Frozen Fox Invitational
Back in the fall of 2014 my good buddy Grant shot me a note asking if I would like to help him beta test an endurance event. Without knowing anything more than “Shymske wants to do a thing.” I immediately said “of course”. I was then informed to kick him a few bucks for maps, build a 6 man team, teach them the principles of land navigation (including night skills without white lamps), and show up by Fort Bragg, NC in the spring.
A week or so later a package showed up at my door with MGRS maps of Fort Bragg, so I gave the man in charge a call. It was to be a 36 hour orienteering course through the North Training Areas of Bragg, with some team-on-team physical challenges sprinkled in to keep things interesting.
See that area between the heavily secured military airfield, artillery range, and ominous chunk of land simply labeled as “HOSTILE IED”? This was to be our home, and I was giddy.
I rounded up a bunch of local folks (Chris, Geoff, Justin, Mike, and Shelia) that I have raced with over the years and we set about teaching each other the basics of finding your way through the woods using only a map and compass. We spent weekends trudging through waist deep snow, playing in state parks on some of the navigation course. From the onset we decided that this was going to be a fun experience, not a race where would be constantly driving the pace. I wanted to play in the woods with my friends, and they wanted to pick up some new skills. There were no illusions that this would be easy (36 hours of rucking through the back woods of North Carolina is hard, no matter the pace) but we agreed to keep it fun first, competitive second.
As the day approached we got a van, loaded our gear, and drove 13 hours through the night to the base. The event kicked off in the parking just outside base at 11pm. Here we met the other teams (the event was capped at 5 to make the first run safer, and fly under base radar), got our “scare brief” and first set of coordinates. A quick checkin with base security later, and we were off.
Our initial plan was to hustle down to our start point (each team had a unique checkpoint #1 to spread the racers out), plot all of our points, then make a long night movement along roads to wherever we thought it would be easiest to start finding checkpoints at first light.
It was a good plan, which means it almost instantly went out the window when 3 or 4 miles down the trail a team member took a bad step in to a rutted out tank trail in the dark and severely twisted his ankle. Did I mention that we could only use red headlamps during the night searches, and the weather was 20+ degrees colder than usual? Everything was ice, and it was very dark. He tried walking on the ankle for a couple hundred yards, but it quickly became apparent that we had to get him off the course and have a medic take a look at his injury. The nice thing about doing a race at Fort Bragg is that there are 18 Deltas (Special Forces combat medics) everywhere, we just had to get to them. At this point our quick 5-6 mile hike turned into buddy carrying for miles over a slightly sandy iceskating rink.
By the time we got our downed man safely into the hands of event support we had been moving slowly in 15ºF weather for hours. When we finally reached our official start point we agreed that it wouldn’t be safe to stop for another hour to plot out the entire course, we had to find some local points to hit and get moving quickly. Hypothermia was a real concern. A quick scan of the CP (check point) list showed that there were at least 5 points within a reasonable distance, and they looked pretty approachable from the road. We did our plotting/route planning and got moving fast.
MGRS digits are a series letters and numbers that tell you how far East and North from gridlines on a map you need to move to reach your target. In theory, it’s pretty straight forward. In practice, in the dark, over rough terrain, on unfamiliar trails, it can be a nightmare. It’s not exactly like there are street signs on foot trails. You need to use your map to navigate close to your objective, then use a protractor and compass to determine how to go about your last little bit. For example: “Take this big trail north for about a mile until you cross a bridge over a creek. Continue north until the next trail intersection, then move at a heading of 55º (kinda NE) for 300 meters until you arrive at your objective. It should be on the spur of a hill.”
We made pretty good time to our first area, and went about hunting in the dark with our compasses. At once the difficulty of this event became apparent, as even though we were within 25m of where we needed to be, we simply couldn’t find our objective. After an hour of searching, we agreed to come back during daylight for this CP and headed north. At our next area we ran into another team who, thankfully, was having as bad of luck as we were. I don’t mind hard courses, but an easy course that you are simply bad at is demoralizing. Since neither team had had any luck so far, we partnered up and searched the area together, mostly to get a feel or what we were looking for. Again, no luck, and we parted ways and moved on.
By this point it was almost daybreak, so light would shortly be on our side, and hunting easier. We hoped.
Our third CP took us to a series of really neat/spooky abandoned buildings. Our first two attempts were in the woods, at night, but surely we could find a marker inside of a relatively clear building. Right? After sweeping the building for about 45 minutes, I felt like I was taking crazy pills and made the decision to call HQ to figure out what was going on. I was told two things: first: all of the teams were having a really hard time finding their targets in the dark (one team didn’t even reach their start point until after sunrise), and second: we were in the hardest portion of the map. Grant gave a few clues on what to look for and Chris and I searched the building again.
Inside of this creepy mansion, and up these “DO NOT USE, EVER!” stairs, hidden above a rotted out chunk of the 3rd story ceiling, we found our first point. Arguably the hardest on the entire course.
Ok, it’s gonna be like that, huh?
Now that we knew what to look for, and ambient temperatures weren’t as dangerous, we hunkered down by a few buildings and plotted a route for the event. We knew that hitting markers during the deep of the night was going to be almost impossible so we set up areas that we could move between on the roads while it was dark, focusing on racking up “hits” while we had at least some light.
One additional aspect of this event, that I personally loved, were 3 checkins with the event organizers. These were optional, but at each stop teams could compete in some sort of goofy physical challenge to earn extra points. Since navigating earned you at most 1 or 2 points per hour, our team decided that it was well worth the extra mileage to make those rendezvous times and pick up the points. Not to mention it forced us to see more of the base and not stomp around through the same 3 square miles for the entire event.
By the time we picked up our third CP it was time to start moving across the map to our first challenge. This meant a ~4 mile “straight” shot down a logging road. Fairly uneventful, but got us out of the deep woods for the first time. Skies were overcast, but the temperature was rising and it was really damn pleasant to just be on a walk with my buds. The meeting point for the checkin was just outside of an area I was really excited to visit – Freedom City. This is where troops train for urban operations and they have a mock city built out in a huge clearing. We got there a bit early and I did some more mapping then racked out for 15 minutes while Geoff and Justin searched the “city” and scored us a quick 2 more points.
Our first “team vs team” challenge was an old Army classic: “Koalification”. Pair up with someone from another team and on the command “go”, invert and grab a tree. Last man to fall down wins a point for their team. If you lost your round you had a second chance to earn the point by completing a 3 man buddy carry of ~25m. If everyone on your team earned their point, you walked away with 6 points. Not bad for an hour’s worth of work. We did pretty well (Justin went all “old school strongman” strong on us and carrying nearly 500# of people for a point), but the best part of this break was that our injured teammate staggered his way down the trail to meet up with us. Mike is a tank, and it was great to see him.
We parted ways with the other teams and jumped back to the task at hand: finding ziploc bags stashed in dense forest. We had plenty of daylight, the team had soaked up a bit of much needed rest, and that big orange ball in the sky had lifted spirits – we were ready to hustle. There were 4 or 5 hours until the next challenge and our team made the most of it by heading to the far northeast corner of the map, hoping other teams had elected to skip some of those remote areas.
Some of the roads were pretty dicey, but we were having a good time. Smiles all around.
As the afternoon wore on we set a couple of time cutoffs, after which we would have to abandon our search exercises and start moving across the field to prep for the second “feat of strength” event. With time winding down our group picked two points near each other, parted ways for a few minutes, and sent a team north and south. Geoff and I went south to scour the edge of lake. The area had recently gone through a controlled burn, so we walked over this rolling alien landscape, hunting as we went. After what felt like a half-hour of stumbling through chest-high marsh grass (probably 10 minutes in all reality) Geoff finally spotted our prize.
I want to thank Grant for hiding this marker way out in a pond, at the end of a slick log. Real considerate, fella 🙂
We regrouped with the other folks who sadly had to turn back when their time ran out, and we started trudging back to meet up and figure out what stupid human trick we’d be tasked with next. By this point we had been on this adventure for the better part of 48 hours, and actively racing for around 20. You can only nap so well in the back of a rented minivan, and a couple members of the team were feeling the effects. If AMC needs to cast some extras for the next season of The Walking Dead, let me know – I have phone numbers for you. Our staggering herd retraced our familiar steps to a central part of the course and we were introduced to the Head Pull.
It’s like tug of war, with some extra splashes of yoga and meathead tossed in for effect.
We all gave it a shot, grabbed a few points, and elected to pass on the “redemption” event – which was stripping down and sitting in the water spillway of a dam. Nighttime was fast approaching, and the risk of hypo didn’t seem worth it. Looked terrible from the outside though, so hats off to those knuckleheads who took the plunge.
This late in the game it was time to get really smart about strategy. We knew that stumbling around all night in the dark wasn’t going to be a good use of time. A few team members were pretty beat up and needed rest, and based on the previous night’s debacle, we were unlikely to make much headway anyhow. After a little bickering in a team meeting we decided to hit 2 or 3 points we missed the previous night, then find a good place to bed down for the evening.
Since we had already explored the terrain, and had a far better idea of what we were looking for now, we were able to pull down two additional CPs that had previously eluded our capture. I’m not going to say they were any easier or the least bit fun, because they weren’t. We were now well past 24 hours into the event, on our second long night – this was just flat out work. On more than one occasion team members had to retreat back to known roads to sit down and rest for a bit. Most folks were running on fumes. Trudging through briars and swampy terrain for hours on end, with nothing to show for it is demoralizing. Many poopy faces were made, a couple tempers wore thin, but we finally hit our marks and decided to call it a night.
Earlier in the day we got the good news that Mike was taped up well enough to come out and limp through the next day with us. He had fresh spirits but a bum leg, we had functional bodies but broken brains – it was a perfect match. We decided to meet him near the start point and bed down for the night, striking off at first light. It was a long cold night until the sun finally started to rise. Then it rained.
Luckily the weather didn’t last long, but even if it had spit drizzle all day, it wouldn’t have mattered. The team was back together and we were refreshed from getting some shuteye. It was time to make the most of these last hours.
We had ~3 hours to sweep some carefully selected points along a main fire break then start heading towards the final event, and our finish point. The stars must have aligned, because we just clicked Sunday morning. Where previous points took some scouring to find our final CPs strung together beautifully. We paced off distance along the trail, did our dead reckoning, and walked right on to targets. The team was flowing beautifully, and even though we were tired, everything just worked flawlessly.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and we were closing in on ours. Only the hike out and one final physical challenged remained. Pick up two 20 liter NATO water cans and farmer carry them for as many ~25m laps as possible (up to 10). Time to dig deep kids.
If you haven’t carried an implement until failure, go try it sometime. Your body goes from “ok” to “severe discomfort” to “oh god my arms on fire why won’t this stop?” very, very fast. A few teams went and put up solid scores in the high 40/low 50 lap range. Grant told the group that any ties would be broken with more Head Pulls. Our team wanted no part of that nonsense, so we elected to put a bullet in this sucker. 5 of us were pretty confident that we could run a “full pull” of 10 laps. Only Shelia had serious doubts. Not one of us doubted her for a second.
A few minutes, couple hundred meters, some coaching, and crying-on-the-inside later, this 50 year old mom had smashed a huge chunk of the men’s field and STOMPED out her full set of laps. None of the fellas on my team would have lived down letting little Shelia beat them, so we all pulled up our britches and grunted out a perfect score of 60 laps. Luckily none of the other squads were able to match that performance (though some came uncomfortably close) and we took the event.
Frozen Fox 001 was in the books. We were done.
I have nothing but positive things to say about the event. The first pass through any new series is going to have little hiccups here and there, but all things considered, it was an incredible experience. I can’t think of a way I would have rather spent three days than driving for 24 hours and marching around swamps than with these folks.
Grant, thank you sir. It was a truly remarkable time.Leave Comment