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  • Real Sports
  • Cindy Patton (bio)


I sit in the middle of a wide, rocky riverbed, a maze of knee- to thigh-deep channels, 3 to 8 meters wide snake around me. This is the only place from which I can make radio contact with the four checkpoints I coordinate. I am here to serve as traffic control: teams pass in both directions and are restricted from crossing the river where it narrows to a single, swift and dangerous channel below me. In setting up this section of the course, I am haunted by my experience the summer before when, while working as a National Park Ranger, a small woman drowned trying to cross such a channel. I have become extremely cautious about fast water.

Indeed, only a month or so earlier I would have been swept away by the raging torrent resulting from the annual snowmelt, which tosses around boulders and rocks larger than my body. The northern side of the river bed records this history with a 120-meter high bluff of crumbling loam and rock. Massive Douglas firs, scrubby pines and tenacious slide elder are scattered down the near vertical slope. In the big rain forecast for a day or two from now, these trees will avalanche, crossing their branches to form fatal sieves in the river bed. For a day or so, the water will rise precipitously, making crossing even here a potentially disastrous choice.

At midday I look up and notice a male/female pair climbing the bluff; I scouted this area and I know that there is an overhang at the top, making ascent impossible and treacherous. Or at least treacherous. I thought it was obvious that the bluff was “off limits,” but to my surprise, one team has already scaled it using the trees that tenuously cling to the slope.

There are two kinds of racers—those who see the safe but longer route, and chose safety and certainty, and those who see the dangerous but potentially time-saving choice and “go for it.” Those who take the dangerous route will say they are looking for the strategic edge. I wonder if it is part of the culling of our species.

Discussion is underway 50 meters above me. The woman clearly does not want to go on, but the man seems to convince her, climbing behind her as if corralling a child. They, or maybe only he, is intent on going up, but I know they will not make it.

I call to the two checkpoints nearest me, requesting each to divert one of their medics to my location. Best not to discuss the details over an open radio line with media and god knows who else listening. One checkpoint acknowledges—I know it will take her 30 minutes to reach me. The nearer, badly sited location—racers are both dropping off and picking up bikes there—reports that they are swamped. It isn’t easy to pull someone away, as the record of racers through a checkpoint is our only means of tracking the location of the more than 500 racers, our only way to know the last definite location of racers who become overdue. I glance up at the climbers, who are now kicking rocks onto the heads of racers below them. “Checkpoint 8: please work something out. I have racers attempting the bluff.” There is a long pause. They all passed under the bluff when we hiked in at dawn, and I imagine him visualizing my situation. “8 here, will do.”

My task now is to reroute the racers who are traveling below the climbing pair. No one is wearing helmets because we didn’t require it, not guessing that anyone would try to scale the bluff. Several teams stop and look up.

“Wow, we aren’t supposed to go up that way are we?” According to the rules, course officials are not allowed to give directions to teams. I choose safety over rules, and say emphatically, “No!” I divert them back across the river and away from the falling rocks.

Time slows. Eventually the pair starts to descend. “It’s coming,” I think, knowing that because of the upright...

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