Normally when I make a cockpit adjustment, it takes a few rides for me to get used to the new position. That was not the case after I installed my carbon Jones H Bars (710mm).
It was immediately obvious that these bars offered the most comfortable positions for my hands. The way I counted, there are at least seven different ways to grip a Jones bar as you’re seated.
Widest grip, no brakes: good for flat gravel grinding.
Mid grip, one finger braking: downhill
Choked up, two/middle finger braking: steep singletrack climbs (longer lever principle, keeps front wheel weighted)
Hoods: road cruising
Middle of the bars: road, easy climbs
Aero (elbows on grips): pedalling while tucked
Aero (elbows on middle of the bar, gripping Gnarwhal): coasting while tucked
I quickly found the Gnarwhal was not worth the weight, price and real estate. By running my forearms along the grips,I could approximate the same position. In this configuration, my elbows are at comfortable angle that keeps my body position forward but also broadens my chest to allow for easier breathing. The Narwhal is surprisingly heavy aluminum and really functions best as a hikeabike lever and accessory mounting rail. I found myself hardly ever needing it for balance.
One of the joys of running H bars is the sheer volume of real estate you have for handlebar-mounted accessories. The forward rail is a great place to mount I like without it being obstructed. There’s plenty of room for all of the necessities: bell, phone, GPS, t-rex squeaky horn.
Jones makes a nice, simple ultralight pouch that fits inside of the handlebar space. It makes for easy access two small items, but is a little bit on the pricey side. Boutique frame bag cottage shops like Cleaveland Mountaineering could probably custom make them better.
The specialty Jones EVA foam grips, however, are worth the price; they are long enough to maximize the three hand positions that can be used with them. Wrapping the remainder of the bar with handlebar tape was an easy enough task.
Altogether, I couldn’t be happier with the Jones H bars. I haven’t ridden anything longer than 110 miles on them but I trust that they will be an invaluable piece of kit on neverending gravel rides like the Sancho 200 and Michigan Coast to Coast.
That’s why. Two weeks ago I rode this route southbound. This time headed north, I hit the trails that I missed then, and linked up some additional dirt roads. I also took the Grand Traverse Bay shoreline from Petoskey to Wequetonsing, which proved to be the most fun riding of the trip (video above). Between rocks, sand and hub-deep water, I channeled my inner Curiak and really gave Ophelia a chance to flex her fat. Day One started at noon from my house in Traverse City. Three miles of pavement led to the Vasa Pathway doubletrack, which eventually turned into alternating sandy dirt road and singletrack (Iceman Cometh course). Thirty miles later, in Kow-kaska (home of the Blazers, tee hee) I snagged some calories for the road. From there, I turned on some Mendelssohn and floated through some dreamy single track.
The trail riding in Northern Michigan has proved to be fairly homogenous so far and maddeningly flat (1000 vert in fifty miles), but still fun regardless.
After Starvation Lake, I hit up a local bar for the obligatory sending fuel (PBR). I walked in expecting to get vibed by the locals, but they were quite tolerant. In the biggest non sequitur of the month, the background music of this redneck bar in the middle of Bumfugg, MI included Souljah Boy. I grabbed a PBR for the road and spun some more single track as the sun set. Unfortunately, the can fell out when I went over the handlebars. NB for bottlecage usage: metal on metal, plastic on plastic. Wild and domestic life was abundant: plenty of dawgz, three porcupines, wild turkeys, deer, a couple snakes and some funky cattle who will most certainly be reincarnated as gotez. At 23:30, I finally hit Pinney Bridge State Park and slept on top of a picnic table. It was a bit chilly for not having a sleeping bag (same as two weeks ago, go figure).
The next morning I got up at 04:30, ate my last slice of pizza, and launched into some formidable hikeabike. The trail was more rooted than a comp-sic major’s phone.
After a while, just as I was starting to lag from calorie deficit, I ran across some trail magic — road apples (not from horses). Eventually I hit pavement and rode to Boyne Falls, where I stopped at McZargalds and pounded an obscene breakfast (four McGriddles, hash browns, Vernor’s and coffee). Then I caught the bike path to Petoskey and slogged through a heavy thunderstorm while listening to Megadeth. I was starting to get cold, so I fortified my innards with the nectar of the immortals. At this point, I happened to notice a staircase leading down to the rocky beach. I took it, intending just to grab a few photos, but then ended up riding the entire shoreline from Petoskey to Wequetonsing. It was classic fatbiking. The holiday crowds were out in force, so I made several stops to explain fatbiking, bikepacking and to take shots of Fireball with deserving individuals.
At last, I hit the family cottage in Weque and jumped in the lake to celebrate. 62 miles yesterday, 75 today. Then the eating began in earnest. As of right now, I’m at 8500 calories and 2.5 gallons of liquid for the day. The next morning, I spun forty-five miles on pavement and lakeshore to Mackinaw City. With her tires at max PSI, Ophelia floats.
In town I had a top-notch cheeseburger and waffle fries. I got a double order of bacon ala carte for the frambag and busted down the NCT back towards Petoskey. Somewhere I took a wrong turn and ended up doing a few extra miles of dirt and gravel to Cheboygan. It was a serendipitous mistake, however, because I got to see …
Somewhere along the way to Indian River I rode across a fifty foot bridge. After checking the water level below, I jumped off three times. My camera died midvideo.
The way back was mostly cruiser crushed limestone. I found a novel invention:
In Alanson, I stopped at the Cross in the Woods shrine and spent some time meditating on the redemptive suffering of Christ, which is the only thing I’ve found that makes sense of the existence of pain in a world full of strife. I also threw down the gauntlet and told God that if he wanted to make me a pastor by age forty as per the original plan, he’d have to seriously get his divine shit together and help me reach metanoia or stasis.
Meet Ophelia. She enjoys discussing postmodern literature and taking long, romantic rides on the beach while listening to 80’s hair metal.
This fatty was the personal steed of master builder Jason Lowetz of Bearclaw Bicycle Company and Einstein Cycles in Traverse City, MI. Prior to meeting Ophelia, I bikepacked and commuted on a very special Surly Karate Monkey named Beatrice. She and I sojourned on many a chunky trail together including the Colorado, Kokopelli and Tabeguache.
When I moved to Michigan, however, it was immediately apparent that if I was going to stay afloat on the sand and snow, I’d need some big rubber. I considered several options, including a Pugsley and a titanium fatty from a certain unnamed mail-order bike company. However, when I saw Ophelia’s frameset gracing the shop wall at Einstein Cycles, I knew that she was the one.
Jason put together a killer ultralight fatty at a killer ultralight price point by utilizing some preowned components. This bike retails for more than my last two automobiles put together. And she’s worth every red cent.
In the month and a half that I’ve been with Ophelia, I’ve ridden her for about eight hundred miles on flowtrail, sandy bikepacking doubletrack, loose beach sugar, gravel and pavement. She excels at all conditions.
What struck me first was how delightfully playful this bike is. I never expected a fatbike to rail so hard in corners. The Van Helga 4.0 hooks up nicely on sandy turns at 15 PSI. Lofting the front end over downed trees is effortless thanks to the carbon fork. I’m a fairly conservative rider, but this bike is so confidence-inspiring that I soon found myself cornering harder, descending faster and taking bigger drops than I ever would have with Beatrice.
I made several cockpit modifications to the stock Balthazar, the most important of which was installing carbon 710mm Jones H-bars. Normally it takes me a while to warm up to any adjustment in riding position, but within five minutes, I knew that these bars were clutch. They offer at least six different hand positions, plus a pretty acceptable aero tuck when grasping the ultra-phallic Gnarwhal (pelotons beware!).
The 17.5″ frame offers ample storage space for a custom bag. Although fork mounts were conspicuously absent (tut tut!), Cleaveland Mountaineering’s Everything Cages mounted with hoseclamps without issue. One of my biggest surprises was that with the extra Q-factor inherent to fatbiking, there was enough clearance for my knees to strap a couple thin stuff sacks on either side of the headtube, thus providing even more bikepacking storage space. For someone like me who doesn’t enjoy using a seatpost bag, this is very helpful.
My only complaint with the frame are that there are only two sets of cage mounts. With bolt-on framebags and gastanks becoming more popular, a third on the underside of the toptube would be handy, as well as two on the downtube, four on the fork, and two atop the toptube. Last year when I commissioned Kokopelli Bike Company for a custom titanium plus frame, they hooked me up with more mounts than a GoPro dork at Six Flags, as well as rack and fender mounts. For a lifetime frame, having these options would be nice.
There’s honestly not much I can do to Ophelia to put her on a diet — there’s already so little metal, she’d have no problems making it through airport security. Future plans include running a Schwalbe Jumbo Jim 4.8 up front and maybe running a Selle Anatomica saddle. I have also toyed with the idea of making her singlespeed, although that would have little use for winter riding. A carbon 29+ wheelset would make this an ideal bike for Tour Divide in two years.
Speaking of winter, this review will be updated with winter test data as soon as the white stuff flies. Until then, I’m taking her on another bikepacking segment of the NCT and on a thrasherboy trip to Copper Harbor.
In conclusion, I can honestly say that I have never had so much fun on a bicycle at sea level as I have with Ophelia. This Balthazar is fast, fun, flickable and a freaking smokeshow.
The real test will be to see whether I bring her on Colorado Trail Race next year, or pony up for a carbon Salsa full-squish 27.5+. Remembering the pain I endured on a 100mm fork on chunky moto-choss hell known as Sargent’s Mesa, I am reluctant to ride that section rigid. Then again, it’s the CT — who said anything about riding?
Setup as of August 2018:
Frame: Bearclaw Balthazar Carbon, medium
Fork: Bearclaw Blitzen, carbon
Wheelset: DT Swiss 2250 75mm carbon laced with Big Ride hubs
Tires: Van Helga 26×4.0 front, Bontrager Rougarou 26×3.8 rear
Drivetrain: SRAM XX1 1×11, 34×11-42Cranks: Next SL, carbon
Saddle: WTB Volt, carbon rails
Seatpost: Profile Design carbon
Bars: Jones H, carbon, plus a Gnarwhal mono
Stem: Syntace 40mm
Brakes: SRAM Guide Hydraulic, 160/140
Pedals: Kona Wah Wah 2
Bags: Cleaveland Mountaineering custom frame bag, seat bag, handlebar harness and Everything fork cage. Jones pouch, Bykit gas tank, Metolius chalkbag.
Weight: Roughly the same as my carbon road bike.
When I first became addicted to crack, I was anti-Gri to the core.
Part was due to my climbing mentors being crusty oldtimers who honestly believed that tape and chalk were aid. They instilled in me a tacit belief that technological advances like assisted braking devices would inevitably be taken for granted and result in slothful belaying. Another part was due to my inherently conservative bent. If sticht plates were good enough for Layton and Ed, they were good enough for me!
Somewhere along the journey, I started catching big whippers and belaying people hangdogging projects, and was converted to the Gri-Gri. Soon thereafter, I was bringing it on alpine routes and multipitches, despite the weight penalty compared to a guide device.
Recently, I found myself invited on short notice on a trip to the Red River Gorge, but all my gear was still in Durango.
Not wanting to borrow from strangers, I ponied up some retail coin and bought a harness, shoes and device, making sure to loudly proclaim to everyone in Backcountry North that I was not a n00b and owned all of this stuff already (did I mention Durango, where I can ride my bike to 400+ routes?).
I really didn’t want to end up owning two Gri’s, so I decided to give Black Diamond’s ATC Pilot a try.
The Pilot is an assisted-braking belay device that bridges the gap between the classic tube-style device and a full-on Gri-Gri or Revo. Like the latter, it gives the belayer a bit of a break (ha) with holding a hangdogger or catching a big whip. And like a tube, it’s light, bombproof and simple. Similar products out there are the Edelrid MegaJul and Mammut Smart.
Tipping the scales at 83 grams, the Pilot is one of the lightest assisted-braking device on the market at present. The MegaJul beats it by twenty grams, but also functionally requires a steel locker — the recommended HMS Bruce clocks in at 134g compared to a Metolius Element at 73g, which quickly negates the Mega’s weight savings.
The build quality of the Pilot is good. Instead of a steel retaining cable like most tube devices have, BD went with a plastic pistol-grip. It’s a bit unnerving until you realize that it’s not weight-bearing. The device fits in my #1-sized hands like a glove.
I was very impressed with the function of the Pilot. It locks quickly under load. Classic belay technique (pull-brake-grab-slide) works well for toprope belaying. Lowering is smooth and worry-free — no need for a panic mode as in the Gri+ or 2.
Feeding slack on lead was a bit more difficult to figure out. I ended up shortroping my partner a few times. BD recommends sliding your brake-hand thumb up to the catch, as described at 2:10 in their video below.
I demo’d the Pilot with the i-beam locker pictured above and friction was average. Switching to a rounded Metolius Element made a noticeable difference in smoothness while throwing rope to a leader.
When rapping singlestrand, the Pilot provides an acceptable experience. It’s nowhere near as fluid an experience as the Gri, and doesn’t offer any sort of built-in backup.
Unlike the Gri, however, the Pilot requires a small amount of finger tension to secure a resting climber, unless they’ve been caught in a fall. Regardless, you want to keep a hand on the brake.
The Pilot retails at half the price of a Gri-Gri, which is another big plus. The obvious drawbacks are that you need to carry a separate device to rap doublestrand and belay with an autoblock from the anchor. (I always carry a Camp Ovo belay plate in my oh-shit-kit, so that’s not a concern for me. ). Unlike a Gri or an autoblock, you can’t use it as an ascender.
Overall, I’m very impressed with the ATC Pilot. While it’s not a Gri-killer (nor was it meant to be), at half the weight and half the price, it’s a great piece of kit, one that even the crusty oldtimers might begrudgingly admire.
Welcome to Michigan. I never thought that I’d move back to the Midwest, but a series of extenuating circumstances sent me back to sea level for the foreseeable future. After living in Colorado for eight years, I moved back East with a bit of an entitlement complex and low expectations for the local goods. Sure, there are trails, and Devil’s Lake, Canada and the Red. But after the Western Slope, won’t flatland life be a bit … boring?
I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong.
The North Country Trail runs 4600 miles from New York to North Dakota. The Great Lakes State accounts for 1000 of those, and the accessible Lower Peninsula has 547. I set out to ride from Petoskey to Traverse City, a 111-mile segment known for singletrack and sand traps.
Einstein Cycles in Traverse City hooked me up with their house fatty, the Bearclaw Balthazar. I dubbed her Ophelia, not after the Dane’s lover, but rather my parents’ chubby basset hound of yesteryear. She has pretty much every bike component that’s able to be made from carbon fiber … I’d imagine she’d get through airport security without a hitch. A full review on this site is forthcoming, but for now suffice to say that this is the funnest bike I’ve ever swung a leg over. (Sorry, Beatrice. Steel is real and ti is fly, but plaster is faster).
Proper bikepacking bags were still in production over at Cleaveland Mountaineering, so I improved some ghetto-fabulous substitutes. All of my stuff is back in dgo, so I bought a Thermarest Neo Xtherm from Backcountry North in TC because I needed one anyway, and decided that no sleeping bag would be necessary with a low of 60F.
Left to right, Winifred is sporting the following:
– 16oz peanut butter in a plastic bike cage zipped to the fork
– Jones bag with leg warmers, tools, headlamp, etc.
– Thermarest stuff sack tied on with a thrift-store windbreaker.
– Cheapo phone-case gas tank for $13 on Amazon. Pretty stoked on it.
– Tube in a ziplock duct taped to the seatpost.
– A can of Hormel spicy chili and 24oz water in cages, plus a frame pump.
– Free-range organic fair-trade potato crisps.
I started from Harbor Springs at 06:00 and spun fourteen miles of asphalt through rolling farmland to get to the trailhead. It was a perfect, contemplative warmup. I’ve had a lot on my mind as of late, and was looking forward to processing it all with some two-wheeled therapy.
For those who have never been, Mittagan is one big sand dune. Most people roll plus or fat tires, and I was grateful to have the formidable 26×4.0 Van Helgas mounted on 75mm carbon rims. Altogether, Ophelia weighs the same as my carbon Ultegra 3×9 road bike Winifred.
All was well until I stopped to shoot some video. I set down my food bag containing Pringles, Cheetos and tortillas (curse you, sugar-free August! This was my first outdoor activity ever without gummy worms, serious withdrawal going on). After instawhoring, I completely forgot to strap the food bag back on, and went on my merry way through the forest. It was an hour before I realized it. Sorry about the mess / you’re welcome for the trail magic.
Calorie deficit is par for the course, but I was staring down the barrel of two full days of biking on one can of chili and a jar of peanut butter. More importantly, my betadine dropper for water filtration was now gracing some black squirrel’s nest. I wasn’t keen on getting giardia a third time.
Fortunately, I was able to take a few detours to local bars and gas stations, but this changed the timbre of the ride by adding about twenty-five extra miles of pavement. On the upside, I got lots of PBR. At each stop, I’d pound a Gatorade and half a tallboy, then pour the remainder in my bike bottle. I’m a huge fan of the craft beer scene here, especially Short’s, but there’s nothing like a good PBR when you’re cranking hard in the heat and humidity.
One of the highlights of the trip was bikewhacking through handlebar-high ferns. It was reminiscent of the CT at Molas Pass in late July, plowing through mountain cabbage.
Another huge difference between the NCT and every other trail I’ve bike packed back west … water! And lots of it! And it doesn’t induce hypothermia! I was pretty stoked to go skinny-dipping in a couple of crystal-clear streams at midday.
As always, I brought my ultralight bikepacking spoon / tire lever combo. These guys actually clip together to form masterlink pliers, too! That is, when they’re not gummed up with peanut butter.
Aside from a sparse handful of vehicles on dirt roads, the only sign of human life I saw on the trip was the tepee below. As for wildlife, I flushed a couple dozen wild turkeys, some deer, two raccoons and …
A wannabe gote.
At 20:30, I called it a day — eighty miles down, thanks to paved PBR detours. I started a fire to smoke out the mosquitos, and then came to an awful realization. While packing for the trip in my jimmy-rigged bags, I had forgotten an insulating layer to cover for the sleeping bag I didn’t bring. Hmm. My sleep system included an inflatable pad and my clothes, which included a long-sleeve button down shirt, windbreaker, leg warmers and a bandana for my head.
There wasn’t enough wood to blaze all night, so I got coals started and then spooned with the warm metal fire ring for a fitful night’s sleep. It was pretty much a shiverbivy. I wasn’t feeling strong enough to ride through the night to stay warm like on the Grand Staircase misadventure. Prolly because I couldn’t eat any mini-Snickers. Everyone knows that Snickers makes you strawng.
The next morning I started a little fire, ate my can of chili for breakfast while listening to an audiobook (Gospel of John) and busted off down the next segment. My phone battery died while recording a GPS track, so I don’t have the exact stats, but I was riding at a pretty decent clip for 11.5 hours.
When I hit Kalkaska, I fired off another tallboy and ingested 1500 calories of McZargalds (over 6bn Earthlingburgers served!) in order to even out the health benefits of the past few days’ riding. From there, it was a cruiser seventeen miles of pretty dirt roads to get back to the house.
Altogether it was a great overnighter on an incredibly fun new bike. I look forward to exploring the NCT further this fall.
(When I wrote this post, my nervous system was pretty activated by some trauma trigger flashblacks, hence the discordant bent of the writing. I pulled it from the site during a period of depression, per usual, but now am reposting because it was a kick-ass tower featuring a stout R-rated offwidth lead by Andy).
I have a problem with routefinding.
Sometimes the only way back down is up. At the end of the day, it is what it is. That’s why I’m proud to climb with serene partners who dress the knot for success.
Andy is one of the chillest guys I know. He and I have a lot in common – teaching is our vocation. Science is his passion; words are my trade.
In exchange for losing my puffy on P1 and shivering my belays to the top, I got to come to a place of blunt emotional honesty and give credits where credit’s due
processing … I’d like to blaze the grade of A+ onto the climbing C.V. of the man who tied in tight and onsighted the spiciest pitch on that Sedona spire.
So how spicy is too spicy? Ask McDonalds. They were supposed to open at 06:00 but a handwritten note postponed my McGriddlefix far past rock-oclock. At quarter to send:thirty, we busted hard left to the grocery and snagged a sixer of sausages.
In addition to being a suave educator, A-mac is a veteran thru-hiker and knows how to work a grocery store counterclockwise.
Alien Ant Farm serenaded our dawn patrol.
Like a double-zero micro cam’talot,
O revolting headlamp, lock and shot.
Flickers of inspiration, smoothcriminalz roll!
Fast forward to the crux pitch. One of us onsighted the trendy-.10d finger crack in a flare. The other popped past a shallow dihedral that dilated down to a vortex.
Pitch three was straight chronic Zion-esque splitter. It was too good to mention anything but the naked jams, tapeless as a trash-compacted diskette … super floppy.
Thumbs up, lock it. Big toe? Sprrrrawkittt!
To the next responder: Sorry about the mess … but I have to admit that it feels good to leave some DNA when you’re finally on-route.
Input pitch 4$
Let 4$ = 5.8X wide
Congratulations, my young partner. In this moment, you are weightless, whippered but not snapped. I would applaud your headgame except that the only thing keeping you from F2’ing and turning a sender’s game into a catcher’s wry folly is one piece of aircraft-grade aluminum. Should that fail, I shall have found myself in a “duty to act” scenario in which the first rule of (timelapsed subwoofer club) is you do not focus on anything but the present club [exwoofer CAPTURE]. I am holding on to what matters most. I am skydzwfrydzw’s raging conscience. Don’t let go of that crystalvision of our best friends climbing the dawg and sleeping at last under the stars. And that’s when you realize, whoever you are, that in the blink of an eye, you are caught. By an angel or a demon or whatever.
^ <3 * §
input pitch 4.5
let lead$ = swapped
if jug haul = positive
then print “sweetactionbrosendthagnar”
It’s a relief to top out on a spire. No way down but out. Pre-thread the chains, commemorate the capture, lean back into the blessed assurance that my favorite part of rockcraft is aiding and abetting fellow fugitives.
it’s super meta to be a
brawls aside, I have
It felt good to dial it back a notch. The past couple trips have been strenuous, and I was looking forward to a chill couple of days on the Kokopelli Trail.
The rules: no alarm clocks, ample food and water, lots of photo breaks and no heroics. For once, everything went as planned and I had a relaxing weekend on some beautiful dirt roads.
On Friday morning, I boarded the Greyhound from Durango to Grand Junction. I slept a bit and read some Infinite Jest, but mostly just stared out the window and let my thoughts meander around the “nothing box.”
I met Jeremy for lunch, then rode the bike path twelve miles to Fruita and filled up three liters of water and Tailwind. Temperatures were balmy, though there was a bit of a headwind. Seven more miles of pavement brought me to the singletrack start of the trail.
The KT starts with Mary’s Loop, a mostly flat trail that contours atop sandstone cliffs above the Colorado River.
Occasional boulder problems punctuate the flow of this scenic section.
It turns out that the riverside cottonwoods were at peak foliage, an unexpected bonus. It was nice to get an extension on fall colors, which are all-too-brief in Colorado.
Eventually, you start horsing around on Troy Built, then hit some legit hikeabike down to Salt Creek. It’s a good source and I definitely could’ve started with less water — one liter would’ve sufficed in the cool October temps.
The sun set when I hit Rabbit Valley, but the headwind continued, and some rain fell intermittently. I wanted to make some time and allow for a leisurely finish in Moab on Sunday, so I rode by headlamp for another four hours. It seemed like that was the least scenic part of the whole trip, so it worked out. My wife had made me a stellar playlist of blues and funk to keep my spirits and RPMs up, and it helped pass the time.
I was hoping to make it to the Westwater Ranger Station that night for water, but I ended up dry-camping sooner. This trip was stoveless because I hadn’t felt like running to the store to refill denatured alcohol, so dinner consisted of a burrito filled with instant mashed potatoes, salami, cheese and pretzels. Dessert was a gold mine … an ice cream sandwich with instant cookies-n-cream pudding as the filling.
I woke up with the sun the next morning and ate a half-dozen oatmeal raisin cookies for breakfast. I normally do instant oatmeal like everyone else, but seriously? Look at the ingredients. Oats + wheat flour + raisins + brown sugar. You may as well just bring oatmeal raisin cookies at 130 calories an ounce and eat them from the comfort of your mummy bag.
It was a chilly morning, and the slow, chunky jeep road made it difficult to warm up. When the sun finally crested, though, it was glorious.
Eventually I hit pavement and spun out in top gear (30:11) on the way down to the ranger station. Turns out their water still required filtering, but it was better than the cow puddles I’d passed on the way, so the 1.5 mile detour was worth it.
Evidently everyone and their mother uses this particular boat launch on the weekend. There were at least forty river rats queued up go do downhill … they looked like boulderers with their tiny little legs. Tee hee.
I filtered three liters and pounded some yogurt-covered raisins, then left the menagerie of hydrophiles in the hands of a rather frazzled ranger. Dude had a Rock Shox sticker on his Nalgene. What do you say to boaters for good luck, “Vinyl side down?”
I soon hit the longest, flattest dirt road in the universe. I was in the mood for it, though, no singletrack entitlement here.
The next segment was barren and dry, a tabula rasa, as though God decided to try his hand at minimalism. In spite of this — or perhaps because of it? — I find the desert to be an incredibly peaceful place. The sky is endless and my mind wanders through it.
When the trail rejoined the Colorado River, cottonwood trees erupted from the earth. The audacity of foliage in the desert. I love it.
A little bit of singletrack, then more dirt roads. I passed a couple eastbound bikepackers, but they were blazing on a downhill, so we didn’t stop to chat.
Several almond Snickers bars later, the terrain started to look a lot like Moab. I passed through some slickrock playgrounds, wide expanses of concrete-like slabs that were like natural skate parks. Entrada sandstone buttresses loomed in the distance. It was about the halfway point on the trail, and I started getting excited.
I knew we were getting close to civilization when I ran into some ATV and dune buggy groups, and a guided MTB ride. A couple of moto riders helped me break the bike-selfie monotony of this trip report.
My tires were a bit undergunned for the sand in this section (2.4 front, 2.25 rear), but it wasn’t that bad. Dual 3.0’s would be a good float to weight ratio, no need to get all Moonlander on this stuff.
Then out of nowhere, the river magically reappeared. I busted down to the Dewey Bridge and grabbed some slightly muddy water, then took a lunch break under a bush. Over halfway done by mileage, but not halfway yet by vertical gain.
Time to go uphill. I turned on Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and thanked the gourd that I had a granny gear (30:42). I leapfrogged a bit with a couple of day-riders, then parted ways down into a rad canyon.
Lots more climbing ensued and my legs started complaining. I fed them some Doritos, colby jack and gummy worms, and turned on my “NFG” playlist, which is pretty much an aural crime against humanity designed to make lactic acid dive for cover. It’s mostly early 2000’s pop punk and screamo. There’s only so much angst that lactate can handle.
Dusk fell and I started thinking of how nice it’d be to not ride by headlamp for a change. It just so happened that a gorgeous dry campsite was a couple hundred feet below in a horseshoe-shaped cirque.
First I had to pick my way down the infamous “Rose Garden Hill,” which supposedly has been ridden by a human being on a bicycle more than once. (Not me!) It’s basically an avalanche slope of encephalitic babyheads. You’d better be in the mood for Mexican food, because your rims are going to be aluminum tacos.
Supposedly there was a spring at the bottom, but if there was, it wasn’t running in October. No worries, I was stocked for a dry camp. I nestled into some luxurious, soft dirt, rolled a couple Tabasco potato burritos, and read a letter addressed to Theophilus.
The next morning I woke up at 05:00 and finished the other half-dozen oatmeal raisin cookies. I rode a couple hours by headlamp — cold! I wore every layer I brought and took several handwarming breaks.
Lots of gradual uphill ensued. Sometime that morning, I hit the high point (~8600′) and passed some Ponderosa pines.
I finally hit the top of whatever I was on top of, and promptly layered up for steep, paved descent. Unfortunately, the very last segment of the KT, La Sal Loop Road, was under construction (on a Sunday?!). This meant I had to detour around on Castleton Road to Highway 128 and follow the river on pavement back to town. Mileage was the same, but I had to miss out on finishing on Porcupine Rim.
I was hoping to finish on Porcupine, but also kind of dreading the inevitable beating that I would suffer on my little 100mm travel hardtail. (PR regularly gets shuttled by downhill riders on burly full-suspension rigs).
Eighteen miles of pavement brought me back to Moab, where a beautiful woman, a ninety-five-pound puppy and a bacon-bleu-cheeseburger and onion rings were waiting for me. Oh, and a couple corn dogs and chocolate milk, too, plus a few doughnuts and an orange, but who’s counting?
Altogether a wonderful weekend of rejuvenation in the desert.
By the numbers: 159 miles and 13k vert from downtown GJ to downtown Moab. 1 day, 20 hours and 30 minutes total, probably sixteen hours of which was sleeping.
Notes for next time:
– The course is surprisingly well-watered, even in autumn. I had capacity for 3.75L and carried 3.5, but never really drank more than 2. Westbounders can fill up at Salt Creek (mile 20, from Fruita), Westwater (50), the river (70), Dewey Bridge (85), and Castle Creek (126).
– Dual 2.4 tires or slightly bigger would be an improvement for traction. Sand is probably more of an issue eastbound.
– Didn’t miss the stove at all, even though it was cold out.
– More hot sauce.
– Oatmeal raisin cookies for the breakfast win! Instant pudding for the desert win! Find powdered whole milk to add to the pudding for extra protein.
– Instant potatoes, instant pudding and Tailwind look pretty similar in ziplock bags in the dark … beware a catastrophic mixup.
I woke up in the cab of an abandoned dump truck in the middle of the forest and assessed the situation.
– 1) Find water.
– 2) Get back on route.
– 3) Bike 80+ miles back to the van before dark and eat everything in sight.
I guess it wouldn’t be an adventure if something didn’t go wrong. At least that’s how I consoled myself as I watched a full water bottle launch into orbit off my frame and tumble off a cliff. A third of my water gone. At least it was a fun downhill.
The route links up 160 miles and 11,900 vertical feet along sandy dirt roads that meander through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was mid-November, and local bikepacking season was drawing to a close.
On Saturday morning I kissed my wife and hound goodbye and rolled away from the house at 07:50. The gear list was pretty standard for an overnighter, although I did pack a luxurious, inflatable sleeping pad instead of the car sunshade. I stuffed my frame bag full of clearance Halloween candy and oatmeal raisin cookies, and filled half of my three-liter water storage.
It was a chilly morning, low forties or so, but there was lots of pedaling to be had. I settled in for the long haul. Dirt roads in the desert provide an incredibly meditative experience, if you let them.
At the “Paria Box,” I grabbed some relatively fresh water. I had recently discovered that the violent bout of giardia I picked up while bikepacking the Colorado Trail two months ago was due to an expired bottle of betadine drops. Armed with a fresh bottle, I double-dosed for good measure and filled up.
I turned on Handel’s Messiah and spun some more flat, sandy miles. “A voice of one crying in the wilderness …” was particularly apropos here.
Just when things were starting to get boring, a side trip presented itself at Cottonwood Narrows. I busted down some canyon singletrack and snagged a quick photo from some Polish tourists. (I saw maybe ten people that day, and all within the first forty miles).
Easy pedaling, good views, sixty degrees and sunny. Without the “focus high” of demanding, technical singletrack, my mind floated off into the clouds. I call it my “nothing box.” Every now and then I’d land on a topic and expend a couple mental megabytes, but mostly it was roaming. Remember that screensaver from Windows 98 (SE) with the transparent glob that pinballed lazily off the perimeter of the screen? “This is your mind on dirt roads.”
Eventually I hit Grosvenor Arch and a couple of motorized tourists. I politely declined their offers of water because I was mostly full. Apparently it was too early in the day to offer beers (NB: if you see a bikepacker, it’s never too early). One elderly gentleman said that I looked pretty “squirrelly” coming down the last hill. Trading one non sequitur for another, I told him that I always eat nuts on trips like this because of their high calorie-to-ounce ratio.
I do have to admit that I was a bit miffed that nobody asked the usual ego-stroking questions, like me how far I had gone / was going / do you own a car / where is your tent / do you need a ride / how do you get the rope up there / etc.
I soon had bigger problems to confront than my vanity, however.
My favorite place to stash a bike bottle is on a bottle cage that I ziptied to the intersection of the toptube and seatpost. I’ve been using that mount on various bikes for years on much more technical terrain, and never had a problem with it.
Until this day. On an uncharacteristically-chunky-but-still-not-heroic downhill, my water bottle decided to free itself from the loving constraints of friction and explore the great abyss beyond the road.
Losing a third of my water presented a quandary. Instead of drycamping as originally planned, I would need to ride late into the night to reach to the next source, twenty extra miles. That source, however, was marked as “possible water at Last Chance Creek” and the only remaining supply on the route. It was late fall and extra dry — gambling on that source and coming up dry there would be dangerous.
My other option would be to continue the loop for several hours, head ten miles off-route to get to the town (?) of Escalante, fill up, and then backtrack or alter the course. This option included the possibility of onion rings and flavored Utah water at a theoretical local dive bar, assuming I made it before last call.
I pondered this decision for the next thirty miles until the road split. By which I mean, I fantasized about plunging a fistful of glistening, salt-encrusted onion rings into a bowl of full-strength ranch dressing …
So yeah, I cut hard north for Escalante at sunset. Ten miles, even the most backwater bar should still be open in an hour.
Or so I thought. Problem is, my GPS wouldn’t get a location fix. (I later found out that the SIM card slot on my phone had apparently decided that since the trusty water bottle cage was taking a day off, it was entitled to malfunction as well). I had a backup map, but most of the side roads weren’t marked, so I couldn’t tell how far I’d come. As best I could tell, I was at the junction to turn off for Escalante.
A few miles later, I found myself in a spiderweb of unmarked powerline roads. I’d take one and ride for a half mile, and then it would dead-end into some sort of power station with a meter. I hit about seven or eight of these and would have to backtrack each time.
Fortunately, I did find water. Or at least liquid. It was a cow pond with no inlet or outlet. I skimmed my hydration reservoir across the top to get a half a liter before the mud rose, then moved around the pond and repeated the process.
I found lots of industrial junk and signage, but nothing to indicate how to get to Escalante. After so much backtracking in the dark, I became totally disoriented and couldn’t find where I came from.
It was also getting cold at 7600 feet, so I finally decided to call it a night and orient myself to the sunrise. I set up my cushy pad, ate a couple of instant mashed potato burritos smothered in Cholula — good, but not quite onion rings — and settled in for a long, dark night. It was about 8:30pm.
A few hours later, I awoke on the cold ground atop a completely deflated sleeping pad. (I carried sixteen ounces for this?!!) It was 2:00am. It was too cold to stay put, so I ate my breakfast of six oatmeal raisin cookies and started trying to backtrack. Oh, and my Camelbak was frozen, too.
Morale was at an all-time low.
After an hour of wandering up and down dead-end powerline roads, I stumbled across a couple shacks and a vintage, abandoned dump truck. Now we’re styling. The shacks were locked but the truck was open, so I curled up on the bench seat and got a couple hours of quality shuteye (aside from dreaming about serial killers who lived in the shacks).
With the sun up, I started to get an idea of how to escape the spiderweb. Looking at Google Earth after the fact, I had gone a total of about ten miles off route in the dark, and the Escalante turnoff had been another five miles down the road. Turns out it was beautifully marked, too.
Anyway, time to ride.
I ran into a surprise cow spring and got some “insurance water” in case Last Chance was dry.
The next thirty miles were pretty uneventful. I was kind of ready to be done with this dirt road.
Last Chance Creek had a couple small puddles. It would’ve been hard to scoop them without a bottle or pump hose, so I stuck with my cow spring coffee. Food was running low, so I set a timer on my phone to go off every hour and ate a funsize Snickers or cheese stick at every beep. (Talk about operant conditioning … I love that ringtone now.)
At long last, I hit a sign that indicated thirty miles to Big Water. So close and yet so far … it was around 2:30pm, the doldrums of the day. Clouds everywhere. A long, flat, sandy road ahead. One last mini Snickers, a bite at a time. This was going to be tough.
In desperate need of a kick in the aural pants, I cranked up the album “Deliverance” by Opeth. (Just the iso of the kick drum track on the first song is brutal enough to wilt a nascent geranium). It was just what I needed. I fired off a quick prayer for stamina — Jesus did forty days without food; I should be able to do thirty miles — and pedaled like hell.
Apparently God was amused at my sudden burst of NFG, because just as I was tearing through the barren wasteland, game face on, racing the sun and calorie deficit and lactic acid onslaught, screaming Swedish death metal under a bleak sky … I came across a surprise.
Somehow, in the middle of capital-N Nowhere, a yellow, polka-dotted helium balloon had snagged onto a sagebrush. Lest I continue taking myself too seriously, I tied it onto my seatpost with a figure-eight followthrough and brought it along.
Of course, after a few miles, the balloon popped off its yarn and floated back to Astaroth. I was sad to see it go — I thought of Wilson the volleyball — but it served its purpose.
I soon found solace in Smokey Mountain Road, an incredible, fast descent down a narrow shelf road. Honestly, I was pretty unimpressed with the entire route up until this point, but that segment made it all worthwhile. It’s probably the most scenic desert road I’ve ever ridden. I didn’t feel like pausing the magic to take pictures.
Fourteen miles to Big Water. I squeezed out the last few drops from my reservoir and settled in for some soul-crushing gravel rolling hills. That was probably the crux of the trip right there. It was comical on my 1×11; I’d shift into my highest gear at the top of each hill, crank a few strokes, hit a sandbox at the trough of the hill and lose most of my momentum, then shift all the way back into my granny (30:42) and barely clear the next hill.
At long last, I reached the visitor center and got tackled by a 105-pound puppy. I ate a pita with homemade blackberry jam and a couple of oranges, then we hightailed it to Page, AZ for the main event. By the time the dust settled, caloric equilibrium was restored thanks to a double bacon cheeseburger, curly fries, Oreo shake, half a liter of eggnog, a kiwi and a fresh pineapple.
180 miles and 12.5k vert in 34 hours. I felt pretty good about that, all things considered.
In other news … this may have been the last bikepacking trip of Beatrice the Karate Monkey. She’s carried me faithfully with nary a complaint on many adventures this year, but it’s time to lose some weight and get a frame that fits a bit better. To that end, the masterminds at Kokopelli Bike Company are designing me a custom-geometry titanium 27.5+ hardtail … eight weeks and counting …
I know he is still talking but have gone numb and my hearing is temporarily nonexistent. He stops, the gravity on his face replaced with compassion. The corner of my eye catches a tear track down my wife’s cheek. The bomb explodes. Just a short time ago remission was the order of the day. It has been a few weeks since hearing that.
Time for a head-clearing trip to the alpine.
A change in the weather stirs me from a fitful sleep. The wind has picked up. Pushing back my hood I glance at the watch. 2:11 am. Overhead are patches of clear sky. A light snow is falling. I can see below me for the first time since moving onto this ledge. The clouds that have enveloped all for the last thirteen hours are moving out. Just a few more hours and the warmth of the sun will reach here.
This perch is directly below the crux pitch of Ellingwood Arete. I am alone.
The route is a beautiful line on Crestone Needle in the Sangre de Cristo range. A classic, first ascended in 1925 to a gorgeous summit. Gotta pee. Keeping my back on the wall I stand and stretch.
The dark world around me is wet but no longer socked in. The snow stops. Silence broken by the click of the headlamp. I relieve myself then take stock. Pint of water, a small chunk of cheese bread, two energy bars, an empty pack of tuna devoured hours ago, and my one hit. Take a hit, check the temp and click off the light. Thirty-six degrees. Wrapped in raingear and poncho I am comfortable. Life is good.
The drive across the San Luis Valley was marred only by an inability to focus my thoughts, drifting from upcoming treatments to the beauty of South Colony Lakes. Far to the northeast, the Crestones rise almost 7,000 feet above the valley.
A fleeting doubt makes me question the choice to solo this peak at this time. The latest round of treatments has robbed some of my energy, the weight of the battle tiring. But doubt leaves me be as I pass south of Blanca and continue on.
The forecast showed a twenty percent chance of weather. For now sun and blue dominate all overhead. With four decades in the area I know a forecast can hold no relevance above the trees. The abrupt rise of these peaks above the valley create their own storms more often than not.
For almost two decades this poncho has lived in the bottom of various summit packs. Lightweight waterproof shell, built-in hood, reflective interior and hand pockets on the inside edge make it a great “oh shit” shelter. As I lean against the wall with legs pulled up, it covers me well.
For now I choose to stand and munch on some bread. An hour passes and I sit down, sky above now clear. At 5:30 a glowing tent appears down by the lakes. Fifteen minutes later, wishful thinking has convinced me I smell coffee. It has to be wishful as the winds are coming down from the peaks. I wonder about their agenda for the day and try to sleep. End up just waiting on the sun and picking out constellations.
Only one truck at the trailhead when I arrive. A text from my significant other. Be safe, have a great time, and drive yourself home. She always says that. A pic of her and our dog. I pop a beer and make lunch. It is only a few miles to the lakes and being in no hurry just chill. Today is for relaxing, tomorrow the climb. This is my fifth time on the route. Second solo. Confidence rises as I pop another beer. Two go into the pack, two left in the cooler for my return.
As the rosy fingers of dawn light the sky, my thoughts meander to a favorite saying posted on the wall of a hangout back in Pagosa. In the gray below two figures emerge from the tent and lift their packs. I watch and see they are headed for a different route. It seems the arête is to be mine today.
With the arrival of the sun I strip off the poncho and do a little dance. Vibrancy returns to my stiff bones as I eat and stretch, waiting for the rock to dry. For whatever reason I overslept yesterday and got a really late start. The rain came in around one in the afternoon. It stopped in thirty minutes but the clouds and occasional drizzle remained.
I had climbed to this ledge to wait for the return of the sun. Turned out to be a long wait. Should have set an alarm. Normally I have no need for one. Oversleeping seems to happen more often lately. Go figure. With the arrival of the sun the rock begins to steam, glowing orange and red with the refracted light. The Blood of Christ. I am overwhelmed with emotion and tears fill my eyes. Such beauty.
Since my original diagnosis a few months ago I have not allowed self pity to darken my thoughts. It has caught me here on this ledge and I weep openly. Death does not scare me; the battle ahead to keep it at bay does.
Just six years ago I was standing tall with my father as he struggled with the same battle. That journey was the toughest I have experienced. His last words echo through my consciousness. “Be good, strong, and true to your inner compass. Kiss your wife everyday.” Then he was gone. Needing some time alone my brother leaves the room. I bend down and kiss dad’s cheek. The journey ended on a beach in South America. His favorite place. I reach up and touch the shell I picked up that day. It has hung on a chain around my neck since spreading his ashes.
Suddenly I no longer feel alone.
Time to go. Shouldering my pack I take a minute to absorb the surroundings. This may be my last time here and need to savor it. With a calming breath I turn and climb.
The Head Crack pitch is the crux of the route. The crack is wet but easily manageable. Clarity encompasses me as I move right onto the crux holds. I am fully engaged in the moment and movement and the summit arrives as a surprise. Alpine splendor shines in every direction and through my soul.
After a leisurely time on the summit I slowly pick my way down the South Face back to camp, elk stew, and a cold beer.
As I descend the couloir, windswept voices reach me. An argument is in progress somewhere below. I see no one but hear them clearly. An emphatic “We are going down.” Then silence. Five minutes later they come into view. Announcing my presence with a loud hello they both look up, mild shock on their faces. His eyes are cloudy with fear. Hers, disappointment. We chat for a few minutes but mention nothing of their plight. My input is definitely not needed. I say be safe and continue on. Everyone you meet flutters around my mind as I leave them.
Fed and smugly satisfied I take a hit and open my last camp beer. The couple arrive back at their tent, drop packs, and wander off in different directions, fighting a battle I know nothing about.
Tomorrow I will head home. After that more treatments to continue the fight. Rust never sleeps.
Just outside of town the phone rings. It is my wife. She is at happy hour with the usual suspects. I’m ten minutes away I say and hang up. Upon arrival they are sitting on the deck, laughing and playing guitar. I join them and give my wife a kiss. A beer appears in my hand as I sit down and grab a guitar. Over my shoulder on a wall inside hangs a plaque. I know the words displayed there by heart.
With a song or two left in me I take a sip and begin to play.
Steve “Booner” Price lives in Pagosa Springs, CO with his wife, dog, cat and too many guitars. Climbing since 1980, he enjoys pebble wrestling, plugging gear, clipping bolts, top notch bourbon, and trying not to suffer in the high peaks.