Cassiopeia and Ursa Major swept wide arcs through the moonless sky as the North Star kept a vigilant watch over its domain of darkness. I sat alone in a small clearing surrounded by thick stands of conifers and Douglas firs . . . waiting. It was dead silent, obsidian-black in all directions, save the small patch of stars silhouetted above. I was certain that every creaking branch or pine cone that hit the forest floor was the boogieman. I dare not leave the safety of my Hummer H3 to take a 10-100, or should I?
I'd been up since 0500 the previous day, it was now 0200 and I was chasing another race. The last one was in eastern Morocco, and ended in a rollover and dislocated shoulder. But this one would end differently. I was near a GPS checkpoint high on the South Cle Elum Ridge in central Washington, things were calm, and in four hours the checkered flag would drop.
The solitude crashed to a halt as two racks of HID lights burned through the trees, lighting the scene like the floodlamps at the Superdome. A swirling dust cloud billowed into the beam as eight tires came to a halt. Four doors opened, slammed, and as many LED headlamps went charging off into the woods in search of a waypoint. The dilated pupils behind those LEDs had also been awake since the previous morning, but rather than chasing the race, they were the race. Enter the 24-Hour TrailReady Team Trophy Challenge.
Flashback 20 hours and I was riding shotgun with Mark Stevens, event coordinator and member of the Timber Tamers 4x4 Club, through the pre-dawn darkness of the Wenatchee National Forest. As one of the twisted minds behind the Team Trophy, Stevens shared the premise behind the Challenge: "The idea behind Team Trophy Challenge is to pack a year's worth of four-wheeling into one day-the navigation, the trail repairs and the teamwork, all in 24 hours."
"We only expect 30 percent to finish," Stevens continued, "not because they break something, but because they just can't figure it out, or get tired, run late and make mistakes. We want them to have to think to survive this." How do they do it? No sleep! It reminded us of a mini-Camel Trophy.
The Trophy is divided in two sections, one from 0600 to 2100, the other from 2000 to 0600 the next day. The first 15 hours consist of 11 tulip-chart navigation sections with GPS waypoints interspersed for the guys who don't know the Time, Speed & Distance thing. So you had to be versed at traditional navigation as well as with a GPS. Each of the above sections was partitioned by a manned checkpoint and a series of Special Tasks, which ranged from orienteering and medical knowledge, to rock crawling and rebuilding a starter; teams were allotted ten minutes to complete each Task. Also along the route were a series of 19 barely-visible orange buckets, into which teams would drop a specially colored poker chip, each worth a number of points (the buckets used for the night section were painted pitch black. Sadistic, eh?).
There was even a secret Good Samaritan Task-an unattended campfire near the course. Stopping to put it out netted you bonus points, but speeding by like a Marine in the bootcamp chow line = bad racer, no doughnut. (One year they planted a stranded Subaru with an earthy-looking couple inside, bike racks up top, and a big Sierra Club sticker on the back. Again, stop and help, score big time.)
The Team part of the Trophy is just that: Two rigs and four guys or gals. They must start together, hit the checkpoints and Special Tasks together, and finish together. Think of Siamese quadruplets: Everything together. If one rig has a terminal breakdown, it can be towed all the way to the finish line to complete the course-and we think a few teams did.
Our observation was this: Of the 15 headlamp-clad teams gathered around the 0530 driver's meeting, there was an hour time-spread in the first one-hour Time, Speed and Distance section (TSD) section. First note: You must know how to navigate with a tulip chart. Instructions for the special tasks were detailed and clear, but had intentional holes, which were open to interpretation. Second note: You must be able to think on your feet. We saw three adrenalin-driven rigs in a row break drivetrain components in the one rockcrawling task. Third note: You can't win if you don't finish. And of course you must remember the cliché, "There isn't an I in 'Team'."
Some of the competitors managed their rigs with finesse, while others blazed out of the gates only to miss turns and lose time, then break an axle trying to make up the time later. By the day's end, about a third of the field had broken or become hopelessly lost, or both. But when we cruised into base camp about 2130, the lead teams had already headed out for the night sections.
Did we like it? You bet! And we're looking forward to see what the wacky minds of the Trail Tamers come up with next year. We may even bring a rig and participate next year, but we'd better bring someone who can navigate, turn a wrench, and drive. For info on the 2010 Team Trophy, check out www.timbertamers.org.