Friday, November 30, 2018

Thanksgiving on the White Rim

When discussing "Fat Camp 2018" last year, Meghan and Danni thought it would be fun to ride bikes. Never mind that Danni didn't yet own a good bike — she planned to purchase a Salsa Cutthroat and become a dedicated endurance gravel grinder by summer — and Meghan is a talented mountain runner who only tends to ride bikes when she's injured. Bikes it would be! As the usual scheduling conflicts skewed the trip toward Thanksgiving weekend again, it was decided we would ride bikes in the Utah desert, where it's warm ... never mind that the Southeastern Utah desert actually isn't warm in late November. The progression followed that if we're riding bikes in the Utah desert, we must ride the classic White Rim, a 100-mile backcountry loop around Island in the Sky Mesa that has no services and no water, and take four days to do so. 

Fat Camp has become a fun, almost annual tradition of women gathering from all over the West to backpack — or bikepack — together. This year brought in an all-star group of seven women from four states — Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Colorado.

As such, there was also a fun mix of eclectic bikes. Danni piled her drop-bar racing bike with so much bulk on the front end that Meghan marveled at how she could see over the handlebars, but Danni managed it well. Meghan and her fast-runner friend, Melissa, both used 29+ mountain bikes with a tight, ultra-light setup. Amber, the strongest rider of the group, brought her fat bike, a forest green Surly Pugsley (Pugsley! I was legit jealous, in a way one might be if a friend showed up at a party with an ex-boyfriend.) Amber set up her bike truck-style with large strapped-down panniers, and was likely hauling the most weight of the group. Caitlin borrowed her boyfriend's bike and innovated brilliant budget bikepacking gear with dry bags, rope, webbing and NRS straps. Lora quietly had what looked like the lightest set-up, with a similar budget theme. I, being perhaps the longest-standing and most dedicated bicycle tourist of the group, went fully old-school with a traditional 29'er and a rear rack and pannier system that hasn't been popular since 2005.

When Meghan proposed the White Rim, my first concern was water. Having run out of water on this route before, I know exactly how scarce it is, and figured that even in the winter, four days on the White Rim meant hauling at least four gallons from the start, which weigh nearly 30 pounds on their own. Meghan came up with a brilliant plan to plant water drops along the route, hauling it in on foot from various trails that start on top of Island in the Sky mesa and drop into the White Rim. She and Melissa hoisted seven gallons for each of the three camp sites, hiked them upwards of ten miles, lovingly placed them in a spot where animals and humans hopefully wouldn't bother them, but they'd receive enough sunlight to not be frozen solid, and marked them with their official sanctioned water-drop tags. It was a huge effort, enough so that I can't call our White Rim trip self-supported. It was "runner-supported."

We set out Wednesday at the crack of noon. We intended an earlier start, based on the limited daylight and 40-mile day ahead, but the subfreezing morning meant everyone was slow to roll out of camp, and then there were many bike adjustments to be done. My bike was already prepared to just pull out of the car and go, so I spent this time wandering around the Mineral Canyon parking lot and watching paragliders launch into the sky. I did need to make some adjustments to my hand bandaging, as I'd managed to shave off a piece of my thumb on an outhouse deadbolt the previous morning. Having a bad thumb on a cycling and camping trip is about the most annoying thing ever.

Finally, with all the cats herded, we were off, smiling and sweating beneath the 45-degree sunshine. Our plan had us riding all of the "boring" connector miles on the first day. (I do not think these miles are boring. They include the best views of the La Sal and Henry mountain ranges.) But the washboard road and pavement miles did roll by quickly, allowing a good 20-mile shakeout before the committing drop on Shafer trail.

As we descended into the White Rim, my thoughts were overtaken by nostalgia. This loop was my first bike tour, and one of my first experiences on a mountain bike, way back in April 2002. I joined a large group for a vehicle-supported, two-night trip. Most of my memories of this first trip are actually a bit negative ... it was hot and hard, much harder than I'd expected, and I was in pain because of poor fitness and a couple of crashes. Still, that was the trip that opened a realization that bicycles and long distances could be combined, and maybe I should really learn to ride a bike — which I set out to do, in the summer of 2002. My first self-supported bike tour, a 600-mile loop through Southeastern Utah and Southwestern Colorado, happened that autumn, followed by a cross-country bike tour in summer 2003.

White Rim 2002 was also where I learned that ultrarunning was a thing — my friend's aunt described her experience at the Wasatch 100 while I listened in awe. "People can run a hundred miles in one push?" I was completely floored by this revelation as I, an immortal 22-year-old who prided myself on the occasional 12-mile hike in the Wasatch, struggled to propel a mountain bike 30 miles in a day. The wilderness was full of vast distances that I would never understand. I was sure of this.

Time passes, experiences accumulate, and those intense and formative experiences of youth feel more routine, less harrowing, somehow. These 40 miles passed pleasantly. We set up camp just after the 5 p.m. sunset while marveling at the rising moon. I felt grateful for a couple decades of life experiences that have allowed me to remove all of the hardships from this moment, and just enjoy it for its unfiltered beauty.

On Thanksgiving morning, we woke up to overcast skies and a bitingly cold wind. This was the day we expected rain and/or snow, so we braced ourselves.

Soon the clouds broke apart, and we enjoyed intermittent sun and frequent stops along sheer sandstone cliffs. This is Gooseberry Canyon, I believe.

Although it traces a geological bench, the White Rim is hardly flat. Here, Melissa is helping Danni push her bike up one of the punchier climbs. I went into this trip thinking that short days meant lots of energy, and if my breathing wasn't too bad, I was going to ride everything. This hubris was quickly squashed by 20-percent grades and loose sand.

The riding also took more of the day than I expected. We were bound by the realities of winter camping, which meant slow rising with the low sun in the morning, and early darkness. Photo, snack stops, bike adjustments, and the individual wants of seven independent women meant we needed most of six hours to ride 26.5 miles. The riding itself almost felt like jarring interruptions in a slow-motion dream. I loved lingering at the overlooks and staring up at changing patterns of clouds in the sky.

The day never warmed too much — my guess is it was in the low 40s at its height. But you can't beat this time of year for gorgeous light.

Danni pushing up Murphy's Hogback. This climb is seriously steep and hairy, thus the "hogback" moniker. Amber on her obese Pugsley pedaled most of it.

We camped at the top of Murphy's, which had incredible views, and a cold, cold wind. Since we arrived with just under an hour to spare until sunset, I went on a three-mile walkabout to shiver in the wind (I knew I should have grabbed my puffy) and take some photos.

Next time I camp on the White Rim, I'm going to bank even more time to hike on the national park trails leading toward the top of the mesa.  There's so much possibility here.

Views toward the continuation of White Rim Road. This photo shows how it traces the edge of the caprock, a geologic layer called White Rim Sandstone that formed from beach sand 250 million years ago.

The cold, cold wind blew in a thick layer of dust, which seemed to aggravate my airways a little (I didn't need to use my inhaler during the ride, but did wake up a couple of times in the night with tight breathing.) The dust was irritating but it reflected evening light in a lovely way.

Everyone was mostly done with their respective Thanksgiving dinners when I arrived back at camp. Although skies looked relatively benign before dark, by 5:45 p.m., wet snowfall began dusting our camp. Within ten minutes, everyone else was in bed. I still had to finish setting up my camp and adjusting my bike. By the time I was ready to crawl into my tent, the rain-snow had stopped and ice was already beginning to form on droplets still clinging to my coat. Luckily I brought a Kindle, as I am not the type of person who can fall asleep at 6 p.m.

This night grew deeply cold. My guess is that temperatures dropped into the low teens, based on the accumulating frost that grew increasingly thick each of the dozen-plus times I ventured outside. It was a rough night for me, between my breathing, a slightly upset stomach, and a failing Thermarest. This is the third time my Neo Air has sprouted a hole during a camping trip, and I'm about ready to give up on inflatable mattresses altogether (or at least go back to the burly ones.) Stupidly, I did not bring patches or tape, so I tried a few bike tube glue and patch remedies that didn't hold. Finally I pulled out Stans tire sealant and tried to force this liquid into the pinprick-sized hole, then sat for twenty minutes with my sleeping bag draped over me — to form an above-freezing environment for the sealant to dry — while pressing a tire boot against the surface with both thumbs, including the wounded and painful one. This seemed to hold — not completely, but enough to sleep for a few hours before my waking up because my body was pressed into the cold, cold ground.

I was grumpy in the morning, and indulged in some loud complaining. ("Fourteen hours is a long damn time to spend in a tent when you're awake for most of it.") Luckily, my friends seemed to mostly ignore my whining, and I was all smiles again the second we were back on bikes. The descent off of Murphy's was fun and beautiful.

This day was my favorite — and it was all about the stops. We all leapt over a feature called Black Crack, with varying degrees of nervousness (I had to rush for a bathroom break after this jump, as I almost lost control of my bladder.) We wished each other a "Happy Black Crack Friday" and enjoyed views toward a dramatic bend in the Green River.

We met up with a friend of Melissa's from Moab, Mike, who offered to guide us into the Holeman slot canyon. I used to handle canyoneering with more grace when I was 22. But in the case of scrambling, rather than make things easier as it has for cycling, experience and age has instilled all of these fears. It took some coaxing to get me and a few others down there. We joked that since we weren't swallowed by the Black Crack, The Hole-Man gunna git us.

It was a fun diversion, even when it involved me shouting at poor Mike, a man who did not know me, to grab any body part it took to help boost me out of the abyss.

We descended closer to the river, which is still rimmed by smaller cliffs for longer than one might expect. I shared the story of my solo, single-day trip around the White Rim while I was training for the Tour Divide in May 2009. I was still fresh from the cool rainforest climate of Juneau when I decided to embark on a three-day trip involving 140 miles of Kokopelli Trail and 100 miles of White Rim. By the third day, temperatures were so hot and I was so dehydrated that six liters of water only got me halfway, to Murphy's Hogback. When I reached this overlook, I'd been out of water in the heat of the afternoon for several hours. I was desperate to access the river, only to by thwarted by cliffs. By that point I was in a bad way and not thinking clearly, but I ended up skipping the next access point and slogging over a huge climb called Hardscrabble, certain I would faint and die. Finally, just a few miles from the end, I found river access. There I waded through knee-deep quicksand, put iodine in the thick, gritty river water that tasted like cow manure, and drank it on my way up the Mineral Bottom switchbacks. It was a horrible trial by fire. It's actually amazing that either of my White Rim trips weren't a permanent deterrent to more bikepacking.

The years pass, and hardships fade. It goes without saying that this year's climb up Hardscrabble was a lot more fun and easy. Near the top, we followed a hiking trail to the Fort Bottom Ruin.

The ruin is a stone tower at the top of a butte, overlooking 360 degrees of the river valley. Apparently this tower was originally built by the ancestral Puebloans roughly a thousand years ago, and reconstructed more recently. It's in line of sight from ruins downriver, and some speculate that it was a defensive structure.

Whoever guarded the towers up here was invariably exposed to cold November winds, but they had some great views.

We finally descended Hardscrabble under rich evening light. We'd spend much of this day playing, and had to rush to reach our camp before dark.

On the third night we camped five miles up Taylor Canyon. The canyon road followed a wash and was bogged down by deep sand, which meant those of us on regular tires had to battle to maintain momentum. Still, I was a hundred percent content here, located at the direct center of my bliss — hard efforts and cool evening air amid wide-open, gorgeous landscapes.

The rock formations of Zeus and Moses, at the left, loomed over our campsite. They were especially gorgeous under a nearly full moon. Mike told us this area is popular with rock climbers, who he claimed are a lot messier than mountain bikers. Either way, this camp was infested with problem mice. As I was setting up my tent, they chewed threw a bag of naan before I realized what was happening, and I had to throw it away. They continued to harass us through dinner; crawling over anything that wasn't inches from our bodies, and sometimes scampering across shins and shoes. I think kangaroo mice are adorable, but even I was fantasizing about cold-blooded mouse murder by the end of the evening. Meghan, who had an open-floor tent, pondered hiding her food bag in the outhouse, but couldn't bring herself to do it. I knew I'd be gone first thing in the morning, so I ate what I could stuff down at dinner, secured a few bars for breakfast in several bags inside my tent, and threw the rest of my unwrapped biodegradable food into the pit toilet.

I was up and out of camp about a half hour before dawn, before anyone else stirred. I was bummed about leaving early, but enjoyed the impetus for this solo ride through a calm and frosty morning. It was a quick trip, just 90 minutes and 14 miles. Even the Mineral Bottom switchbacks, which loom large in harrowing memories, weren't so bad. I wanted to apologize to my past self for softening her perception of the White Rim, as though comfort and contentedness somehow dulled the legend. But I know this isn't true. The White Rim looms larger than ever, an accessible journey on the cusp of bewildering and beautiful empty space. I'm thankful I could share this place with friends.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Bookend adventures

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I joined six other women for a wonderful three-night bikepacking trip around the White Rim, a 100-mile loop around Island in the Sky within Canyonlands National Park. Of course I'll write about the ride, but it was bookended by other fun adventures from which I have an equally obnoxious number of photos that I'd like to post to my ever-expanding blog archive. 

 I packed my bike at the last minute, meaning 10 p.m. the night before I left for Moab. Overnight lows were predicted to dip into the teens, and we expected at least one day of rain and snow. I wanted to bring my tent, stove, favorite comfort foods, rain gear, puffy jacket, a bulk of warm clothing, etc. As I loaded up my bike bags, it was becoming clear most of the weight would be on the handlebars, which is awful for handling. Beat suggested putting a rear rack on the bike, and I agreed. I appreciated this pannier set-up when I used it to cross Alaska in 2016 — low profile, easy access, lots of space. It also meant I didn't have to strap any weight on the front. A recent conversation with Jay Petervary about his Salsa Blackborow has left me more convinced that this is probably the way to go for long-distance touring on mostly nontechnical terrain (i.e. snow and dirt roads.) Of course racks are just one more point of failure, and this much space is usually not necessary, so this isn't my new "race" system. But it did prove comfortable.

 Before I embarked on a four-day ride into a remote desert, it seemed prudent to test the system at least once. I stopped in Fruita on my way west.

There were only about two hours before dark, but it was enough time to justify veering off the freeway toward the 18 Road trail system. The parking lot was packed at 3 p.m. on a random Monday, and I felt a little silly pulling a pannier-laden touring bike out of my car next to riders decked out in knee pads and full-face helmets (which also are overkill on 18 Road. Probably beginners.) The bike zipped effortlessly up the road, as though it was naked — apparently if you can't see all of the extra stuff, it doesn't matter. I turned onto Frontside trail, where the bike managed well on tight curves and sudden dips into washes. Having all that extra weight on the back wheel noticeably improved my traction in the sand. And as I dismounted to push up a steep incline, the effort felt strangely different yet familiar. Less like pushing a bike ... and more like dragging a sled. It is more comfortable when you don't need to wrestle with the front end. JayP was right!

 The sun dipped below the horizon and suddenly the temperature shifted from 44 degrees to something much more Arctic. I had all of my extra clothing in my bike, but I felt too hurried to stop and put on more layers, so I shivered my way back to the trailhead. There were miles to go yet.

 It was difficult to fit in travel around my work schedule, so I ended up in Moab for an extra day before our Wednesday start. On Tuesday I usually work all day, but it's hard to justify staying in Moab and not going outside at least once. So I stayed up late on Monday to bank a few hours that I could spend hiking at the crack of dawn. It was a frigid 18 degrees when I arrived at Devil's Garden in Arches National Park.

 I attempted to run in an effort to cover ground more quickly, but I kept on veering off route and getting lost. I haven't visited this part of Arches since I was 19, and I'd forgotten that much of it involves picking your way across sandstone fins and sandy washes, rather than follow any sort of trail. There wasn't another person in sight, probably because it was a random subfreezing Tuesday morning in November. Still, all I hear about in regard to Arches is unbelievable crowds, so the lack of humans was eerie.

I began to wonder if I'd wandered off the edge of the park into a hopeless wilderness. I was continuously confused, waiting for one of these narrow canyons to wall me inside forever.

 Dark Angel ... apparently this is a dead-end side trail. I did some more wandering around, looking for a continuing trail that doesn't exist. I realize this confusion is my fault for not bringing a map, but who gets lost on trails in national parks? I do! After this point, I finally started seeing trail signs. But they didn't necessarily help my effort to close the loop.

I found my first human about a half mile beyond Double O arch — an older gentleman with an enormous camera dangling from a neck strap, as he hesitated at the base of a narrow fin.

"Is this the way to Double O?" he asked.

I looked back. "It probably is, because I came from there. You just follow this fin, and drop into a basin. It's about a half mile away."

"I don't know about this. Seems sketchy. Is it worth it?"

I shrugged. "Sure. It's a beautiful arch. Even though it's still in the shade right now."

The prospect of a bad photograph seemed to be the excuse he needed, because he muttered a gruff "thanks" and stooped to crab-walk off the fin. He was done.

I thought since this man had found his way to this point, it must be easy going from here. But I still wandered into dead-end canyons and had to crawl back out. The nine-mile "run" turned into two and a half hours I didn't necessarily have to spare. But was it worth it? Yes.

 Our final night on the White Rim was Friday, and I had to rush north through a whiteout blizzard on Saturday to arrive in Salt Lake City in time for a professional photo shoot my mother had scheduled with the entire family. I felt guilty enough about missing Thanksgiving, so I was going to do what it took to be in that photo. Happily I made it with plenty of time to spare, with a few more days to spend visiting my family. I did sneak out Sunday morning for a hike on my favorite trail near my parents' house, because it gains 1,000 feet per mile for as long as you want to march along (well, until you eventually reach the top of Lone Peak), with endless views and not too many rocks to trip over.

The whiteout that I drove through on Saturday had deposited two to eight inches of snow (at the higher altitudes) that had yet to be packed. So it was a capital-S Slog. I wasn't wearing gaiters, so my turnaround point came when my feet were too wet and cold to tolerate anymore. Somehow I still managed to do this for 3.5 miles/3,500 feet of climbing one way, since a capital-S Slog is still my number-one weird compulsion. It was a gorgeous morning, with near-freezing temps and a snow-dusted Salt Lake Valley. I was enjoying myself, admittedly the alone time more than anything.

 Nearly every recent year on Black Friday, my dad and I have climbed Gobblers Knob, a 10,000-foot summit above Big Cottonwood Canyon. It's become a tradition, enough so that as I weighed missing Thanksgiving, I also had to contend with skipping out on Gobblers Knob. As it turns out, the weather here was terrible on Black Friday, but pretty amazing on Cyber Monday. It was frigid in the morning, though. We opted for a late start to beat the chill. It was still 14 degrees when we set out at 9:30.

About 1.5 miles into the climb, we encountered an unnerving moose infestation along a small ridge. Two young bulls crashed through the alders and crossed the trail between my dad and me. Then we had a short standoff with a cow and yearling calf. Then we saw this big bull, with another two cows close by. They showed no signs of agitation and mostly ignored us, but my heart was pounding.

We followed the moose trail toward the saddle. We were the first humans to venture up here since the weekend storm, which dumped as much as two feet of snow on top of mostly bare ground. So the snowshoeing was a Capital-S Slog made even harder by the endless obstacles hidden by heavy powder snow. We tripped over rocks and logs and we trudged along, lactic acid burning through our muscles at 1.5 mph.

 Dad insisted on breaking trail, since I've been complaining about my breathing again. I'm actually feeling pretty good right now, but admittedly I didn't object.

 Finally, after more than three hours, we reached the summit and sat down for a well-earned break with Dad's signature summit lunch — Nutella and butter on pita bread. We were roasting in the sun, and I still had my coat on because I'd expected wind. This was probably the most calm I've ever seen this peak, including summer months.

I'm thankful these adventures came together so well. It was an incredible week.