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.


  1. Wonderful ride. We did in in two nights, three days with a 4-WD truck carrying our gear. Met some guys, with a motorcycle for support, doing it in one day. As we climbed back back up the Shafer Trail on the ast day, patting ourselves on the back, we meet a group of about 7-8 riders heading down to ride the entire loop in the opposite direction...on unicycles!

    1. Unicycles ... takes some gumption, for sure. A friend knows a man who ran the whole loop in a day ... mostly self-supported, with some arrangements for water.

  2. Now you've gone and raised the "bar," have bagged the White Rim in extreme heat and (what I would call) extreme cold, given the wind. Camp Permit shortages require bikers to do the whole 100 miles these days. We had a pickup for support and I thought three days was pushing it :)
    Congrats. Another notch on your growing list of wild and crazy challenges.
    Box Canyon Mark

    1. My friend told me you even need a permit for a nonstop White Rim these days (the cycling-crowd calls it a WRIAD.) The camp permits seem achievable given you don't go in the high season and you apply four months out. We didn't see many folks out there. Just two other larger groups on the final two days. Surprisingly few jeeps.

  3. No spending the holiday with family?

    1. No. I visited my family for several days following the trip, but I did miss the big dinner. I've resolved to prioritize family next year and skip the gathering if it happens over Thanksgiving again (likely it won't.)

  4. Great trip Jill! Inspiring photography as well. If you don't mind, what camera did you use on the trip?

    1. Thanks! The camera is a Sony RX100 ... same model I've been using since 2014 or so, although I've upgraded (ahem, broke my old camera) a couple of times. I still prefer a point-and-shoot to my phone, even though the phone captures decent images on its own (Google Pixel.)

  5. First time in a long while visiting your blog. I really enjoyed the read and pictures of this one, as I have actually been to the White Rim. This brought back fond memories of a mtn bike tour(guided group ride), on my first trip out west 13 years ago. Now I want to visit the White Rim again. Especially during a different time of the year than the previous trip as I noticed the lighting really changes the look of everything.


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