In August 2017 writer/rider Leslie Wylie will be attempting her most fearsome feat of #YOLO yet: a 620-mile race across Mongolia. Riding 25 semi-wild native horses. Carrying only 11 pounds of gear. Relying on nomads for food, water and shelter. On a mission to help stop deforestation.
The Mongol Derby, to take place Aug. 9-19, is widely regarded as the toughest horse race in the world. Inspired by the Genghis Khan’s original “pony express,” there’s no trail or set route, just 25 GPS checkpoints/horse exchange stations to hit over the course of 7-10 days. Keep it here for weekly updates from Leslie as she prepares to embark upon the ride of a lifetime! Click here to read previous stories in the series.
Montana Boot Camp! With Special Thanks to Swan Mountain Outfitters
I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but I’m guessing prissy folks don’t fare too well in the Mongol Derby. I’m no priss, but I do enjoy first-world creature comforts: white wine, bubble baths, white wine in a bubble bath, and of course kittens … none of which are readily available out on the steppe.
So in the spirit of “suck it up, buttercup,” I’ve spent the summer actively attempting to priss-proof myself. Some things I have already got on lock, like personal hygiene or rather the lack thereof. For the past few months my every waking hour has been spent riding, exercising or writing, all of which require minimal self-grooming. My pony isn’t keeping tabs on how often I shower, everybody smells like foot at the gym, and when you work from home you’re doing well just to change out of pajama pants. So seven to 10 days of degeneration into my grossest possible self during the Derby seems like more of a weird science experiment than a burden.
Other things have been more of a challenge. Like sleeping. During the Derby I’ll be crashing with whatever random nomadic families will take me in when I show up like a lost kitten on the doorstep of their ger. It’s an incredibly generous cultural gesture, but I struggle with insomnia even in our plush king-size bed, so I knew I needed to practice sleeping “outside the box.” Random places I’ve laid my weary head to rest this summer, with varying degrees of success: a rental car in Germany, a parking lot in Houston, a hammock in Kentucky, a horse trailer in North Carolina, the backseat of my car on the Obed, a few nights backcountry camping in the Smokies, and a couple airports including Newark, the ultimate “if you can sleep here, you can sleep anywhere” test. Which I failed, miserably.
While covering The Event at Rebecca Farm for Eventing Nation in the homestretch of the Derby, I took it to the next level, Airbnbing a teepee on a bison farm:
To the horror of pretty much everyone, I even spent a night ON a cross country jump. Which was actually pretty amazing, actually; I fell asleep to shooting stars and woke up to a technicolor sunrise.
But the best was yet to come. Last summer my friend Casey returned from a vacation to Glacier National Park, just a stone’s throw from Rebecca Farm, raving about a wine-and-cheese llama trek she went on through Swan Mountain Outfitters. What?! Wine + cheese + llamas = these are a few of my favorite things. I contacted the company to book a trek while I was in the area but by the end of the conversation had been talked into a five-day pack trip. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Katie LeBlanc, Marketing Director for Swan Mountain, warned me. Sold!
It seemed like the perfect pre-Derby bootcamp, and it was. We met up Monday morning, loaded our gear onto pack mules, and rode some 15 miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. At one million acres it’s even bigger than adjacent Glacier, and wilder — the only way to really get in there is by foot or on horseback. The lack of accessibility makes it feel even more special, like you’re seeing a part of the world that relatively few have seen before.
As we trekked further and further in, the scenery grew increasingly jaw-dropping. I’d always heard that the area was beautiful but THIS blew my senses completely. Crashing waterfalls, sun-dappled forests, craggy cliffs, meadows blanketed with crayon-hued wildflowers … I couldn’t wait to see what was around the next bend.
After six or so hours of riding we reached upper base camp, which was already set up. We’d sleep in roomy canvas wall tents, replete with wood-burning stoves, and take our meals family-style at a big table in the kitchen tent. The hard-working horses and mules had a big comfy paddock, and as our (totally awesome!) guides Maddie and Sean turned them out the seven other guests and I convened around the campfire, happy for a rest after the long ride.
It quickly became apparent that our trek was going the be the perfect blend of physical challenge and rustic pampering. Each morning after a hearty breakfast compliments of camp chef Jess, we ventured into the wilderness on horseback with the pack mules trailing behind. We’d ride two or three hours to some postcard-perfect alpine lake, crystal clear and jumping with rainbow trout, and spend the day there fishing, hiking, swimming or just napping in the sun.
At the end of the afternoon we’d journey back to camp, where Jess would grill up the fresh-caught trout and serve it up alongside dutch oven baked bread and whatever else was on the menu for the evening: moose steaks, potatoes, even huckleberry cobbler made from berries she picked on the trail. Definitely “glamping” compared to Mongolia, but a nice stepping stone at least!
One of my favorite things about the trek was its allowance for us to truly choose our own adventure — we could make the week whatever we wanted it to be. Me, I really wanted to log some miles on foot; after all, if during the Derby my horse dumps me halfway through a 25-mile leg and gallops off into the sunset with all my gear, I better be prepared to do some serious hiking.
Each day, armed with my GPS and maybe some bear spray, I’d climb six or seven miles up some mountain, always lingering for a while at the top. Sitting there amongst the glacier-carved peaks, some of them capped in snow or stripped bare by avalanches, feelings of awe and humility washed over me in waves. No matter how hard mankind tries to dominate the natural world, it will always be bigger and more powerful than us. What can we learn from its raw, honest beauty? How can we make our own worlds larger, our own lives more robust?
Katie wasn’t kidding with her “not for the faint of heart” disclaimer; some of the trails were downright harrowing! Our mounts carefully picked their way across terrain that ranged from shale rock faces to narrow cliffside paths, including a vertical maze of switchbacks up Lion Creek Pass so steep that the sound of a horse kicking a rock off the trail sent shivers up your spine.
One recurring theme I’ve encountered in my outside-the-comfort-zone horsey travels, whether while pointing an Irish foxhunter at a six-foot hedge, tolting an Icelandic horse along the side of a volcano, cantering Arabian endurance horses through deep sand, or trusting a Quarter horse with my life in Montana, is that sometimes we don’t give these incredibly tough, smart, resilient animals enough credit.
In the Olympic disciplines — eventing, dressage, show jumping — there’s a tendency toward borderline control-freak horsemanship. We practically bubble wrap our horses to keep them safe and sound. Under saddle we manipulate our horses’ bodies into cookie cutter shapes, micromanage their every footfall and designate ourselves the administrator of every decision. But in doing so we may also be inhibiting our equine partners’ own initiative and instincts.
There’s certainly a place in the world for submission and obedience. When Princess and I gallop out of the cross country startbox, I’m the only one of us who has walked the course, so she’d best listen up for advice about direction and speed. But there’s a fine line between democracy and dictatorship. I always want my pony to have some input as well, because ultimately she’s the one who has got to get us from one side of the obstacle to the other.
Similarly, when riding the Derby, I understand my place. I’m the one with the GPS, but the horses we’re riding have been bred for centuries to read and safely navigate the challenging terrain we’re going to be traversing. Every year Derby riders suffer terrible injuries when their horses step in a marmot hole and somersault, or lose precious time getting stuck in quicksand, etc. The ability to trust a horse, to let go of both the reins and our western world notions of what the horse-rider relationship is supposed to look like, is going to be one of the most important skills we’re going to need to survive the steppe.
Another thing I realized in Montana is that, not unlike the horses I ride, I sometimes don’t myself enough credit. We surround ourselves with so much “stuff” in life, oftentimes neglecting our most important assets of all, our bodies and our minds, in the process. My thoughts wandered constantly in Montana, sometimes contemplating the Derby and sometimes percolating on nothing much at all. It made me realize what little space I give myself in daily life to just sit alone with my thoughts. At home, my tendency is to cram every nook and cranny of my day to the brim. It’s definitely a contributing factor to my insomnia: I blaze through life at such a dizzying pace that I’m simply unable to shut it off at the end of the day.
This summer, over the process of paring my life down to the basics, I’ve rediscovered parts of myself that have gotten buried in the detritus of everyday life, or eroded away over the years by self-doubt. I remembered that I’m tough. I’m smart. I’m resilient. I relearned how to trust, not just horses, but myself. I realized that I already possess everything I need to survive, not just in Mongolia but amidst all of life’s unpredictable, unmappable geography.
Somewhere in the mountains of Montana, my insomnia disappeared, and it was only partly because I was physically spent. Moreso, it was because my mind was quiet and at peace, the usual hamster-wheel thoughts replaced by the white noise of a creek burbling outside my tent. Curled up inside my warm sleeping bag, inhaling and exhaling the brisk mountain air, I slept like a baby for the first time in years.
Just three days until the Derby! We’ll be bringing you daily updates, and you can also follow the race on the Derby website here.
Many thanks to Swan Mountain Outfitters for making this incredible experience possible! They offer a variety of horseback tours as well as guided hunting and fly fishing trips. This big game outfitter has access to thousands of acres of the Flathead National Forest, in and around the famed Bob Marshall Wilderness.
If you’re attending The Event at Rebecca Farm next year, consider sticking around for a Swan Mountain adventure. Have an unhorsey significant other in tow? Here’s a thought: Shoo him into the woods for a fishing or hunting excursion while you do your thing at the event, or treat him to a wine and cheese llama trek through sister company Swan Mountain Llama Trekking. Alternately, just make a vacation of it — I guarantee you’ll come back feeling like a new person, ready to take on the world.
Each Derby competitor’s $12,995 entry helps benefit the Mongolian families whose generosity with their horses and their homes makes the race possible, as well as Cool Earth, a charity that works alongside indigenous villages to halt rainforest destruction.
Can you help? Please visit the Wylie vs. Mongol Derby GoFundMe page — all donations are deeply and eternally appreciated!