Friday, August 31, 2012

689-mile saga of saddle sores and soaring vistas

Julie Youngblood rides across Mongolian steppes

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum’s Julie Youngblood will always remember her Mongolian adventure. Courtesy photo

It was the ultimate adventure vacation for Ketchum’s Julie Youngblood—riding a series of horses 689 miles or 1,112 kilometers across the desolate and incredibly beautiful Mongolian steppes over eight days during August.

That’s approximately the distance between Wells, Nev., and San Diego, Calif.

Youngblood, 24, was part of the Mongol Derby, called the longest and toughest horse race in the world. As the daughter of a polo player, riding horses since the age of 6 and experienced with hunter-jumpers, Julie was well qualified.

Indeed, she finished the event tied for seventh place with her newfound friend Charlotte Treleaven of Great Britain. Out of 35 riders who started the trek, only 18 crossed the finish line. Only four of the 17 women finished, and just two of five Americans.

Youngblood said, “I was proud to have just completed the race! Between the amazing company and camaraderie, the indescribable scenery, and the outstanding little horses themselves, I would say—even through the pain and sores and low moments—it was the most amazing experience of my life.”

Back in Ketchum, Youngblood said last week, “I definitely underestimated the challenge. The race was harder than I even imagined, more mentally than physically.

“But I met amazing people who I’ll forever remember and be friends with, and had an experience I’m never going to forget.”

A Sun Valley ski instructor in winter since first arriving in Ketchum in fall 2010, Los Angeles native and NYU college graduate Youngblood has also worked as a waitress in Ketchum and as a whitewater rafting guide in Idaho.

She became aware of a United Kingdom-based organization called The Adventurists, which raises money for charities and describes itself on its website as “Fighting to make the world less boring.” The Mongol Derby is one event.

The Adventurists, since its founding in 2004 by Tom Morgan, has devised eight different extreme and unsupported adventures over eight years. Nearly 7,000 people have participated in quests that have raised more than $5.2 million for charity.

All the adventures are designed to be “intentionally difficult in response to the world becoming increasingly dominated by a hermetically sealed health and safety culture,” The Adventurists stated in a January press release.

Her entry fee was slightly over $9,000. She raised close to $2,000, double her original goal, for a charity, Mercy Corps.

She said, “I don’t know if I’d ever go back to try it again, but some part of me is already forgetting the pain, long days and horrible saddle sores and remembering the romanticized galloping through fields and trying it again someday with my twin sister.”


The Mongolian adventure

Youngblood flew into Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s largest city and capital, on Aug. 4 and spent three nights there in pre-race preparation. The first adventure was a three-and-a-half hour bus trip from Ulaanbaatar out to the start camp.

She said, “The bus trip may have been the most terrifying experience of all. The modified four-wheel-drive bus crossed rivers, got stuck in a ditch and rallied through many a swampland with the occasional push from the passengers.

“The places our driver took that bus, without roads, was the most outstanding feat of the whole derby. I’d have loved to see what it looked like—a massive tour bus with all-terrain wheels speeding across the plains of the steppe at 40-plus mph.”

Arriving at the start camp, the Mongol Derby participants spent two days meeting the other riders and training on the horses, getting their stomachs used to the food and local swill, and doing last-minute gear preparation.

The race started the morning of Aug. 10 when riders got a first taste of the treeless grasslands.

She said, “We had 26 horses total, one for each leg, which measured about 40k (25 miles). The horses ranged from every color under the sun, and from some of the most insane runaways to some of the laziest lugs I have ever ridden.

“One of the most memorable horses I rode was a racehorse I promptly named Rocket. It literally galloped the 40k between stations in a little over an hour and a half and came in with a resting heart rate of 52—amazing.

“It was like being strapped to a ballistic missile. You let go of any semblance of control and let it happen and you were in for the ride of your life. He even managed to have a large stumble in a marmot hole, shook it off and kept right along for the rest of the distance with no extra encouragement from me.”

Many riders dropped out due to injuries.

Not Youngblood.

She said, “Charlotte and I miraculously sustained no serious injuries. Except a black eye she got playing a somewhat drunken game of possum racing the night before the derby started. That’s how we met. I was her possum racing partner. Don’t ask what possum racing is. We decided then and there we’d be great partners for the race as well.”

All they needed, really, was a pair of rollicking Irish lads.

She said, “We met two Irishmen, Donal Fahy and Richie Killoran. We formed the lead pack for the first six days—all filled with some serious good times, laughs, a little whiskey and a lot of mutton, and the occasional involuntary dismounts. I must say, I channeled my inner spider monkey and managed to never fall off, clinging on with every bucking spree, marmot hole fall and mid-gallop stumble.”

They did have a nutty river crossing the fourth day.

Youngblood said, “We had missed the bridge and weren’t willing to go back the 10k, so we camped on the river bank at a local ger (yurt). That’s where the head herder from the family helped us cross a swollen and fast-moving river in the morning.

“One of the Irish boys, Richie, couldn’t swim, so I said I would cross first and show him it would be OK and made a throw bag to save him if it came to it.”

Fortunately, the herder from the family was there to help when Youngblood got into unexpected trouble.

She said, “My horse panicked and got completely submerged, taking me with him. If it wasn’t for the Mongolian grabbing my horse’s head and pulling it out of the water, I bet I would still be taking a swim through that river. Needless to say—not a very comforting example for Richie.”

The four riders rewarded the herder with gratitude, a mini bottle of whiskey, a flashlight and $10. He was happy with the gifts and drank the whiskey after the crossing—at 7:30 a.m.

“In the end we all made it across and kept on trucking, holding the lead for another two days before Charlotte and I had a huge lame horse delay and told the boys to push on without us,” said Youngblood. “It took some serious convincing, but they were glad they did. They went on to win!”

And the logistics of living?

She said, “For food we made it to local gers and horse stations, usually every night, and in their overwhelming cultural generosity they always fed us their best—usually dried cheese curds, some sort of mutton-based stew or rice, and a very helfty helping of airag, which is fermented mare’s milk, both toxic in its alcohol content and curdled taste.

“Water was also generously offered, and then I had brought a Steripen to clean our supply from rivers and springs and lakes. I will tell you that I can now go my entire life without ever eating another lamb- or goat-based meal again.

“Each day we’d wake up at 5:30 a.m., be ready to ride at 6:30 a.m., and usually call it a night around 9 or 9:30 p.m. So they were 14- to 15-hour days in the saddle. We’d try to make four horse stations a day, about 160k. The designated horse stations each night were run by the local families but they usually also had a crew vet, medic or other staff member hanging about.

“A few nights we camped out with unassociated local families, which was always an adventure in Monglish (our best Mongol-English ) and extreme hand gestures.”

Treleaven and Youngblood finally arrived at 8:50 p.m. on the eighth day, six hours after the leaders. The women squeezed in four legs of riding, long and fast, on the final day.

They waited for the remaining groups and recovered in finish camp until Sunday, Aug. 19. That evening, they enjoyed a huge bonfire party and ceremony that featured Mongolian wrestling, bone-throwing games, drinking, singing and dancing.

Youngblood said that before flying back to the U.S. on Aug. 22, “We took the 12-hour bus journey back to Ulaanbataar after finish camp at the volcano, then had another final party in U.B. I went to a local rock concert and visited the black market.”

She flew back to the U.S. on Wednesday, Aug. 22. Youngblood said last week, “I’m just trying to catch up and recover. I picked up a stomach parasite and went into shock at finish camp, but a strong dose of antibiotics and some rest have me on the quick mend.”

About her partner Treleaven, Youngblood said, “She is from Cornwall in the U.K., and we will most certainly keep in touch. We joked about being in each other’s weddings if we ever get married. I’m hoping to plan a visit this spring, and meet up with both her and the Irish boys in London.”

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