Peak(s):  Long Scraggy, 8,796'
Date Posted:  04/18/2022
Modified:  04/23/2022
Date Climbed:   04/16/2022
Author:  thatOneMonoskier
 The hardest easter egg hunt   

Niwot's Challenge - The Barkley of the West

This is the story of the hardest easter egg hunt of my life. Niwot's consists of looking for books in the woods near Denver, mostly off trail. Although perhaps a bit unusual for this site, I feel that some people will get a kick out of reading about this event and perhaps consider participating next year!

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Loop the first: The Burn

At 6 o’clock, the pipe was lit, indicating it was time to start the adventure. I was the first on the bridge, but I was quickly passed by several people who were running right out of the gate. Given this was to be a long (long) day out, this surprised me as I joined in the jog. As we made our way up the first hill, I was amazed that a group of two kept running, but they both looked incredibly strong. Near the top of the hill, my fellow nitwits and I came to only junction on the route – half of us were heading CW, the other CCW. I was lucky enough to get CW, which is the direction I had scouted most of the course. As my group headed towards our first book, I had some brief exchanges – these would be some of the only people I would talk to for the next day.

Coming down the first hill, I decided it was time to break off from the group. I picked my way down the loose slope and made my way up to the first book. Although I had seen where all the books were on my scouting missions, I had never actually taken one out of the bag. As I ripped out page 14, I wondered how much I was detracting from the story between the covers. I put the page in my lips, climbed out of the gulley, and quickly realized I had made a mistake. My bib number was 12, meaning I had taken a fellow nitwit’s page. Begrudgingly, I turned around to return the now neatly folded page and grab the correct one. Only after the race would I learn that this page 14 would not be taken – the owner, who was going in the opposite direction, would spend nearly 7 hours out and only find a single page.

In hindsight, it seems it took a while for my brain to turn on. Not only did I grab the wrong page, I also walked straight past the second book. Having visualized the route many times and noted that the second book was “just sitting at the confluence,” I assumed it would have been hard to miss. But alas! This was the first time I was navigating truly by only a map and compass, which is a skill I am far from mastering. Wandering through this drainage looking for the second book was the first time of many that I wasn’t lost, but I also wasn’t exactly sure where I was. I believe this is one of the defining features of a course like this, and it was an absolute blast! As I was leaving the second book, I shared a holler with Springbok who was coming down the hill, turned my brain on, and made my way up the next climb.

I made my way in and out of numerous drainages littered with downed logs without any navigational hiccups, and eventually I came to the first section of the course I had avoided when I was scouting. The course is designed to make existence unpleasant at times, and some of the drainages are not the most inspiring lines. When I was choosing my own line, I avoided several of these drainages, opting instead for ridges with some stellar SPlatte scrambling. As I made my way along the creek following the footprints of those who had come before me, I began to wonder when I would see people coming the other way. These thoughts were silenced as I gutted myself climbing up to the highest point of the loop, where the 7th book laid waiting. From the top, I was able to see much of course from a viewpoint enjoyed by very few. I also realized I had accidentally brought curry instead of salty sushi for lunch – this made me quite sad.

I felt a moment of great relief when I finally saw some fellow nitwits. I had been wandering through the hills with my thoughts for 5.5 hours, and it was nice to see smiling faces and absurd amounts of sunscreen on the nose. Included in this group of three was the event’s most successful participant, Chief Wrong Way. Going for his 5th finish, he was the one who showed me where to go on the second loop and gave me essential beta. With him were Chief One Bearing and (future) Chief Gollum. These three would stick together for their entire effort, finishing after 28 hours. We briefly exchanged some words under the pleasant sun and then went our separate ways.

20 minutes later I was curled up into a ball in the dense willows, following a game trail obviously created by creatures several times smaller than humans. This was another drainage I had avoided in scouting, figuring I would be content with only experiencing it the one time. I had just gotten the beta from a fellow nitwit but, being the naïve idiot I sometimes am, I immediately got sucked onto the wrong side of the drainage by a nice looking “trail.” The result was several scratches to the legs and willow-whacks to the face. Once I finally made it to the use trail that side-hilled across the scree slopes, I took a sigh of relief and munched on a snack as I walked up the hill.

As I made my way past towering cliffs, I began to respect what an effort of this length was going to require. It hit me like a wave as I bent over to pick up another book under a log - to sustain this pace was going to make me uncomfortable, and that was something I just needed to accept. I was coming up on the 8 hour mark and had only eaten some mango slices and a few spoonfuls of curry. That’s about how much I usually eat in that time, but I usually don’t plant on continuing through the night. Despite feeling like I might puke from pushing hard uphill, I decided to take my first 5 minute break, shove down some food, and wonder what it’d be like to climb the blank granite faces surrounding me.

“If you feel bad, eat. If you feel good, slow down” played on loop in my head as I made my way up and down, collecting the final pages of the first loop. Less than 10 hours after I set out, I walked across the bridge and waved at the greeting party assembled in the parking lot. I handed in my pages, an experience that I had thought above ever since I heard about the Barkley Marathons several years earlier. I took my time chatting with my family and eating as much as I could stomach, then headed out down the road, knowing I probably wouldn’t see anyone else until the next day.

Loop the Second: Chief’s

The second loop of Niwot’s means business. The first loop, the Burn, involves navigating during the day in an area where you can see for miles. This is not the case for Chief’s. Not only is the forest fully filled in, causing all of the hills and drainages appear the same at first glance, but the sky is dark for the crux navigation sections. After hours of walking on roads and following power lines, I turned on my headlight just before heading in to the Bermuda Triangle. This one ridge is notorious for turning people around every which way. I was told stories of groups spending hours here looking for the standing dead tree in the middle of the forest that housed the next book. When I had scouted this a week prior with two Chiefs, we had gotten lost during the day with GPS. Of the entire experience, this was the one section that I feared the most.

I made my way along the ridge, through fields of scrub oaks. I had decided on my strategy for conquering this section at the start: I would inch my finger along the map to keep track of where I thought I was and I would make certain I stayed on the ridge proper. I passed footprints from the week before as I scanned the forest, making sure I could always see downhill on both sides. Eventually, the terrain started to drop off on all but one side. Scanning the small ridge, I was shocked to catch a glimpse of the One Tree. I couldn’t believe I had actually done it! I ripped out my page and made my way through the thick forest down to the creek.

The full moon illuminated the landscape as I made my way through scrub oak fields, wondering if my pack was still in one piece or if all of my gear was falling out the back. It had been over 16 hours and I couldn’t be bothered to check until the next book. At this point, I was running almost exclusively on autopilot as the navigational aspect eased considerably. I ate a snack at the only bench on the course and thought about where the others were and what fate had befallen them. Shortly after, my headlight reflected off an object in the forest and my heart jumped. After seeing a mountain lion on course the week before, I had been on high alert for several hours. Fortunately, I didn’t see the cat and I had just come up on some backpacker’s camp (it turns out my fear was justified as the other finishers encountered a kitty in the dark). Being completely sober, I mistook the backpacks for people, apologized for making a startled sound, and then continued on my way. Only after checking the time did I realize the humans were certainly asleep in their tent.

I made my way up another hill, to another tree, to another drainage. I didn’t think about how far I had to go, or how far I had come. All I thought about was which path I should take between the trees, which snack I wanted to eat next, and if that sound was made by me or an animal in the distance. I moved, stopping only to tear out pages and filter water. At hour 18, I somehow got completely turned around and was fully convinced I was going North when I was in fact travelling South. Of the many navigational lessons I learned, trusting the compass when lost was the most important. I pulled out one of the final pages but didn’t stop to enjoy the moonlit vista – I was tired and was ready to finish, so I pushed onward towards the crux.

The final challenge was making my way down one of the worst drainages I’ve experienced anywhere. I could not begin to count how many times I got smacked by branches or almost lost my footing. There was no side-hill bypassing the densest vegetation and there was no forgiving path around the several steep drops. I committed to relentless forward progress and only stopped to consider alternatives if I was legitimately concerned about my safety (which did happen on a few occasions). The best part of all is that, after arriving at the bottom and tearing out my page, I turned around and immediately went back up. I was exhausted, but this was the start of the last climb, so I put my negative feelings aside and pushed back into the dense brush.

Pushing hard in heinous situations in the dark is an experience that is hard to describe. It's not particularly enjoyable, but it's also not particularly memorable since, being someone who will do it again, I see no point in remembering how unpleasant it is. After nearly 20 hours, making my way up this last climb was tough, but it didn't come close to breaking me (I leave that for future projects...). Eventually the bushwhacking started to ease and the character building was over. I continued uphill until I crested the top of the last climb where the final book lay… or at least where it was supposed to lay. It turns out someone had taken the book in the last week and it was nowhere in sight! Despite knowing it was gone in the first minute, I spent the next 20 minutes searching just to make sure.

From this highpoint in the middle of the night, I was able to see the vastness of the Denver area contrasted with the darkness of the mountains to the west. In that moment, as I looked down to where hundreds of thousands of people rested in their warm beds, I felt something that I had only ever experienced once before – the appreciation that almost no one else would ever experience or understand what I had just gone through. In a life where everyone is statistically average in nearly every aspect, it’s neat to have a truly unique experience.

Having (not) found the last book, I made my way through the last of the navigational difficulties and followed the trail back towards the bridge. I was surprised at how good my body felt and even managed to slowly jog down the hill. I capitalized on the minor auditory hallucinations with some Twiddle, and then eventually arrived back at the bridge. As it was 3:24 in the morning, everyone was asleep and I intended to join them. I climbed into my van, ate the last of my sushi, and crawled into bed.

Post Race Reflections

I woke up the next morning at my usual wakeup time (the body is a funny thing). I spent the next several hours getting to know the people who put on the event and hearing stories about other nitwit’s experiences out on the course.

Of the 12 starters, 5 would not finish the first loop for various reasons. I am particularly inspired by Chief Tenacious who, after getting lost looking for the 5th book, ended up fording the SPlatte twice (not easy or required) because he changed his mind about quitting (he returned to the bridge after 16 hours with 10 pages). Of the 7 to start Chief’s, myself and 3 others went on to finish in under the 30 hour limit. Although I was not there to see how these events transpired, Springbok navigated the entire loop solo and arrived back at the bridge after 33:15 with all of her pages, becoming the second women to ever link up the full course (TR here).

As someone who does lots of solo off trail efforts, Niwot’s stands out for me because of the community. The entire event really feels like a bunch of laid back adventurers creating a course that is both close to Denver and is a proper challenge. There is of course a healthy sprinkle of masochism on the Lorax’s part and unpleasantness on the nitwit’s part, but this is to be expected from “The Barkley of the West.”

Although the course is subject to change, the 2022 version has one aspect that I think is simply brilliant – the noticeable difficulty in the loops. The Burn is moderate, with easier navigation, isolated bushwhacking sections, and copious bailout points. I feel that it is a good introduction for people inexperienced at off trail travel. Chief’s is difficult (though not extreme, as it never exceed class 2+), with head scratching navigation sections, sustained fields of very involved bushwhacking, and no bailout points that quickly bring you back to the start. I fully agree with the Lorax that people who struggle on the Burn have zero business going onto Chief’s.

It is my opinion, having completed the 50-mile version in 21:23, that the 100 mile version of this course would not be as hard as Nolan's, and thus not as hard as the Barkley. It seems to me, however, to be much more accommodating to adventurers of all skill levels and I think this design choice, intentional or not, makes it a 5-star event. If you’re inspired to give it a go (and you should!), the first steps can be found on the HPRS website.

Happy Trails,

Justin




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Comments or Questions
zootloopz
User
congrats!
04/26/2022 09:30
huge effort and fun read



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