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.


  1. Ah, the White Rim on bikes; brings back fond memories.
    Can't wait for that post...
    Box Canyon Mark

  2. Awesome photos. Love Arches. We did early hikes when there to beat the crowds.

  3. Ah the capital S slog as opposed to the lower case one. Your dad rocks.

  4. I love it in the red rock world!

  5. Man...I've never been to any of those places. I really need to up my game and go places. Way to go Jill!


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