Evening of 9/12 at Camp 1
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), the heavy rains had made the slot canyon in the next section impassable for the teams near the back of the pack. We were routed around the canyon, hiking safer terrain to CP12. Along the way we collected a two young local guys who were eager to talk with us. One of them had headphones in, listening to Mariah Carey. I remember thinking how great it would be to be able to listen to music or an audiobook during the easier sections of the race, but we weren’t allowed to have any electronic devices other than the emergency radio and tracking beacon.
We arrived at CP12 around midnight and began building our “bilibili” bamboo rafts. The two young men that had followed us on the hike were eager to help out, and we were eager to let them.
Rather than sleep, we decided to launch our rafts (me and Katie on one, Matt and Corey on the other) and try to take shifts resting, but this was difficult in the upper sections of the river. There were several sections of swift water with obstacles (rocks, tree stumps, etc…) that could easily knock apart a fragile bilibili. The race staff had placed flashing strobes on the most dangerous obstacles, which did help, but maneuvering our bamboo rafts was like trying to steer a canoe with a spoon. Katie became very good at paddling while half asleep, and every time I saw a strobe coming up in the pitch darkness I would startle her awake so she could scan ahead with her headlamp.
I reached a point where I couldn’t stay awake any longer, so we pulled off for a 30 minute nap which turned into a 50 minute nap. After another couple hours on the rafts, we had to stop to nap again, this time keeping it to 30 minutes. Right around dawn, the river became mellow, with almost unnoticeable current for large stretches. This was when the biggest challenge of the bilibili began, the mental challenge. The effort you put into paddling with a piece of bamboo is high, but the progress made is so small. The difference between just floating in the current and paddling your heart out felt unnoticeable. It was maddening. I had packed a pair of plastic hand paddles and lashed one to each end of my bamboo pole, creating a slightly more effective kayak-type paddle. I honestly don’t know if it helped. We paddled those rafts for over 12 hours. By the end of it, the whole team was in a bad way. Matt’s unshakable calm was getting shaky and Corey had sworn off any sort of river travel for the rest of his life.
Leaving the bilibili behind, we walked up and collected the Jungle medallion before moving on to set up our bikes again. We were all in varying states of frustration and sleep deprivation, so we assembled bikes in relative silence. The first bit of biking was nice and it quickly became very hilly. Knowing that we had plenty of time to reach Camp 2 before the cutoff, we started to cheer up. Once the sun began to set, our energy skyrocketed. I chalk it up to finally shedding the bilibili trauma, but whatever it was, our pace skyrocketed. Katie flew ahead and we had to ride hard to keep up with her.
As we biked along the river valley, low mountains became visible and the whole landscape began to change. It was as if we were entering Jurassic Park. Conical, forest covered peaks stood out like spires in the evening mist. It was the kind of fog that you could feel collecting on your skin as you move through it, thick enough to feel in your lungs. For the first time that day, I was truly happy again. Overwhelmed by the beauty and the circumstance; and a little delirious.
We arrived at Camp 2 in full dark. The camping area was wet, muddy, and we were cold. Word had spread that the next section was brutal, so we decided to get some rest and set out at first light. Looking back, this section from Camp 1 to Camp 2 was the easiest part of the race. We couldn’t have imagined that at the time.