Atacama Crossing Blogs 2020

View All Posts 2020 From : Robert Ripley

Geeking out over Gear (Part I)

13 February 2020 11:51 am (GMT-08:00) Pacific Time(US & Canada); Tijuana

Geeking out over Gear (Part I)

Or, Confessions of a tech weenie. I’m going to attribute the moniker tech weenie to my buddy Jay. I’m not sure if he coined the phrase, but he was the first to use it in my presence. A tech weenie is someone who spends more time researching the wicking quotient of their Patagonia capilene baselayer than they actually spend skiing in it. Or something like that. If you spend more time on the internet looking at gear then you spend using outdoor gear, chances are you’re a tech weenie.

For the uninitiated, the Atacama Crossing Ultramarathon is a week long mostly self supported race in the desert. The race organizers provide pink flags to follow, water to drink and tents to sleep in. Beyond that, you are on your own. Oh, yeah, they also provide a list. The list for Atacama Crossing Mandatory Equipment has 35 items and doesn’t even include a sleeping pad or a toothbrush. Those 35 items have to be stuffed in a pack (item #1) and carried on your back as you jog across the desert.

I’m not physicist or sports physiologist, but I think that the lighter your pack is, the easier it will be to jog across the desert. I’ve noticed that the guys and gals who win these races have light packs. As a member of the medical team, I have witnessed gear check in at 6 previous 4 Deserts Ultras. I have seen a pack that weighed over 20 kilograms (he didn’t win), and I have seen a pack weighing under 6 kilos (this was Sandy’s pack, I think she was packing some super secret Aussie highly caloric air for dinner. Sandy, by the way, won the Jordan race in 2014).


That's Sandy winning the Womens Jordan race in 2014.   You can't see much of her because her husband Colin is hugging her.  But she does have a really small pack!

(Non-gear related photo of Nancy and me in front of the Treasury at Petra at the finish line of the Jordan Race.)

I’m going to put this out here right now. I would like my pack to weigh 7 kilos or less. That is about 15.4 pounds. Roughly what my Guru Hyperlite racing bicycle (circa 2014) weighs. Or your average raccoon. (Not that I would recommend carrying a raccoon on your back, or even freeze drying one for race rations) And item #35 on the list is a weeks worth of food, minimum 14000 calories, which I’m sure will be the subject of multiple blog posts, but, suffice it to say, food will make up about half of the pack’s weight, and any weight saved on gear means capacity to carry more food. And, as they say, food is life. (Never more so than out in the desert)

Naturally this need for lightweight gear provides plenty of opportunity for web-surfing. And Geeking. And shopping. In the last decade, the outdoor gear marketplace has exploded with ultralightweight gear options. For instance, I have an Ultimate Direction Fast Pack 30, a great running pack that weighs only 652 grams (1.5 lbs—less if you take out the back support panel).   But Raidlight makes a running pack (or vest as they like to call them now) that weighs only 260 grams. Begging the question, how much is it worth to you to take an ounce, or a pound, off your back?

Back when I was bicycle racing, I probably spent over $1000 to get a pound off my bike. The top of line Dura Ace Shimano groupset (gears, shifters, derailleurs, etc) weights 300 grams less than the excellent Shimano Ultegra groupset, but costs about $1150 more. ($3.83/gm or $115/oz) At the time, my cycling coach, Todd Herriott (Métier), said it would be a lot cheaper for me just to lose 5 pounds off the butt sitting on the bicycle. And he had a good point then, but, at the moment, I weigh 75 kilos and my bodyfat percentage is sitting in the single digits, so losing weight prior to going out in the desert may not be a great idea.

The Raidlight people have put their price on an ounce. Their top of the line Revolutiv 24 liter vest costs $250 and weighs 9.1 ounces and their next best Responsiv 24 liter vest weighs 10.2 ounces and costs $190.  So $60 an ounce.

This has given me a lot to think about as I geek out over gear. The choices are many. Sadly, most of the climbing and backpacking gear in my garage is not going to make the pack, even if it was cutting edge 10 years ago. I would like to spend less than $1000 getting geared up for the race, hopefully getting some supercool backpacking gear that I can use in the future.

So.  While I vacillate a bit more over whether a vest or a pack is in my future and what is the best ultralight sleeping bag out there, I have started to purchase items on the list.  My first purchase: Items 6,7,8 & 10. (knife/multitool, whistle, mirror and compass)


$25 on Amazon! And I still have money and capacity for another 6.944 kilos.

Fortunately for me, Tony Brammer, legendary checkpoint 3 captain, will not be doing gear check in at Atacama 2020. He has been known to reject a racer’s pack because their whistle didn’t emit the requisite decibel level, or their mirror couldn’t signal the International Space Station.

(Just kidding Tony, we will miss you at Atacama, and we on the medical team appreciate the added safety that a thorough gear check provides!)

 More geeking out to do here. And maybe even some training. Better get busy. I will keep you updated on what the pack looks like and what’s going into it.

Comments: Total (1) comments

Jay Van Alstine

Posted On: 16 Feb 2020 08:23 pm

Robert, I should be less derisive of tech weenies, they are the mainstay of the outdoor gear economy. Given my BMI, I probably own a little too much carbon fiber myself. On the other hand, you fall into the doing camp and I support your geek pursuits! The vest concept is intriguing, it distributes the load evenly. Running with packs reminds me of the old days when we careened down Flat Top to be first back to the car. There weren't enough straps back then to keep our packs from beating us about the head and shoulders. On the geek front, I'm a fan of the skeletool. I don't have the carbon fiber model but it might be something to consider. You can open and close the knife with one hand which comes in handy on occasion. ( ) The orange plastic whistle and little compass look pretty low tech. Keep the blogs coming! Jay
First race of 2020!

09 February 2020 12:11 pm (GMT-08:00) Pacific Time(US & Canada); Tijuana

So, in looking at it from Goal # 3 (Don’t Get Hurt!), my first race of the season was an epic fail.  I raced in the Boulder Mountain Tour in Ketchum (Sun Valley), Idaho last weekend.  The Boulder is a mass start 34 kilometer freestyle (skate ski) race that goes down the Wood River Valley from Galena to Ketchum.  It is a fairly fast race, having a net elevation drop of about 300 meters.  I have raced it several times in the past with decent results, lots of type 1 and 2 fun, and no untoward incidents.

Unfortunately, that was not to be the case this year.  The snow was fast and the third wave (waves 1 and 2 are the elite men and women) was particularly aggressive.  I managed to avoid the carnage on the first fast downhill corner, but on the second downhill, as I was trying to skirt the second large pileup, I caught a ski tip and got spun around, falling backwards at speed and smacking my head on the hard packed surface.

If this had been a football game, and not a ski race, a trainer or doctor would have popped off the sidelines and administered the SCAT5 (Sport Concussion Assessment Tool 5th edition) which I probably would have failed, and I would have been pulled from the game.

(Our friend Mike, who happens to be a brain surgeon, gets paid by the NFL to wear a red baseball hat on the sidelines and perform exactly this task.  That's Mike on the far left.)

red hat

But, as it was a ski race, I was left to my own best judgement.  (Can you say a man who tries to be his own physician has a fool for a doctor?)  And I was pissed.  (as in angry, not intoxicated)  Dozens of skiers were passing me as I tried to get off the snow, and in my adrenaline toxic race mode, all I could think of was to GET BACK IN THERE.  And so I did. 

Over the course of the next 30 km I fell 4 more times.  I have skied dozens of races over the years and thousands of kilometers.  I have fallen during ski races.  I have fallen during ski days.  But never have I fallen more than once or twice in a day.  On the third fall of the day I put my ski pole on the wrong side of my ski boot and did a face plant (striking my head again).  And each time I fell I lost my increasingly lower position in the field.  At some point I should have realized that there was no way I was going to fight my way back, and that it was time to relax and enjoy the beautiful sunny day and ski carefully to the next check point and take a bus to the finish line.  But the competitor in me just wouldn’t let it go.

I struggled on to the finish line despite never really being “on” my skis.  My time was respectable, 1:40 for 34 km (or 2:56/km).   But in the last 2 Boulders I finished in the top 100, and I wasn’t anywhere near that this year.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in the car with a massive headache that Nancy, the smart one in the family, explained it to me.  “You idiot, you had a concussion.” 

(Thankfulness note:  I give thanks for having such a smart and beautiful wife who has saved my life on more than one occasion and continues to care about me regardless of whatever crazy thing I am doing at the moment.)   

I didn’t get “knocked out” or lose consciousness, but one of the signs of concussion is impaired balance.  And my balance was clearly impaired.  And cross country skiing is all about being able to stay balanced over your moving ski.

Fortunately for me, my symptoms of impaired balance and headache resolved over the next 24 hours and I have been able to gradually ease my way back into my exercise based lifestyle.  I have been trying to limit my screen time. (hence the lack of blog postings)  I have been trying to avoid contact sports.  But, quite frankly, I never really regarded cross country skiing as a contact sport until last weekend.  I remember when bicycle helmets went from being an accessory to mandatory equipment in the 80s and ski helmets came of age for adults in the 2000s.  Now that the skis are faster and the trails better packed, maybe it’s time we started wearing helmets on the Nordic trails.  After this weekend, I’m ready to be an early adopter.  I’m not sure exactly what the helmet will look like, and it will take some getting used to.

helmet skier

But apparently it's already a thing.  Although this person is competing in Bend's Pole Pedal Paddle and has already completed the downhill leg (helmet required) and is about to embark on the bike leg (helmet also required).

Comments: Total (1) comments

Tony Brammer

Posted On: 12 Feb 2020 06:16 am

I bet you can't wait to get to the Atacama for a rest. I would suggest wearing a helmet at the awards banquet, just to be on the safe side, it can get a bit busy at the bar.
replies to comments from last posting

09 February 2020 11:53 am (GMT-08:00) Pacific Time(US & Canada); Tijuana

Geoff!  Sign me up for your next trip.  I'll bring the lycra!  (although we heard that Pearlly was out looking for the med tent on your trip to care for her blisters!)  Our EM group is off on a hut trip to the Tam MacArthur rim later this month.  But we will be taking a snowmobile, to get the kegs to the hut.

Carl!  Working on it!  See lame excuse in next posting!

Tony!  I'm all for the RTP biathlon!  But I think the competitors would need to be armed as well.

Comments: Total (0) comments

Skiing to Atacama

26 January 2020 11:01 pm (GMT-08:00) Pacific Time(US & Canada); Tijuana

At this point you are probably thinking. Jeez. This guy blogs more than he runs. And you’d be right!

Today was my first run since starting this blog. But, as you can see from the piechart below. I haven’t been sitting on my butt typing ALL week.

 pie chart

Mostly I’ve been cross-country (or Nordic) skiing.

I grew up in Alaska, and cross-country skiing was my first sport. I actually skied to grade school (through the snow, up hill, both ways). My father handcrafted my first pair of skis by cutting the edges off an old pair of downhill skis and using a plane to thin out the edges. He modified the downhill cable binding so that the heel would elevate and the toe would hold my footwear of choice, the “tuffy boot.” Sadly, those homemade skis went the way of most of my skis from the 70s: splintered on a treacherous corner at Kincaid Park or shattered at the bottom of a homemade ski jump.


This picture shows me racing in a knicker suit that my mom sewed on a vintage Singer sewing machine in 1978. No Lycra were killed to make this suit.

(Thankfulness note: I give thanks for parents who spent their free time making stuff so that I could go ski)

My first ski race was sometime in the early 70s. I had asthma and cold air made me wheeze; the air was cold during ski season, so I didn’t do very well. I found that wearing a respirator would warm the air and make me wheeze less, but it made me look like Darth Vader, before there was Darth Vader, and this made me the object of ridicule from my fellow racers. Fortunately, my asthma and my skiing improved. I raced for Dimond High School in Anchorage (we won the State Championship in 1979) and the College of Idaho (we won the NCSA Nationals in 1980).

(Another thankfulness note: I give thanks for the ski coaches who pushed me to become a better skier and a better human: Lynn Roumagoux, John Morton, Ernie Meissner, and others)


This picture shows me racing at the NCSA (College) Nationals in Waterville Valley, NH in 1983. No mask! I came in 4th that day. My mom did not sew the see through lycra suit that I wore. Or the union jack boxers underneath.

After I graduated from college I spent a year as a research assistant (ski bum) and then went on to seven years in medical school and residency. When I finally had enough free time to ski again, cross country skiing had changed. The skis were faster, the suits were tighter and people were skating on skis!

My first real job was back in Alaska. So I taught myself to skate. Unfortunately, I had a fool for a coach and he taught me a number of bad habits that have been hard for me to break. And then I moved away from Alaska and only got to ski on rare occasions for the next 20 years.


This picture shows me skating to the finish of the Tour of Anchorage in 2018. It’s definitely not as pretty as what they now call “classic” cross country skiing, but it is quite a bit faster.

Now I live 30-40 minutes from world class cross country skiing. In the winter time I try to ski as much as possible. Skiing Nordic is one of the most aerobically challenging activities out there, engaging just about every single muscle group in the body. And it is relatively low impact. Except when you run into things on the side of the trail.

Which brings me back to the pie chart above as well as the third goal (Don’t get Hurt!). My strategy is to build up my aerobic fitness without doing a whole lot of running. (Once again, this is not expert advice, just my theory) I am hoping that by mixing in skiing and biking I can avoid some of those nasty overuse injuries and save a few shreds of articular cartilage for September!

Ski season lasts until mid-March. Maybe a bit longer if the snow holds. I have a race in Sun Valley this weekend.

Nancy and I are going to Cogne, Italy in March for the Masters World Cup races.  Because I haven't had my butt kicked enough by the masters skiers here, so I like to fly to exotic places so the scandinavians can kick my butt!

And in addition to the cross country skiing, we also have great downhill skiing here in Central Oregon, both backcountry and lift serviced, which I try to mix in with a little moderation (don’t get hurt).

In any case.  The snow here is great!  Come try it!  I'll get back to the running stuff when it melts.

Comments: Total (3) comments

Carl Botterud

Posted On: 08 Feb 2020 12:19 am

Enjoying your writing, aren’t we due for an update?

Geoff Falk

Posted On: 03 Feb 2020 04:31 pm

You really need to let Pearlly and me take you back country skiing. Its cross country and downhill all in the same package. You can even wear tight outfits as is your preference; see-through or otherwise. Pearlly and I just finished a hut trip where we skied 6-7hrs a day for 6 days straight. Really good training!

tony brammer

Posted On: 28 Jan 2020 05:51 am

I love some of these theories; not running will prevent overuse injury, brilliant concept. I also love watching cross country skiing. The Norwegians rock and are a class above, but my favourite is Biathlon. May be we should introduce a rifle into the 4 Deserts events, only for the CP Captains and only for humane purposes. I think I'm going to have to reevaluate my decision not to go to Atacama this year.
Just what type of fun are we talking about here??

24 January 2020 10:52 pm (GMT+08:00) Beijing, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Urumqi

As mentioned, one of my goals for Atacama 2020 is to have fun. Which begs the question: How fun is running across a desert all day, every day, for a week? And just exactly how crazy are you? But I suppose it all has to do with what type of fun you are talking about.

I first heard about the different types of fun in February of 2014 while I was working medical team on a 4 deserts race. It was pouring rain in the Wadi Rum in Jordan and the racers were straggling into camp like so many waterlogged creatures. Eric Ladd, one of the docs, said, “looks like there’s a lot of type 2 fun going on today.”

It turns out there are 3 types of fun (news to me at the time).

Per the urban dictionary:

Type 1 fun is just plain fun. Simple, uncomplicated fun. It differs from 'fun' because it implies that there was a possibility for type 2 fun or even type 3 fun to have occurred instead.

a: "So, how was your boss's BBQ?"
b: "Oh, everyone got plastered and played twister. Proper type 1 fun."
a: "See, told you it would be fine."

type 2 fun

  1. An activity that is fun only after you have stopped doing it.

ouch i hurt everywhere that was some type 2 fun


type 3 fun

not fun at all, not even in retrospect. As in, “What the hell was I thinking? If I ever even consider doing that again, somebody slap some sense into me.”

That was type 3 fun!

#type 1 fun#type 2 fun#type 4 fun#sufferfest#pain cave

I think for many of my fellow humans, pretty much any form of exercise will come under the heading of type 2 (or even 3 ) fun, but for those of us who exercise a lot, maybe even live to exercise, I think we can definitely put some forms of exercise into the type 1 category: say, a perfect bluebird powder day on the ski hill, or a run in the woods with your buddy when your legs feel great and the air is crisp and you just feel like you could run forever, or the perfect trail for your mountain bike, with just enough terrain to make it fun, but not enough to make you gasp for air.

But I think we can all agree, there will be a lot of type 2 fun going on at Atacama 2020. Chances are pretty good that my legs are not going to feel great every day and the feeling that I could run forever will be quickly replaced by the feeling (or maybe the reality) that I am. Running forever. And in order to get through the day, I will have to look forward to the day, maybe in the distant future, that I can sit down with a pint and some coconspirators and say, yeah, that was fun.

type 2 fun

(some type 2 fun at the 2019 Zofingen Powerman)

Whenever I read about type 3 fun, I see references to polar expeditions and pictures of Shackleton’s guys pulling a boat across the ice. While I do believe there is something epic about a multi-day ultramarathon in the desert. I am hoping to stop a little short of Shackleton epic.

I’ve also heard of type 1.5 fun, but that hasn’t made the urban dictionary yet. Type 1.5 has been used to describe activities which are basically fun, but have some unpleasant components: say, skinning up the mountain so that you can put first ski tracks down a bowl full of untouched powder, or getting your feet soaked crossing the river to get over to the best running trail in the park.

And maybe there is type 1.25 fun. A totally fun activity with not so fun consequences?   Blisters, a hangover, your credit card bill.

In any case, I have always enjoyed testing the limits of my body (and mind) and I am looking forward to experiencing a spectrum of fun in the Atacama.

(ok. Let’s try to avoid the type 3 fun)

And speaking of fun, have I mentioned I live in Central Oregon? And it's snowing?  And it is ski season?!  The training may need to wait...

Comments: Total (3) comments

tony brammer

Posted On: 26 Jan 2020 06:08 am

No Neil Diamond in Atacama it is, but may be have a bottle of Cracklin Rose. Good luck with the training, I look forward to the continued delineation of your fun. I grade my grumpiness on my own.

Robert Ripley

Posted On: 26 Jan 2020 01:38 am

Tony! Totally guttered that you won’t be coming to Atacama! I think that the appropriate playlist for Atacama will need to be an entire post in it’s own right. Taking suggestions now!? But Sweet Caroline. Ba-dump, bump, bumm! comes under the type 3 fun classification! Especially when played at 3am at checkpoint 7 on the long march!

tony brammer

Posted On: 25 Jan 2020 10:41 am

4 Desert Races as a competitor were type 2 fun 4 Desert Races as a volunteer are absolutely type 1 fun
Let's get this blog on the road!

22 January 2020 08:42 pm (GMT-08:00) Pacific Time(US & Canada); Tijuana

First Blog Post!

The website says 248 days until Atacama.  That gives me less than one day to prepare for each kilometer I am going to be expected to run in the desert.  I have been operating under the impression that I had all the time in the world to get ready for this thing, but now, that I look at it like this, I’m suddenly feeling a sense of urgency.  There is all this stuff to do: research, run, shop (especially shop), run some more, start a blog.  But right now I am at work (we’ll talk about the work thing, but for tonight, let’s just say that there are no patients languishing in the waiting room while I am writing) so there isn’t too much for me to do besides getting started on this blog thing.

First things first, this blog will tell the story of what is going through my head as I get ready for Atacama.  I will ramble on about running, training, gear, food, salt, life, work, rest, play and whatever else flashes through my consciousness.  Hopefully you will find these ramblings as interesting and/or as entertaining as I do.  If not, I will apologize in advance.  What you read here should not be taken as expert advice!  I have never run an ultramarathon before, let alone a multiday ultramarathon, in the desert, carrying a pack.  I will try not to put anything completely crazy or false out here, but you should look at this more as an entertainment vehicle than the definitive tome on how to run an ultra.  If you have run an ultra and know this stuff and see that I am on the wrong track, literally or figuratively, please, let me know.  Or if you are like me, a first timer, maybe we can work together to get this figured out and survive the desert.  Feel free to comment.

My goals for Atacama are as follows:

  • Give thanks (be thankful).
  • Have fun.
  • Don’t get hurt.

I will talk in more detail about these goals, but, in case you haven’t caught this already, I am running Atacama 2020 in the spirit of thankfulness: giving thanks specifically to the good people at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, without whom I probably wouldn’t be here typing.

I have a fundraiser going to support the SCCA in their fight to save lives and help folks with cancer:

If you are looking for a good cause to throw a few of your hard earned dollars, or euros, or pesos at, I urge you to make a donation.  It is my expert opinion, as one who has come in one side and gone out the other, that the SCCA does good work.  And if you can’t see fit to donate to the Cancer Center of my choice, then I would ask you to make a donation to your local cancer center.

Okay.  That’s out there.  Let’s get on with number two.  Fun.  I still can’t go for a run.  But maybe I can go shopping!

Comments: Total (5) comments

Tom Hales

Posted On: 24 Jan 2020 02:06 am

Robert, I wish you the best of everything on this endeavor. I anxiously await the next post. I would offer advice and counsel but you'll have to do with encouragement. All the best my Brother!

Sam Fanshawe

Posted On: 23 Jan 2020 07:27 am

So exciting and for such a great cause. Can't wait to see you on the other side. With that advice and Tony's playlist you've got this.

tony brammer

Posted On: 23 Jan 2020 06:46 am

I would love to be in Atacama while you do this, unfortunately I can't make it this year. If you wish I can send you my playlist to listen to while you're training. Sing a long now "sweet Caroline......."

Carl Botterud

Posted On: 23 Jan 2020 05:56 am

You’re out of your mind. 248 days huh ..... looking for witty comment and I got nuthin’ - I am however reading your blog. Will get back to you with entertaining thoughts when they arise.

Carl Botterud

Posted On: 23 Jan 2020 05:56 am

You’re out of your mind. 248 days huh ..... looking for witty comment and I got nuthin’ - I am however reading your blog. Will get back to you with entertaining thoughts when they arise.