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. 
Thursday, December 03, 2020

Thankful for wide-open spaces

When friends proposed a Thanksgiving-weekend ride around the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park, I was reluctant. I'd already told my family I wouldn't travel out to Salt Lake City this year, due to the COVID surge that drastically increased the risk of spending time in close contact with people outside our households. Any travel, even a road trip, was dubious at this point in time. Still, if done right, the White Rim ride seemed even safer than my day-to-day routine. I could load up my car with all of the food and water I'd need for a week. The only businesses I would need to visit would be gas stations, and I could and pay at the pump. I could camp every night. Bikes and rough terrain naturally create at least six feet of space when you're riding, and my friends and I could make an effort to keep our distance while stopped. I recognize these are justifications for a bike trip that I really wanted to join, but they made rational sense. This may be 2020, but does that mean we can have absolutely no nice things? 

I wrapped up my weekly deadlines around 10 p.m. Tuesday, brushed away six inches of new snow from the Subaru, and packed up: Beat's Why Cycles Wayward that is just the perfect desert bikepacking rig, bike bags and repair supplies, eight gallons of water, a surprisingly small insulated grocery bag of shelf-stable, low-moisture food for a week, a cooler with cans of Diet Pepsi to ward off temptation, camping gear, and a small duffle of clothing. I set a painful alarm and hit the road at 2:30 a.m. under clear skies and temperatures around 5 degrees. There was a lot of black ice on the roads, but at least there was no traffic. I crested Vail Pass, where the snow-covered forest sparkled in the moonlight as the empty road rolled toward all-encompassing darkness. I felt like I was entering another world, another time, both far beyond the cloistered realities of the present. 

Although I had some confusion about our meeting spot and drove aimlessly on sandy roads for 20 minutes, I still managed to arrive for the planned 10 a.m. start. Betsy, Erika, Danni, and I all drove from our various corners of Colorado and Montana for this overnight ride. Although I see one friend or another from time to time, it felt astonishingly strange to find myself in a group. As we finished setting up our bikes, I sputtered through stilted conversations and inwardly laughed at myself for being so socially awkward. I felt the way I feel when I have to make small talk with cashiers at Trader Joes these days, but amplified — stumbling over my words and stopping mid-sentence to gather a fraying train of thought. 

"These are your friends that you've known for years," I chided myself silently. "After pandemic, you will need to relearn all of your social skills."

We made quick work of 11 miles on Mineral Bottom Road to the edge of the abyss, where the route plunges toward the Green River. From there, the rugged jeep road begins its meander along the White Rim, a sandstone shelf below the cliffs and spires that prop up Island in the Sky mesa. Like most routes in this region, the road was originally built to support uranium prospecting in the 1950s. It's since become an iconic jeep or mountain bike tour, encompassing almost exactly a hundred miles when traveled as a full loop. 

The first time I was here was back in the spring of 2002 — before I was any kind of cyclist at all. I had only recently purchased a Trek 6500 for $250 on eBay, and had taken it on all of one or two rides before friends invited me to join a large group riding the route over three days and two nights with a support vehicle. I was terrible on the bike — lagging behind the group, bruised from several crashes, and finally unable to make the steep climb out of Mineral Bottom. The driver of our SAG vehicle found me sitting dejectedly on one of the switchbacks, and loaded up my bike and its unfit rider for the rest of the ride to the highway. I remember feeling so ashamed and pretty sure I was going to list that mountain bike on eBay as soon as I got home. But somewhere in there, a taste for adventure cycling entered my blood. It was a definitive beginning. I would never be the same. 

Since that fateful first loop, I believe I've made four or five more ... it's easy to lose count. It's not nearly enough for two decades of a lifetime, in my opinion. But the White Rim has become more of an annual pilgrimage since friends planned a four-day, three-night trip over Thanksgiving in 2018. I made a solo overnight ride from Moab along Potash Road and back via Gemini Bridges last year, also around Thanksgiving. I suppose this has become my new T-Day tradition. The sandy doubletrack along the Green River held a warm feeling of nostalgia, which seems a reasonable consolation for missing out on my mother's cream pies. 

November days are short, and we were off to a late start thanks to my and Erika's overnight drives. Even with our push to reach camp before dark, I stepped off the bike for every canyon overlook and lingered over vistas. My contentedness was at once familiar and strange. For most of 2020, since March at least, I've mostly stuck to my Boulder bubble, rushing through workouts while going more or less ... nowhere. Here on the White Rim, with unobstructed vistas stretching dozens of miles toward every horizon, I had everywhere to potentially be and felt as though I was standing still. It felt good — endless space to breathe. I'd nearly forgotten how much I enjoy simply being out in the world.

The weather on this day was cool and clear — low 50s for a high, heading toward the upper 20s overnight. Toward evening, a stiff breeze signaled a weather disturbance. The forecast for Thanksgiving Day predicted more snow to the Colorado mountains. I hoped it wouldn't bring rain to Southeastern Utah, as I still have nightmares about the death mud I encountered in the desert last year. Still, as the waxing moon climbed above Island in the Sky, I felt certain that good fortune would follow us through the rest of the week. 

As the moon rose, the sun set abruptly and all to soon, as it does this time of year. I will always happily trade the short days of November for its gorgeous light. I'm a night owl anyway and am just as content to be out for a midnight walk under a moon so bright that I don't even need a headlamp. The cool afternoons are a bonus as well — although I was regretting my decision to carry nine liters of water for the two-day trip. Since we were dry-camping and I wanted to make hot drinks to my heart's content, I erred on the side of bringing too much water. But I basically drank none during the day and had to hoist all of it up the punchy climbs as we neared Murphy's Hogback. My heavy bike was annoying me so much. I fantasized about drinking six hot chocolates and then tossing an entire bladder's worth of water in a sunlit fountain over a ledge (sadly, as it turned out, I forgot the hot chocolate. I had none at all. For the entire trip. This would prove more tragic as the week went on, but for now, it was less irritating than my heavy bike.) 

The final climb up Murphy's is a grunt and a half, but our reward was arriving at camp in the clear twilight. The spot is exposed to the hard wind and higher than the other campsites on the White Rim, so it's not necessarily the most comfortable place to sleep. But you can also see almost all of Canyonlands from the rim — Needles to the south, The Maze to the east. 

And somewhere, back that way is Horseshoe Canyon. So many places that I've never visited, that I'll likely never visit ... but I love to imagine myself there. I suppose that's the draw of wide-open vistas — to be a tiny human in a single pinpoint of space, traveling the universe in my mind. 

Camp with a view. The cold clamped down quickly as we set up our tents, and Erika and Betsy retreated to their sleeping bags as soon as it was dark, which came around 5:30 p.m. Danni and I sat at a safe distance, cooked up pre-Thanksgiving dinner in bags (with no hot chocolate. Sniff), and chatted away the bright moonlit evening in our puffy pants. I was exhausted after an eight-hour, stressful drive on black ice followed by a six-hour, slightly less strenuous ride on rocks and sand, and plunged into a deep and disorienting sleep that lasted until dawn. 

Day two brought many more canyon overlooks. I stopped at them all. Just when I thought my heart couldn't feel more full, the vistas would fill me with warm contentedness. I thought we had all of the time in the world for lingering, even though thanks to my sleepy-headedness, we still got a somewhat late start and our ride day only included about seven hours of daylight. 

Out of six trips around the White Rim, this is the only time I've ridden the loop counter-clockwise. I soon realized how ideal this direction is for riding the loop. For starters, there's Mineral Bottom Road, which is dusty, washboarded, high-traffic, and generally annoying. It's definitely better to spend less time on this road by descending it and getting it out of the way first. The route above the Green is filled with punchy grades that aren't easy as climbs or descents, so in my opinion, you might as well climb them. Beyond Murphy, there's a long, ramped descent that generally loses altitude for more than 15 miles — it feels tedious riding clockwise, and comparatively effortless in this direction. Finally, there's Shafer Trail. Shafer is long and grueling as a climb, and I think that's the reason why most people choose to ride clockwise. But if you like hard, slow, meditative slogging, and it's your favorite thing in the world, well ... the directional choice is obvious. 

We still had plenty of ramped descents to enjoy before the climb commenced. I had regrettably consumed both of my sandwiches on the first day while ignoring the rest of my snacks. At least I had an abundance of bars to enjoy at every overlook along the rim. 

Here is another one of those punchy climbs. Betsy was able to clear a lot of them on her fat bike in impressive anaerobic bursts. I was a bit lazy and didn't really try, even after I'd whittled my water carry down to three liters, which I also barely touched during the ride. "Walk and conserve energy," I'd call out, but quietly I was envious of Betsy's determination. 

The daylight began to grow long again. How did that happen? Where do these winter days even go? Both Betsy and Erika had been riding long days before the White Rim and seemed eager to leg out these final miles quickly and be done. I greedily wanted to cling to every canyon overlook, and mused aloud about dropping into Lathrop Canyon to see what was down there. If I had been alone I probably would have done it, and then I definitely would have had to climb out in the freezing darkness. Ultimately I'm grateful my friends were there to keep me on track, as the remaining views were jaw-dropping.

An overlook of the Colorado River. 

As shadows crept down from the mesa, we finally reached the bottom of Shafer Trail. My heart fluttered as I gazed up at the imposing cliffs. Such a thing of beauty: You think there's no way a road could find a way to scale this wall. It's impossible. At yet you know such a thing exists — you've been here before. Somehow you'll have to climb this wall. You'll do it on a bike. You'll pedal the whole way. The whole idea is so preposterous yet so compelling. 

Shafer Trail finds a way, by threading a tight series of switchbacks through brief weaknesses in the cliff. It's smooth but steep and precipitous. Someday — maybe next Thanksgiving — I will attempt a White Rim in a day and climb this road as hard as I can right at the end of my dirt century. It will be gloriously painful. 

For now, I was grateful for easy breathing, ample photo opportunities, and gorgeous light. Ominous clouds sank low over the La Sals. I could see a white blur of snow extending along the Moab corridor, but the storm never touched us. Fortuitous indeed. I stopped at the top of the climb to layer up for the final ten miles to camp and enjoyed a coffee-flavored candy bar that found its way to me all the way from Canada, courtesy of Danni's "emotional-support Canadian," who is our mutual friend Dave. Dave wanted to remind us that even though life in the United States is a little bit insane right now, we can be grateful that there are still places of calm in the world, places to which we can hope to return if we remain vigilant. The coffee wafer bar with French ingredients was blissfully tasty — mostly because I neglected to bring much candy of my own on this trip (and no hot chocolate. Sigh.) 

The ride back along highway 313 was gorgeous, if somewhat stressful with traffic after two days on the isolated White Rim. The temperature had dropped into the low 30s by the time we arrived at our cars. Betsy and Erika packed up and headed out before Danni and I had even changed out of our sweaty layers, which I understood ... I'd hoped they'd stay to hang out and enjoy water-flavored hot drinks during the evening, but late November cold and darkness is just not conducive to relaxed car camping. Danni and I had another bike trip planned, so we stayed to heat up our Thanksgiving dinner (two Tasty Bites for me. Punjab Eggplant and Madras Lentils spooned straight out of the bags.) Then we retreated to our tents at an unconscionably early hour. My gratitude for this overwhelming abundance lulled me to another peaceful sleep. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

I do love shoulder season

It took me a few years to realize this, but November really is a nice time of year in Colorado. All of the challenging aspects of summer — heat, smoke, pollen, thunderstorms — have finally faded, but there are still plenty of warm days to go along with the gorgeous late-autumn light and intermittent snowstorms. I have been feeling especially calm and content lately, and I'm not even sure why — world events are as harrowing as ever. Based on my still-prodigious daily news consumption, it seems like a time for my inner pessimist to shine. And yet, my outlook has become — dare I say — slightly rosier recently. I give at least partial credit to CBD capsules, which I started using on a regular basis again about six weeks ago. Even if it's just a placebo effect, I've felt noticeable relief from the relentless buzzing of low-level anxiety. I also credit the sheer amount of cycling I've indulged in during recent weeks. 

On Monday I embarked on my long ride for the week. I didn't have a route plan when I set out, so I chose my mountain bike to deal with the shoulder-season mixture of mud, ice, pavement, gravel, and snow I was likely to encounter. Early in the ride — around mile three — I decided to check out an overlook I'd never ventured up before. It involved a steep pedal up a rocky outcropping that I managed to clear, followed by a boulder scramble. For these efforts, I earned a lovely view of Gross Dam, the reservoir, and the snow-capped Continental Divide. I crawled down the boulders, hopped back on the bike, and immediately launched downhill, not noticing right away that I had looped onto a different rocky outcropping than the one I climbed. I realized too late that this drop was steeper and longer. Large, chunky boulders lined the edges of the rock garden. I didn't have the speed to clear the rocks at the bottom, slammed into them while grabbing my brakes even though I know better, and flipped forward. 

It was a strange over-the-bars type of crash. I must have lost a lot of speed before I hit the rocks because the entire thing seemed to happen in slow motion. I realized what was coming, decided how I wanted to land, and rolled sideways to touch down on my left shoulder blade, which was protected by a puffy-coat-filled backpack. That part didn't hurt too much, but while I was twisting my body to land on my back rather than my head, the bike became tangled in my right leg. It's difficult to describe. It didn't break the skin, but my entire leg is riddled with bruises, some deeper and more painful than others. The handlebars also got a good punch in on my left arm. Of course, the bike wasn't hurt. It never is. (And, for the record, I despise the question, "Was your bike okay?" in response to a crash. Bikes don't feel pain, and they're a hell of a lot cheaper to replace than bones. Rant over.) 

Okay, so I crashed. It was my dumb mistake and it wasn't a big deal. Nothing was broken, including the bike. I laughed off the pain as I sat up, shaking my head, and admonishing myself out loud. "You should not try mountain biking." The bruises on my leg hadn't yet bloomed and the limb was only mildly sore, so I continued on my eight-hour ride. The loop I devised while pedaling ended up climbing to 10,000 feet through several inches of sugar snow. Thanks to truck traffic, I could ride most of the climb, but the tracks stopped abruptly near the crest of the road. The descent into Gamble Gulch was a sphincter-clencher. Surfing the skinny tires through six inches of loose snow feels reminiscent of my early days of "snow biking," and is both exhilarating and terrifying. It's a matter of finesse — shimmying as the bike finds its own traction, shifting my weight ever so gently when the rear wheel begins to fishtail, and basically hanging on for dear life. Objectively these half-controlled plunges are considerably riskier than descending rocky outcroppings, but it's all a matter of perspective. At least I didn't crash.

Over the next few days, bruises erupted all over my limbs. I was sore. It's true, what they say — the older you become, the less your body can absorb a direct hit, no matter how well you walk it off. Every step jolted the tender flesh, so running was out of the question. But I could still ride a bike without too much pain. Colorado's typical third summer arrived just in time, with temperatures in the 70s during the middle of the week. I took advantage by riding the gravel bike up Sunshine Canyon, enjoying great conditions even as I battled a fearsome headwind. Any area exposed to direct flow from the Continental Divide was so wind-blasted that I had to pedal hard to maintain forward momentum downhill. But I was enjoying myself and feeling strong, so I continued to wrestle the air monster all the way to Brainard Lake. 

It's always fun to bash out one of these big rides — 50 miles, 6,700 feet of climbing — in late November, and still enjoy ideal conditions. Honestly, it feels like cheating summer, because snowmelt helps pack these typically dusty and chunder-strewn roads into hero gravel (although that west wind will always be there to keep me honest.) 

The speed and ease of that ride to Brainard revealed a fun truth: I am in prime cycling shape right now. I can't do much with this, however. My 200K fat bike race in January was officially canceled this week — although Beat and I were already leaning heavily toward not racing due to COVID concerns. Soon enough, any hope of a fourth summer will fade and it will truly be winter, wherein I'll need to build up a completely different kind of strength and conditioning for fat biking and snow slogging. But for this week, these few beautiful days of the shoulder season, I could at least leg out some PRs. 

After convincing Beat to ride with me on Friday, the spotlight turned onto my neglect of the gravel bike, which was once Beat's bike, and which I've "borrowed" for close to 1,400 miles without doing any maintenance. The brake pads had worn down to the metal. The rear tire was almost completely bald. Beat rightfully admonished me but went to work immediately in order to fix the abuse. My gratitude for Beat's mechanical skill runs so deep that I put it in my wedding vows. I know, I shouldn't be rewarded for negligence ... but I'm so grateful I can keep riding despite poor attentiveness (hey, I didn't realize I'd ridden the bike 1,400 miles. I would have guessed a few hundred at most. But Strava keeps track of such things for a reason.) 

Anyway, on Saturday I had the boost of brand new tires and working brakes, so I decided to go hard at some of my favorite gravel segments. I managed to take back my home road QOM from the professional athlete who stole it last year (to be fair, she's a runner who probably only cycles on occasion for fun. Also, my home road is private, so not many people bother with this segment. Still, the QOM is mine, and I cherish it.) Then I carved six minutes off of my SuperChap PR. It's a hearty segment; 4.3 miles with 1,800 feet of climbing and an average grade of 7.8%. I managed to hold 6.1 mph for 42:45. It's not even close to the best time in Boulder, but I am up against a number of professional road cyclists here. To best my own self by six minutes was enough fun. I was chuffed. 

On Sunday, Beat and I wanted to try a more equitable couples outing, since I will not suffer his bushwhacking routes, and he doesn't want to be "crushed by wife" on a bicycle. I proposed a hike to Mount Audubon. This 13er has thwarted us a handful of times in winter conditions, due to the incessant gale that always feels like pushing into an impenetrable wall. For various geographical reasons, this mountain is one of those places particularly susceptible to the prevailing west wind. A July hike often means teetering on rocks amid 35 mph gusts while thunderheads streamroll in from the west. Winter months bring the temperature gradients that drive truly fearsome downslope winds — you're lucky if you're not facing a hurricane-force whiteout. Not that this mountain ever holds onto its snow for long.

Thus, we braced for an Alaska-like blowhole and packed for as much. Third summer was officially over, and temperatures dipped into the single digits as we drove to the trailhead. The Brainard Lake gate is closed for the season, which means walking three miles of road to reach the summer trailhead. Strangely, it was warm and calm here — probably because of an inversion, which is what happens on a rare occasion that there's no wind. We peeled off layers as we jogged, but we were still overdressed. It felt like July. 

Beat set a brutal pace. While I've been cycling all these miles, he has been doing a lot of off-trail hiking, exploring the quieter corridors of the Flatirons and foothills. So both of our fitness is heavily skewed right now. I'm not in the best hiking shape, which falls away quickly amid the ceaseless technical demands of these rocky trails. I started to feel grumpy about this activity that was my idea. I was postholing through shin-deep snow and chasing Beat up a sweltering mountain with far too many layers on my feet. Then we hit the barren rocks — most of the terrain above treeline was cleared of snow by the incessant wind — and I realized I was grumpy because my leg hurt. One of the bruises above my right knee went deeper than I had realized, and it felt like every step was pulling painfully at a quad muscle. I don't feel this strain when I'm cycling or even walking around the house, but lifting my leg over the relentless rocks aggravated what was likely mild muscle damage from Monday's crash.

I was never going to catch Beat, yet I continued straining beyond my comfort level. The weather was unreal. Every time I've reached this saddle in the past — all during the months of June, July, or August — I've needed to pull on several layers while bracing against the gale to avoid being blown off my feet. On this day there was still a decent breeze — probably around 15 mph — but expectations made the air feel eerily calm. I continued shedding layers, marching past another group of heavily bundled hikers as I went hatless and gloveless with sleeves pushed up to my elbows. Every so often I would catch my toe on a rock, which would pull sharply against the seemingly injured muscle. Such missteps are almost impossible to avoid, but each time it happened my eyes filled with tears. This really hurt. Could this possibly be just a bruise? A few days have passed, and I really do think it's just a bruise. 

For the rest of the afternoon, however, I wondered whether I was facing a more persistent injury. Not much I can do about it up here, so I continued climbing. It was satisfying to reach the summit, my first "winter" ascent of a Colorado 13er ... even if it's not technically winter ... and even if the weather was the best I'd experienced — during any month — on these peaks that outline the crest of the continent. Sunny, storm-free skies, smoke-free air, gentle breeze, and no crowds. And to think there was a time that I believed November was just a throw-away month. 

Beat helped me get my leg back in order by forcing my knee into somewhat painful stretches and then massaging the area below the bruise. That actually did the trick. It stopped the sharp pain that was radiating up my leg and returned to that low-level soreness that isn't nearly as alarming. Beat fixes bikes and legs. Could I ask for a better partner in life? Just as long as he doesn't demand too many bushwhacks or otherwise ridiculously challenging mountain miles. Hiking is hard.