HALF MOON LAKE – Hardcore adventure racers Jason Popilsky and Abby Broughton entered the 2021 Surly Pika Adventure Race after a two-year hiatus.
The duo typically competes in multiple events across the Rocky Mountain region. The Surly Pika in the beautiful Wind Rivers was a highlight – challenging, fun and close to home.
Popilsky and Broughton chose the 12-hour race this year. Race organizers divided the Surly Pika into 12- and six-hour categories. Unlike a marathon with a set distance and course, adventure racers blaze their own path to find all the checkpoints in the least amount of time.
The pair participated in the race in 2017 and 2018. A new baby kept the two from competing together in 2019.
Then the world turned upside down in 2020 and race organizers made the tough decision to cancel the annual event.
“We had double insanity in 2020 – having a kid and dealing with COVID,” said Popilsky.
The couple reunited for the 12-hour race on Sunday, July 18, thrilled to be back in action.
“This is like our big date of the summer,” said Broughton. “That was my favorite part of the race, just being out on a course with Jason again – it’s been awhile.”
Human connection repeatedly popped up as a theme in interviews during and after the race this year. Contestants delighted in sharing time outdoors with close friends and family. The sentiment underlay the usual tales of tribulation, tears and triumph.
Take Margaret Schlachter and Travis Magaluk from Mount Pleaseant, Utah. When asked whether they had an overlying strategy for the 12-mile race, the two laughed and said, "No!” in unison.
“Just to spend the day together and try something different,” said Schlachter.
“It was good to do, to go on an adventure together,” Magaluk added.
Amy Hyfield and Tom Kohley of Red Lodge, Mont., traveled to Pinedale a few days before the six-hour race after months of excited planning. The teammates work for Red Lodge Fire and Rescue, an agency currently battling the Harris Hill and Robertson Draw fires at the same time.
Hours after they arrived in Pinedale, Hyfeld and Kohley learned a fellow firefighter was badly injured fighting the Harris Hill fire. Making a tough decision, the two decided to do what their crewmate would have done – finish the race.
“We’re out here racing for him,” said Hyfeld.
Maura Anderson from Victor, Idaho, entered the six-hour race to bond with her 9-year-old daughter, Kyla. Kyla turned out be the youngest, and perhaps the surliest, pika out there.
Five minutes into the race, Kyla took a spill on her mountain bike crossing a difficult section of trail. As blood poured from her knee, Kyla did not bat an eye while her mother patched the wound. Kyla climbed back on the bike and the team pedaled up the hill.
To strategize or not to strategize
Broughton and Popilsky climbed the dock to ring the cowbell signaling the race’s end. Other than wet hair, the team looked relatively put together after spending more than nine hours cycling down from Elkhart Park, paddling across Half Moon Lake and scrambling over Half Moon Mountain after a restless night.
“I have a hard time sleeping before races, especially if I have to get up early,” said Broughton. “And then having a toddler that doesn’t sleep very well. I was in zombie mode a little bit.”
The team won the 12-hour race, locating each carefully hidden checkpoint hours before the clock ran out at 6 p.m.
Strategy and navigational skills matter as much as brawn and endurance.
Popilsky explained that his team’s choice to use a pack raft made a significant difference in shaving off time. Teams were allowed any nonmotorized craft to ply the race’s water section. Kayaks, canoes and wakeboards dominated.
Popilsky and Broughton transported their small, inflatable raft with ease and used it to cross Little Half Moon Lake, eliminating the need to bush whack through rough terrain to certain checkpoints.
Pre-planning also played a role. The team got down to work plotting their route to the checkpoints with the map before the race.
“I really like that part – measuring distances, using the altimeter and all the tools that you have and writing the clues on the map so you have everything ready,” said Broughton. “You’re tired in the race, so you don’t want to have to think too much beyond the navigation. If you have everything dialed as far as the gear, the food, hydration, it makes the race go more smoothly.”
“You do as much thinking as you can beforehand so you can do minimal thinking when you’re out and about,” Popilsky added. “Although you’re always thinking because things change and it’s unpredictable.”
The team realized the nature of the beast on top of Half Moon Mountain. The map bathed the mountain’s northern flank in gentle green to represent a forest. The reality gazing back at the team was an unforgiving, steep climb down 1,000 feet through a maze of deadfall.
“Coming down the hillside, it was just like pick up sticks with the trees downed,” said Broughton. “It was scratch your legs up kind of terrain. We knew it would be ugly but it was better than going all the way back around.”
Valerie Werbelow, Amber Lake and Elisha Haley expertly steered their canoe toward a rocky outcrop beyond the Half Moon Lake trailhead. Werbelow and Lake immediately leapt to shore and scurried up the rocky ridge to find the checkpoint.
Haley stayed with the canoe. Hours earlier, Haley and her team smiled and waved for the camera as they shot down the trail on their mountain bikes above the lodge. The veteran Surly Pika racers seemed in full control as they downshifted to pedal up another hill.
Haley admitted the mountain biking was the hardest portion in the six-hour race. Trails abruptly went up and then down again. The sun showed no mercy, baking the open, south-facing hillside.
“Biking in that heat was brutal,” Haley said, glancing up at Grouse Mountain. “It was definitely a challenge. It feels good to be out in the canoe.”
Schlachter and Magaluk did not have time to talk as they deftly bike-hiked down a scree-filled trail on Grouse Mountain. The slope appeared to be at a 99-percent gradient. The two reached the bottom and hopped back on their rides, maneuvering the fat tires along a barely rideable, narrow pathway crowded with thick sagebrush.
“Yeah, the trails were gnarly,” Schlachter said after the race. “We got a little quiet around (Grouse Mountain) – it’s so exposed and it was just so hot today.”
“It made for a humorous, ridiculous ride,” Magaluk added.
“We were definitely like, ‘What are we doing out here right now?’” Schlachter replied.
Hydration made or broke teams as the mercury continued to rise. Unless participants were willing to drink straight from the lake or filter water, the only refilling station was at Half Moon Lake Lodge.
“We were each carrying 2.5 to 3 liters of water plus what was probably 1,500 calories of random different food,” Schlachter said.
Several teams found the bushwhacking on Half Moon Mountain the most difficult portion of the race.
“We got a little off course,” said Gracy Carpenter, racing with Roy DeWitt and Todd Morgan.
The team moored its canoe below a checkpoint hidden above Half Moon Lake’s southeast shore, Carpenter explained. Trekking straight up Half Moon Mountain to the next checkpoints, the crew grappled through thick deadfall.
The exhausted racers found a rough road at the top of the ridge and followed it back to the lake, Carpenter added. While the road was easier to walk on, the team overshot their mooring and had to schlepp back along the lakeside to their canoe.
“The shoreline walk took forever,” said Carpenter. “But it took us less than 15 minutes to cross the lake in the canoe.”
One final challenge remained – the chance to dive into Half Moon Lake to retrieve an underwater checkpoint. The bedraggled, worn-out, sunburned and wind beaten racers happily leapt into the inviting lake, paddling to the buoy on the Surly Pika’s trademark elephant, swan, unicorn and Loch Ness Monster floaties.
The teams praised the monumental effort put in by the race organizers – Darren Hull, Kari Hull, Laura Hattan and Josh Hattan.
“It’s a labor of love, really, for the people who put on these races,” said Popilsky. “Because there’s not a lot of reward, but it’s a lot of work. Definitely got to hand it to those guys.”