Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Little Backcountry Epic

I had a busy day at work on Friday and after nearly 10 hours in the lab, I had little energy to plan details of my Saturday mountain bike ride. I looked up the Evergreen Alliance Trail wiki which described several rides along Highway 410, on the northeastern side of Mt. Rainier, all marked as difficult backcountry epics. I printed some maps and directions, made sure my bike was in good shape, brought plenty of water and little more than usual food and hit the road. I started the ride from lower Skookum Flats trailhead and climbed a nice, wide and smooth fire road six miles to the top of Suntop.
I stared the climb ambitiously in the big ring (what do you call the larger chainring of a double setup? Anyways, my 38-tooth ring) but as soon as the Garmin squeaked and auto-paused, I shifted to the granny and tried to keep a pace of at least 3mph. The air was humid and 75 degrees felt like a hundred. Soon, I was dripping sweat, something I am not too prone to. I reached the summit lookout after 1hr 30 min and 6 miles, drenched in sweat.

This place, Suntop summit is supposed to be the best place to see the north face of Mt. Rainier, but the big hill was covered in puffy clouds, just the lower snow fields were visible. I took a technical singletrack downhill for about 0.5 mile, where the trail intersected the main road and continued along a ridge south. First, the trail climbed steeply straight upwards and the trail surface was really soft - tree needles, loam, moss. Here I found that the 6 mile climb just about obliterated my legs. I alternated pushing with riding, wondering how could I forget fitness among the things one should bring for a backcountry epic ride? I was really at a remote place, except one long distance runner, I did not meet a soul in hours (in fact, the runner was the only human being the whole stretch between Suntop and Ranger Creek).
 As the smooth trail followed the ridge, some nice views of the Palisades cliffs on the opposite side of the White River valley opened up. The top section of the ridge had several small snow fields and couple of creek crossings.

Involuntary bike wash
 The trail then turned downhill towards the river in many switchbacks, with some loose, rocky and steep sections. There was a bit of exposure here and there, but overall, the whole descend was fun, although I was on the brakes most of the time, not wanting to get over my head on an unknown trail. The lower section was quite overgrown and I received a good whipping by many branches. I recovered somewhat on the downhill, even though the narrow trail perched on a steep hillside required lots of concentration. Just north of the Ranger Creek air strip, I picked up the Skookum Flats trail.
This trail follows the river downriver so it should be an elevation loss. This trail is a prime example of why mountain biking here is so fantastic. First, you have the scenery, but riding here requires full concentration and good timing, not looking around. Twisty trail, steep ups and downs, roots, rocks, bridges.
 I am still learning the style of riding I observed two years ago during the BC bike race: off the saddle, steer from the hips, lean, lean even more, let the tire side knobs take care of traction, and most of all, NEVER shift into a granny. Maintain momentum or the trail will stop you.

I had to dismount many times and the trail did stop me abruptly by grabbing the front wheel, since my legs were really toast by now and I was digging deep to keep some pedaling cadence.

 Several times I thought how much easier it would be to roll over roots and rocks on 29 inch wheels, just to realize that my size XL Mojo 26-er was just about the largest bike I could sneak through the narrow turns. On straight sections (there were barely any) the large wheels would require less effort, but timing the bursts of power through cross-wise root sections and rock gardens was actually so engaging, I forgot how tired I was.

 Those 4.5 miles of Skookum Flats was some very best mountain biking I have ever done. As of couple of weeks ago, East Tiger Mountain was my favorite. Now, Skookum Flats takes the lead. This is a trail I will take all my friends to when they come to visit me here! I mean, riding in BC was superb, but WA is the best kept secret place to ride.
This ride was no epic, under 20 miles, but it had everything and took pretty much all my strength. Combining this ride with Palisades would double the distance and probably more than double the elevation. Next time. GPS track here.

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