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[RC] Rough Riders on the Big Horn Trail - tom noll


There is a story about the Tour de France that the founder, Henri Desgrange,
wanted to make the tour so demanding that there would be one lone finisher,
the winner.

I went to the Big Horn in 2006 with the idea that I needed to be better
prepared and have a faster horse than last year.  Frank, my best horse, 2003
Big Horn winner and BC horse, would be my teammate on the trails this year.
2004 and 2005 were not particularly good years for me and in 2006 I stepped
up my running, worked to regain some focus, and get my head back on the
trail.  I wanted to be able to run or walk all of the significant downhill
trail sections if necessary.  Frank and I can put together a pretty strong
"power walk" on the downhill but he can kick my butt on the uphill sections.
Frank and I had planned to follow Big Horn with Tevis, but only if the Big
Horn outcome was satisfactory.

We left SW Idaho early on Wednesday morning and followed a cold front across
the desert and mountains of Idaho east to Wyoming.  We had cool showery
weather for our trip from the Boise area to the rodeo grounds in Dubois
Wyoming.  We passed by the Tetons shrouded in clouds, climbed and descended
Togwotee Pass to Dubois Wyoming.  On Thursday we got up early, left Dubois,
and arrived at the Trapper Creek Ranch campsite around noon.

Immediately I made contact with some old friends, Tracy Blue and Max
Merlich.  I met Saula and Tom Sherwood and Dave Rabe at the camp, along with
Steph Teeter, Bev Grey, Chris Yost, Kara Yost, Lucky and her beautiful
Appaloosa stud, and many others.  Tracy, Max and I formed a pact and decided
that we would ride together and that we would run a conservative ride with
the focus on completing with two sound horses and one sound mule.  The
weather forecast was for hot dry weather; the type of weather that could
dehydrate a horse in only a few miles.  Again, my brother Willi came up from
Colorado and he, Lisa, and Dan coordinated the crew activities which saved
our horses as we traversed the Big Horn trails.  A crew is not necessary at
most endurance rides, but a crew is critical at Big Horn.  Just like Tevis,
the Big Horn ride managers do not have the ability to ferry your equipment
from place to place and you will have to arrange for your own supplies.

We knew that there would be some trail changes on the portion from Antelope
Butte to Jacks Creek but we were confident that the changes would be
consistent with the six miles of trail along Shell Creek that had been

I was up at 2:45 in the morning, I prepared a grain mash for Frank, met with
Max and Tracy, and the three of us saddled up and headed to the start.
Frank and I had trained for this ride and I arranged a two-week taper for
him prior to starting.  Frank was beside himself dancing and turning with
untamed energy at the start.  The other horses took off and Frank remembered
that his place on the Big Horn trail was at the front of the herd.  It took
some walking, but we got everything under control and headed on up the

We set a steady quick pace across the desert badlands.  The leaders were
nowhere to be seen.  Our group talked that the day was already hot and we
were worried that the leaders might be setting too fast of a pace and
pulling others along.  Our pace was just slightly off my splits from 2003
and 2004 and we were planning on a 1:00 AM to 2:30 AM finish for the 100.
Early on we joined with Teresa VanHowe and the four of us rode together for
many miles.

We arrived at Hudson Falls around 7:45; a 3:45 25-mile run.  The Big Horn is
a tough course and we hoped to build a little time cushion in the first 25
miles.  I had a great breakfast of yogurt, fruit, and granola that Willi
made, Frank and the others ate hay and grain, Frank polished off a Powerbar,
and we were off after a 45 minute hold.

The next 15 miles are a tough trip through the canyons.  We headed up the
Dugway trail bypassing one of my favorite sections along Cedar Canyon.  At
the top of the Dugway the markings were not too distinct.  I knew the trail
and my horse knows the trail, but I wanted to test him anyway.  For the last
100 yards to the trail junction I set the reins across the saddle and just
let Frank choose his own route.  Sure enough, we came to the trail junction
and he turned right with no hesitation.  The horse memory is amazing and he
led us into the canyons.

The canyons are my favorite section of the Big Horn Trail.  Actually, my
favorite section is the 80 or so miles from the creek below Hudson Falls to
just after Jack Creek, or even the entire 100 miles, but the canyons are
especially nice.  The flies were troublesome but our group just kept on
trucking up and down through the canyons and across the saddles.

We arrived at Horse Creek and we saw the first evidence that some of the
horses may have been going too fast.  One horse showed signs of colic at the
Horse Creek vet check.  Riders and vets got the horse up and standing.
Later I heard that a dose on Banamine led the horse to a quick recovery.
Two other horses were not so fortunate.

From Horse Creek we followed Dave Rabe and Tom and Saula Sherwood across the
swales and onto to Antelope Butte.  The high alpine area was dry this year
and I deeply missed seeing the small blue forget-me-nots in the high
meadows.  Those flowers have special meaning for me.  The hot dry weather
continued and I was consuming almost all of the water in my 70-ounce
Camelback between every vet check.

We had an hour hold at Antelope Butte and our out-time was scheduled to be
about 3:45.  We were still on schedule and I took the time at Antelope Butte
to unsaddle Frank and hose him off.  I also had a very nice conversation
with Bob and Nance, an older couple from Greybull who owned Frank at one
point in his past.  A big part of returning to the Big Horn 100 is renewing
friendships with people like Bob and Nance and others like Kathy Arnold that
I only see once a year.  I took the opportunity to have a hamburger and talk
with some of the other riders.  Kara Yost's horse was pulled from lameness
and Chris would be joining us for the last fifty miles of the ride.

We set off from Antelope Butte at about 3:45.  The trail climbs back to the
Big Horn Plateau and then descends to Shell Creek.  We walked the descent to
Shell Creek and stopped to look for access to the creek water but the bank
was too steep.  Usually the trail heads east at Shell Creek for about six
miles to Adelaide Lake but this year the trail climbed out of Shell Creek to
almost 10,000 feet, then descended and climbed through a series of saddles
and passes to Shell Reservoir, and then climbed back to Adelaide Lake where
it joins with the historical trail.  As we climbed out of Shell Creek we
passed one rider whose horse had given up.  Later we caught two other riders
who were slowing down and considering their options.  We continued on
through Snowshoe Junction and then descended down to Shell Reservoir.  Frank
has done three other Big Horn 100s and he was confused on this section.  I
could feel his concern that we were not on the right trail.  Still, he kept
on, trusting that I knew where we were going.  The new trail section took
considerably longer than the traditional six-mile trail to Adelaide Lake and
the new section had considerably more elevation gain and loss.  It did not
look like we were going get to Jack Creek before dark like I had planned.
Leaving Jack Creek before full darkness is a key milestone leading to a
successful Big Horn 100.

At the creek crossings after Adelaide Lake we decided to give the animals a
fifteen-minute rest stop.  They had been out all day and it had been a long
time since the Antelope Butte vet check.  The four horses were just mowing
grass at the creek crossing.  Reluctantly we took them away from the grass
and headed on up the trail in the rapidly diminishing twilight.  It was just
about full darkness when we reached the top and began our descent on the
Shag Nasty.  Trail markings were scarce and we made a slight mistake and
began to head west down the wrong trail.  We quickly corrected that mistake
and headed across the valley to the correct trails on the south ridge.  It
was very dark.  I had my GPS with the tracklogs from the previous years as
well as my knowledge of the track.  Heading across to the trail I commented
that my companions must really trust me because there was no trail and no
trail markers and no discussion and it was dark.  They responded; "We have
no other choice."  I carry a red LED light which is good enough to adjust
tack and read trail signs but not quite bright enough to see the trail.  I
was leading Frank at the time and usually I could feel the trail surface
with my feet or barely see it in the dark.  At times I would call out to
Tracy for a "trail scan" with her flashlight so we could be sure that we
were on the trail.  Every so often we would come to a wall of impenetrable
black trees.  In the daylight it would be easy to see the trail, but at
night it looked like a dark thicket.  Tracy would shine her flashlight and
we would find a way through.   I was leading Frank and the others were
mounted and the tree branches and limbs were a real hazard to both riders
and horses.  Both Max and Tracy took some real stabs and I could tell that
Tracy's hurt by the tone in her voice.  We saw no trail markers and went
quite slow on this section because of the hazards.  Max Merlich estimates
that the Shag Nasty section cost us at least two extra hours.  We came out
exactly where we should on the road and trotted the two miles or so into
Jack Creek.

At Jack Creek, there was concern about the riders still out on the trail.
Looking at the ride records it appeared that there were two, or perhaps
three, riders still out on the trail.  It was obvious that they would be
spending a night out in the woods and we hoped all was ok.  We focused on
taking care of our horses.  Tracy Blue decided that she had enough for one
day and encouraged us to go on without her.  Max and I were disappointed
because we had ridden with Tracy from the start and we wanted to ride back
into camp with her later in the day.

Chris, Max, and I made our preparations to go.  We knew that we were over
time and we could see no real reason to hurry.  We lost our time in the dark
on the Shag Nasty and from here on in to camp we decided to take it slow and
preserve the animals.  We walked and led down to camp.  We passed the creek
and the two water holes.  Our horses were famished and they were searching
and stretching for every blade of dry grass on the trail.  We stopped at
each of the water crossings to let them drink and graze for a few minutes.
The day had been hot and we were no longer in any real hurry.  We were
confident that we would finish and that the finish time would exceed

The sky was getting light by the time we reached Black Mountain.  We passed
the rock ledges, continued down through the dust, did the final dogleg trail
section and ambled on in to the finish.  About 100 feet before the finish
Max's mule Junior picked up a stone in one of his horseshoes and Max made a
final stop just shy of the finish line to remove the stone.  We met Patti at
the finish and we let the horses and the mule graze on some Flitner grass
after a long 100 miles on the trail.  Even though we were overtime, we
finished the whole trail with sound horses that were ready, willing, and
able to continue, and Max mentioned the AERC motto.

Looking back, I rode the 2006 Big Horn 100 with three of the toughest
individuals that I have ever met - Tracy Blue, Max Merlich, and Chris Yost.
Tracy, Max, and I made a commitment to ride together at camp on Thursday and
we followed through with that commitment on Saturday.  Through my various
adventures I have met a number of tough people.  If I am ever in trouble and
I need to cross some rough trail in a difficult situation, then I can think
of no others who would be better companions and no better horses and a mule
that would get us through.  At a gas station in SE Idaho on my way to Shell
Wyoming, I heard a Tom Petty song and the lyrics of that song come to mind
when I think of my trail companions last week: "You can stand me up at the
gates of hell but I won't back down."  Thoughts of my companions, thoughts
of their horses, and the memories of our experiences on the Big Horn trails
still bring a tear to my eyes.  Sitting here at work, I wish that I could be
back out on the Big Horn trails with Frank and my friends.

Best Regards,

Tom Noll
SW Idaho


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