It was only 7 PM, but it was impossible to see outside. The wind howled through every crevice and cranny of the old road-trip van I’d used to get out to this event, and even though I was bundled in as many layers as I could find, I could still feel the cold seeping in. Base camp was uninhabitable. The winds were so high that they’d barred competitors from the tent lest it collapse with anyone inside — so my only option was to hunker down here and hope I didn’t get seasick from the winds see-sawing the old Hiace on its suspension.
And yet as I contemplated taking a dramamine to make sure that my Clif bars stayed down, I was the lucky one. Most of the competitors were sleeping sitting up in their competition trucks — at least, the ones that weren’t still out hunting for the last few checkpoints of their day — as the tents they’d methodically laid out the night before had been flattened by the hurricane-force wind gusts ripping through the flatlands of the Mojave.
A cowbell pierced the stillness blanketing Big Dune and the Rebelle base camp. Emily Miller, the head of Rebelle and the coordinator of this massive trek through the desert, personally walks through the field of tents every morning and wakes all the competitors. She is nothing if not committed to running this event without a hiccup and ensuring sure every team is ready by the time the first trucks line up at the start flags at 7 AM.
I raced to get ready after hearing the cowbell, thinking I’d be able to catch the teams filtering into the tent: hah, no, I was dawdling. By 5:25, as I walked into the main competition base, dozens upon dozens of teams were hunched over their maps, punching out distances and projecting their routes for the day’s checkpoints on their paper maps they’d received.
The Rebelle, being a navigation-based rally, has three groups of checkpoints that scoring is based on. The greens — signified with a bright green Rebelle flag and a rally crew member station — are mandatory and must be arrived at in order. These are the easiest to find, and dictate the overall direction for the day. The next group, the blues—usually only signified with a blue post stuck in the ground—are significantly harder to spot. They’re optional but serve as a way for teams to boost their scores. The final group, the black checkpoints, are not marked. Teams must approach where they think the checkpoint is based on pure navigational ability, then signal their GPS trackers that they believe they are on top of the checkpoint. Scoring for these are done on a distance basis: the closer to the actual location of the black checkpoint they signal, the more points the team receives.
As a result, these pre-dawn hours of planning are just as crucial to a team’s success as what happens out on course, and every competitor knows it. The 25 minutes I took to rub the sand out of my eyes and throw on eyeliner was something that would lose critical seconds of planning for a Rebelle team. Accurate measurement here determines how well the navigator can place checkpoints against the backdrops of the dunes and mountains later in the day, including whether the drivers will be faced with passable BLM access roads or need to dodge bushes and tumbleweeds all day. With the weather a concern, as well, Emily ran through extra safety briefings to ensure no one got lost—or endangered—in case of a sand storm or downpour.
The first teams are lined at the start, preparing to launch in pairs. The teams are staggered by a minute, and although speed is not part of the event, the tension is still palpable. The incredibly friendly nature of the competitors never changes — whether I’m at tech inspection or the start line, everyone gives me a wave and a hello — but their focus becomes clear in as they line themselves up with distant mountain peaks to find the first set of checkpoints. This is not the time for pleasantries.
I’m riding in the back of the media Jeep, headed towards the dunes where the first action of the day is unfolding right as the sun crests the 200-foot tall sandy peaks. My pilot, a lovely woman named Ann Marie, is one of the Rebelle’s media drivers who happens to be a two-time Rebelle competitor herself. After she was unable to register in time to run this year, she joined as part of the crew, and now she’s intent on showing me the true Rebelle experience in the most remote parts of the desert. After airing down our tires, she drove us straight into the heart of the action.
The first thing we witnessed? Team No. 219 (“Wunder On”) stuck in the sand while navigating their way through the dunes.They had both already jumped out of the Porsche and run for their extraction ramps, digging them into the sand as deeply as they could.
It was immediately apparent that this was where the hostile, Dakar-like elements of the Rebelle come into play. The sand was treacherous — I think I fell down three or four times in the first fifteen minutes trying to run on the shockingly deep sand as I lined up pictures — and vehicle extraction was just as important for the teams as driving, navigating, or roadside repair.
Wunder On made short work of the sand. Within three minutes, they had blasted their way out of the ruts that had trapped the Porsche and were headed deeper into Big Dune to score more points.
As we progressed further into the dunes, trying to find more teams hunting for checkpoints nestled within the ever-shifting valleys of the sand, we came across the Kia teams reorienting themselves to find their way onward, to the next part of the day.
Although the competitors are expressly forbidden from outside help — as media, all we can do is smile and wave at the drivers as we follow them through the desert no matter how stuck or lost they get — they are allowed to help each other, and they frequently do. The two teams collaborated to search out mountains to the northwest, trying to find the proper heading to continue onwards to the next region they’d be hunting for checkpoints in. Once they’d gotten their bearings, they set out their separate ways — one to go hunt down more checkpoints in the dunes, and the other to head out to the next green point, nestled in the mountains beyond.
Our media driver, the talented Ann Marie, had deftly navigated us out of the dunes without so much as a hiccup, and after airing up, she took the paved highway out to the next green, where we could get ahead of the action and watch drivers arrive at their next target.
And one by one, trucks crested the mountain behind the checkpoint, navigated down the dirt roads snaking through the foot of the mountain, and arrived to check in at the green flag. We watched as team after team of women stepped out, regained their orientation on their paper maps and compasses, and headed further into the trails away from the highway.
We had followed a competitor along the next leg of the rally into the middle of a valley surrounded by distant peaks on three sides, overlooking the vast plains of the lower flatlands of the Mojave, so we could get more pictures of the competitors in action as they traversed the desert.
And it was a damn great spot to line up shots. We waved to competitors as they headed to the desert floor and ensured they were on the right headings, but we began to worry. Miles off in the distance, the mountains visible across the desert plains had fully disappeared behind a wall of sand. The wind was supposed to kick up today — and it was already intense, gusting at around 25 mph — but this appeared to be a full-on sandstorm methodically working its way directly for us.
Ann Marie, wary of the oncoming dust storm, followed a few competitors deeper along the course route into a stunning valley. In the spirit of adventure — and to take cooler pictures — I ran up one of the shorter surrounding mountains to capture competitors navigating their way out of the desert flatlands through the mountainous terrain.
The winds at the peak were gusting strong enough to make me brace myself against rocks, and the wall of sand had now engulfed the very desert floor we’d stood on less than an hour ago. The wind had clearly followed through on its threats from the morning forecast; now we had to see just how severe it would get.
Before the worst of the dust could whip through the valley where we were shooting pictures of the competitors, we crested the path out of the mountains and emerged at a stunning vista.
Emily and her course planner methodically plan out the routes Rebelle competitors take; she has a love for the American Southwest and wants to ensure that the women driving through these stunning mountain ranges and canyons get unexpected beauty at every possible turn. Because the event does not have a speed component, aside from the odd timed enduro (which demands precise speed, rather than blasting through the desert), the women running the Rebelle actually do have a moment to appreciate the views that only the Mojave can provide.
After driving out of the well-shielded mountains, the wind picked back up and hit consistent 20- and 30-mile per hour speeds. We had one stop left before a planned timed enduro we’d be following, and it was the abandoned ghost town of Rhyolite.
Here it was obvious: The wind had caused a sandstorm that engulfed everything around us. Our time protected by mountains was about to end, and we were going to drive into the midst of the chaos.
It was now windy enough that I couldn’t use a camera, lest my lenses be literally sandblasted. Winds were strong enough that Ann Marie struggled to keep her Jeep straight on the highway; the few times I emerged from the protective cocoon of the Wrangler, I had the wind knocked out of my lungs from the sheer force of the gale. A line of competitors were held up at the entry to Titus Canyon by the organizers because it was now starting to rain, which would cause impassable — and dangerous — conditions in the canyon.
We tuned our media radio to the main channel — base camp had been evacuated, all staff fleeing to their cars out of fear the massive steel-pole tent would collapse. Competitors who could be contacted were told to shelter-in-place in event of a whiteout. The rest continued onwards to keep finding checkpoints.
The rain, thankfully, had been nothing more than a few scattered sprinkles, and the line of competitors awaiting their canyon drive were released one-by-one to continue their drive. With only a single lane, sandstorms too severe to use a camera, and nowhere to pull off for shots, the media Jeep had continued on to the tiny town of Beatty, and we stopped at a bar. Yours truly had a PBR and a hot dog while the zephyr continued whistling outside the restaurant.
We chatted and relaxed for the first time since that morning, but the entire time we’d kept our eye on the tracker. Every competitor on the rally is tracked via a live-update GPS system, and so minute-by-minute we could watch as teams continued onward to find checkpoints. We knew that base camp remained near-whiteout conditions, with visibility down to less than a mile at times.
As I sat there enjoying my respite from the winds, I watched dozens of teams drive past base camp back into the surely-now-shifted dunes for the final set of black checkpoints of the day. Winds gusted up to 70 miles an hour now, and the laser focus of the women could not be dissuaded. There were checkpoints to be had. They would get them.
To my awe, despite the curtailed visibility and the difficulty of navigating in tropical-storm-force weather, teams parked on top of unmarked navigation-based black checkpoints. The incredible accuracy even in the worst weather conditions the Rebelle had ever seen was jaw-dropping, as was the dedication to winning.
After we headed out of the bar and refilled the media Jeep, we continued onward to the final green checkpoint of the day, not far out of the town of Beatty. The winds were still horrific, but here, I could use a camera again. The sandstorm clearly had not fully abated — the radio still buzzed with limited visibility reports from the outer reaches of the day’s course — but we could at least see, and my very precious camera glass wasn’t being peppered with 60 mile an hour silt.
After a few more shots of teams still doggedly chasing down points, we chose to end our day. We’d been on the road for ten hours, shooting pictures the whole time (personally, I took over 700; which I’m editing to share with you all), but we headed back to the now-visible base camp.
The whiteout had ended, but the wind was relentless. The main base camp tent was deemed still uninhabitable due to high winds, and the teams that had finished their days were cleaning up their flattened tents and preparing for a long night sleeping in their trucks. At this point, the best strategy was to shelter-in-place, and my beloved Hiace was still standing, so I wasted no time getting out of the gale. I began to sort through the massive stockpile of photos I’d accumulated of these incredibly determined women criss-crossing the most beautiful desolation of the Southwest.
Today, I began my morning with Emily’s cowbell all over again, and the promise of hundreds more miles of trails and peaks and canyons throughout Death Valley. The forecast is vastly better, which I am thankful for, but no matter what happens, teams will be out here scoring points, and I cannot wait to see more.