Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Dangerous is the Colorado Trail Race?

When I describe the basic logistics of the Colorado Trail Race, people often ask how dangerous it is. A fair question. With 60,000+ feet of climbing over almost 500 miles, long sections over 11,000 feet (and a high point of over 13,000), it's a tough route through some of the wildest and most remote areas of Colorado. Below freezing temperatures are common, as is snow, hail, and days of rain. Most of the trail is technical singletrack. Add the lack of support crews, many days of sleep deprivation, and minimal ultra-light gear--and, yes, the CTR is potentially very dangerous. Climbers and hikers die in the Colorado Rockies with some regularly, so it's reasonable to assume that CTR competitors face similar risks, potentially exacerbated by the additional demands of high-level competition.

As with all mountain adventures, there are two primary types of risks on the CTR: objective and subjective hazards. Objective risks are those over which you have very little control. Getting run over by a drunk driver in Leadville is a good example of an objective hazard. There is very little you can do to avoid that fate, short of not entering the race to begin with. In comparison, subjective risks are those over which you have lot of control. A good example of subjective hazard is getting electrocuted during a raging thunderstorm because you didn't choose to wait an hour for it to clear before riding over Georgia Pass.

Most of the serious hazards faced by CTR racers are of the subjective sort, which is a good thing because they can be mitigated with experience, preparation, good judgment, and some common sense. But objective hazards still exist, and it’s good to know what they are, especially when they can be lessened somewhat, or at least rationally repressed.

So, here’s a break-down of what I think the biggest risks and hazards that CTR racers face, in order of severity, along with what can be done to improve your odds.

  1. Cars. It’s the unspoken truth about the CTR: for a mountain-bike race; there’s a lot of riding on roads. But thanks to Stefan’s decision to re-route the race away from Highway 285, the scariest section of the CTR has been eliminated. I really hated riding up 285 in the pouring rain and mist, with 18-wheelers and RVs slaloming by at 70 miles per hour--often without even the relative safety if a decent shoulder. But even with the safer route, the race still shares many miles of roads with cars piloted by drunks, inattentive texters, bottle-throwing rednecks, etc. Lots of objective risk, over which we have very little control. Reducing the risk is still somewhat possible though: wear bright clothes, stick a blinker light on your bike, and pay attention to your surroundings. I’m always amazed to see riders cruising through Leadville or Buena Vista at night--in dark clothes without so much as a light. A blinker weighs all of an ounce or two, and bright clothing doesn't weigh anything extra. While being seen won’t necessarily prevent a drunk driver from running you down, it will ’ reduce the odds of death-by-car.
  2. Lightening. Hikers and climbers are regularly killed during lightning storms in Colorado. Unfortunately, this isn't much of a surprise to me. Electrical storms often sweep in quickly, especially during the monsoon season (which overlaps with the CTR). Seeing a storm approaching from the opposite side of a high ridge can often be impossible, so you can be caught off-guard right at the worst moment as you top out into the maelstrom. Objective hazard territory for sure. But certainly not entirely. I've watched riders climb right into the middle of a massive electrical storm, with bolts of lightning hitting simultaneously with claps of thunder. Is a bike race really that important?!? Fortunately, Colorado storms tend to move along as quickly as they arrive. Instead of facing the wrath of Apollo, take an hour-long break to do something necessary such as sleep, eat, lube your chain, contemplate your loved ones, etc. Knowing where to safely hide is a good idea, too. Here’s a great article that may save your life:
  3. Crashing. While it's happened (not on the CTR though), it's hard to kill yourself by crashing your bike. If it were easy, most racers with enough experience to consider entering the CTR would have died long ago. But it's still easy to get hurt severely enough to need a rescue. Indeed, the only evacuation that I've heard of during the CTR was due to a rider crashing hard into a talus pile and ripping a huge gash into his leg. While not fatal, a bone-breaking crash could make for really miserable day--especially if it’s sleeting, and you don’t have enough warm gear to fend off exposure (see below). There are also a few short sections where a crash would be fatal, especially in the San Juan Mountains. The trail occasionally cuts across steep slopes and cliffs, where you could fall for several hundred feet. Crashes happen, so paying attention, especially when riding in the fog of sleep-deprivation, is critical. Crashing is mostly a subjective hazard, so walking down technical sections that you’d be able to ride on a normal day isn't a crime--I do it all the time, especially when staring into the maw of a 300-foot cliff inches from the edge of the trail. But what if you do crash and hurt yourself? A basic first-aid kit, with enough tape to reduce blood loss until you can get to safety, should be mandatory equipment.
  4. Exposure. Surviving a sub-freezing night during a sleet storm at 12,000 feet is par for the course on the CTR. Almost every racer has done it, and it’s not even that miserable if you have a waterproof bivy bag, a warmish sleeping bag, and enough dry clothing. But imagine the same cold and wet night after a hard crash, especially if you have insufficient gear. You're in shock from a broken arm, you didn't bring that extra pile sweater--and the above-treeline wind is blowing gallons of cold water right under your ultra-light tarp into your sopping sleeping bag. Yes, you could be dead by morning--even after activating your Spot. I've seen riders quit the race after realizing that they weren't prepared for the cold summer storms of Colorado. Better to quit than pushing on through though, so some belated good judgment us better than never. But even better is bringing enough warm and dry gear so that you can survive the night, even when exhausted and injured. Exposure is generally a subjective hazard, often compounded by other subjective hazards such as not riding conservatively enough through technical sections.
  5. Sleep deprivation. If humans don’t get enough sleep, we go crazy. First our reflexes slow and our reasoning skills lessen. Crashes become more common, and mental exercises such calculating mileage get tricky. Then we start to hallucinate. I've seen monsters in the darkness, even though I knew they weren't real.  Finally, we become delusional. The monsters aren't imaginary anymore, or so our sleep-deprived brains tell us. That’s when things get really scary. One racer in 2012 went bat-shit crazy, abandoning his equipment and flipping out only a few miles from the finish. If another racer hadn't come along and escorted him to civilization, bad things might have happened. But some degree of sleep deprivation is required if you intend to be competitive (it is a race), so knowing your limits is crucial. For me, hitting the hallucination phase is the point when I know that I need sleep within a few hours. That doesn't necessarily mean six hours of full-on beddy-time, but usually at least a fifteen-minute catnap. Learn what works best for you, and then remind yourself where to draw the line--before you get there.
  6. Getting lost. OK, you won't die if you get lost. But you might get pretty hungry, exhausted, and scared. And then that's an ideal precursor to worse things, such as crashing hard, exposure, etc. Fortunately, the well-marked trail makes lost during the CTR pretty hard, and most people also carry GPS units with accurate tracks. But still, bringing some paper maps with clearly-marked bail-out spots is a good idea, so that you get escape the race without getting lost on the way out.
  7. Bears. Many out-of-state racers get worked up about bears. Well, put your mind at ease. While it's certainly possible to get mauled by a black bear in Colorado, it’s actually extremely unlikely. Bears are hunted here, and therefore they tend to be more afraid of you than you are of them. I've seen several bears in Colorado over the years--but usually just their rumps, as they crash through the forest to escape. But bears do occasionally bite people, which largely turns out to be the bitee's fault, not the bear's. If you don't want to meet a bear in your sleeping bag, don’t sleep with your food. Bears generally don't want to eat you, but they do very much want to eat your food. You are tempting fate by cuddling up for the night with a tantalizing bag of buffalo jerky. Last, but not least, try not to run into bears (or any animal) at night. I mean that literally, not figuratively. Crashing your bike into a bear on the trail is a bad idea. While the bear is more likely to run away in fear, it might decide that its best option is to beat the aggressor (that's you) into submission first. Keep your eyes open, and make some noise when riding through dense vegetation.
  8. Dehydration. There are only a couple of short sections where water is limited. Otherwise, water is very abundant. If you die from dehydration during the CTR, then I applaud your Darwinian creativity. But combined with other potential hazards, such as getting lost, cold & wet, and crashing, dehydration could add to the misery and danger. Always carry a little in reserve in case things go sideways.

All of the above stuff makes it sound like the CTR is pretty dangerous. Which isn't necessarily fair, at least not for those who are properly prepared. Most of the hazards can be avoided with proper equipment and good judgment. In a nutshell: Carry enough warm gear, don’t ride up high during electrical storms, make yourself visible during the road sections, and keep your wits about you. And, yes, carry a Spot locator beacon (just please don’t hit 911 unless you really need it). Compared to other mountain sports that I've enjoyed, such as mountaineering or kayaking, the CTR is very safe. Which is one reason why I love it. It's a serious undertaking that requires absolute commitment--but you’ll still make it home for your loved ones. Have a great adventure!