Loki Tech Hoodie

I’ve become a bit of a rabid apologist for Loki USA since acquiring three pieces of kit from them. This winter I picked up a Shadow Shirt UPF sun hoodie, a Kenai 800-fill down parka, and the All-in-One Tech Hoodie. I’ve been very impressed with all of them, but the Tech Hoodie is what stands out the most for three reasons.

First and foremost, it has integrated mitts built into the cuffs. At first I thought this was a hokey idea, but they soon won me over. No more forgetting gloves or dropping them. There’s no exposed skin on your wrist when you lift your arms above your head. Exposing a finger to work a smartphone is quick and easy. The interior of the mitt is a a comfortable fleece that’s thin enough to manipulate carabiners, yet warm enough to keep my hands happy in ten degrees. There’s a rubber palm guard sewn into the cuff to protect the fabric when you’re belaying. Loki makes the sleeves a bit on the long side in order to facilitate the convertible cuff, but that hasn’t bothered me yet. The only problem I’ve run into with them is that the tips can freeze shut, making it difficult to pop a hand out.

Second, the hood has a built-in face mask. It’s generously sized and covers from just under my eyes down to below my chin. The mask can be worn just under the nose for more breathability, or just over the neck. For those poor unfortunate souls who lack beards, this is a key piece. Bonus points for looking like a ninja as well.

Finally, the Tech Hoodie packs into its own pocket. Yeah, sure, everyone and their grandma has a jacket that can do that. But Loki had the foresight to attach a couple thin straps to the ensuing package, allowing the hoodie to be worn as a backpack. There’s even a mesh pocket with a cinch cord for carrying your Bluetooth speaker so you can blast German mumble rap as you’re climbing a thousand feet of bolted limestone in EPC. The stuffed jacket makes for a great pillow, as I found out while taking a heatstroke-induced recovery nap amidst the twenty-three rappels on Timewave Zero. The packing process is quite easy, as Loki apparently realizes that no one wants to take five minutes to cram their jacket into the smallest possible stuff sack. There’s room enough to fit a few cans (of LaCroix) in there as well.

Other nice features include cinch cords with toggles to tighten up the hood (which is over-helmet compatible, a must for me) and burly construction. I have no doubt that this piece of kit will survive the merciless thrashing to which I subject all of my gear. It’s not the lightest midweight layer out there but it has quickly become my favorite.

Thus far, I’ve worn the Tech Hoodie on three trips to the Black Canyon in winter. Each involved skiing four miles, rapping a thousand feet, and then jugging and climbing. Temps hit five degrees at the lowest and I definitely was rocking the hood, face mask and mitts. I’ve also worn it every single day in El Potrero Chico and carried it up most routes.

Sporting the Loki Shadow Shirt here, another great piece of kit.

One time I was particularly glad to have it was on Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a route that bakes in the sun all day. Since it’s stacked with fun 5.10 pitches, it gets overrun by hordes of inefficient gumbellinae. We made the mistake of climbing it on a Saturday and shared the route with way too many other parties, which necessitated waiting for hours at the belays to allow rappelling parties to descend through. After topping out at sunset, we did all eight raps in the dark. I normally wouldn’t have brought an extra layer, but I wanted to try out the backpack feature of the Tech Hoodie, so I slung it over my shoulder and quickly forgot about it … until darkness fell and the temps along with it. I was quite cozy for the rest of the descent.

Loki gear is designed by climbers and mountain bikers in Grand Junction, Colorado, so you get the additional warm and fuzzy feeling of supporting a local cottage shop. I’ll be back soon to pick up their Mountain Hoodie Extreme, a beefier monkey-fleeced version of the Tech.

Viva la MEXIGOTE

Last week Sender’s Game Podcast relocated our corporate world headquarters to Hidalgo, NL.

Employee morale has skyrocketed, although productivity has plummeted. The past seven days featured 4800 vertical feet of climbing and one rest day. While our friends back in los Estados Unidos are getting hammered with snow and a nonfunctional government, we’re climbing barefoot and in sending boxers in 65F sunny days.

We donated two new fixed lines to Timewave Zero and hung them a couple days ago. As usual during EPC high season, the route was packed so we started at 20:30 and climbed through the night, stopping to nap briefly at the top of pitch seven.

Our new favorite contributor, Cris Garcia, is an aspiring guide and displayed excellent ropecraft and efficiency despite having never climbed multipitch before. This kid is a perma-stoker and loads of fun to share a rope with.

Our Arizona Tea gallon jug of water failed miserably at the top of pitch two, so we climbed the rest of the route on just 250ml of water, a banana and and apple between the two of us. I got heatstroke on the way down but Cris took good care of me and did most of the cactus-wrangling.

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Other notable climbs included Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which I climbed in penny loafers because I don’t have money to get my K-laces resoled. I figure my skin grows back for free, so anything under 5.11a goes barefoot or in Nepal Cubes or street shoes.

TSM was pretty much Flight of the Gumblebee Part II … parties stacked at every belay, microwaves hurtling through the air, people bailing, grumpy old men berating their wives for not climbing faster. If you want wilderness solace, don’t climb at Mota Wall in daylight.

We climbed a couple pitches on the ultra-classic Spires. First time I’ve ever been on a limestone tower. Great little summit. I took some modelling shots of the Loki Tech Hoodie, my new favorite piece of kit. It has integrated mitts and a face mask, and packs into its own pocket with a couple slings as a backpack! It’s a way better and cheaper fleece than the Patagonads R2. Burly piece of softgoods made by proper dirtbags in Grand Junction, CO.

The last time I did a tower two weeks ago, it was in very different conditions …

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One of my favorites things about Potrero is that climbing is incredibly accessible. Hike fifteen minutes from Rancho Sendero and you’ve got a thousand pitches of baller limestone at your bleeding fingertips. It’s easy to bang out six hundred feet in the morning, come back and take a siesta, and then walk into town for tamales, and then get a couple sunset or headlamp burns in.

And of course, the apres-climbing is on point. Tamales for eight pesos ($0.30), a five-pack of cinnamon churros for ten ($0.50), a week’s worth of groceries for two hundred ($10.00), and a two-liter margarita for two hundred (they even were willing to make a non-alcoholic one for me!)

And let’s not forget the best coffee shop south of the Rio Grande … EL BUHO MUTHAFUGGAZZZ! Their frozen Oreo frappe is pretty much #straightchronic . If it were any more potent, they’d have to pay protection money to the cartel. (That’s the one downside to Mexico … no ethical, non-brick sources for oregano. I’m so used to cooking with quality, cheap oregano back home that it’s tough to go without here.)

The four-legged life is abundant and friendly. I have yet to see one of my own kind, but some friends did get positive visuals on some crag gotez hanging out by the river.

My Misty Mountain Cadillac harness finally died. One of the leg loops is frayed past 50%. This was the harness I rescued from the trash at Creek Pasture. Someone chopped the waist webbing, so I rethreaded two strands and tied on two new belay loops and kept it going for many pitches. I could thread some new webbing for the legs, but I think this harness may need to be retired to hangboard pulley status. I’ve got my eye on the Metolius Waldo …. the world’s biggest, heaviest, most comfortable wall harness. As you guys know, Metolius is one of the best gear manufacturers in the universe and proudly makes their products in the United States. We’re going to do some aggressive testing of the Fat Cams at Splitter Camp this spring in the Creek and take some monster whips on finger-sized gear with a GoPro pointed at the cam during the fall to show just how bomber they are in soft rock.

In other news, I have a new life goal: be Josh Warfield.

If anyone wants to come visit, I’ll pick ye up at the MTY Aeropuerto! Jezebel the Honda Fitch has airbags and air conditioning!

Well, it’s time to fire up Desayuno Segundo de Bomber Breakfast Burritos, as the sound of rain pelts the tin roof of the kitchen. It’s an armaid day for sure! Hoping to get on Sendero Diabolo and Zapatista once things dry out.

VIVA LA MEXIGOTE

Desolation Vigil (Black Canyon Bikepacking Rim-to-Rim)

Prologue: After speaking to the Black Canyon Rangers, they brought to my attention that each NPS area has a local compendium of regulations in addition to federal law. The AZT 750 is allowed dismantled hike-a-bike-access per a local ordinance that the Black does not share. Please do not attempt this route.

There comes a time in each person’s life of being tested beyond what they can bear. Call it a crucible. I had mine yesterday in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

“Not many should become teachers,” the book says. The same could be said for guides. I recently announced my plans to start a wilderness therapy program on the Western Slope within the next five years. It’s brutal and often thankless work, taking disadvantaged kids into the wilderness to let them experience a greater reality outside themselves.

I often forget what it’s like being challenged on every level: physical, emotional and spiritual. Sure, working a 5.12 is a challenge, but it doesn’t rattle me to the core and force me to confront the darkness lurking in my heart. I’m used to pushing myself, and often forget how hard it is for a troubled teenager to trust the rope and take that first step off rappel rock.

Rigging for photo only; the actual rap had the rope running across the spine of the biner, not the gate.

I was challenged on this trip. The plan was to ride my bike from Delta to the North Rim of the Black on dirt and snow (forty miles), rappel the fixed lines in Cruise Gully, carry the bike downstream to Warner Draw, hike 2000′ feet up to the South Rim, then bike eight miles on snow back to the South Rim Visitor Center, then ride singletrack down to Montrose and finish with twenty-five miles of dirt road to get back to Delta.

Bicycles are not allowed in Wilderness areas such as the inner Black Canyon, so I planned to disassemble my bike per AZT 750 rules and carry it on my back while bushwhacking and rockhopping through the canyon. (EDIT: As later discovered, this is bad intel. Don’t do it).

(Editor’s Note: We weren’t able to get the videos to embed and we’re too busy eating everything in sight to mess around with it any more, so ye are just going to have to click on the links like the good ol’ days of Windows 98 SE and Altavista).

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I rolled out at 07:00 and rode dirt and snow to get to the North Rim ranger station.

There I filed a permit and packed up Ophelia for what would be the stoutest hike-a-bike in the world. Wheels on the pack and frame over my shoulder.

It was a good day to be on a single speed, although the heavy 29+ wheelset was a bear to negotiate through the ever-present scrub oak in the canyon.

Rapping Cruise was the easiest part of the trip. The rangers leave the fixed lines up all winter. A lot of people hate the descents in the Black (steep, loose, overgrown, infested with poison ivy, committing) but I do them for fun. I’d rather hike the Walk of Shame in the Black and not climb than work a limestone sport project.

When I got past the start of Scenic, I headed straight down to the river instead of contouring along the Nose toward Moveable Stoned Voyage. This allowed me to boil water and get some great photos, but the ensuing riverside rockhopping gave a new meaning to the word “arduous.”

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I lost probably two hours picking my way through house-sized boulders, and poor Ophelia lost a bit of paint (NB: bring a steel frame next time). I girth hitched a spare tube to the rear triangle and used it to lower the bike down some boulder problems, then climbed down after her. I eventually abandoned the river and hiked straight up to the base of the cliffs, which made for easier travel.

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The “trail” eventually dropped me off at the base of the SOB Gully descent. One of my emergency bailout plans was to hike back up SOB and retrace my route to Delta (the other being to jumar back up Cruise), but that wasn’t necessary. The week before, Meg and I scoped out water levels to make sure I could get across the river safely. It ended up being a bit wetter than I expected …

@bearclawbicycleco Does this void the warranty?

I ended up wading a slow-water section at waist-deep and them climbing a 5.8 chimney boulder out, chocking the handlebars and pedals in the chimney and then aid-climbing off the bike.

Safely across but shivering, I built a quick fire to dry my clothes, then assessed the situation. (Editor’s Note: Fires are prohibited in Wilderness areas, so but so is dying of exposure). Between the late start and the boulder-hopping, I was running behind schedule, and the last thing I wanted was to get SAR called out and have them rap down Cruise after me. It was getting late, and sticking to Plan A (hiking the river to Warner) would have put me even further behind, although it would’ve been an easier gully to exit.

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Looking at the topo and my GPS, I determined that Big Draw (right across from SOB) would get me out. The contour lines looked comparable to SOB in steepness. I scattered the coals, micturated on the fire and started up the gully. I often had to take two trips for every section because it was too steep to carry the bike and the wheels. I used my pedals as an ice axe on several occasions.

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Halfway up Big Draw, darkness fell and my personal stoke meter dropped drastically. I though about pushing through the night, but dealing with unknown terrain while fatigued didn’t sound appealing, so I set up a bivy inside a cave and lit a fire. Before settling in for the night, I climbed a tree and hung my reflective vest in case the rangers were looking. Then I stockpiled some wood and curled up in the fetal position around the fire. (Note: fires are not allowed in Wilderness areas. But neither is dying of exposure. Pick your poison).

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Except that I didn’t have a fire, because despite being able to light one immediately after fording the Gunnison, none of my three lighters would work. I settled in for a long, cold night.

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At about 02:30 I woke up and tried the lighters again, and got the faintest spark out of one. I whooped like a crazy person and cranked my Jetboil to flamethrower mode, caught the spark, and ignited a fire. Without that, I would’ve been in bad shape.

I spent the night shivering but safe, dozing off for thirty minutes at a time and then awaking when the fire went out. The moonlight reflecting off North Chasm was stellar. To keep morale up, I sang hymns, recited poetry (rage, rage against the dying of the light) and ate one gummy worm per hour.

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I also had just enough battery to listen to one album, so I chose my favorite: “How to Start a Fire” by Further Seems Forever. Jason Gleason’s searing vocals have gotten me through some pretty tough times in life. This was undoubtedly the coldest of them.

At first light, I extinguished the fire, slurped a bowl of jalapeño kettle chip soup and started slogging up the rest of Big Draw. When I was about on par with the start of Comic Relief across the river, the terrain steepened significantly and bike-wrangling became unbearable.

My choices at that point were to hike back down to the river and either continue to Warner or retrace my route after swimming the river again. Or, ditch Ophelia and scramble to the rim. For the sake of time and sanity, I chose the latter. I stashed Ophelia under a boulder and vowed to come back for her in the spring.

From that point, things got serious. The scrambling was easy enough, but I wasn’t sure if I’d get cliffed out. I kicked steps and scrambled for about 1500 vertical feet of 3rd/4th class, all the while praying like mad that I wouldn’t have to downclimb and spend another shiver bivy on insufficient calories with SAR endangering themselves to look for me. Mountaineering is truly the most selfish activity in the world. And yet we quest onward and upward.

The very last bit of my exit involved a couple hundred feet of tight chimneying, but I had no way of hauling my pack. So I stuffed my bivy sack, knife and lighter in my pockets and ditched the pack.

When I finally topped out at Painted Wall Overlook, I kissed terra firma and ate some snow. My phone was dead, as was my backup battery, but here’s someone else’s picture of what my view was like:

Four miles of flat hiking to the visitor center, where hot chocolate awaited. Along the way I ran into a couple skate skiers headed back and told them to let the rangers know that I was out.

At long last, I made it to shelter and quaffed four cups of hot chocolate. The NPS volunteer let me know that the rangers had gotten called, but that they were called off before they dropped down Cruise, for which I was very grateful. I hope they enjoyed the cross-country ski in the North Rim. And I hope they enjoyed the six-packs of beer that I’ve been bringing them every time I climb in the Black (65 days and counting … that’s a lot of beer). I owe Ryan another, that’s for sure.

I caught a ride with a friend back to Montrose, then walked into the library in full kit (harness, Nepal Cubes, gaiters, dirt) and took a nap in a chair until another friend got off work, fed me a steak dinner and gave me a ride to Delta.

As if the experience wasn’t enough of a challenge, my car battery was dead.

Back home in GJ, I took the world’s longest and hottest shower and slept the sleep of the righteous. Meanwhile, poor Ophelia languished under a boulder halfway up an unmarked gully in the Black Canyon. I’m kind of hard on my gear.

In retrospect, I’m really pleased with how the trip went. It was probably the most arduous time of my life, thanks to Ophelia. Were it not for here, I would have finished in the same day easily. I also made some serious judgment calls that I hope to never repeat.

But you know what Layton Kor’s friends always said about the Black … “No rope, no rack, just a bike on your back.”

Or something like that.

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Epilogue: Due to an ordinance regarding abandoned property in Wilderness Areas, Fritz was cited and fined for leaving Ophelia, which he gladly paid, plus a six-pack of Fat Tire for the climbing rangers as a thank-you for being on standby (no rescue was launched). A bike retrieval mission is underway.

A Tale of Two Towers, Granite Edition

Back in Black.

As I am fond of saying, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is my favorite place on earth. There is no canyon steeper, deeper or darker. If I were to climb only one area for the rest of my life, this would be it. And when I die, I want half of my ashes to be scattered off the peg traverse pitch of Scenic Cruise.

The day before Thanksgiving, Mickey and I headed to the Black to link two classic moderates: Dragon’s Tooth and Maiden Voyage. It would be about 1200′ of 5.8 and lots of bushwhacking. Temps were a frigid 40 degrees in the shade and I climbed everything in belay gloves — we were both glad to be on easy terrain all day.

Dragon’s Tooth is an underappreciated moderate, by far the best beginner route in the Black except for perhaps Maiden. It’s short and mostly low-angle 5.7 on good, well-protected stone. After summitting the tower, you can rap off and walk back up SOB or bushwhack up a drainage (with a mandatory V0 anklebreaker boulder problem that’s worth roping up for). Or you can climb the exit pitches of Casual, which is kind of a chosspile but preferable to walking.

The tower from above, camoflauged against the canyon backdrop. Bring webbing for the rap anchor.

We opted for the walk-up to save time for Maiden. It’s not bad, as far as buschwhacking goes, and not as bad as the exit for Casual.

The nice thing about doing two short routes was using the car as an aid station. We slammed some fried chicken, salt and vinegar kettle chips, pickles and brownies, then drove from the campground to the ranger station. I dropped Mickey halfway at the Cruise Gully entrance, parked, and then trail ran down Cruise and caught up with him at the second fixed rap.

This was my sixth lap on Maiden. We had a 90m Beal Opera 8.6 and ran the whole route, ground to summit, in two pitches and two hours total. I took the first three hundred feet and placed a dozen pieces or so.

Kor called this 5.9- but that was back when the route was dirty and loose. Relentless gangbanging has transformed the Red Dihedral into an ultra-safe, cruiser 5.8 whose crux features good fingerlocks in a corner over a bulge with great feet.

The first three-hundred foot pitch brought us to the top of the third official pitch above the railroad tracks dual handcracks. I slapped in an alpine anchor on an offset nut and a #3 and Mickey blazed by. He’s an incredibly efficient aid climber who has done all of the Fishers except one (5.10X slopers) and knows his hardskills inside and out. It’s nice to climb with someone who knows how to improvise.

Maiden Voyage gives you a primo view of Scenic Cruise. I preferred the original offwidth variation and highly recommend it to anyone who likes getting sandbagged …. get ready for the hardest .10d finger crack of your life!

Mickey ran his pitch all the way up to the summit, taking a direct route I hadn’t tried. We shot some video for Sender’s Game Podcast and then rapped off and burned rubber up the approach trail. Headlamps were only needed for five minutes.

Back at the car, we signed out and celebrated with mango LeCroix, which tastes just like PBR. (I’m on probation and can’t drink). We polished off the rest of our sweet potato jalapeno breakfast burritos, then hightailed it to Hotchkiss to grab doughnuts and blueberry milkshakes.

This was my 30th and 31st climbs in the Black, counting repeats. I’m looking forward to Spring Black with uberstoker Andy Ofhubble and my most experienced blackguard Tim Noble … we’re gunning for Southern Arete and Astrodog Direct, respectively.

Home, Home Again

I like to be here when I can.

Lots of life has happened as of late. I got divorced and moved to Grand Junction, CO. I’ve always wanted to live there but my ex doesn’t do well in extreme temperatures.

Within a ninety-minute drive, GJ has the following crags:

– Local bouldering (5min)
– Monument towers and wingate cragging (10min)
– Unaweep multipitch granite and miles of FA potential (20min)
– Escalante singlepitch (60min, mediocre wingate but ok for when you don’t feel like driving to the Creek)
– Grand Mesa basalt (60min)
– Black Canyon granite (60min)
– Rifle limestone (90min)
– Ouray sandstone, limestone, quartzite, ice, dry (90min)
– Moab sandstone (75min)
– Creek wingate (90min speeding)
– Gunnison granite (90 min speeding)

Plus some new mixed routes being developed on the sly by certain unnamed gotez of liberty.

For biking, GJ is stacked even more than for rock:

– Chunk Loops (5min)
– Tabeguache Trail 140 miles from GJ to Montrose (5min)
– Mary’s Loop (15min)
– Kokopelli Trail 140 miles from Fruita to Moab (15min)
– 18 Road (15min)
– Powderhorn lift-accessed downhill (45min)
– Delta adobes (45min)
– Montrose adobes (60min)
– Uncompaghre Plateau (75min)
– Grand Mesa downhill and XC (60min)
–  Moab (75min)

So yeah, I’ll be busy. I love Grand Junction. It’s one of the cheapest places to live in Colorado, has a good metal scene, lots of jobs, nice downtown, good college where I’m applying for nursing school. Super hot in the summer but you’ve got the Mesa (10k’) nearby for an alpine break.  I have six good friends here from Redcloud and Journey Quest, a flexible job as a CNA and a solid church. Sender’s Game Podcast is exploding. Life is looking up.

Here’s the goods:

Kokopelli Trails in Loma

Former fifth-grader Fauxny Hawk clipping up Simple Physics 5.10b in Montrose. I lost one of the kiddos in the divorce but FH and his family have been really supportive.

Shep on the 5.8- P1 of Sweet Sunday Serenade

Meg and I on Otto’s crux pitch, 50 feet of unprotected 5.4 to a 5.8+ roof pull on drilled pockets.

Rob Pizem on Questions and Answers 5.10+ in Unaweep

Rob giving me the go-ahead for the crux pitch on Q&A. I took a fifteen-footer onto a nut!

Sammy and G-Unit on a mediocre 5.11b at Cascade

Sidewinder in Delta. I burped a rear tire and forgot my multitool , so hiked four miles then ran nine to get back to the car to make it to a job interview.

Jones H Bars

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.

NCT: TC to Petoskey

“Why a fatbike?” they ask.

That’s why.

Starvation Lake

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.

The kit L to R: snacks (granola, nutterbutters, dry-roasted peanuts), a 15-liter pack, power brick, Gorillapod, Asstroglide, bluetooth headphones, phone loaded with Gravity’s Rainbow and Spotify, alarm clock set to 4:20, Revolt headlamp, Crank Bros m19 tool, tire lever spoon, medkit, clothes (gloves, Craft windbreaker, OR Voodoo pants, poly LS, Pearl windvest, leg warmers, armwarmers, Thermarest Neotherm full length, brain bucket, reflective vest, Patagonads puffy, Miguel’s Pizza tank top, booty shorts, non-slip waitress shoes. (No sleeping bag because the low was 60, and I ditched the pack by tying my clothing stuff sack along the toptube with a 27.5 tube).

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.

Are those siped knobs on your tires or are you just happy to see me?

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.

The locals were amused by the sight of me sitting in the dirt outside an Arby’s an eating a pizza. I ate two slices and brought the rest for dinner and breakfast.

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.

Yoooooo, crank that 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.

This Milwaukee classic became trail magic for someone. My beer booty count is now back to even after losing this one — I found an unopened Coors Light at the bottom of a river on the Black Canyon Trail in Arizona last year.

I heartily approve.

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.

Bleat!

Just call me Steven Wilson

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).

Away with ye, medical professional!

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.

Half a pint down in five mellow miles of beach cruising.

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.

It’s nice leaving tracks wider than your shoe.

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.

At the risk of uttering blasphemy, I will venture that these are the best w-fries I’ve ever had.

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.

Bearclaw Balthazar Carbon Fatbike

Meet Ophelia. She enjoys discussing postmodern literature and taking long, romantic rides on the beach while listening to 80’s hair metal.

Ophelia prefers the term “big-tubed.”

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.

Black Diamond ATC Pilot

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.

… where we promptly warmed up on Pure Imagination 5.14c (photo by Christopher Curiak Jensen)

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.

#hanshotfirst

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.