Wilderness racing in the Lower 48

We need to bring Classic-style racing to the lower 48. Insofar as that is possible. We should because it’s awesome, and because I think it’d be reasonably possible to approximate the experience in many important ways (but definitely not all). We because I reckon there aren’t too many essential players in that process who don’t read this at least occasionally.

Ryan got the ball rolling very well with Le Parcour de Wild, which had a silly name (sorry Ryan) and a perfect course.

Acceptable Modes of Travel: Foot, Bike, Packraft, Ski, Snowshoe, or other human-powered means, so long as all gear and supplies are carried throughout the duration of the trek (no dropping, or caching) and all land use regulations are observed. Bikes may not be rolled in designated
Wilderness Areas.  Northern Boundary: The red line on the map indicates a northern boundary, north of which travel is not allowed to post a FINISH. FROM W TO E: From the latitude line near the southern tip of Lake Couer d’Alene, ID W to the E Boundary of the Flat Indian Reservation; from the Reservation boundary NW of Seeley Lake, that boundary follows the National Forest boundary NE to the Wilderness Boundary, the Wilderness Boundary N to Inspiration Pass, the County Line N to the latitude line intersecting Hungry Horse Dam, the latitude line E to the Glacier National Park boundary, the Glacier National Park / Flathead River / Summit Creek / Highway 2 boundary (whichever is furthest north) E to the Reservation boundary, the Reservation boundary SE to Heart Butte and then S to the Wilderness boundary and then NE to the Marias River, and the latitude line E to the Montana-North Dakota Line. 1. You may travel anywhere you like along the S and N boundaries of the route — Highways 200 and 2, but no other designated paved highways. Of note: Highways 89 and 287 (Eastern side) and Highway 83 (Western side, the Swan Valley Highway) are OFF LIMITS. Lots and lots of other dirt and some minor paved roads in there to get where you want to go.

A wilderness race in the lower 48 would provide an immersive wilderness experience, with multiple competitive route options, and would not merely be a mountain biking or trail running affair.  Ideally packrafting would feature prominently, and out-of-the-box modes of travel would be possible.  There are very few places in the lower 48 which would work for all of these.

Duration is a trickier issue.  We found out with the Arizona Endurance series that there’s a sweet spot insofar as length goes, where a course is both challenging and accessible (at least relatively).  And while I’d be inclined, if I jumped back into being a race director, to keep my reputation intact (a la KMC) and never have more than 3 finishers nor more than 10 starters, that might well limit the fun a bit.  The idea here is to provide accomplished backpackers with a catalyst to take things to the next level.

Under summer conditions, the Parcour course could be done in ~3 days at race pace (even without the possible east side mtb option).  Cool, but a bit too much of a pure biking affair.  Do the same course in late May, and things get quite a bit more serious, and slow.  Might want to trim it down.

The Bob is perfect for this.  Surely there are possibilities in the Teton Wilderness as well, the Frank Church complex, etc.  I’ve been trying to think of a route in southern Utah that wouldn’t be an obvious mountain bike course, and haven’t come up with anything good.

Ideas for a wilderness race course?

Would you do one in the lower 48?

29 thoughts on “Wilderness racing in the Lower 48

  1. Although my planning and entry into the original Parcour ended up completely and totally failing from the point of view as a race (ended up quite superbly as a leisurely snowshoe trip however) I really enjoy the idea of a competitive cross-country human-powered race similar to the AMWC in the lower 48. My immediate thoughts for location were The Bob Marshall Wilderness, Frank Church Wilderness, Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness as legal options as well as combinations of those areas with National Parks which would be illegal.

  2. I wanted to do the original Parcour. It didn’t pan out. Being that I’m not an elite level athlete I would never win, but damn it does sound fun.

  3. I’m in! I’m in! Yes, the Bob!

  4. Awesome. I’d absolutely love to do something like this given a few more years of experience. I’m trying the “Frozen Otter Ultra Trek” in Wisconsin this winter – my first big challenge.

  5. I’m down. Especially if I can partner up with someone a little more familiar with the area.

  6. Definitely interested

  7. Very, very interested.

  8. I’ll probably never participate in a “summer” wilderness race (the Ski Classic still sparks my imagination if I ever actually learn proper skiing techniques.) But I also wanted to voice my support for your ideas. This kind of adventure racing is very compelling, and I think beneficial as well. It increases awareness about the importance of wilderness while promoting low-impact, human-powered travel. Good stuff.

  9. Sounds good to me. Any large wilderness area in the central or northern rockies could work. Having a AK classic style race too early in the season could be a slow, difficult, and dangerous a experience. Certainly the event would need to be “fun” (in a masochistic sort of way) and include all of the necessary risks, but I have no interests in avalanches and high water. The summer could be fun, but early fall could even be even more interesting.

    1. Problem with early fall in the Bob is low rivers and creeks. In a typical year the packrafting options would be very limited. Not a deal-breaker, but not using the area to it’s full potential either. An autumn event in the Absarokas would be the way to go.

  10. Great idea — just be aware that something like this will draw the ire of *you know who* and that “commercial” organized events aren’t allowed in wilderness areas. That said, sign me up. Jill and I will be partners — we’re great at navigating.

    1. This is the next step in Jill’s evolution, and over Memorial Day there’d be plenty of snow.

      I’ve found no evidence that non-commercial, under 75 person events need a permit, even in wilderness, so long as it’s FS land. Might be a dangerous assumption, of course.

  11. I think you’re right Dave but obviously there can’t be an entry fee. A donation is ok. No bikes in wilderness.

  12. I can confirm that when we did the Parcour, we were allowed to bring up to 75 people out w/o commercial permits so long as no fees were charged.

    I don’t see any reason to change the format too much from a Classic-style race. They have good (lack of) rules, good sat phone policy, good evac policy, and they’ve learned a lot without having us reinvent the wheel.

    FYI you can bring bikes into the wilderness. You just can’t ride them… :)

    1. My understanding is that how “possession of a bike” is enforced varies widely. Unlikely to become an issue.

  13. Fall brings low water, even in the Absarokas. The Thorofare River and Pacific Creek, and the upper reaches of both of the Flathead branches in the Bob are laborious floats in the fall. Rivers like the White, Spotted Bear, etc. would be frustrating.

    May is a good time because of skiability and the water is reasonable. Things start to get scary in June, then ease up later in the month, and for about 4 weeks, everything is packraftable, including the small rivers.

    A route where we could packraft the Upper Yellowstone, then the Lamar and Black Canyon/Gardner would rock. Oh wait…umm…ah well, fun to dream.

    1. Oh the Lamar. That’s a dream. It would be so, so good. Me and my red boat (and paddle) are too chicken to go outlaw.

  14. There could be some interesting routes in Colorado if you put a restriction on the minimum elevation of allowed routes. For example a traverse of the Sawatch range from Edwards to Monarch pass where you could not go below 10,000 or 10,500 feet. There are a lot of trails in the area but none that run the length of the range. The routes competitors take would be a mix of trail hiking, off trail hiking and scrambling. The route would not include any packrafting but, it would make events like this accessible to people with out that kind of gear.

    1. A good idea Stuart. I think for most courses, one mandatory mid-race checkpoint could keep routes sporty (ie away from too many dirt roads) without being too contrived.

      I think just about any good course in the lower 48 will still be fairly competitive and very doable without a packraft. Even the course I’m contemplating for the Bob would go.

  15. lots of options for a colorado plateau race… maybe one from bullfrog marina to the town of escalante, with a mandatory checkpoint somewhere deep in escalante country could be very interesting… and eliminate obvious mtn bike routes.

    or hite to escalante, or some variation therein.

    some of the canyoneering guys down here are brainstorming options for a technical canyon wilderness race as well, though many of them likely wouldn’t be interested in the distances so much as canyons along the way.

    food for thought.

    1. That’s what I’m talking about! Ya’ll organize, and I will be there.

  16. I am interested, depending upon the time and location.

    From prior experience with the Nolan’s 14 “event” 10+ years ago, best to avoid all wilderness areas.

    If the Forest Service hears about any “competition” despite no entry fees, etc. they will shut it down.

    The Wilderness Act expressly forbids competitions in Wilderness Areas.

    1. Mitch, where does the Wilderness Act do so? I can’t find language which says so. An administrative intrepretation of various clauses could be construed as doing so, but I don’t see that as set in stone.

      1. While the “spirit” of the Wilderness Act is decidedly against “competitive” events (this language is indeed written in it), I’d hardly propose that this construes any type of competitive event, whether called a “race” or not. This is an opportunity for like-minded folks to get together to test their mettle against the wilderness, and have a beer and swap stories at the end. There’s no purse, no prizes, and no glory for winning except for accomplishing what each individual set out to do. I’d propose that the spirit of an event like this is decidedly noncompetitive. To call this competitive, and not call big game hunting in wilderness areas (where a large pool of hunters compete for a limited quote of animals) competitive would be ludicrous. I don’t think anyone will propose that hunting is competitive. Maybe the word “race” is the linguistic tripping wire here.

      2. I don’t know exactly where it says that. I am merely telling you what I heard that the Forest Service said when they shut the Nolan’s 14 event down in 2003, after it was run from 1999-2002. It was not a “race,” there was no entry fee, just a small bunch of people testing their mettle trying to climb fourteen 14’ers in 60 hours. You might contact Matt Mahoney at http://www.mattmahoney.net/nolans14/ for the full story.

  17. There are a bunch of options here in Colorado Dave. There are unofficial ways around racing through wilderness areas, but as noted the mountain bike aspect is still intact. It would be nice to have a point a-to-b start/finish wilderness race in the lower 48. That would save a lot of time & travel to Alaska every year. Plus, it might give the Alaska folks another option outside the Classic. I don’t think I would be interested in a fixed route, checkpoints, etc. Keeping it super simple, unofficial, self-supported, self-rescue. Like in AK, a group of friends meeting in a local and traveling to another local. Most if not all the races in the lower 48 are restrictive, too safe, and not challenging enough. I could come up with a point-to-point here in the San Juan Mountains in the 150~200 range with 2 or 3 floats as well as high alpine travel options. That would fit well into a 7-day max format with no road travel allowed. Road travel in the lower 48 will be much more of an ethical aspect on each racers part. It is easy to come up with 200 continuous miles of wilderness in Alaska without crossing a road, that is more challenging down here. I’ve been kicking around an idea for an unsupported wilderness ultra run for a couple of years, but expanding it to a multi-sport event would be awesome.

    1. Diversity of route options is really the cornerstone of a great route. Granted, some of the Wilderness Classic races have one fairly obvious best route (Nebesna-McCarthy), but the uncertainty of picking the best way to go is quite fun.

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