APEX Switzerland - A World Championship Qualifier through the Alps

Written by Matt Hayes
Created Date: Friday, 10 June 2011 00:00

DART-Nuun-SportMulti finished 7th overall and the top American team

Team members Ryan VanGorder, Mari Chandler, Matt Hayes, and Kyle Peter competed in the APEX Expedition race in Switzerland May 25 - 29. The race covered miles of beautiful trails high in the Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps. Incredible scenery, exposed ridgelines, big climbs, tough competition, and lots of vertical were all highlights of the race.

The race started with a 4 stage prologue in Interlaken consisting of two orienteering loops, a trotti-bike (scooter) section, and whitewater rafting. With 30 teams that were well rested and ready to race, the prologue was very competitive. With each section taking about 1 hour, there was a bit of rest time between stages. Each orienteering loop consisted of a couple checkpoints in some flat hay fields around the airport and then a climb and descent on a trail system on the mountains to the south of Interlaken. The trotti-bike section included four loops around the airport roads with teammates alternating loops in pairs. Whitewater rafting included about 10 minutes of whitewater (untimed) and about 20 minutes of paddling on a calmer section of the river. The temperature reached 85 deg F during the day, and with 20-20 hindsight I think many teams, including ours, would have lowered the pace a notch or two.

The race re-start had us on a short run through Interlaken to the first paddle section on Thunersee (Lake Thun). An out and back section on the west end of the lake let everyone see where they stood after a few hours of paddling.

After the paddle, we began an all night bike ride up the Kander valley where we had a short run up to the Oeschinenseee lake, and a good downhill back down the valley. We then rode higher in the mountains through numerous communities, farms, and ranches. The fast pace and heat of the first day hit Matt hard on this stretch. The team towed throughout the night, but it wasn't until a few rest stops, including a breakfast recovery buffet at a hotel and a Nuun rehydration session that he began to recover and feel better. The end of ride traveled up the Lauterbrunnen valley, which had amazing shear rock walls lining both sides and numerous waterfalls from the cliffs.

While beautiful, the vertical cliffs lining the valley meant only one thing for the following trekking section, huge climbs. After a quick recalibration while discovering we couldn't climb up the Staubbach Falls, Mari led the climb up the gondola line out of town. On the way to the Schiltorn summit (2900 meters), we saw many teams, some hurting, some resting, and some charging up the mountain.

As we climbed higher, the clouds got darker and darker, and when we were 300' below the top, a hail, thunder, and lightning storm came through. The lightning was intense and we had to hunker down and wait it out. We all crammed into our emergency tent while the storm passed, and when there was a break in the lightning we sprinted for the top. As we scrambled up the last section of ridgeline to the summit building, the race staff at the top gave a big holler and pointed behind us where there was a bright double rainbow. We dried off and warmed up in the building while other teams who were further down the mountain in the storm arrived. From the Schiltorn summit, we negotiated a knife edge ridge line to the next checkpoint and then RVG led a glissade down snowfields while dropping thousands of feet down into a valley. Going to the next checkpoint we could see the lights of teams ahead of us far down in the valley. We crossed many small bridges over huge waterfalls in the middle of the night on the way to a mountain top cabin and then had a fun night time glissade while dropping back to the valley.

The following bike section was labeled the Eiger mountain bike traverse in our route book, which promised great views of the North Face of the Eiger and the Jungfrau mountains while travelling over the Grosse Scheidegg and Kleine Scheidegg passes. With the clouds socked in and rain increasing the higher we climbed we missed the views riding up the Grosse Scheidegg.
The team worked well together on the steep climbs up both passes which were followed by fun high speed descents down the other side. Fortunately we had our Arc'teryx jackets on this section as we were nearly hypothermic while descending the Grosse Scheildegg in 32 deg F rain and cold wind.

From the town of Innerkirchen, we trekked up the Aare valley to the canyoneering activity. We suited up in multiple layers of neoprene to stay warm while jumping in water that was snow earlier that morning. Our guide (aka Klause) taught us about our "diapers" (butt-slide pads), how to "walk like a monkey" on the slick rocks, and then rappelled us off a handrail down into the canyon. We had a blast sliding, climbing, and jumping down the pools in the canyon. The run back to the TA helped us warm up from the freezing water.

At this point in the race we were going into the 3rd night and had slept about 1.5 hours. We had been very cold three times in the last 24 hours (in the Schiltorn hail storm, descending the Grosse Scheildegg, and while canyoneering), and had just taken a scenic detour while retracing our route back to the TA from the Grimsel Canyon. We needed to get some sleep but the TA was a muddy, wet bathroom. Fortunately, the hotel across the street had a restaurant/bar and looked to be open. After some sleep-deprived language barrier translation and a bit of negotiation by RVG, we had a big plate of soup, rice, veggies, beef, bread, and desert in front of us. After devouring the food, we slept for 3 hours and headed out on the last sections of the race. The buffet and hotel stop was an AR first for our team, and was a long stop in the middle of the race, but we were able to keep a strong pace for the next 24 hours and pass two teams that were ahead of us before the stop.

A beautiful morning alpenglow on the Eiger greeted us as Mari set the pace climbing up to the Reuti ski resort near the first checkpoint of the 3rd trekking leg. The race organization had removed two checkpoints high on the ridgeline because of the weather and new snow the day before, so we took a lower route through some nice meadows and towns on the way to the last checkpoint of the section in the town of Husstatt. We then descended toward the Brienzersee, or Lake Brienz to start the second and final paddle leg.

It felt good to get off our feet while paddling across the lake. A haunted castle on the lake and Kyle's descriptions of the dinosaur shapes in the meadows on the mountain slopes provided good entertainment during the paddle. A good dose of sleep deprivation may be needed to re-create the T-Rex blowing smoke from his nose and brontosaurus with a long tail that were on the mountain that afternoon.

The final trek promised to be a good one with 4 mountain top checkpoints on two separate ridgelines. After climbing up to the Harder Klum restaurant, we headed east along the ridgeline toward the Augstmatthorn summit. We could see a few teams in front of us along the ridgeline and they provided some much-needed motivation to keep a quick pace. One team we weren't able to track down was the 3 Ibex we saw near the summit.

From the Augstmatthorn summit, we negotiated a steep descent to the town of Habkern where we closed down one of the restaurants with a round of Cokes. We traveled through some impressive rock formations near the Gemmenalphorn summit and on the ridgeline to the Neiderhorn station. Sleepmonsters were starting to come out on the long ridgeline trek especially after we passed a "no dress shoes" sign on the trail. We assumed the trail would be a groomed sidewalk and the lift station would be just around the next corner but the ridgeline seemed to be endless. After we finally found the Neiderhorn station, a helicopter seemed to be searching the mountainside in front of us. It flew around for a few minutes and then disappeared. A few miles later we came across the British Sleepmonsters/Likies team and learned that one of their teammates had become hypothermic and had been evacuated by the helicopter. Fortunately the evacuated racer was OK after warming up in the hospital overnight and the team had made the right call to have him quickly evacuated. The team's gear had been scattered by the helicopter and after they collected it they continued on the trail with us. With some good conversation and new focus we kept a fast pace to what was the paragliding checkpoint the day before. Unfortunately we missed the quick trip of paragliding down the mountain and continued down the trail to Lake Thun and then retraced the start of the race through Interlaken to the finish.

Dart finished 7th in the APEX race. We left with tired legs and great memories of the race and competition. Many strong teams made the race very competitive and we enjoyed sharing stories of the race with the other teams at the awards ceremony.