Thursday, February 23

Journey Around White Rim


Prologue:
The internet is more of a collective and unifying force to me than one of anonymity and solitude. Much of the time I spend on my computer is interacting with others of similar hobbies and cycling is no exception. I have known of the White Rim trail for as long as I have been going to Moab as a freshman in college, but riding it had eluded me to this point. Then about a month ago I stumbled upon a thread in a forum I don’t often read and began my journey down this path. In good shape and with many base miles under my wheels I agreed to join several other forum members in the desert in the middle of February. We shared the mutual goal of completing the one hundred odd miles of Moab’s White Rim trail in one day and certainly many personal goals as well. For me I would be celebrating my 24th birthday by riding further than I ever had, in a place that I had never seen. Yet wonderful pictures of the ride and encouragement from those who had gone before us were all I needed to push me over the edge and pack my bags. This is the story of the only mountain bikers to tackle the White Rim trail on February 18th, 2006.
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Riders:
Chris (author) - Marni (Chris’s wife)
Andy (Chris’s friend) – Shaina (Andy’s girlfriend)
Tom, Trevor, Scott, Chad, and Ed (Salt Lake City contingent)

Driving into Moab in the dark is a bit surreal for return visitors and uneventful for first timers. The former knows what's out there just off the highway, calling for bikes to tackle and cameras to film, while the later has only their imagination to entertain them. Friday night our Civic labored up and down the hills of Colorado and eastern Utah along I-70 with two bikes on top and a trunk full of supplies. It carried us more happily at slower speeds down highway 191 towards the land of red dust and warmer temperatures. Warmer being a relative term of course, we were glad to leave the 7 degree temperature of Denver for the low 40s of the desert. It's off season in Moab being mid-February and our grimy headlights illuminated the cones and barrels of the road construction as we coasted into town. We turned into our hotel and checked in quickly. Three trips later and our trunkful of supplies found their way into our 2nd floor room. Marni called Shaina and Andy to check on their progress from Boulder while I filled bottles, laid out clothes and packed my camelback. By 10pm we collapsed restlessly in bed, waiting for our friends to arrive and our short sleep to begin. I heard the wheels of a car roll up around 11 o'clock and pulled the curtains back to see our friends arriving. They began to unpack while Andy and I had a quick conversation about preparations for the morning. We agreed to leave by 5am for the Island in the Sky visitor's center and tucked into our own rooms for the night.

I slept restlessly through the night as is the norm for me before big events, waking at midnight, two am and again right before my alarm went off at 4. I kissed Marni and rolled out of bed, envious of knowing she could stay right there under the covers for many more hours. I ate a quick bite of chocolate chip mini muffins, a regular pre event tradition and waited for the wake up call. I didn't want to wake my wife more than necessary while I was in the shower since I awoke before the wakeup call. A quick warm shower had me awake and getting excited to leave. I debated quickly between clothing options but with temperatures in the low 20s climbing to a high of mid 40s my choice was relatively easy. The outfit I'd been wearing almost everyday for my morning commute and training was my best choice so I donned my shorts, base layer, windproof tights and jersey. Over that I layered my fleece long sleeve jersey and windbreaker with my cycling cap, ear warmer and helmet covering my head. I decided to forgo the shoe covers as my mountain biking shoes were relatively warm and hole free and the weather wasn't cold enough to require more than my normal full finger gloves. Digging through the Rubbermaid tub to see what else was in there I found some of Marni's little mermaid stickers for her kindergarteners. Well aware from Leadville last year how a small thing like a sticker could cheer me up and motivate me late in the day, I affixed a small Flounder sticker to my stem. By the time I was dressed and ready, Andy was up and preparing as well. The heater in their room had been broken all night and their room was much colder than ours next door. I didn't give it a second thought as everything seemed to be fine however perhaps it was the first mistake of the day. Nevertheless he was ready to go and we threw the bikes on the roof rack and climbed into the Civic, coffee and breakfast in hand.

Running slightly ahead of schedule we pulled out of the hotel and up the road in the dark to the Canyonlands turn off. Still unable to see the landscape around us, we wound our way into the backcountry and arrived at the visitor's center at 5:30am. There we found our fellow 5 riders sleeping on the sidewalk, unknowingly giving them a somewhat brutal wakeup. Getting out of the warm car into the early morning air was quite chilly and I'm positive the same could be said of our companions emerging from their sleeping bags. Scheduled to leave at 6am, Andy and I unracked our bikes, installed our wheels and finished loading up our packs. We chatted with our fellow riders as they ate, loaded up their cars and prepared for the ride. The moon was still more than half full and even though the sun had not yet risen, the landscape gradually became apparent. Trees, desert brush, rocks, cliffs and finally the La Sal mountains began to appear in the growing light. Still expecting to ride off in the dark predawn I was pleased with the amount of light that we did have as we did not bring any lights with us. As everyone prepared, six in the morning quickly became 6:30 and then quarter to seven. I was cold standing around and most of us were ready to go. We all remarked how cold our hands and feet where as we spun around the parking lot watching the sun rise quickly. We were waiting for two more riders to arrive but apparently they had decided to bail on the journey. It wasn't until just after seven that we found out and finally got underway following a nice prayer by our 5 Mormon friends.

The White Rim trail is somewhere just over 100 miles long with various places to start and 2 differing directions to travel. Our group had decided to travel counterclockwise, beginning from the visitor's center with a nine mile section on paved road followed by a 13 mile section on a two wheel drive dirt road. Although the sun was now rising on our group, all of us were still fairly cold, especially our hands and feet. Luckily the rolling hills got the blood flowing well and everyone began to warm up gradually, or so I assumed. We leapfrogged each other in small groups along the road as we stopped to adjust our packs, make minor clothing changes or get more food out of our packs. Andy and I stopped with another rider to give him some warmer gloves, hoping to get his hands warming up like the rest of us. I felt strong and we were keeping a very comfortable pace as we hit Mineral Bottom Road.

The road was similar to the paved section in that it had small rolling hills up and down, perfect for keeping descending speeds down and temperatures rising climbing up each hill. Andy and I rode 4 abreast with Ed and Chad for a while, with 3 of us chatting away and the other 3 riders just 15 or 20 seconds behind us in their own small group. I kept talking to Andy but wasn't getting much of a response and he continued to comment that he was cold. An hour in we ate some energy bars while riding and Ed and Chad pulled ahead up the road. I remember commenting on the difference in pedal bob between Ed's Epic and Chad's Santa Cruz. Just after this point, the day took a disturbing turn for the first time. Andy kept getting colder and colder and was starting to shiver. He didn't think he could continue on and we stopped in the middle of the road. The 3 riders following us, Trevor, Tom and Scott quickly came upon us and stopped as well. At this point Andy was sitting in the road, starting to shiver pretty hard and looking pale. We knew we needed to get him warmed up but there weren't many options already being in the middle of nowhere. More clothing, food and exercise were not helping and he was just getting worse. Our only options left were to build a fire or send someone back for help. I was about ready to head off for the car, easily 2 hours round trip, but Trevor asked me to give him 10 minutes. He started building a fire in the sand off the side of the road and the 3 of us gathered fuel. Within minutes we had a pretty large fire going and we parked Andy in front of it. For the next hour and 15 minutes we kept the fire going and gave Andy more food and water. Ed and Chad backtracked along the road and met back up with us. Andy finally began to feel better and signaled that he was ready to ride again. I gave him my fleece to layer under his jacket and another rider gave up their lobster gloves. Once we were certain the fire was out we gathered our stuff from the middle of the road and continued on.

I was worried that Andy wasn't fully recovered and the next few miles to the top of the Mineral Bottom Switchbacks we all watched him carefully. At the top of the switchbacks we all were in awe of the amazing view and pulled out our cameras. Luckily Andy was still feeling good. Once we began our drop down to the river level we were going to be pretty committed to this ride with no way to call for help. Cell phones were about as useless as scissors to a dog out here. Piloting our bikes on the descent to the Green River the mood was light. A lot of ground had already been covered and a major disaster had been averted. Another near disaster came in the form of a strange buzzing sound coming from my front wheel. I stopped on one of the switchbacks to find my quick release skewer completely loose, wheel flopping in the dropouts. Remarking that I was glad it didn't free itself from my bike, I tightened it quite tight.

From the bottom of the climb the snacks made another appearance. Nuts, fruit snacks and of course Clif bars were passed around with everyone well aware that they needed to keep eating. The sun was higher in the sky and there were hardly any clouds. Temperatures were extremely comfortable even though I had dropped 2 upper layers. We began to tick off miles along the river at a pretty good clip and passed Taylor canyon. We were all still talking, taking pictures and riding easily. Knowing we were near Hardscrabble made me feel good and the climb summit came easily. Here the pace of the group started to vary. We rolled down through Potato Bottom, still together and regrouped all 7 of us for what would be the last time. Andy and I rode up front with Trevor, still at a talking pace but with much less stopping for pictures. Ground passed under our wheels and the wind picked up slightly, Trevor eventually falling off our pace. Figuring the pace wasn't too quick, Andy and I decided to just continue on and then stop for lunch and wait up for the group. The rubber band of the group began to stretch here, unbeknownst to us. We rode in and out along the canyons climbing steadily. We came to a summit thinking we were at Murphy's, very badly mistaken, and decided we should have our lunch. It was 12:30 and my half Subway sandwich from last night tasted great. I followed it up with a little Debbie brownie that I'd been saving all week. Sitting there talking and eating we kept looking for the group but 30 minutes and still nothing. I began to wonder if they stopped for lunch at a similar time and had a long wait ahead of us. The wind was still blowing and I was getting cold sitting on the rocks despite the sunshine.

Just after 1pm we decided we had better continue on and keep looking behind for the group as we wound our way in and out of the valley. After riding for a little while we passed the Wilhite signs but I didn't bother pulling out the map, falsely assuming we were already passed Murphy's and well on our way to finishing. Cranking out mile after mile I began to wonder where we were. One of the things I had neglected to bring was a bike computer. I'd never used one on my mountain bike and never had a need until now. I began to suspect that we hadn't ridden as far as I thought. My fears were confirmed when we past Candlestick campground and I checked the map. 10 miles to the hogback! Our pace started to increase although we were walking up the steep loose hill sections and few areas of deep sand. Frankly I wasn't complaining about the walking and we both remarked how much longer this trail would take with more sandy sections. Only a few required walking while most just required smooth and straight pedaling to avoid upsetting the bike. Riding under the huge overhang just before the real summit of Murphy's Hogback we contemplated just what would happen if it fell. Stranded bikeless, assuming we could run out from under it, we would have a long trek back to civilization. Not a good thought but it highlighted the negativity and doubt that can begin to creep in on these long days in the saddle.

The sunshine was beginning to wane since it was 2:30pm. I ate some food as I missed my last scheduled bar. Reviewing the map we figured there were around 45 miles to go, including the brutal climb up Shafer at the end. That gave us less than 4 hours until dark. We looked anxiously back for our friends but didn't see them even though they may have been just behind us. Deciding that it didn't do any good for all of us to be out here if something had happened we picked up the pace. We blazed to White Crack in less than 30 minutes. I began to eat gels at a lot faster pace. Every 30 -40 minutes I would start to bonk and the chocolate and caffeine in the PowerGels were the only thing that would turn me right around. The next identifiable marker became our repeated target. Gooseberry clicked by in just another 30 minutes.

Still feeling low on energy I ate bars and gels at every stop. We hammered out the trail, Andy in his big ring, me in the middle ring. Our styles were different, no doubt in part to our bike choice. I descended fast and with less effort on my Fuel and was able to stay seated and pedaling through the bumpy slickrock. Andy felt stronger on his hardtail Klein however and set the pace with me yo-yoing on and off his wheel. It was here I first started to look at this sticker on my stem, smiling back at Flounder's inspirational smile. I hung onto his wheel and quick pace for miles. Winding in and out of the huge shadows we both knew we were unprepared for significant darkness and cold. Stops were short, only long enough for me to keep eating and throw Andy a bottle since his water was now gone. The La Sal's in the distance and the huge canyon walls, rockslides and even some bighorn sheep were our companions.

By the time we got to Airport feelings were mixed. I was happy that only 11 miles stood between us and Shafer, a climb I knew we could make it up in the dark if necessary. However Andy's lower back was really starting to take a beating and we were both worried about the other 5 riders. What did we do if we couldn't see them from Shafer? Who did we call? We talked it over along our last preclimb stretch. My map, now faded and wrinkled made Musselman Arch and the Gooseneck overlook seem not too far away. Over every hill we expected to see them but they didn't show. Finally the signs appeared. First Musselman and then Gooseneck. We knew Shafer was close. Physical energy waned but mental energy improved as we turned a corner on the end of this ride. The trail led us to a descent that ran right into a canyon wall. This had to be it. I knew before we even saw the signs that we had 5 miles up the switchbacks and a short road ride back to the car.

The climb up Shafer is pretty intimidating, especially over 90 miles into a ride. The canyon walls are sheer and seem to stretch up forever. It wasn't quite dark when we started up but the light was fading fast. First we rode, spinning away in our granny gears. Next we walked for a bit, the loose turns taking too much energy to stay on the bike. As the switchbacks reached a false peak, we looked out over the valley. No riders, no movement and no lights. This was our last chance to see the other riders and we couldn't. Prepared or not we felt we had to let someone know they were out there when we finished. At this point darkness settled over the valley and the climb. The snow and ice on the road glistened enough to make out that it was there but mostly we climbed in the dark. For those who haven't ridden Shafer, after the switchback the trail traverses a long way around the cliff walls before coming up to the road. This section seemed like an eternity but I climbed strong and out of the saddle trying to keep contact with Andy. Well past bonked now I was fueled by the thought of being almost finished. In the total darkness we maintained voice contact with some Marco Polo and stayed near the center of the trail. Riding off the edge of a two thousand foot cliff was not how I wanted to end my ride. More eternity past along with more sand and more gentle but finally I rolled up on Andy’s back wheel and he proclaimed that we were there.

For a second I doubted him but as my tires rolled onto the blacktop for the final short stretch I was relieved. I rolled down the hill singing away to no one, a song that could only be described as utter nonsense. All I remember is it had to do with riding towards the 2 faint lights of the empty visitor’s center as if I were an insect. We rolled up to the visitor’s center and got off our bikes for the final time that day. Gingerly and happily we moved now to undo our wheels and remount our bikes on the car. It was only a few minutes after 7pm but it had been twelve hours since we left cold and excited. A lot had happened in those 12 hours. Certainly more than I have captured here or can even remember now. At that moment the fatigue and beauty of the ride was still fresh in my mind as I devoured all the junk food in the car. That moment remains uncapturable in my memory and is what drives me back to these events. Only days later I cannot completely remember how I felt on that night and I know I will have to return in order to relive it.
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Epilogue:
Upon finishing the trail Andy and I were happy but our journey remained unfinished. Still out of cell service range and with no sign of our five new friends we hopped in the car and drove down towards Moab. By the time we rejoined highway 191 the cell phone reception returned. I quickly called my wife and Andy’s girlfriend and they were very happy to hear from us. An hour before, about the time we finished, they had called the Moab police to tell them we had not returned and ask them what to do next. The police responded quickly, both sending a car out to the highway to look for our returning vehicle and putting them in contact with the ranger. Marni had logged into my email and gave the ranger our information, plans and bike descriptions. After letting the girls know we were okay and almost home, we hung up to let the ranger call us back. The phone quickly rang and I recounted the day’s events to the ranger. He headed out to the visitor’s center. While we unpacked, showered and grabbed a quick but tired bite to eat, we waited for the call. Finally the ranger called to let us know that everyone was safe and okay. After returning to Denver I learned that the other riders finished up with the ranger’s headlights illuminating their way at around 9:20pm. Apparently two members of the group really struggled after we got separated and the 3 strongest riders stayed with them and guided them through the rest of the ride. Many things learned and 5 new friends made, this adventure, experience and lesson was now finished.

2 comments:

Becky said...

My goodness Chris! You're quite an excellent writer. It sounds like you had a pretty memorable trek. I'm glad to hear that everyone from your contingent is okay as well.

JDH said...

The White Rim is a great ride; we just did it with 15 people. We experienced the plagues of Egypt -- from heat, cold, hail, rain, and bug....boy were there bugs along the river.

http://mop-jdh.blogspot.com/2006/06/white-rim-road.html