Sunday, December 06, 2020

The cold, cold desert

Waking up to shivering is unnerving. Well, unnerving is an understatement. It's downright terrifying to be ripped from the depths of REM sleep because one's core temperature has dropped low enough to trip an instinctive alarm. I was having that anxiety dream again — the one where I'm running through SeaTac airport and the terminal is so crowded that I have to shoulder-check people and no one is wearing a mask — and then suddenly my eyes blinked open to the drooping canopy of my tent. My shoulders erupted into convulsions; my hands felt like ice. 

"Argh, it's so cold," I murmured as I flipped over and wrestled out of my sleeping bag. Usually, for these November trips to Utah, I bring a 0-degree bag. But for this trip, I decided to try out Beat's Thermarest Hyperion sleeping bag, which he purchased for summer camping — "because I sleep colder than you." It only weighs a few more ounces than my Sea to Summit Spark bag, and it had a temperature rating of 20 degrees. I knew I'd be pushing the bag's limit a bit with this desert trip, but it seemed good practice should I ever make it to the Silk Road Mountain Race. That route has frequent 9,000-foot climbs and hike-a-bikes that will demand I keep everything about my bike as light as possible. 

Anyway, I had puffy pants, a puffy coat, and I wore these things to bed. Why was I so cold? I pulled on mittens and shook the insulated water bottle I kept in the tent. The water inside rattled with chunks of ice, but it hadn't frozen solid. The temperature, I would have guessed, was in the mid-20s. I stumbled outside the tent to empty my bladder, something my body always makes me do multiple times during the night whenever it's cold, no matter how early I resolve to stop drinking any sort of liquid. The nearly full moon was so bright that the features of our camp were rendered with daytime definition, but cast in the moody purple and charcoal hues of night. I did some jumping jacks and crawled back into the bag. I briefly turned on my headlamp to see whether the sleeping bag had a cinch for the neckline, and in doing so saw the truth stamped on the interior:

"Comfort range: 32 degrees. Transition range: 20 degrees."

Transition range? What does that even mean? Isn't comfort range what matters? Soon I was asleep again, only to wake up twenty minutes later, shivering, again. While thrashing around in frustration, I felt a whoosh of air near my backside and discovered the double-zipper had opened and there was a plate-sized opening in the bag near my waist. Well, that explains some things. What a useless feature — double zippers. Why would anyone want that but not a cinch for the neck? Still, I hoped the zipper snafu would solve any sleeping issues that might crop up the following night. 

For our second Utah overnight, Danni and I planned to ride the Cathedral Valley loop through a remote corner of Capitol Reef National Park. The loop runs about 76 miles after one tacks on a few out-and-back spurs to scenic overlooks and interesting geological features. Most of the route follows rugged and sandy roads with a mandatory river ford, so 4WD vehicles with confident drivers are a necessity. For that reason, it's not crowded. But it's comparatively mellow on a bicycle, with only about 4,600 feet of climbing. The most difficult obstacles are the sandpits and the river crossing. Much of the roadbed is comprised of bentonite clay, so it is definitely to be avoided when wet. Still, it sounded ideal for an overnight bikepack. Betsy rode it with a friend a few days prior, so we got some good beta from her. I proposed taking a layover day and riding Saturday-Sunday, but when Danni and I realized we didn't actually have anything better to do on Friday, we made an effort to get going in the morning (alas, not all that early for me) and drive up and around the vast wildernesses of Canyonlands to reach our starting point. We hit the trail by 11:30 a.m., which beat my "we should start no later than noon" goal by at least a little.

We parked near the shore of the Fremont River to get the crossing out of the way first. Betsy made it sound like this part was no big deal, so I was a little disheartened to roll up to the crossing and find a swift-flowing, milky river with large chunks of ice clinging to both shores. The two sides of the road didn't connect, so any vehicle making the crossing had to drive downstream for about 50 meters. Danni and I hacked through the brush to find an easier entry, but as the bank became steeper, I changed my mind and went back to the road. Betsy promised the river bed was smooth sand, so I took off my shoes and socks — normally when I make any crossing, I keep my shoes on because my water phobia makes me feel extremely nervous on top of being naturally clumsy, and wet shoes are better than wet everything because I've tripped and fallen. 

Barefoot and lifting my bike slightly off the ground, I stepped into the bone-chilling current. Danni made the better choice to take a direct line from the brush and crossed quickly. I wandered into a knee-deep channel next to a hip-high river bank. The swift current yanked my bike's wheels and nearly pulled it out of my hands. I lifted the frame and teetered in place, frozen with fear — with its six liters of water and food and camping gear, the bike was too heavy to hoist over my shoulders or up the bank. I think normally I could, but I felt weakened — maybe by cold water, or maybe because I completely abandoned my home weight-lifting routine back in May. Either way, all I could do was shamble awkwardly downstream, balancing the bike with a painful bicep curl while Danni raced along the bank, wanting to help. I made it out of the water without incident, although I couldn't feel my lower legs for the next two hours. 

The Fremont River crossing was harrowing. "Nothing else about this trip is going to be so hard," I thought. 
Indeed, the landscape beyond the river was endlessly soothing — the visual comforts of wide-open spaces, the perfect balm for fear of becoming trapped in a river current and swept to an icy death. We climbed through the Bentonite Hills, which looked as though they'd been purposefully painted with festive stripes. 

We took the first spur to the Lower South Desert Overlook, where we ate a quick lunch. I wanted to hike down to the end of the trail, but knowing we were running a tight timeline, I resisted. 

I also dragged Danni to the Upper South Desert Overlook, where, as you can see, daylight was quickly fading. But what a view! From here I could see most of the valley that runs parallel to the Waterpocket Fold, and the Henry Mountains in the distance. 

After pedaling up a gradual incline for most of the day, we reached camp right at dusk. Since we were inside the national park, we were required to camp in the free campground near the edge of the mesa. It was located above 7,000 feet, which is ... quite high for central Utah in late November. But it had a picnic table and a pristine outhouse, so I wasn't about to complain. The snow-capped Polk Creek Ridge loomed above us, practically glowing in the moonlight as darkness settled. We set up our tents, made our bagged dinners, held a conversation as long as either of us could stand, and then settled into bed around 7 p.m. 

It had already dipped to 25 degrees by 7 p.m., so I threw my fuel canister and insulated water bottle into the foot of the sleeping bag. I figured I could leave my three-liter bladder outside the bag, but I wanted enough unfrozen water to be able to cook oatmeal and coffee in the morning. I settled in to read Kindle books on my phone, but my body would not warm up the bag. Maybe it was a combination of the low temperature, leaving on my sweaty base layer, and the cold objects at my feet, but brrrr. I cinched up the top of the bag as tight as possible and burrowing in more deeply. The moon blazed overhead; I could see its light seeping in through the small opening at my head; no doubt cold air was getting in as well. But that was as tight as I could close the bag.

I dozed off somewhere in there and woke up shivering not long after 10 p.m. I stepped outside the tent to stumble off to the outhouse and then literally sprinted back to my bag. So cold! I checked the watch I'd left in an inside pocket of the tent. It has a temperature sensor, but usually it just reads the temperature on my arm, which I don't find all that helpful. Free of body heat, it read 14 degrees. At 10 p.m. Hmmm.

I did manage to doze off again, and again woke up shivering. It was only 11:14 p.m. The watch read 11 degrees. That was the last reading I'd see before the battery shut itself off. Well, crap. It was going to be a long night. 

I tried different strategies. I did pushups inside my bag and kicked my legs as though propelling a paddleboard while reading Kindle books to distract myself from the growing unease. I chose to read a biography about the Amundsen and Scott expeditions to the South Pole, because why not? At least I could take comfort that those men definitely had it worse than me. Still, the gory details as Scott and his men slowly froze to death did not help ease my anxiety. I managed to doze off, only to wake up shivering and feeling like I was on the verge of an anxiety attack. My phone, which I'd left in the same tent pocket as my watch, had also died. So I didn't even know the time. Did it matter? Clearly, this expansive moonlit night would stretch into eternity. 

Now, obviously I've winter camped before. Early on there were nights when I wasn't fully prepared, and the horror of waking up to mild hypothermia frightened me into erring on the side of overprepared. Earlier this year, as I was making my way into McGrath, I spent six hours napping as temperatures dipped to 45 below zero. I was cozy in my expedition sleeping bag, and when I got up to start walking again, my body was warm enough that I could pack up and hit the trail without drama — even though I was exhausted at the time, and even though I didn't eat before going to sleep, and even though it was 45 below zero. What mattered is that my gear worked. 

At Cold Cathedral Camp in Capitol Reef, I again learned that hard lesson about what it means to be underprepared for winter. After what was probably only midnight or so, I gave up on sleep. I'd "take breaks" to walk around camp, making an effort to generate body heat without inviting sweat, then crawl into my bag and read about Antarctica until that hard-earned heat faded again. At some point, I realized the three liters of water in my hydration bladder were rapidly becoming solid, and pulled the ice baby into my bag to cuddle with that as well. It was just endlessly unpleasant, and I had no way out. If I were winter racing, I'd get up and get going. But recreational camping meant twelve hours of trying to survive on the far edge of my means. Sometimes when I was padding around camp, I'd look up at the moonlit snowy mountain and imagine that I'd continue hiking higher until the sun came up. That was my hail mary, my last-ditch means to make it through the night if this particular walk didn't heat my bag this time. I'd just keep walking until dawn. 

Before it died, my watch told me sunrise would come at 7:19 a.m. Sometime around 6:45 (I'd gotten my phone to work again by keeping it in a pocket), I crawled out of the tent for the last time. I stuffed my ice baby down my jacket, holding it in the precise spot one would if they were pretending to be seven months pregnant. Then I hiked toward the edge of the mesa, where I knew I could catch the sun rising over the Cathedral Valley. 

When I reached the ledge with nowhere further to walk, I stood in place and did jumping jacks to push blood into my toes. My body would have liked to keep walking, but as I caught the stream of golden light creeping down the sandstone monoliths, I couldn't look away. It was striking, like a grand crescendo at the end of a long and melancholic symphony. The location, the circumstance ... that sunrise was one of the more life-affirming moments I've experienced.

Danni was heating water at the picnic table by the time I returned. I felt sheepish and was fairly tight-lipped about my hard night because I was more than a little ashamed. I am supposed to be better at winter camping than this by now. Most of her water had frozen, and her fuel canister wasn't working well either. Based on when my watch died and temperatures we'd see at much lower altitudes the following night, I have no doubt the temperature dropped to 0 degrees or even a bit below. 

I was eager to begin pedaling again, as I couldn't wait to feel warm, although I was still slow to pack up. My entire body felt sluggish, like an old car sputtering to start on a subzero morning. Finally, around 9 a.m., we were bundled up for the initial thousand-foot descent. I had nothing more to wear, but any motion felt better than no motion, and soon I felt marginally more human. I enjoyed descending into the valley where I'd watched the sunrise and then wending through the sandstone monoliths. 

The route spent the next 25 miles gradually descending the valley. Where the road was hardpacked, pedaling was next to no work at all. At times I tried to pedal harder to generate heat, but I also felt loathe to miss any of the scenery. So mostly I coasted and looked around in awe. Eventually we both took off our puffy jackets, but I can't say I was warm for the rest of the day. Even with my wind shell jacket and pants, and temperatures that were probably in the upper 40s — my core temperature never quite climbed back to normal.

For me, the bottomless sand pits made for the most fun riding on day two. The trick was to try to get through them without throwing a foot down. It was a fine line to balance – hitting the sand at speed but not too much — just enough to maintain momentum without losing control and flying off the bike, then gently feathering the handlebars while mashing the cranks as hard as possible. I did fail three or four times, but I made it through a large majority of the pits. Danni listened to a few of my tips — "it's just like snow biking" — and started having more success herself. 

We continued veering off on the different spurs, lingering a little longer now that we weren't racing daylight. 

Sandpits and scenery — is there anything better on a bike? Especially when it's sunny and at least a little bit warm in the cold, cold desert. 

The sandstone monoliths were a fun diversion. With names such as "Temple of the Sun" and "Temple of the Moon," they reminded me of the drooping mud castles I used to build in my backyard as a child. 

This is Glass Mountain. Danni and I had a debate about whether it was actual glass or rock. It's gypsum, a "plug" deposited by groundwater and left behind after the surrounding sandstone eroded away. 

I love exploring the more unique geological features of Southern Utah. The truly majestic ones, like the monoliths, can remind me of a child's mud castle, while these more diminutive and secretive ones strike me as singular works of art. 

We meandered onward, riding side by side and chatting when the road was in reasonable shape to do so. It was enjoyable to spend so much time with Danni again. In recent years our meetings have been more in passing, after races like the White Mountains 100 or the Fat Pursuit. For me, she's the perfect bikepacking partner — an extrovert with a similar temperament and a seemingly endless supply of good and funny stories, her company is enjoyable for my introverted self who would rather listen than talk. When it's just the two of us, I'm accused of being too quiet, which is fair. I still think we'll work well together in the Silk Road Mountain Race, should we ever make it there. 

Toward the end of the loop, I did end up riding ahead, as the road dipped steeply in and out of arroyos in the North Cainville Reef. Mostly I was exhausted and I just wanted to feel warm for a few minutes as I cranked up a hill. 

We closed the loop on Highway 24. We got a kick out of this sign, which is sort of meaningless when there are scenic views for hundreds of miles in this region. 

We camped that night near the shore of the Fremont River, under a canopy of desiccated orange leaves clinging to the branches of an enormous cottonwood tree. As we cooked dinner I again alluded to my terrible cold night, and Danni offered to let me borrow her sleeping bag. I refused at first, but then I came to understand that she had two — a 0-degree bag that she brought on the bikepacking trip, and a -40 bag for car camping. Why didn't I bring extra things for car camping? That was dumb. But I gratefully accepted her offer and stuffed my bag inside of hers, snuggling in a mountain of fluff and feeling completely satisfied, as though I would never again need anything else in the world. She planned to head home toward Montana in the morning, but I was still undecided about spending one more day in Utah. When dawn came, we spent a final 90 minutes waiting for the sun to hit camp and enjoying hot coffee on a morning that felt considerably warmer than the previous. But when I turned on my car to ensure it would still start, I saw it was still 7 degrees outside. Um, brrrr.

Yes, I made mistakes. I paid for them with a rough night — probably my roughest winter camping experience yet. But I wouldn't trade away the discomfort that allowed me to experience that life-affirming sunrise, or the depth of appreciation for the simple pleasures in life: leftover-pandemic-panic-purchased gluten-free mac n' cheese, a wet wipe bath, and two sleeping bags. No gourmet meal or five-star hotel could possibly be more satisfying than that. 


  1. Hey Jill...first off, WOW! What a fantastic the WINTER even! (for you that means nothing, for me it would really be out of character as I'm such a wuss). Have you heard of the S.O.L. reflecting bivy bags? I carry the 70% one that IF it gets colder than my sleeping bag can handle I put the entire thing inside this and it makes my bag 10-20 deg warmer (Here's the name on Amazon: S.O.L. Survive Outdoors Longer S.O.L. 70% Reflective"'s a zip up bivy bag in a nice little bag, doesn't weigh that much, but is a lifesaver for me as I usually FREEZE at night...if I have a 20 deg bag and it gets down to 30 then I'm REALLY COLD. You can get these in different amounts of heat reflection...the 70 is a nice weight vs heat compromise to me. I'd have to have the -40 bag to survive the temps you did...(and I would HATE IT). Great trip, amazing pics and writeup as usual. You're still my hero!

  2. You have done much, much colder temps than I in the past. I live for chemical handwarmers in my bag although they aren't the best environmentally.

  3. Thank you. I've done both in the past — using a S.O.L. bivy as a vapor barrier and chemical warmers inside the bag. I left these strategies behind as I acquired better gear. But you bring up a good point — it is smart to carry things like this for contingencies. I have tons of both at home, and often carry them on day rides/runs for emergencies.

  4. Layering...for our clothes AND sleeping (and clothes WHILE sleeping). I've read that sleeping inside a down bag with other clothes on reduces it's effectiveness (tho I personally think that doesn't make's all about retaining heat inside the bag...tho the argument is the down is the best barrier to keep your heat closer to your skin, everything else is less effective)...I often wear wool long underware and heavy wool socks in my bag...tho I'm STILL cold usually...but it makes me feel better). Maybe there are studies somewhere to validate or refute would be good to know. You should ask Beat...I'd think he would have the correct answer to this....that is if you don't already know it.

    1. I've heard both theories, although I've never looked into studies about it. Generally you do not want to over-layer inside of a bag, because you start out cold, and can start sweating as heat circulates inside the bag. But when I'm too cold inside of a bag, I feel better as I add layers ... until there is no more clothing to add. During a long effort like the Iditarod I usually just leave most or all of my clothing on, and only remove the outermost layer (expedition down parka and pants) for sleeping. But I also rarely spend more than 6 hours "camping" in these cases. For the long camps, I think it's worth it to me to bring a dry base layer and go through the trouble of changing. It would stretch the effectiveness of my sleeping bag a lot farther.

  5. Lovely. Thank you. Beautiful country, nice adventure. Sorry about the details though.

    Unfortunately I wasn't in a position to help you, if for no other reason than that I just found out about the problems you had. Or I would have, of course. Anyone would.

    A bit over a year ago I was sleeping in my car at Potholes State Park in Washington, trying to get past Thanksgiving before heading south. Cold there then.

    The day after a cold night with one more to go I went to Walmart and bought a 350-watt heater for inside the car. Left that on low all night, hanging from the rear view mirror. Meanwhile I was in my Feathered Friends 20-degree bag, supplemented by two Costco down throws. OK. Cozy enough, but not by much. Just OK.

    The next morning as I drove away, my car's thermometer said it was 13 degrees F, and that's about as far as I ever really want to take it. Would have been hell without the car, and the heater, and the extra insulation. And then you were, much worse off. Oh.

    Oh, oh, oh. Dang.

    Well, at least you're still with us, and have a story. But yeah.

    (footsie note: having severe trouble getting this comment to post -- hope it comes through this time.)


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