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Polar Bear Challenge 2014 – interview with the Butlers

Shale Hill Adventure logo

Shale Hill Adventure Farms landed in the OCR scene only one year ago, and immediately impressed everyone who was at their innaugural race, the 2013 Polar Bear Challenge. They had something special – unique obstacles, a serious challenge, never ending bacon and big promises.

Rob and Jill Butler changed the game, and have continued to do all the way through 2013 – the four race Benson Bear Challenge may never have pulled in the kind of numbers you would get at a big, flashy traveling event – but the incredible obstacles, friendly welcome, chocolate milk on demand and heated hose pipes to wash off with were fantastic.

With the 2014 Polar Bear Challenge coming up in just a few weeks, and space limited to just 200 participants, I wanted to reach out to Rob and Jill and ask them a few questions. They have big plans for 2014, and my gut reaction when I first met Rob continues – if anyone can do it, Rob can.

EURO - Polar Bear- resize

Q) Who in their right minds thinks 8 hours in Vermont in February is a good idea?

Rob: Well, ME and of course! If your going to make the trip up here, you might as well spend plenty of time out on the course!

Jill: Only Rob Butler thinks this is a great idea….however, I like the element of snow/ice/frigid temperatures adding an element to the challenge. The 8 hour venue allows us to host a more unique and personal experience. I believe some of the best people we’ve met in OCR we have gotten to know since they came to our last Polar Bear race a year ago.

Q) The Shale Hill course has become much better known since last years Polar Bear – how many people would you estimate have been through the course in 2013?

Rob: We have had about 1000 people through the course (not counting repeat visits). Our growth in the middle and high school market is incredible!

Jill: Between 700-1000 visitors in 2013, almost double since 2012!

Q) It seems Rob is always tinkering with the course – new obstacles, new challenges, new layouts – what are some of the biggest changes you’ve added recently?

Rob: First of all, Rob does not tinker! 🙂 The most note-able change for the Polar Bear is the distance of 6 miles this year. I have added quite a few new items like the towering teeter totters and the parallel bars (they are only 24′ long , no worries!) . We have the traverse ropes over the frozen pond this year and a new layout for the sandbag, slosh pipe, stone carry loop!. I have also added a little treat after the pond traverse (you will see!) and then a rope tire pull to really test your arms after the traverse! 🙂 ON ANOTHER POSITIVE NOTE: WE WILL HAVE 3 FIRES AROUND THE COURSE FOR WARMING UP!!! (Im getting soft as I get older)

Jill: If Rob has his way and an unlimited budget, the entire farm would be covered in obstacles! Rob is always figuring out how to take a basic obstacle and re-invent it! For example, adding 8′ walls to the end of the Tarzan Swing…an obstacle that is already very difficult to impossible for most folks.

Q) This is a competition event, with penalties – what penalty system do you plan on using this year?

Rob: The Penalty Box system will be in full effect and we may offer a couple of twists in that department to spice things up a bit.

Jill: The same idea as last year. Fail an obstacle, take a chip from that obstacle. They do the penalty at the “penalty box” you draw for that chip up at the barn for ALL to see! One thing for sure, there will be no “skipping” obstacles and taking chip if you know you cannot do it. You must try it each time. If you fail, at least you gave it an honest try. But, if you chose to skip…that’s not really fair because you are then shaving time off your lap and the energy you were supposed to use to do it. We WILL be enforcing this and skipping will not be tolerated….especially if you are a contender in the running for a top prize.

Q) Shale Hill is part of the Obstacle Racing Training Center program – tell us more about it?

Rob: ORTC™ or Obstacle Race Training Centers is a company that is uniting all fixed location obstacle courses in the country to work together toward a common goal. Among other things, ORTC will be producing the countries first national racing circuit using only fixed location courses. ORTC will also be working to develop new courses, new training gyms and so forth. All gyms and courses involved will operate under their own names and utilize the ORTC licensing and branding under their name. These will not be franchises, just certified facilities and sanctioned events. I am also putting together a competition to be held at the ORTC gyms throughout the country. This competition will be a virtual “race” and all data, nationwide, will be collected and winners will be announced with national prize money!! I am just touching on this here, there is a lot more to it. So we will have the racing aspect covered and the gym aspect covered! FUN STUFF!!

Another quick note: Having the ORTC-USA system in place will allow for the assignment of national racing numbers! You will be able to register for your national racing number and use the same number indefinitely!! This will allow you to have uniforms made up, post to your blogs and be instantly recognized in photos, ads, etc etcetc… This will also make race registration much faster and easier! Imagine that, just like a real sport! 🙂

Jill: As you know, we not only host great down to earth competitions with a heavy emphasis on “obstacles” as well as racing, we are also a fixed-obstacle training facility open year round to the public. You can come train as an individual, run with one of our weekly guided runs, or schedule your school, group, or corporate outing for a unique team building experience. We also host OCR camps for youth and adults. Like us, we want to help others build the “outdoor gym” on their properties offering valuable advise on course design, construction, and building costs along with a membership to ORTC-USA that oversees all of it’s partner gyms to establish a high level of service, community, and consistency across the nation. If you go to an ORTC sanctioned event or training facility in Arizona, you will get the same great service and quality to excellence on their outdoor course as you will see here at Shale Hill. This also includes a sanctioned race series that will be held among all ORTC affiliated facilities around the country with it’s own numbering system, OCR governing rules, points tracking, and National year end championships. We are currently looking for self-motivated, hard-working, fitness based individuals/entraupenaurs to open up their own ORTC affiliate facility.

Q) I had the fortune to run at Sunny Hill in NY in 2013, also an ORTC sanctioned course – how many more ORTC course’s do you expect to see in 2014?

Rob: I expect that 2014 will show about 8 courses on board and probably about 20 gyms nationwide. By the end of 2015, I expect to have an international sponsor and approximately 50 courses in the U.S. and about 200 gyms. We will be expanding in 2015 to worldwide with interest currently in Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa, Germany, and Russia among others…

As a side note: Sunny Hill will be holding two races this season and will be open for monthly training memberships just like Shale Hill Adventure!!!

Jill: We are hoping to have about 3 – 7 courses sign on with us this year. And, once we are established and people see we are here to stay (and it works), that we’ll double or triple that number in 2015!

Q) Looking into 2014 – what are the biggest changes Shale Hill will see? Will it get even more challenging, or open up to “regular joe’s”?

Rob: Shale Hill will never get easier . I have built this place to challenge the best obstacle racers in the world. That being said, we are going to be offering a 3.1 mile Benson Bobcat course that will offer about 22 obstacles and challenges and the 6.2 mile Benson Bear with 60 obstacles and challenges. The Bobcat will be ideal for beginner/intermediate racers and the Benson Bear will challenge the best of the best to see what they are made of. When the Benson Bear is complete, it will be an amazingly difficult course with some obstacles that have never been seen before.

Jill: Well, there is no doubt that the “expert’s” course will always be evolving, changing and growing…especially with Rob behind the hammer and chain saw!! With his background in Engineering and as a timber-frame builder, you can always count on solid built obstacles that are unique and challenging, mentally and physically. However, we are going to have a 5K course for beginners and intermediates this year to introduce people to the sport of OCR 🙂 Also, we will be adding the TRI-OBSTACLON™ to the race roster this year!! This is a moderately easy 5 mile mountain bike ride to Lake Champlain; swim in the lake (length based on level entered); return to SH via a “not so easy” 5 mile uphill bike ride; and then finish with a lap on the Benson Bear Obstacle course!d

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Featured Review: Benson Bear Challenge #4

Recently, we had a busy weekend, with 7 OCRs going on – one of those was held at our favorite outdoor OCR venue, Shale Hill Adventure Farms, and was the last in their Benson Bear race series. Stephen was there, and sent me in a review (and I was lax in getting this out on time!).



Review: Benson Bear #4  (9/7/13)

Stephen Mello

The Benson Bear 4 was the last race in a point-based series located at Shale Hill Adventure Farm in Benson, VT. Owners Rob and Jill Butler promote Shale Hill as a grass roots obstacle course and they have certainly achieved that. The majority of the competitors were locals familiar with the course and each other, which gave the day a fun and friendly atmosphere. Both owners were very hands on and available to all, with Jill working the registration, while obstacle mastermind Rob drove around the course checking in on racers and volunteers on his 4-wheeler. Both were very friendly and stayed and chatted with everyone post-race.


Venue & Pre-Race

Shale Hill is located about 4 hours northwest of Boston, in the middle of rural Vermont farm country.  Beautiful landscapes and scenery made the long drive pass by rather quickly, and the empty 4am roads certainly helped too! The free parking was more than adequate for the turnout, and was just a short walk to registration. Two port-a-potties were provided, as were three (warm water!) hoses for cleaning off after. Registration took less than a minute, and the packet included a racing bib and a bag of goodies with a t-shirt, dog tag, and car sticker.

About half an hour before the elite heat started, Rob got on the bullhorn and gave a welcome speech that included need-to-knows like penalties, new obstacles, safety guidelines, etc. The DJ then turned up the music and promptly at nine o’clock the elite heat began, with a few more heats following every half an hour.


1280825_10200565625523814_2084688009_nThe fixed course does a great job utilizing all aspects of the local landscape, including hilly fields, a pond, muddy forest trails, and slippery shale-covered slopes. There are around 50 obstacles spread throughout the 5 miles, so I won’t go through each one specifically. Just know that as a builder by trade, Rob’s primary focus for Shale Hill is creative, innovative, and just plain nasty obstacles. Included in Benson Bear are the usual obstacles that can be found at the Spartan and Tough Mudder races, but specifically designed to be harder and more challenging. The monkey bars span 140 feet and include an incline section and spinning bars. The three (3) different weighted carries are all for significant distances and require climbing over more obstacles while never letting the objects touch the ground. The 90lb rope pull requires not one, but six repetitions (five for the ladies at a lighter weight). The tyrolean traverse seemed to go on forever, the rope climb requires you to pull yourself up onto a platform at the end of the rope, and the 130 foot traverse wall is broken up into four sections connected by beams that must be crossed going hand over hand while hanging… talk about evil and twisted!


There are also several out of the norm obstacles that really display Rob’s creativity. One obstacle combines wall and rope climbs, another called the Abacus looks like a cargo net made by giants, and the Anaconda can be brutal at the end of the race.

Of special interest to those who have raced at Shale Hill before is the addition of two new obstacles. The first was a standard tire drag out to a certain point and back. It was shorter and easier than the three carries, which leads me to believe that by the next race there will be some new twist to it. The second one is called The Loom, and is strategically placed about three-quarters of the way through the race. I won’t spoil the surprise by going into too much detail, just know that it requires a lot of full body strength, dexterity, and flexibility… all at a time when exhaustion is setting in and those things are severely lacking!  But in the end that’s why Shale Hill is regarded as one of the best and most difficult ever created.  A few racers who attended the Benson Bear 4 said that though the Tough Mudder and Super Spartan are longer in distance, the Bear was more difficult hands down. I consider myself in good shape, and the Benson Bear 4 was the most physically demanding challenge I have yet to encounter.


Post-Race – Volunteering –Falkenberry Farm

1231676_815490688065_265974280_nAt the finish line there was a crowd cheering racers on for the last obstacle, and bananas and chocolate milk were a welcome prize at the end. The race bling was a cool looking piece featuring a roaring bear on a spinning medal with green ribbon. Homestyle burgers and grilled cheese were some of the great grub supplied by local restaurant The Wheel Inn. Also on hand was Gary Richter, a representative from Icebug, a Swedish shoe company specializing in trail and orienteering shoes. Gary was extremely knowledgeable about both shoes and feet, and even taught me how to lace up and tie my new Spirit3’s in four different steps to make sure they fit my feet correctly. Gary was also very generous, giving the most enthusiastic and motivating volunteer a free pair of Icebug hiking shoes. What got me most excited was his talk about Shale Hill and Icebug collaborating on a shoe specifically designed for obstacle course racing! The post-race party was small and quiet, and highlighted the only downside of the day… the small turnout. There were only a few dozen people who took part in the race, and most were locals. While this made for quick registration and minimal waiting at obstacles, it really was a shame to see such a great race and event get such few participants. Hopefully it was just a case of bad timing, as that weekend was packed with races, including the only nearby Super Spartan in New Jersey.

Two other things to note, the group I went with consisted of three other racers and three volunteers. The volunteers had an extremely enjoyable time, and said that Rob, Jill, and the other workers made their experience very easy and comfortable… and were given either two free training sessions or a free race for their time! All three said they’d definitely volunteer again. Also, for those racers making the trip to Shale Hill from a distance and want to spend the night, I highly recommend Falkenberry Farm. Only a five minute drive from Shale Hill, it was just $150 for an entire guest house that sleeps seven, and owners Bob and Jacki Ambrozaitis were very friendly and accommodating.

In all it was a great trip, and an amazing and difficult race that really pushed our limits. We are all looking forward to the first Benson Bear race for 2014!


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Featured Review: Benson Bear Challenge #2

Shale Hill Adventure logo

Last time we visited Shale Hill Adventure Farms, the temperatures varied between 3f and 11f and we were planning on doing 8 hours worth of laps of their unique, permanently installed obstacle course.

You can read more about that experience here – and if you have not, please take a few minutes to click through and watch the race footage so you can get a feel for some of the unique and challenging obstacles Shale Hill will offer you.

This time, we were planning on running the second race of the Benson Bear Challenge (it’s a four race series for 2013) – as many of us were already in the neighborhood crewing or volunteering for the Death Race, taking place less than an hour away.

I’m so glad we did! The weather was perfect for us, and while Shale Hill doesn’t attract the kinds of numbers you see at a big name event in a metro area, the course and the welcome you receive are second to none. Normally, I’d have a GoPro video of the course to show you, but at the start line, my camera wouldn’t start – no wonder, the memory card is sitting in the side of my iMac, staring me in the face as I type. Talk about a rookie move!

Still – it’s worth going into what Shale Hill is about.

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Situated in Benson VT, Shale Hill Adventure Farm is the best permanently installed obstacle course you will find anywhere in the country. Currently spanning around 5 miles of trails, with terrain varying from open fields to seriously treacherous and technical slopes – the obstacles have the luxury of being permanent installs, so Rob Butler, the master mind behind the whole thing, can go bigger than anything you’d seen before. Rob has big plans, and I’ve said it before, if anyone can do them, it’s Rob.

We arrived early so Corrine could run in the elite, 8am wave. Parking is right on the site, and no charge. Spectators are free and have full access to the course – with great views of the start and finish line, and several of the final obstacles – Shale Hill is such a friendly event, they would likely put you on the back of an ATV and run you anywhere on the course you wanted to go, if you like – I know Vince, our camera guy, was tailing us the entire time.

The goodie bag we were provided with rivals that of much bigger events – a nice heavy weight T Shirt, a bunch of stickers for your car and other stuff – a dog tag engraved with their designs – for the finishers another fantastic medal (that spins! and can take an iTab!)


Being a small, friendly event, the waves were small – just a handful of people running the elite devision – Shale Hill sponsored athlete Randy Feely was the winner, with a time of just over an hour, which should tell you how this course compares to something like a Spartan Race or other OCR you may have run before – with finishing times for the meer mortals pushing closer to two hours. One thing was clear, since our run through back in January, Rob had been busy expanding … The remaining Spahtens, and our new friend Matt B Davis (website), ran together later on, with Corrine doing a second lap and ultimately taking third place for the women!


How do you expand an already great course? In January, we walked over a frozen lake … this weekend we were dunked in it. Every bucket carry and sandbag carry was longer, and the terrain slick and steep. New obstacles were present, including Alcatraz, a 16′, 75 degree wall with ropes that it took us more than a few attempts to get up (if we got up at all!). Familiar obstacles like the abacus ladder were slick with mud – and rather than try going over the metal rod at the top, I popped through the top rung.

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We had just as may hay bales to deal with, but they were falling apart this time (and still smiling at us!) – another new obstacle being the two metal rods held up on tall poles (the Double Up?), with the challenge being to get over the top – I have NO IDEA how to do this solo, it took three of us working together to make this one … climbing the firemans pole to a cargo net and wall slide sucked as much as it did in January too.

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Then you come to the final stretch, and things get tougher — the human sized lincoln logs hanging from ropes, the really awekwardly spaced climbing walls, the goddam monkey bars (and the welcome Chocolate Milk stop at the top), the final tarzan ropes, that were tough enough to begin with, now have an 8′ wall at the end – *thanks* Rob!

Then the home stretch – running through the Anaconda obstacle – something that seems so easy – simply run up and down the banks of a raised road – at the end of this race, it’s exhausting, hard work.

Once the race was done, we hung out and chatted – Rob has some really good ideas coming, including some big ideas that are already underway – look forward to hearing about a family friendly OCR resort (yes, exactly what it sounds like) that will be within easy driving distance for most of us, training weekends, and more.

If you haven’t made the trip to Shale Hill – you are missing a gem. This is an obstacle heavy, challenging course – you won’t be driving to VT to run an easy 5k, thats for sure. If you’re looking to take this sport seriously, and want to learn better techniques, then seriously consider taking the drive for one of the Benson Bear races, or staying up there for one of the training sessions (which include instructors from our own elite ranks – Eric Matta) – and watch your skills at these events improve – we can all build up our running on the roads and trails, but where do you get to improve on a real, complex obstacle course? Shale Hill, thats where.


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Featured Review: Polar Bear Challenge

Shale Hill Adventure logo

When I first got a message from ORTC VT, inviting the Spahtens to an 8 hour obstacle course race, in January on the first permanently installed obstacle course – I admit to a little bit of skepticism. How on earth had we missed such a gem? I’d never heard of him … I reached out to a bunch of folks at Spartan Race, asked around the industry and received a response along the line of “oh yeah, he’s the real deal”.

I was in, and so were several others. We would have had more, but for a scheduling conflict with Blizzard Blast on the same weekend – one that really should have been avoided – poor form for whoever announced their event second!


ORTC VT (Obstacle Course Training Center, VT) is located on Shale Hill Adventure Farm in Benson, VT. It’s a bit of a drive, just shy of three hours from my house, just shy of four from the Boston area – and with the race starting at 7am, most of us drove up the night before and stayed at a hotel in Rutland, just 30mins away from the venue. We actually stopped by Shale Hill Farms on Friday night to leave our gear boxes and do early registration, and thats where I first met Rob Butler – the guy behind ORTC VT and the owner of Shale Hill Farms.


Rob is awesome. Rob is high energy, full of ideas, and as he was describing his obstacles and property and the challenges ahead of us, you could see the gleam in his eye as he jumped from foot to foot. Rob is clearly a fan of the sport, and has some big ideas – coming from anyone else, I don’t believe those ideas would ever come to life – but Rob has what it takes to make it happen 🙂 I will actually do a second article about Shale Hill Farms in the coming weeks – so more about the race itself.

Early checkin was easy, free parking. We got long sleeved 50/50 blend Ts, a bunch of stickers, coupons – all in a classy brown paper bag 😀

Waking up at 5am in Rutland, driving up to Shale Hill Adventure Farms for a 6am race briefing – Rob explained some of the more unique or complicated portions of the course. Some loops were explained and mapped out, his unique penalty system was explained, and the rules for the day laid out. Rob let us know that the course record was set by himself – 7 laps in 8 hours, in the middle of the summer. that wouldn’t even be close to being challenged today – the cold and the snow were going to be killer.

Thanks to James’ webinar, I felt prepared for the cold. My back had been sore all week, so I wasn’t *really* even sure I was going to race, until I found myself standing out at the start line, at 7am, in 3f weather, wearing 4 warm tops, merino wool socks, two pants and a balaclava. Guess I’m running then. The field of runners was relatively small, probably somewhere around 40 folks, but this was no novelty, themed race – the people coming here were serious about obstacle course racing and ready.

Spahtens before the race

No play by play for the course from me – as usual, race brain kicks in and rope climbs blur with tall walls blur with bucket carries. Video at the bottom of this review.

However, many notable things on the course.

Firstly – the terrain – some seriously challenging steep inlines and declines-  made even more challenging by the snow and ice. In summer, Rob has several ponds, rivers and water spots to traverse, but for us – they were mostly frozen solid. At one point on the sandbag carry (a 60lb tube sandbag through some SERIOUS terrain and walls) my foot broke ice and I lost my shoe in the small stream below – a very unpleasant experience putting that back on, but fortunately my body runs hot and after a couple more miles my foot warmed back up and felt ok. Hills you had to slide down on your butt, open fields with biting winds – a frozen pond to cross (that is supposed to be FUN in summer!) – Shale Hill has it all.


Secondly – the obstacles. When I say that Robs obstacles challenge, and in several cases *shame* the big races we’re come to consider gold standards, I do not exaggerate. Rob has the unique and welcome benefit that anything he installs does not have to fit in a cargo container. It doesn’t have to move from venue to venue. He can build it to last an age, and he has. His traverse walls were amazing – four walls, joined with balance beams or overhead shuffle bars … a very unique rope climb … firemans pole towers you climbed UP … some wicked walls, some with ropes to climb, others without. The monkey bars, oh god, the monkey bars! They were long, and the guys were then expected to go up a set that were going uphill on a 45 degree slope – never made it! There was one of the most unique rope net / climbs I’ve ever seen, some evil rope ladders with massive spacing – you can tell a lot of love has gone into making this course a challenge for everyone – new and veteran.


Rob appears to breed hay bails – there were lots and lots of them – and while we’ve all seen hay bails at races, never in this volume, or complexity. Jumping up a frozen hay bail from a downhill run? Yeah. Do it 20 times? Ouch. and they all had those damn smiley faces on them, like they were happy to break you, or something. Damn hay bails!


We had three carry stations – a sandbag right at the beginning, a log of your choice (pick a big one!), and a bucket full of gravel – fill it to the top, folks! each was on a 1/4 to 3/4 mile loop.


All told, the course was just shy of 5 miles, across some amazing terrain, with many amazing, soul crushing obstacles.

Oh, and penalties! No “30 burpees for you!” – at each big obstacle, when you missed it, fell off it or just got so tired you walked by it, there was a little cup full of colored chips. Collect your chip – and at the end of your lap you handed them in and received your penalty card – these varied, and included spider burpees, pushups on the Push Up Pipes, over and under a wall, tire hoist, rope climbs, tire flips – and sometimes, the beloved “free pass” card! All of this was done right outside the heated barn, and provided much entertainment for the warm spectators. There was a cute little girl here who appears to have a mean streak developing – she LOVED to “no rep” you when you did a penalty wrong, or didn’t get the form right. Someone taught her well 🙂

Personally, I was done at lap one and two hours. My shoe was frozen, my gloves and mask were frozen, my back was screaming at me – I finished enough to get a finishers medal and called it a day – then I got to hang out in the large heated barn, with all day buffet of great food and drink, and a never ending stream of amazing people to hang with.

As a team, we had Corrine who hit a full three laps and took third place for the women, Nele who went back out for her fourth lap and took second place – Eric who hit four laps, and called it in second place for the guys – Many of our team took three laps, several took two laps, and a few of us walking wounded were happy with one spin around the course.


With temperatures never getting over 14f, this course was made even more challenging – but don’t think for a minute that a summer race here will be easy – Rob has some unique challenges, and some brutal obstacles, and his penalty system is very *very* good. Fortunately for us, his wife has our backs, and makes him take down the obstacles that only the truly crazy can manage … someone has to be the sane one in every marriage 😀

The smaller turn out, and the incredibly warm welcome by Rob, his family and his staff made this a very intimate event. Rob has big plans, and I fully expect them to come to fruition – he has what it takes. The location may be a bit of a drive, but don’t kid yourself – we’ve all driven this far to run the Beast, or a Tough Mudder, and the events Rob puts on at Shale Hill Adventures are going to be just as much of a challenge, and even more rewarding when you run with a few hundred people, instead of fighting to run with tens of thousands of people. Local hotels run at only $60 a night – and was well worth it.


I’ll be posting more about Shale Hill in the coming days – including some news about their four race event series and more.

If you didn’t make the trip to VT this weekend, you missed out on one of the best, most intimate, most *pure* obstacle course race experience I’ve had in over 3 years doing these events. If you’re the kind of racer who comes out for a challenge, and wants to experience the best obstacles around – this is the place for you.

Shale Hill GPS LogFull Garmin GPS Log Details

Many more photos