bridgeport, California, put on by Jackie Bumgardner. This was my 6th time to ride in it, and umpteenth time to ride the trails, but no matter how many times I see the same trails and the same scenery, I'm never not amazed. It still ranks as one of the most beautiful mountain rides I've done. Every year it's like seeing it all over again for the first time and I say the same thing all day long: WOW.
It's not an easy ride: there's altitude, rocks, bogs, creek crossings, steep trails to deal with. You better bring a fit horse, and you'd better know how to take care of him.
This year Jackie gave me her mare Fire Mt Odyssey to ride. I rode for Jackie for several years so I knew Odyssey and I'd ridden her quite a lot, though on only one endurance ride. She's a Princess - she'd love to come live inside your house with you, be scratched and rubbed all over all the time, have a few minions fanning her to keep the flies off... but that soft outer veneer covers one tough horse. I looked up her record: over 3600 miles over 6 seasons (with 2 years off for having a baby in there), and that includes completing Tevis, her only 100 miler. That's almost as many miles as I have. Then there's the single pull in 74 starts: that was with me! In 2003 we were pulled for a lameness. So, besides the incessant pressure I feel being responsible for someone else's horse (which is every ride, since I don't have my own endurance horse), there was the added pressure of not ruining Odyssey's record any more than I already did!
There's a rider limit of 130 on this ride, and Ridecamp - the pasture Jackie leases for her horses from the Hunewill Ranch - was packed to the gills. By Friday night, rigs coming in at the last minute were being squeezed into the last available spots of grass.
LOOP ONE - 20 MILES
I got up awful early, before my alarm at 4:20, and found a white horse hanging out at our trailers. She let me catch her, and knowing that somebody would come around camp frantically looking for a missing horse some time this morning, I tied her up to a trailer that faced most of camp. Half an hour later I saw someone with the horse - "Found your horse, did you?"
Ann Hall came up to me, "Oh - thank you!!! She's a Hyannis horse (Hyannis Cattle Company breeding) - I thought she ran off and I'd never be able to catch her again!" Luckily she'd just let me walk right up to her.
Ann K led the 50 milers on a mile-long controlled start out of camp at 6 AM Saturday morning. It was chilly enough for some horses to be wearing butt blankets, and to make for some very frisky equines. A long line of horses - 93 of them, kicked up a long line of dust that hung in the air. For just that reason, Gretchen (riding her horse Kav), Jessica (riding Gretchen's horse Raffiq), and I squeezed in toward the front of the line, as we rode over the low line of hills and descended toward the Hunewill Ranch in the dawn.
Once we hit a two-track road, the single line broke up, eager horses cantering past to get a better position for the climb up to Summer's Meadows. Our horses were on their home turf and knew exactly where they were going. Raffiq took off with Jessica at a canter and she was having trouble reeling him in, and Odyssey's lofty trot was about to bounce me out of the saddle. Gretchen slipped Kav, who was willing to go at a more reasonable pace, in front of us to slow us down. Back on a single track winding through the sagebrush, we started a steady climb. A chorus of snorting horses, hoofbeats on dust and rock, and the brushing of sage against horse legs accompanied the visual symphony of the sunrise as we climbed several hundred feet above the valley floor.
Topping the ridge: a view of Twin Lakes far below, framed by the Sawtooth ridge - WOW! We jumped off our horses for the several hundred feet of switchback down-trail to the bottom of the Lower lake, where we had a pulse-down and trot-by vet check. We'd timed it right to be ahead a crowd of people, and we vetted right through. I ripped off my fleece jacket and handed it to Dick Dawson to take; I quickly took off Odyssey's butt blanket and gave it to Jackie.
We three jumped back on, and headed off up the road for a mile. Our horses were pretty sure that the opposite direction was the correct way (when we do this training loop, we turn back home here), so we weren't blazing any speed records through here. Leaving the vet check, Odyssey took a few bobbles on her right front. Just when I started to think I was riding a lame horse (but how could she be, she just trotted out fine for the vet, right?), then she'd be fine. She favored that leg again, and I said to Gretchen, "I think she's off!" But then she was fine again, and Gretchen didn't see anything. I started having visions of Odyssey getting pulled at lunch... only her second pull ever, both with ME!
We turned up the Cattle Canyon trail to begin our next climb above the lakes. It's a few miles of single track, some along steep drop-offs toward the lakes, climbing higher and higher, with very few places to pull over and let people by - and we'd now picked up a string of horses. I don't like leading a string of riders because I feel I have to ride their speed and not mine, but there was no place to pull over for a long while. And meanwhile, Odyssey was definitely favoring that right front once in a while. "Geez, she feels like she's got a bruised right front foot!"
Gretchen, riding behind me, was squinting at Odyssey's feet, and said, "That's because she's lost her shoe!" Geez - how long had Odyssey been without that shoe, and had been clearly telling me that, and I just didn't get it! (Embarrassing, unprofessional - what kind of a horseman am I??)
We still had to go at least another rocky mile on the steep single-track trail before there was a little place for the three of us to pull over. Conveniently, I was carrying two Easy Boot Gloves, one of which Gretchen put on for me. (I was too slow!) Got back on a sound horse. We continued on up the trail.
More climbing, with Upper and Lower Twin Lakes getting smaller below us - we came up and over one curve in the trail, and another awesome view - the Sawtooths spread out before and above us. WOW! Gretchen recalled climbing Matterhorn Peak in the Sawtooths a few years ago, when a thunderstorm suddenly came up, and the peak got struck by lightning. She got knocked away from the rock she was sheltering against, and her gloves blew off her hands. She didn't fall off the peak, and survived to endurance ride. Luckily for me, and everybody around me, there were no thunderstorms forecast for today, since I'm scared of lightning. Gretchen doesn't love it either. : )
It was early enough yet to be almost cold in some of the drainages, where the side of the hills and the forest kept us in shade. Great weather for the horses, and comfortable to ride in.
After reaching 8500 feet, the trail began its downward spiral, alongside roaring Horsetail falls, back down to the top of the Upper lake. Raffiq led the way on the winding single track trail alongside the Upper lake - he has a ball when the trail twists and turns and you can't see very far ahead of you and he goes faster and faster. Lots of "YeeHaw!"ing going on along here, by us and our horses.
We played leapfrog with other riders through the houses between the lakes, and past the Lower lake - Odyssey got more and more excited the closer we got to home along the flat sandy trail back to camp.
The day was still cool, and despite motoring in all the way, Odyssey's pulse was at 48 as soon as we arrived for the lunch vet check. WOW! I got her shoe replaced during the break, and after our one-hour hold, we headed out with four shoes for our second 30 mile loop.
LOOP TWO - THIRTY MILES
After trotting toward Buckeye Canyon for a couple miles, we turned up a logging road that took us from the valley floor at 6500' up to over 8000' again, toward Eagle Peak. This can be a hot slog of a climb where your horses (and you) are pouring sweat, but today was one of the coolest EHSC rides I've done. Makes it a lot easier on the horses, and oh-so pleasant!
Odyssey wasn't so thrilled to be leading the way, because we passed at least 3 shortcuts back (that we do on training rides). Raffiq took over and led us up to the top, through an aspen forest that is quite stunning with bright colors in the autumn, and where a view of Eagle Peak opens up before you. Once we made it over the top, Odyssey took the lead again. Normally she can be spooky - those horse-eating logs are especially scary - but she was really into it now. Especially if she got far enough ahead that she could stop and grab mouthfuls of grass (the cows weren't up here yet, so there was plenty of grass), because she was starving, even though she'd eaten most of her way through our hour lunch hold.
Our trail turned back toward home, and we trotted much of the long way down an old logging road into to the Buckeye drainage. At the bottom we passed through the vet check where we'd be stopping for our second hold after another out-and-back loop. There was no hold this time, but Odyssey was still SO STARVED, we stopped for the horses to eat hay and grass for 15 minutes.
I always have mixed feelings about the Buckeye Canyon loop. It's a beautiful loop to ride and it's flat and fairly easy (except for rocky sections on the way back, and some bogs which are a bit scary some years), but I always vividly remember our ride in 2005, when Jackie's awesome endurance horse Zayante colicked severely out here on us, at the far end of this loop. First time he'd ever had a metabolic problem in his 15 seasons and over 13,000 miles of endurance riding - and this was his home turf where he lived and trained, and we'd been riding a regular, moderate pace. He almost died on us that day. He didn't, and he's still around (story on him later : ), but that was a terribly traumatic day that always slightly taints the beauty of this loop for me, and always makes me worry, just a little bit, no matter how good and strong my horse is feeling.
Our horses were doing fine today - feeling strong, and eating and drinking well, and we probably had nothing to worry about... but Zayante had been completely fine and normal till he suddenly wasn't. You just never know.
But - beautiful it is. WOW. Big forested hills on your left; granite cliffs on your right, and a growing Buckeye Ridge looming into your view in front of you. A shaded Jeffrey forest to trot under, sagebrush flats and cow meadows to frolic through (cows were out here now - they like to eat the orange ribbons that mark the trail, so someone ALWAYS has to come remark the trail at least once). There's not a direction you can look that you don't say WOW! What a great day for a ride on such an awesome trail!
We were passed by half a dozen riders, and Gretchen said something about, "Wow, let's back off those guys a bit, it's dusty." Dusty? After 100 miles of the Hell Dust of the Tevis trail, I hadn't noticed!
Almost four miles up the canyon, our trail crossed Buckeye Creek and turned back. Gretchen, always looking for an excuse to jump in cold rivers and lakes, said she'd get off her horse and sponge our horses off. It felt so good, she forgot to get back on to ride her horse across the creek.
We took turns leading on the trail back, and as we got close to the Buckeye vet check, we whooped and hollered. There were plenty of horses in there already, getting pulses taken, hanging out and eating for their hour hold. Plenty of volunteers taking pulses and handing out water to riders, or holding horses for riders. Odyssey and Kav's pulses were down immediately and Odyssey dragged me right to the hay.
I'd lost sight of Jessica and Raffiq in the crowd of horses, and finally noticed he hadn't joined us. He was still standing having his pulse taken - that was not normal for Raffiq! Another few minutes and he was still standing there; Ann W came over to hold our horses while Gretchen and I went over to Jessica and Raffiq with water to sponge him down and cool him off. Nick was monitoring his pulse. "It's hanging at around 68."
Not normal! Raffiq should have been down around 50 when we came in! After more sponging with cold Buckeye Creek water, he finally came down to the 60 pulse criteria, but he wasn't interested in water or food - not normal! - and one look at his eye, and you could tell he was just not right. Not particularly in pain, but just not comfortable.
I of course kept thinking of Zayante, and that made me nervous. Zay was in much worse shape by the time we got him into this vet check that year, and though Raffiq didn't look anything like Zay now, he just was not right.
Jessica took Raffiq into the shade, and we kept sponging him to keep him cool. Gretchen tried squirting water in his mouth to get him interested, but he wasn't. I listened to his gut sounds by putting my ear to his guts - heard some activity, but not a lot. Nick came and checked his pulse again and listened to his guts: "He's 56 now, and I hear some gut sounds in there" - but Raffiq still just didn't look right in his eyes. Our hold was only 30 minutes, but we decided to stay longer to see if he'd suddenly snap out of it.
He didn't. It was only 6 miles back to camp - which we could have walked in with plenty of time to spare - but Jessica pulled him. Ann's husband Fred was driving the Horse Cadillac Shuttle back to camp for any horses that were pulled (one was already waiting, so they could leave as soon as Raffiq was ready), so we all went to the vet - Jessica and Raffiq to pull, Gretchen and Kav, and me and Odyssey to vet through to continue on the trail.
The vet looked Raffiq over and agreed he should be pulled. There was nothing seriously wrong with him at this point, but he should be watched closely. Gretchen and I vetted through, after spending nearly an hour there (Odyssey never picked her head out of the food the whole time), mounted back up for our final six mile loop in.
We thought we'd mosey on in, but Odyssey had other ideas.
She's been over this trail hundreds of times and wanted to get back to camp. I had to tuck her behind Kav on the smooth flat dirt road for the few straight miles down Knee-Knocker road back into camp because she would have galloped all the way in - and probably dumped me along the way, because she was spooking at things, because she was full of beans!
When we got to within 30 yards of the finish line - which is along a willow-lined fenceline which ALWAYS spooks our horses, Odyssey's eyes were big as pie plates from just being silly-spooky, plus there was a big umbrella shading the finish line guys, plus Raffiq was screaming at his trailer (horses always seem to know way ahead of time when their buddies are coming in - obviously Raffiq was feeling better), plus we were at the end of the ride back at her home pasture - everything was just EXCITING!!!!
I got off and led Odyssey to the finish line because I was about to get dumped off!
We unsaddled back at the trailers and went to vet in - Odyssey's pulse was again 48 and she trotted out sound - another completion for Odyssey (whew!) and another beautiful 50 mile ride for me and the Raven : ).
And another successful, beautiful Eastern High Sierra Classic ride in the books. All 32 starters in the 30 mile ride completed, and all but 5 of the 93 starters in the 50 finished.
Yet one more WOW was the after-ride dinner cooked by Quinn (forget his last name - he's originally from my small part of the world in Owyhee County Idaho!), and Zip and Nancy Upham. It was the most stunning ride dinner I have ever had, and somebody who was not as tired and starved as I was confirmed that.
It's always a huge undertaking to put on a ride anywhere - volunteers everywhere make endurance rides happen, and this one is no exception. The forest service has also been a big help (and the new designated Hoover Wilderness fortunately missed our regular EHSC trail), as have the local residents who don't mind us riding along their roads, some of whom actually come out to wave at us as we ride by and dust them out.
Jackie says she's putting this ride on one more time - it will be the 25th anniversary - and then Gretchen's taking it over. Ride entries are limited to 130 every year, so make your plans. A little slice of heavenly trails await!
And that Hyannis horse I caught in the morning? Hal Hall finished 4th on her in the 50 and won Best Condition : )
Results, more photos at www.endurance.net/international/USA/2009EHSC