Friday, June 25, 2010

A day of opposites - Hot and Cold / Desert and Alpine climates

Extremes, while most humans seek to avoid them, sometimes they find us anyway. Nathan and I had planned on doing a really long and difficult ride at one point during the trip, and since we managed to survive the first day without injury, we thought it best to attempt one of the more spectacular journeys before we had an accident and couldn't experience it. There was certainly a game of balancing fun and riding hard with worry about crashing out and not being able to enjoy the rest of the trip.

Moab has a lot to offer in the sense of mountain biking trails, but none of them, aside from White Rim and Kokopelli, both over 100 miles of trails and jeep road, are extremely long. I'm sure there are some other "Moses Rides" (i.e. 40 years wandering the wilderness) that I don't know about, but those are the two big rides that I know of out there. The relatively short distances make sense now that we have been out there to experience it. It's a difficult place to ride with the heat, sand, rock and wind. Plus, so many of the rides are literally "right there" in relation to town, you can find plenty of places to scare yourself silly on a bike without spending hours reaching them. I'll equate a 15 mile ride in Moab to about a 25 mile ride at home for levels of exhaustion and soreness meted out on the body, so riding a big 25 mile trail loaded with trees, rocks, sand pits, and cliffside exposure was going to be all we would feel like doing in a day.

Varying climates

Brenna wisely opted out of coming on this particular ride and gave us a lift from town to the trail head. I know I just said that so many of the rides were very close to town, well what was surprising, this one was too. The drive was long, an hour or so, but we really were only 12 miles from town. In that short distance we went from arid desert and a cool morning at 4,000 feet above sea level to 38 degrees, howling wind, and 8,500 feet. (I have jumped from quite a few planes at lower altitudes than that.) The contrast was dramatic. Red sandstone and blowing sand gave way to snowcapped mountains and the white trunks of Aspen trees that had just begun to show the pale green leaves of spring in late May.

From Moab Mountain Biking Trip

From Moab Mountain Biking Trip

We stopped at the trailhead for the Kokopelli trail and opened the doors to find a harshly cold wind, especially when one is used to 80 degrees from the day before. I was seriously under dressed for this ride and was shivering almost immediately. Nathan had prepared better and wore long sleeves, but after a few minutes, the wind had cut through his light layers as well. I only had a jersey and shorts on, and that was all that had been required in the past day's riding, so I had unwisely assumed that today wouldn't be much different. Brenna had tucked herself in the shelter of of the Jeep with the heater on full blast as Nathan and I put our bikes together, and she would give us nasty looks (lovingly nasty of course) when we would invade her shelter and open a door letting the cold wind whip through and pull the heat out with it. I decided, at the suggestion of my compatriots, to wear my fleece on the ride. Brenna even suggested that it was only a 20 dollar one from Costco (no North Face stuff for me), and I could leave it for another hiker to keep if it got too hot during the ride. Of course, that item has some history behind it now, so I never would have left it. I just decided that being warm-ish at the top would be worth the trouble of finding some way to carry it the rest of the ride once it got hot.

From Moab Mountain Biking Trip

We were ready, and we set off down the last leg of the much longer Kokopelli trail rolling and hopping over mud and loose dirt as the trail cut through alpine meadows and scrub. It was obvious that this area got a great deal more moisture than the desert canyon only a few miles away.

We felt like we were on motocross bikes with the effortless speed the downhills produced, and we covered ground at a really quick pace. Soon we came to the LPS/UPS junction of the trail. (Lower/Upper Porcupine Singletrack) That slowed us down enough to notice that the dark fertile looking soil exposed on the Kokopelli had transitioned back into the red tinged sand and tan slickrock that we had been used to. The trail had become significantly more rocky, and we were surrounded by really gnarled evergreen trees that I had assumed were Pinyon trees but wikipedia helped me identify as Utah Juniper. In reality, there was probably an abundant mix of both of these types of plants, but the Juniper's twisted and half dead looking trunks caught my eye on so many trails in the area, so I remember more of them.

The trail would wind in and out of these trees and would send us up and over rocks that would climb abruptly and then turn into a 20 foot descent down a piece of slickrock where we would have to put the seat in front of our stomachs and have our rear ends nearly brushing the rear wheel to keep from falling over the handlebars as we skidded in a semi-controlled slide down the face of the rock.

Prior to coming on this downhill slugfest of a ride, we had discussed the trail with some of the local riders at the shop, and they had mentioned part of the ride. "Um, yeah, there is this one section... Yeah, dude, it's pretty steep and all walk it." I'm glad I am writing all this down now (Well, I may be glad, but you guys are probably pretty tired of it by now...too bad...It's my blog. pfft...)

As I was saying, I'm glad I'm writing this now because even after this short time I can't exactly recall where on the trail this section was, but I'll remember what it looked like for quite a while. I was in the lead and noticed two large sandstone rocks. The trail that should have continued between them seemed to just disappear. I slowed and yelled back to Nathan to slow down. When we rolled to a stop and looked down at where the trail had gone, we both gave each other the look of "This is where they expect us to ride?" It was a narrow slot of rock a few feet wide with jutting rocks that was so steep you had to climb down. It was un-rideable. Of course I'm sure that some goofball rides it, but had we tried, the best we could have hoped for would be a compound fracture. I climbed down part way and Nathan handed me the bikes. We continued this process to a level spot at the bottom and naturally had to stage fake crash pictures. This shot does not do justice to how steep and long this section was. I'm not sure why cameras take some of the perspective out of images like this, but you will have to take my word for it.

From Moab Mountain Biking Trip

We tried to continue on and found that the steep section hadn't ended yet. There was another 20 foot high smooth slickrock face with a drop off at the end. This didn't seem to be a good spot to try to hop back on the bikes, so I started to shuffle down holding the bike's seat tube with my left hand. Soon shuffling became sliding, and suddenly I was on my rear end skidding down the slope with one hand still on the bike and the other grasping for anything that would slow me down before I went off the trail. I remember Nathan yelling from the top, "Dig in your heels!" It's funny now because that tactic probably wouldn't have made any difference. I picked a tree at the end of the slope to grab onto to end my forward movement before I went off the edge of the trail at the bottom. Merely to "grab onto" the tree may have been somewhat hopeful at that point, crash into and cling to for dear life would have been a more apt description of what I was planning. Instead the end of this slide turned out beautifully. In a rare moment of coordination, I planted my feet perfectly and somehow ended up at the bottom of the rock standing perfectly balanced and still next to the tree with the bike in hand. It was almost like I had planned it, but of course, I have said too much already and you know the truth of the event. I looked back up the rock at Nathan and said "Be careful". He shook his head with a "Well DU-UH" expression and using his far superior balance and coordination, proceeded to come down the rock without the least bit of trouble. I wish that I could have done that. I could have used a bit less drama on my descent, but I will stick with my version that I practically needed a parachute to slow down because it makes for better storytelling.

The trail was "relatively" more sane looking after getting through all that, so we climbed back on our bikes and started racing through the trees again. We really couldn't see more than a small section of the trail in front of us due to all the turns, rocks, and trees. Then the trail came to an open section and began to skirt along the edge of Castle Valley. The views were spectacular and the trail at times would shoot out onto rocky ledges with the cliff face dropping away hundreds of feet to our right. The the trail would repeatedly dart back into the trees and then re-appear on the cliff edge. If we didn't have our wits about us and we missed a turn or took a bad line, we would have had time to think about the mistake before our ill-equipped BASE jump came to an abrupt end. Nathan and I took turns leading from time to time and whoever was in the front would yell "Death on the right" when the trail would re-appear at the cliff. Not quite the normal announcement while mountain biking. Normal comments would be something "Rock" or "Tree" or "Drop off" every so often. You know, things in the trail that might cause you trouble and toss you off the bike, not kill you.

From Moab Mountain Biking Trip

This view was part of the trail, and the morning after this ride was done, I woke struggling and flailing a couple of times after nightmares about falling off cliffs. I though that the comment in the Rider Mel's Guidebook about this trail resulting in some required therapy sessions was a joke. I guess you can believe some stuff you read.

We had come a long way from the cold start of the day up in the La Sal mountains.

From Moab Mountain Biking Trip

We pedaled on mile after mile and the fleece I was wearing was getting pretty hot, but there was no time for stopping as every turn presented another view or obstacle to ride over or climb. Nathan was in the lead around one turn, and as I approached the turn I heard the distinct clatter of a bike that had departed from its rider. That sound was accompanied by the OOOF! of Nathan using a rock and his chin to stop his fall. (Personally I'm a fan of putting my hands and arms in jeopardy before my chin, but what do I know.) He was moaning and twisted on the ground, and I used my extensive knowledge of mountain bike etiquette by first asking, "Are you okay?" and then asking "Should I help you up or get a camera?" He mumbled something about "Get the camera." That moment, in the mountain biking with friends section of the etiquette manual, allowed for full on laughter and the ensuing embellishment of the crash story to commence.

From Moab Mountain Biking Trip

By the time we finished the ride the rock he hit had grown from a foot across to a few feet and the ledge he fell off went from a foot high to 5-6 feet. In 15 years, I'm sure this story will have morphed into him hitting a bajillion ton boulder with jagged knife edges and then falling off the cliff into Castle Valley itself ending with him narrowly avoiding death by impalement on the rocks below and miraculously only gashing his chin.

We approached the end of the mesa and the trail became very narrow and very technical with rocks so close that they would hit both legs as we rode between them. We had run out of room and had to descend down to the river by skirting the along the edge of the trail cut into the cliff. We slowly rode down the twists and turns following the edge of the mesa and again the trail disappeared down an impossible section that we had to dismount and climb down. We discussed how the trail designers ever expected people to ride this section as Nathan handed the bikes down to me once I climbed down. Then another rider appeared. He made a hard right well before where we were doing our rock climbing with bikes. We watched as he paused and expertly rode down the face of a boulder to the bottom. Ah! There was a trick to it! Now, the next time, I will be able to show some local knowledge to the tourist hacks wearing fleece in 80+ degree temperatures.

Nathan before handing his bike down to me on yet another difficult section of trail.

From Moab Mountain Biking Trip

With the campground in sight at the base of the mesa we knew we were home. It was hot and we were really tired. I stopped, rolled up my fleece and stuffed it between my Camelbak and my back for the ride back to town. Ah, much cooler, but that wasn't really an option on the trail because it would have bounced out on every other turn.

Once back in town we met up with Brenna and went over to the Moab Brewery for a seriously late lunch. There, we re-told our story of the ride to Brenna and she was knowingly nodding her head at our outlandish account of the events. Nathan also discovered that even eating Hummus is difficult when one uses one's chin to stop a fall. Even so, we were planning out the next day's rides before the end of lunch.

Slickrock trail, attack of Cactisaurus-Rex (we didn't really plan that part), and hiking were on the list for the next day's adventures. I may or may not get around to writing about it as long as this post has been, but we will see if I get some time to think before the memory fades into nothing.

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