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Big Horn 100 - Shell, Wyoming

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2006 Steph's Story || 2006 Joyce Anderson's Story || 2006 Dr Dave Brown's Story || 2003 Tom Noll's Story

2010 Stories:
Bighorn Stories - Cindy Collins || Bighorn: The Most Unpredictable Ride of Them All - Kevin Myers
Bighorn Crew Story - Carrie Thornburn || Ronnie's Report,Big Horn 100, 2010 - Ronnie Eden
An Outlaw Rides the Big Horn Trail - Tom Noll & Frank || Big Horn 100 2010-And Beyond - by Lucky 6 Nellie(with help from Marirose)
Another Big Horn Crew Perspective - Dan Ward
Darlene & Lumpy do the Big Horn 100, 2010. Our Epic Adventure, Part I - Darlene Anderson
Darlene & Lumpy do Big Horn 2010, our Epic Adventure, part II - Darlene Anderson
Darlene & Lumpy do Big Horn 2010, our Epic Adventure, part III - Darlene Anderson
Darlene & Lumpy do Big Horn 2010, our Epic Adventure, part III, the Final Installment! - Darlene Anderson

An Outlaw Rides the Big Horn Trail - 2010 - Tom Noll & Frank

July 14

My horse was wet and tired, I was soaked, I was chilled to my core, and as I looked out from under the hood on my light jacket, the rain and hail were coming down in sheets. I was 70 miles into a hundred in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming and, at that time, in that weather, with that horse, there was no place on earth that I would rather be.

One hundred miles has a magical quality that I have not found in any other distance. Ever since I rode Century Rides on my road bike in the 1970s, 100 miles has been the premier distance. In road biking, the Century is billed as “The cyclists’ traditional test of skill and stamina,” and a trail 100, whether on a mountain bike, on foot, or on a horse, is guaranteed to deliver magic. Of the three, a trail 100 with a horse is the most rarified. Only a few people ride a horse on trail 100 each year. Far more people run a 100-mile ultra or bike a 100-mile mountain bike ride, than the few who ride a horse through a one-day 100-mile trail ride.

There are only a few point-to-point or big-loop 100s left. The Western States Tevis Cup ride in California is the most well known, but in my mind, the toughest in terms of remoteness and difficult trail is the Big Horn 100 in Wyoming. And, the terms of the challenge are simple – one day, one hundred miles. The Big Horn 100 attracts some true characters.

My horse is a Big Horn 100 horse but he is over 20 now with over 5,000 endurance miles. For some time, I have thought that his 100-mile days were likely gone. Some of the local riders in the NW have suggested that it may be time to retire him. On the Memorial Day weekend, I rode him 150 miles over three days in the Owyhee desert. Three weeks later, I rode him 200 miles in four days in the Unita Mountains of Utah. Frank is a mountain horse and he came through the Utah ride fit, sound, and ready for more. On a whim, I thought about taking him back to the Big Horn for one more 100 three weeks after Utah.

In the last week before the ride, I talked with Carrie Thorburn about crewing for me, she agreed, and we loaded Frank in the trailer, climbed into the van, plugged in the iPod with a playlist that is heavily weighted to Grateful Dead concert tapes, and headed east to Shell Wyoming and the start of the Big Horn 100.

The 2010 Big Horn 100 would likely be Frank’s last 100. It was also our last chance to erase the sting of disappointing finishes in 2005 and 2006. We were unlikely to repeat our performance of 2003, but I hoped for a solid finish with no regrets. Still, the Big Horn is a mountain 100 and anything can happen out there on a 100 miles of trail.

The 2010 Big Horn 100 was the 40th anniversary of the ride. 2010 also marks the end of an era for 100s and endurance riding. At the Shell community center before the ride, Jeanette Tolman introduced two finishers from the original Big Horn 100 in 1971. They are old men today. In Vermont, Paul Kendall, an iconic Vermonter deeply connected with the Vermont 100 endurance ride, passed away on Tuesday and the 2010 Vermont 100 is dedicated to Paul. Around the country, the torch is being passed to a new set of riders and the remaining old guard is watching and measuring whether the new are up to the challenge.

At four in the morning, nearly 50 riders set out on the Big Horn trail. Thirty-two planned on the 100. Like many of the tough 100s, only about half of the 32 would make the finish line 24 hours later, and fate is indifferent. Julie Suhr has said that finishing a tough 100 is “One-third horse, one-third rider, and one-third luck” but the right rider with the right horse can skew that luck towards good.

We started in the dark and it was a scramble of horses and riders. I connected with my friends Max Merlich and Tracy Blue until we were held back behind a large group of slow riders. Eventually we made our way around the group but somehow Tracy became separated and fell behind slightly. I rode with Max Merlich and Darlene Anderson for a few miles but I decided that their pace was too fast so I hung back and rode with Tracey, Walt, and Chris. We hung together until the big climbs out of Hudson Falls.

Even in his 20s, Frank is a hill-climbing son-of-a-gun and we began to pass other horses and move ahead. Eventually, we caught Max and Darlene as well as a large group of riders. Frank and I had a difficult time with the pace through the canyons and when we topped out on the plateau, I grazed Frank and let the others ride out of sight. The Big Horn is not a ride to let someone else dictate the pace and Frank and I continued at a steady pace to the first vet check at Horse Creek and a one-hour hold.

From Horse Creek it is a short twelve miles or so to Antelope Butte and the second one-hour hold. We traveled the plateau amid darkening skies, flashes of lightning, and thunder in the distance. Northern Wyoming has experienced a wet spring and the wildflowers this year were spectacular. My favorites are the delicate blue Forget-Me-Nots. Somewhere along the trail, I lost an Easy Boot, but I had another with Carrie at Antelope Butte. Antelope Butte was the halfway point on the traditional course but today we still had 60 miles to go after Antelope Butte.

After Antelope Butte, the character of the ride changes considerably. The final two vet checks are held at Jack’s Creek. Jack’s Creek has very difficult access and rescue from Jack’s Creek, horse or human, is not easy. Out on the trail, you depend on your horse and your horse depends on you. Throughout the Big Horn 100, and especially beyond Antelope Butte, the self-reliant qualities of the ride become significant.

We climbed again to the Big Horn plateau, descended to Ranger Creek, and then took the new single-track trail. After 2005, the Big Horn 100 lost the Adelaide Trail access and the ride has been seeking a suitable alternative. Having ridden the traditional course as well as some earlier tries, I can honestly say that the Big Horn has the right trails now. The new trail segment accurately captures the wilderness spirit of Adelaide and the whole Big Horn trail makes a difficult, but doable 100, but mountain weather is always unpredictable.

The single track was new, the trail was steep and difficult, and the footing was not good due to the weather. It was raining hard and I was very wet. Frank and I were alone on the trail, the trail was wet, the trail was muddy, and the trail was unfamiliar. Frank began to have doubts. Frank began to express his doubts and we stopped far too long at certain points. We were losing valuable time and we needed to be moving. I was cold and I was wet. I thought about Paul Kendall and my position at 88 miles into the 2008 Vermont 100. While Frank is no driving horse like Springtime, I cut a short stick and lightly tapped Frank on the butt as I directly spoke the word “Trot.” Frank began to move out again -- Thanks Paul.

We climbed out of the forest into a beautiful hanging valley. Frank saw another horse ahead and he sensed the vet check location. Frank moved with a new found sense of purpose as we reeled in the other rider and rode into Jack’s Creek.

The vet check presented a choice. We were to visit Jack’s Creek twice. The ride required us to spend a whole hour at the hold but we could elect to spend it all at once, early or late, or we could split the time into to two 30-minute holds. I decided on two 30-minute holds. Irena checked us through at Jack’s Creek as she spoke the words in her delightful accent, “You are fit to continue.”

After Jack’s, Frank and I were off for the Boulder Basin loop. We rode up the Shag Nasty – the section of trail where Max Merlich, Tracy Blue, Chris Yost, and I lost so much time in 2006. It was nice to see the Shag Nasty in daylight and to remember the difficulties presented by the darkness on that July night a few years ago. We descended to Shell reservoir and then climbed back to Jack’s Creek. We broke out of the trees just as it began to rain and hail again. We were a wet, cold, and tired bunch of horses and riders when we reached Jack’s Creek for fourth and final hold. Still, it was well before dark, and being able to leave Jack’s Creek for the finish before dark is the crux of the ride.

After Jack’s Creek, the trail was very muddy and slick. I was reduced to a slow walk on sections that I had trotted in the past. In a mile or so, I connected with Kevin Myers, Rusty Toth, and Callie Berman. We continued onward but we were going slowly and it became dark, very dark. There was no moon, and the trail was not marked because of access problems due to the mud. However, I know the trail, Frank knows the trail, and I had GPS tracks from two of my earlier trips on this same section of trail. And, I should never underestimate Frank’s sense of direction. Time and time again, Frank has showed his wilderness savvy to me and I knew that I could rely on him again.

The four of us made our way through the dark. Eventually, we picked up Lois Fox and the five of us slowly made our way off the mountain. We reached the Trapper Creek Ranch and met Kevin and Rusty’s friend Bill for some hay and grain mix. Now it was only a short ten miles across the badlands to the finish. We rode off crossing through badlands that we called the “dark side of the moon” and our group made the finish at about 2:30 in the morning.

For many, the ride was not over. Others, less fortunate than us, were spending a cold night out on the trail. Some were huddled in primitive shelters and others were still looking for the trail. They were creating their own memories and forming the iron bonds between people that can only be forged through genuine shared adversity. My hope was that all would be reunited by late breakfast on Sunday, and my hopes were realized.

Other people have written about the adversity, the unpredictable forces of nature, about the bonds between riders and horses, and I have written in the past about the poetry and magic of riding a 100. My finish at Big Horn this year was bittersweet because Frank and I put the past demons to rest with a top-ten finish through tough conditions, but my finish is tinted with sorrow because I realize that Frank and I are unlikely to ever face the challenge of 100 miles of tough trail together again. And, there will never be another horse like Frank.

Best Regards,

Tom Noll
SW Idaho