The Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge: Trekking the Empty Quarter

BACKPACKER editor Jonathan Dorn's photos and memories of a six-day desert adventure race in Abu Dhabi
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BACKPACKER editor Jonathan Dorn's photos and memories of a six-day desert adventure race in Abu Dhabi

Expedition-length adventure races tend to leave competitors with gifts that keep on giving long after the kayak paddles are packed away and the sleep deprivation is counterbalanced by long nights of hibernation-worthy slumber. The gifts might be crater-wide heel blisters that take weeks to heal, or poison oak bubbles in places where Calamine doesn’t belong, or toenails that turn four shades of purple before sloughing off. Such things are almost unavoidable for racers who put their bodies through hundreds of miles of wilderness racing for five, or eight, or even ten consecutive days.

The members of team Yankee Scribes returned from the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge (ADAC) on December 17, 2010, with our own gifts that kept on giving right through the holidays—an odd assortment of wrist tendonitis, toe blisters, and lips so parched by the arid desert sun that one teammate (me, alas) considered sutures to close the cracks. We’d entered this six-day race, the world’s richest and most competitive, drawing top teams from all over the world, on invitation from the sports ministry of Abu Dhabi. Our group of four—outdoor adventure journalists Adam Chase (our captain) and Brian Metzler, and Olympic gold medalist Sheila Taorminda—would be the only media team in the race (which, due to the lackluster history of media teams, basically meant that no one expected us to finish).

The race started in the gleaming, skyscraper-studded capitol of Abu Dhabi, the seat of the United Arab Emirates, with a triathlon-style prologue that included running, swimming, and paddling inflatable canoes around the downtown area and the sprawling palace of the country’s ruling sheik. From the first horn, it was a mad pace, with team Thule, a Kiwi powerhouse led by Richard and Elaina Ussher and Natan Fa’vae, taking a lead that they would never lose. From the triathlon, we bused to a bike leg that ascended from the arid flats around the beautiful oasis city of Al Ain into the much-cooler limestone peaks of Jabel Hafeet. Two trekking sections and an outstanding via ferrata section followed, interspersed with navigation to quasi-hidden checkpoints. At night, we pitched tents around a movable race compound that consisted of communication and mess tents, plus several traditional Bedouin tents where racers could relax and rehydrate on Persian rugs and pillows. And then it was into the desert to experience what, for us, would be the true adventure of this race.

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No memory from ADAC will last longer than the mesmerizing beauty of the two days we spent trekking across a corner of the Arabian Desert’s Empty Quarter. Moving almost continuously for nearly 40 hours, we crossed more than 50 miles of rolling—and occasionally soaring—dunes, passing only two “roads” and spotting not a single settlement, manmade structure, or other sign of habitation. A few earth-moving trucks, perhaps, and several incongruous cell towers, but there’s no place on earth (that we’ve encountered) less hospitable to survival. Even the farthest, coldest reaches of Arctic tundra yield water and plant life. Here, nothing, just a few thorny creosotes and the odd clutch of dessicated grass. Of course, the utter absence of orthodox natural beauty is part of the desert’s attraction. There’s no sound out there, save the wind and an occasional diesel rumble—think faraway train at low throttle—that emanates from billions of grains of sand sliding down the steep slopes of the highest dunes. There’s no color but the dun soldier khaki of the sand—except at dawn and dusk, when the austere sameness transforms from shades of tan into a terrestrial version of the aurora borealis: shape-shifting oranges and pinks and soft reds playing in waves along the crests and hollows of the dunes. At these moments, you can understand why writers have long used nautical and sexual imagery to describe the scene: There’s a languid, liquid camber to every dune—long curves bending abruptly into rippled buttresses and sinuous waves, like the sweep of a lover’s back spreading into a gracefully turned thigh or smooth, shadowed hip. After a final kayaking leg back in Abu Dhabi’s harbor, team Yankee Scribes finished 36th out of 50 teams, a respectable showing given our ambitions, our efforts to capture good reporting while racing, and the limitations of training around families and full-time jobs. We had low times, to be sure—Adam called them “learning” moments—like the challenge of navigating in utter darkness through dunes that constantly morph in shape and position, all while using “maps” that were really 1:65,000 satellite photos taken long enough ago that neither of the two roads appeared on them. Like trying to sleep at a mandatory desert stop while a severely dehydrated racer in the next tent retched up the food and liquid his shriveled stomach wouldn’t accept. Like running out of water two miles short of the hottest checkpoint on the route, a spot so solar-baked we had to pitch tents to endure a scheduled rest. But mostly there were moments of grace that will last a lifetime. Discovering a wild camel track at 4 a.m. that gave us a fast, hard-packed course to follow for two hours. Glissading a 300-foot slope that made a strange chiming music with every footfall. Finding an extra tin of sardines in the food bag when I thought it was nothing but nuts and gels. And, weeks later, taking out my desert shoes for a trail run in a foot of fresh Boulder powder, and watching a shower of ultrafine sand shake off the built-in gaiters. They say the desert—the true desert—never leaves you, and I’m thinking there’s something to that.