By Jim Stanford on April 7, 2008
Photographs by Andrew Wyatt © (roll cursor over images for captions)
What a fantastic, and quintessentially Jackson Hole, “rite of spring.”
The 33rd Pole Pedal Paddle will be remembered as the coldest in history. There were whiteouts on every leg, icicles hung from bicycles, and kayaks were blown upriver.
On a morning in which Jackson Hole crossed the 600-inch mark* for snowfall, we were blasted by yet another storm. Highways 22 and 390 were glazed with ice, and drifts covered the shoulders where competitors were supposed to ride.
PPP founder Harry Baxter, who started the event in 1975, called this year’s race “probably the toughest one ever.” Baxter, 78, usually watches the competition from the mountain, but this year he didn’t because “I wasn’t sure they were going to pull it off.”
Conditions were so extreme that British adventurer Richard Branson was drawn into the field. Competing under the alias “Any Wirth,” Branson, the billionaire baron of Virgin Atlantic, and teammate Richard Georgi (himself no slouch of capitalism) finished second in the men’s rec division.
In the true spirit of the day, and the PPP, a horde of marauding Vikings conquered the fun class, slaying all other costumed competitors. Armed with swords and shields and what appeared to be a freshly gnawed elk head mounted on the front of their raft, the hirsute team landed at Astoria in a blizzard and proceeded to, well, party like Vikings. (Rumor had it they sacked Hoback Junction en route and pillaged all of the beer from Hoback Market.)
Complete race results can be found here.
About the only warming story line was the triumph in the men’s racing class by Aaron Pruzan, who has been competing in the PPP for 15 years and gives away a kayak in the raffle each year. Perennially one of the top boaters, he had been part of winning teams but had never claimed the solo racing title.
On a day when many of the past champions conspicuously made other plans, Pruzan persevered, smoked the field and made sure the PPP crown stayed in Jackson.
“Persistence pays off, I guess,” he said.
Not since the Doane expedition of 1876 had there been such a foolhardy exploration of the wintry Snake River. With only a trickle of water in the river, paddlers struggled to stay in the current as winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour often made downstream travel all but impossible.
The last mile and a half before the finish line, said Pruzan, was “one of the most difficult times in a kayak I’ve ever had in my life.”
All week, leading up to the race, I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” With Wyoming still in the clutches of an extraordinary winter, you didn’t need a weatherman to know conditions would be brutal.
Mike Freeburn, the 14-time PPP champion of Durango, Colo., once told me that to be a great athlete, “You have to learn to love the suffering.” It was advice given to him as a child by Buddy Edelen, a former U.S. marathoner.
To me, the PPP is the ultimate test: a 3,500-vertical-foot Alpine super-G, 8-kilometer Nordic ski, 20-mile bike ride and 10-mile paddle. I enter each year to push myself, to keep up the tradition, and to support the Jackson Hole Ski Club that organizes the race and has produced a half-dozen or so Olympians.
I suffered along the course, like everyone else. I have a friendly rivalry with a former boss who pushes me to the limit. We dueled down the stretch and finished 30 seconds apart, ice crystals on our life jackets. Exhaustion mixed with elation.
Freeburn said, “The suffering you do in the moment of a race turns into something different. Once you learn to love the suffering, it’s not suffering anymore. It’s almost euphoria.”
If this year’s race was the toughest ever, it was also the most beautiful in that regard. When people ask me how I did, I tell them I did my very best. As Richard Branson probably can attest, that’s the greatest feeling in the world.
*measurement taken at 9,300-foot Raymer Plot at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, not historical marker at bottom of Rendezvous Bowl