Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Tevis sweep 2018

It was cave-dark. A few glow sticks showed the way, but didn’t provide any light. That famous Tevis full moon didn’t penetrate through the trees. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me, so I just gave Major his head, and said get us through this. Water splashed, rocks tumbled underfoot, and he crossed the creek and up the opposite bank. 

Later, on a more exposed hillside, the moonlight glowed, showing pine tree silhouettes and reflecting off the smoke in the canyon, the trail showed up clearly ahead. But only a bit of this and the trail was swallowed by trees again, Major never questioning why it was 1:00am, why we were following those people but staying back, walking over rocks, slick granite and along drop-offs, never hesitating. Trust.

trailer snack is serious stuff

7:30 pm temperature, yuck!

My sweep section started at Foresthill, which is the one-hour vet hold 68 miles into the ride. The competitors have done the hardest canyons, but there is still plenty of climbing and descending to do to get to Auburn. Many people leave in daylight, and the front-runners left Foresthill at 5:10pm, but the last of the 87 people left at 9:50pm, with my sweep team behind them.

getting ready, alfalfa is awesome.

My sweep team was just two people, me on Major and C on Racer. C had the radio, as cell phones sure don't work in the canyons! Our job is just to follow behind the last rider, making sure the trail is clear, and we don't leave anyone out there. We will help if necessary or asked for, but otherwise let everyone ride their own ride.

We had pre-ridden this section (Foresthill to Cal 2, 10 miles, 1500 feet elevation gain) the week before in daylight, making sure the horses (and we) knew the trail. I'd also ridden it in May at the Tevis Fun ride. (For trail pictures, look at that post, as it was way too dark to take any new and/or good photos!)

orange moonrise over Foresthill vet check

Major finding alfalfa scraps under bright Foresthill lights

They had extended the cut-off time at Foresthill due to the heat and smoke from distant fires, but we only left about 10 minutes after our originally scheduled time of 9:45. Riding through Foresthill on the concrete is always a bit nerve-racking (and many riders trot it!), but down California Street, then the trail starts. Almost immediately the riders we were following had lost the trail, it makes a tight switchback in open terrain that is completely noticeable by daylight and dusk, but at night was not marked well enough. They were backtracking when I pointed them down the correct trail, then hung back and let them move along.

The first part of this trail descends into the Dardenelles creek area. You cross a few creeks and go down multiple switchbacks. And it was pitch black. I had a headlamp that could be turned to red or white (only in emergency), flashlights (again, only for emergency) and some battery glowsticks, which are the best invention ever. I had the orange glowsticks on my front saddlebags, but even that was interfering with my night vision and not helping me see the trail (which I'd rather trust Major to know). So no lights was actually better.

The trail is marked with green glowsticks, mainly at turns, changes of elevation, etc. Most were horse high, some lower, and some had fallen on the ground (those were suspicious to Major!) And also disorienting to me, as you'd look ahead and assume a glowstick was horse height, but it was on the ground and the trail wasn't as steep as your mind believed. Very trippy.

The riders we were following had evidently never ridden the trail (which is understandable as many riders come from far away to compete) and were traveling really slowly. That is where more local riders, with experience over the trail, have such a great confidence advantage! But with the competitors out time of 9:45, and a suggested cutoff at Cal 2 of 11:45, they needed to travel 10 miles at 5mph JUST to make cutoff. That is quick on this type of trail, especially in darkness!

awful moon photo, but believe me, it was spectacular!

As the night moved closer to midnight, the moon rose higher and the the views were spectacular. We were still moving slowly, now past the suggested cutoff, and radio control asked us to move forward and contact the riders about their options. That was pretty fun, urging Major into a fast trot on dark trails to catch the other riders. Just what he loves, chase! C explained to them that they could technically continue on to Francisco's, but would be way overtime and definitely be pulled, or they could pull at Cal 2 and not put themselves and their horses through 7 more miles of technical, steep singletrack in the darkness. They chose to pull at Cal 2. Smart people. We dropped back again, as there were still 2 miles of trail ahead.

We enjoyed the night air, the moon, the darkness, and horses walking along in the warm night air. Major was just having fun, striding out, listening to me that today we are NOT catching up to those riders. He seemed to figure out the game, and would stand quietly if we happened to catch up to the competitors, while they went ahead. Good boy!

Finally at 1:00am we saw the lights of Cal 2. This is just a wide part on the trail with a steep road access. There is hay and water, a strand of holiday lights, and some dedicated volunteers. After letting their horses rest (they gone 78 miles, nothing to be ashamed of!) we had to follow the three pulled riders up the long, steep hill to the awaiting trailers. Our trailer was there too, and we were finished with our sweep for the night.

But as anyone with horses knows, it's not over yet. I cooled down Major, let him eat hay, put tack away, then started the drive home, my partner C driving. We weren't in my trailer, so we got to where my trailer was, I switched all the tack, unloaded and loaded Major in his own trailer, and drove back to the stable. The Auburn Courthouse stood on the corner, glowing at 3:30am.

stopped at a green light for this photo, 3:30 am, not much traffic!

Sweep riding Tevis is an exhausting, sometimes frustrating, always rewarding experience. Every time I'm reminded why I love to ride the individual sections but have no desire to do the whole 100 miles in one day. But I am super happy for the people who choose to compete, especially in this tough year, with only 42% completion rate. Four friends were pulled early in the day, and two made it to the finish, but I know the others will be back next year. It seems like Tevis fever grips many people in different ways. Major and I will be back to sweep again, hopefully in darkness, knowing the trail, trusting each other, finding the way.


  1. Brought me to tears. I love your horse.

  2. My friend Peter was one of those 3 riders. Too bad the trail, is admittedly marked poorly in spot(s)... especially for tired, disoriented riders at that point of the ride.
    I wonder how much help it is to preview the California Loop of the trail on the "fun ride."

    1. Your friend was very gracious, sorry he had to pull, but 78 miles is impressive to me! A few sections, mainly at the beginning, could use more markings. The problem is the glow sticks sure don’t light the trail! I definitely think pre-riding that section, during daylight, either fun ride, ed ride or just any pre-ride, is a benefit to horse and rider!

  3. Thanks so much to you and all the sweep riders for doing what you do!

    1. It’s a volunteer job that is a lot of fun too. Tevis takes a lot of support staff, amazing how it all comes together.

  4. This is so so so cool, and I got chills reading your opening. Also, I suspect I know one of the riders who you were tailing!!

    1. It is tough to be so late on that trail, then you have to cover that difficult terrain more quickly and in darkness. Those riders have some hard decision to make. We’re just there to make sure everyone stays safe!