Baja Travesia 2007
By Barrie Adsett
Wow! Where do you start to describe this journey. Team Equinox
; Kristine Gillis, Steve Moore and myself, had a great 5-day adventure crossing from Ensenada to San Felipe.
Steve, Kristine, Barrie - Team Equinox
The race began with a 56 Km kayak leg (18K to CP1, 16K to CP2 and 22K to CP3), then a 50K bike followed by a 16K trek. Another bike section of 58K uphill and a 17K flat (kind-of) cross-country trek. Then a 28K bike in the mountains and an 18K canyon section. An auto rally section (100K) and a final 10K desert trek to the boats for a 14K paddle on the Sea of Cortez.
Anyone who knows about the race knows about (B) the CANYON and (A) the SEAS. Everything else was instantly a blur, but the details are sinking in. The hi-lights are definitely A and B.
8 AM Tuesday March 27
, the 2007 version of Baja Travesia begins in the calm Ensenada harbor waters. Outside the harbor confines, the sea swells are about 6-10 feet with the forecast of swells building. There is a slight 8 mph wind and the forecast is that it could build to a steady 15-20 mph with gusts up to 30 mph. Racers and organizers have been watching the weather all week as a north storm pounded Southern California and the sling-shot trail is coming toward the Baja. It was predicted to hit Sunday night, then Monday, now Tuesday. We are all hoping the forecast is wrong – as it often is.
The forecast is correct this day.
As we paddled out past the sea wall, headed westerly for Todos Santos (the island that has a reputation with surfers for holding a perfect 30 foot wave) the calm waters became a cauldron. This leg was into the wind and into the swell. Because we are not close to shore these are not waves, they are swells, from the top of the roller you dip down 10+ feet to the bottom, then up again. Each time you are down you see nobody, the swell hides all other boats and only the highest peaks of land are seen. It is intimidating and this 3-5 day race is only 30 minutes old.
We want to paddle to the south end of the island but the wind whips up surface waves that crash on the boats and force us to head more to the north to go directly into the wind and waves. I’m actually very excited. Hammering into the surf. This is pure fun.
(I was hoping to have a picture of the big swells - but have been told there are no photos of the angry ocean on that day, drat. If anyone has a photo to add to the story please email me and I will include it)
The wind comes in gusts and when strong we head into it, with the lull we turn south toward the end of the island. For 2 hours we do this dance with the ocean, zig-zagging to the first checkpoint. In that 2 hours the swells get bigger, I would guess they were 10-15 feet, but occasionally two swells would combine and you get the rogue-wave effect and it becomes a 25 foot swell with the wind whipping the top into a white-water mush. We just put heads down, concentrate and paddle.
From CP1 we have to turn south to La Bufadora and CP2. The difficulty factor becomes x10. I am paddling a surf ski, open , long and thin, rounded hull, easy to flip. Soon after turning south as I raise the paddle the wind blasts the up-end and in a micro second I am dumped in the ocean. This is going to happen a lot, I can tell. The excitement wanes.
The direction we need to go and the direction of the wind are not in our favor. I am in for a tough time. But no worry as I have a full wetsuit on (thanks to stern suggestions from Paul and Karen). I am however worried about Kristine and Steve in the double kayak. It is much more stable than the ski, but also bigger and heavier. If it dumps we will not be having any fun.
We struggle for about 4 hours to paddle the 16 km to La Bufadora. The double kayak is sturdy, but I am in the water on countless occasions – enough that I stopped counting and was extremely fatigued when we got to CP2. We have to avoid the sharp rocks of Punta Banda so stay out to sea. But we continue. When we arrived at CP2 the chaos had already begun. One team had a boat on the rocks, they were safe on the beach contemplating their options. There were reports of other boats being picked up by the Mexican Navy (who were employed at this race to be our escort) and there was a Navy Helicopter buzzing racers to check on them.
Many of the initial reports were rumors and tall stories. But there was enough truth and big enough seas that our team elected to become unranked at CP2 and drive to CP3 to continue the race. This was a strategic decision for us, as we were afraid we would miss the cut-off at CP3 and be beat-up if we survived. I feel it was a good decision when we later learned that 2 teams were forced ashore in the evening darkness and were “lost” for many hours, much to the high anxiety of fellow racers, crew and organizers. There are great stories from many teams; one team coming ashore in a cove before CP3, smashing their boats, loosing some gear and footwear, but still hiking to CP3 using a shoe found on the beach and duct-tape as a shoe. I’m sorry I do not have the exact details about most of the exploits, they were told to me in a sleep-deprived state at the finish line and I assure you they would fill a book and will be enhanced for years to come by those who lived them. But mindless as I was after 5 days I cannot recall them without telling false tales. However, if you see me or any other Baja Travesia survivors ask and we can go on for hours about the rumors and part stories we know. Was it 7 boats that sank, or was it less? Were 11 boats damaged, scratched or dented or was it more? Who knows and now that everyone is safe and accounted for who cares – we all survived.
From the transition we set off on the first bike. It is an easy 50k ride on old fire-roads. The route takes us in the hills above the ocean, south through a way-point. There is enough navigation that we trade places with a number of teams through the night. At one unmanned CP there are 5 teams together and it is fun exchanging stories for a short time as we ride together. At the end of the bike we transition to a fun trek section.
Prior to starting the race we had dotted out a route for the trek. The maps have no trails so we need to bushwhack on ridges or up a steep gully. We elected a south ridge but upon climbing it find we are actually on a high hill, we have not yet gone south enough. But this is the perfect place to see other racers lights down in the gulley, over on the high north ridge and the south ridge we want. Great planning by Kristine and Steve (who is our primary navigator) sets a plan in motion and we descended to the gulley then up the south ridge. We follow that until we summit the ridge as dawn comes up. From here we luck-out on seeing a road which is not on the map but appears to go where we want. So we take it and within 2K meet up with 4 teams who had started the trek before us. A short way later we all split up electing alternate routes to the next checkpoint.
By midday on Wednesday we have completed the trek and started the 58k second bike section. We are in great spirits and are all eating lots of food to keep the energy up. Starting this bike we come upon a farm with the Mexican equivalent of a scarecrow.
New team member
The dummy is sitting under a shade area with beer in hand and cigarette in mouth. We add a race jersey and bike helmet and pose with him before making our only real mistake on the entire race (probably lost concentration at that point – but it was fun). The farmer tells us we can not take a particular road so we take an alternate and end up one canyon beyond where we should be. It is strange how the topography is not correct, but very similar. So much alike that we force the topography on the map to fit the canyon we think we are in (not a good thing to do). After a few hours when the map is not working we are fortunate to come across a farmer who through sign language (we could not understand his quick Spanish and he could not understand our garbled English) keeps pointing to our tire tracks and sort-of tells us that there were many of them in the canyon beyond the one we are in. The word we do understand is “carrera”. He knows where the race is and we are not there. Half an hour later we come across another farmer who draws pictures of wheels in the sand and points to the other canyon also. We have wandered for about 20K in generally the right direction but absolutely off-course, and we have only gone about 2K out of our way.
The next CP is less than a kilometer away and we are back on-course.
An easy (for Baja races) hike-a-bike up a fence line and we have a really fun and fast downhill to run out the light for day 2 of the race. At this point we decide to take our first sleep about 35 hours into the race. We sleep for 2 hours as the sun goes down, using the last rays to keep warm. We are woken by one team going past us and a couple of cars. Then we have a long uphill to get to about the middle of the Baja Peninsular.
For our team the 58k bike is extended to almost 70k as the organizers want to keep teams moving. When we get to the transition to the cross-country trek they have us ride a fast washboard downhill extra distance to a new TA area. That makes the 17k trek something like 8k. It simplifies the trek for us as we follow power lines to the foothills of this high desert plain to get to the transition.
At this transition we find many other teams. Some have pulled out of the race, some are simply resting around the fire and one team is attempting to overcome sickness before continuing. During the night temperatures drop to 0C, to keep moving is the best heater.
At this point in the race we team up with Baja Total Fitness (Mayte and Jaime) as their Brazilian navigator has pulled a ligament and can not walk or ride. They want to do the huge canyon and are not allowed to continue unless there are at least 3 people trekking together.
11 AM Thursday March 29
, we start the approach to the Canyon Esperanza. The canyon starts at 2840 meters high and goes down to about 500 meters all in the short distance of just 8K. It is a 6 hour hike just to get to the top of the canyon from the back side. Before describing this let me say that the winning team (DART/NUUN) took 24 hours to do the canyon (TA to TA), it takes us 40 hours. Some teams took more than 12 hours to get into the canyon because of a tough navigational bushwhack.
We crossed these mountains - max height 9000 feet+
On our way up to the top of the Canyon
The top of the canyon is marked by a checkpoint. We have to be in the correct canyon as without being a full mountaineer I have no idea how anyone would get down any of these canyons for the first time. During this journey, which is almost indescribable, we rappel down more than a dozen set ropes. Some of the rappels are just 8 meters (20 ft), but a few are more than 50 meters (160 feet) high. Some are sloping slick areas, others are free-hanging.
One of the easier, but long, set rappels
One of the rappels into water
In addition to the set ropes we use a 100 ft rope we carry with us to make our own rappels. That rope comes in very handy for another team when we come upon them with one member stranded on some slick rock looking down a horrible fall spot. He had gotten across a ledge somehow and was stranded. Kristine quickly assesses the situation and takes control setting up a top belay to hook onto him and lift him up the rock face to safety. In under 5 minutes all teams are on their way after helping each other in this wilderness area.
Team Baja Equinox - Steve, Kristine, Jaime, Mayte, Barrie
The canyon is immense. At times the sheer walls are 300+ feet straight up. At narrow points we squeeze through boulders the size of a house. But for the most part the canyon is 30-50 feet wide and there were various routes to take to descend. The one thing I will never forget is that the canyon is steep all the way. Most of the time we appear to be descending at a 45 degree angle. Yeah there were flatter sections and steeper sections but they never lasted. The canyon is just so immense and spectacular with various granite rocks, waterfalls, pools we have to swim through and water slides we get to slip down. I’m sorry I cannot describe it better. If you have a spare week and a sense of adventure with the ability to rappel, it would surely be wonderful to visit.
Sometimes you go down on your butt
The water was freezing
We exit the canyon about 3 AM Saturday March 31. Almost half our race to this point has been in the canyon. We have a long transition after the canyon before starting the Baja Rally section. For this part of the race we have to navigate using stick diagrams and tell the driver when to make turns. It takes us under 2 hours to do this and while it may sound easy it took all our concentration to do the math of mileages plus odometer-reading while wanting to sleep. We have had 4 hours sleep to this point (2 hours on the second bike and 2 hours in the canyon). The best thing about the auto section is we are off our feet, however that ends when we are dropped in the middle of the desert 10K as the crow flies from our kayak.
We forget to take our map for the last section so have to use our memory of the map, plotted some 5 days ago, plus a small hint at the drop point. By now my feet are bothering me and I am slowing down. At the same time Kristine and Steve are sensing the end of the race and are speeding up. With Steve taking my pack and with Kristine walking beside me feeding water every 10 minutes I use the trekking poles and trudge across the desert aiming for a point in the far distance. We take an educated guess of the place to aim for and about 6K into the morning jaunt we come across other footprints which appear to be following a compass bearing. They are aiming for about our location so we use their route and walk directly to the kayaks at the Sea of Cortez.
We have our best transition of the race as the workers are nice enough to portage our boats to the water. We shed as much gear as possible before heading to the finish line. As soon as we push off from shore Baja Total Fitness launches their boats so we loop around and join with them (we did the canyon as an extended team, so we are determined to finish together). I started the kayak full of excitement, but it soon led to fatigue and I had to get on tow by Kristine and Steve. Even then I fall asleep in the surf ski and am abruptly woken up when I tip out and get wet. The water is warm but sitting wet after my dunking I stay awake to the finish flag.
All of our team enjoyed the race. The race was tough, which we expected of a 5 day voyage, but very doable if you just kept going. We had good navigation throughout, and the one error did not harm us. We finished in just over 100 hours and while unranked, because we cut the course, we did accomplish our objective of crossing the finish line. I am happy to say most teams finished and all the talk at the end was positive with everyone having a good time despite some really hairy moments for most teams.
A BIG thanks to the organizers of this event. The entire Rosquillas family, from Antonio and Jaime who started the Baja Xtreme series and who located canyons and trails, to their family who work all events and put up with having the family away from home most weekends, as they locate trails for us to travel. Paul and Karen, who live and breath Adventure Racing and sweat over the details to make it happen for us. And THANKS to the many volunteers who I will not try to name, as I will miss someone. You are a small group and we know that, which makes your individual contributions very big as we saw you all over the course. Thank you so much for a wonderful experience.
Congratulations too, to all racers who stared this journey. From the top teams who raced to win, to those who raced for the experience and thrill, it will hold life-long memories. To those considering doing it in the future my advice it to train hard, have faith in yourself and commit to making it happen. You will not finish unless you start.
Friends to the end