How do you begin to describe an experience that is beyond description? Words are a start but words can only paint a picture that at best conveys a pictorial sense to the reader. Words are sterile until they are fertilised by the imagination of the person who reads. On their own, words are one-dimensional; they lack the visceral nature of the experience, the sights, the sounds, the tastes, the touch and ultimately the mental turmoil that engulfs the few in the reality of their chosen adventure.
Can one experience have the power and the position to define an entire event? Indeed, can it define an entire genre? Leg Three of XPD 2013 did that for me and I believe many of my fellow adventurers would feel the same. The monster that was Lake Frome would become a defining moment in our lives.
It is prosaic to say we were adrift on a sea of white. Where multiple footsteps meant nothing - where the march of time was measured not by any visual references but by the track of the sun; where any anchoring to reality dissolved into a mirage. Where your only point of sanity was a compass bearing that pointed to nothing. This was the reality of the Lake - a surreal place that became for me an outer world experience.
Most of us live sanitised lives. Some of us have a job, kids and a family - some of us don’t. Either way, for most of our daily lives we live in a regime - we work, we train, we socialise and we do stuff! Our lives are generally co-ordinated and measured by rationality - and some of us - a privileged few, choose to be Expedition Adventure Racers.
Perhaps we were born a hundred years too late. What we seek would have been the norm, a sensible day’s work when the world was traversed by square-riggers and there were spots on the map marked "there be dragons". In another time, would we have been those adventurous souls that tackled that great unknown? For many of us - I think he answer would be yes.
And so the question is often asked, why do we do it? And I struggle to find an answer that can summarise the complexities of emotion, fear, elation, exhaustion, pain, challenge, pleasure and the suffering that all of us experience when engaging in an endeavour that takes us to a place that few have been. So the answer is ultimately paradoxical; if you have to ask the why then you will never be able to understand the how. Because it is only the souls that have been, done and endured that can truly understand the why. And so it was - with the journey that was Lake Frome.
A monster by any description, a journey so simple and yet so diabolical: walk across a dry salt lake and on the way find a checkpoint on an island. When you start, the horizon is flat and so is the sky, it melds into one giant focal plane of white and hazy azure. The common point, a wavering mirage where sky meets salt somewhere out on a vastness so great, that finding a comparable life experience is impossible. I look at the map with a scale of 1:150000 and a slow thought leaks like a dripping tap into my mind. What we are about to do is a step well beyond my navigational experience. At zero metres above sea level, the big flat of Lake Frome appears to stretch to the mythical edge of the world. At two metres above the salt, the horizon line is five kilometres away; there is absolutely nothing between me and the curve of the earth. Whichever way I look, it is white. It will take four hours of walking and twenty kilometres of nothing before the target will literally rise from a mirage.
The island is a long way over the horizon. With a deep breath and a leap of faith the metaphor "to cast off" takes on a dramatic meaning for us all. Heat, flies, sun, wind and the crunch of salt under our feet become the rhythms of our life. Left right left right left right; it seemed we walked on the spot, marching up and down for hours. Logic said we were moving but without visual cues the mind became it's own source of delusions. Is that the island over there? No, it must be that one, wait - what are all these other islands? No, that can't be right, the compass points that way. And so it went. With no reference points for scale, little islands looked big and big islands looked small - those far away seemed close and the one close appeared distant. It was as though we were in a giant fun park - where mirrors distorted reality.
When you are tired, sleep deprived and exhausted you seek to bend your current existence and make something that is not right fit your picture of what "should be". And so it was, many teams were to explore the smaller islands before they found "the one". Eventually logic, sanity and rational thought prevailed and the checkpoint was found.
With water low and severe blisters forming, the unrelenting flatness and sharp salt crystals of the Lake began to take a toll on many. One more compass bearing to land, old hands now, we cast off from our island and headed to the shore - a mere 25 kilometres away. The sun had worn us down; our faces plastered in sunscreen appeared more haggard than our ages deserved. It was day two and the race was becoming a mission to endure. Somewhere out on the emptiness of the Lake our experience had shifted from the physical to the mental. As all Expedition Racers know - the journey and the fight was now within and so it would be for the remainder of the race.
After relentless hours of staring at nothing, water emerged. At first it was a mirage - something not to be taken seriously. Then as time progressed it became very real and the cursing started. As did the anxiety - was it deep, would we have to swim, could we navigate around it and would we lose our bearing if we did so? The answer was simple - hold the bearing and hold your nerve.
So we waded for five kilometres; a surreal experience within a surreal experience. Then the light left us, the day had gone in a blink and so had our strength. With darkness came a new challenge, how to find a checkpoint in a world of black amongst sand dunes and clay pans? A kindly placed red light, guided us into the Transition - a true beacon in a vast sea of nothing.
Encapsulated in one leg of one race was a lifetime of experience. After 14 hours, Lake Frome had delivered: vastness, hardship, pleasure, amazement, suffering, wonderment, pain, perseverance, great beauty, anxiety, elation, relentlessness, frustration, strangeness, respect, challenge, rawness, tranquillity and mesmerising intensity. It is what Expedition Racing is all about. And that is why we do it.
|The end of the Lake.