Monday, April 29, 2013

Day 2 of the Kokopelli Trail

Guest post by RV Taylor

We awake early on top of a butte the sun rising near the La Sal mountains which are over 50 miles
distant, across the Colorado River. Ice coats the inside and outside of the tent fly. It’s cold! Eager to get an early start we wolf down bagels and hot but weak coffee. Shouldn’t percolators be relegated to the trash heap by now? Gear is packed up with not too much ado and we’re on our way. The road down the butte is like a slickrock staircase; pretty jarring for hardtail and full suspension bike alike. Mark, the only solo biker in the group joins our group today. Once we’re down on the desert plain the road flattens out and turns more sandy.

Power lines create excellent perches for red-tailed hawks and American kestrels. New spring wildflowers are sparse but provide welcome splashes of yellow, red and purple in this otherwise brown landscape. This is less exciting than yesterday’s trail but a welcome reprieve that allows us a chance to let our weary legs regain their composure. We’re heading west-southwest, the sun is out and we warm up quickly. We also hope that it’s firming up some of the mud that the recent storms created. After a few hours we turn towards mesas, slickrock outcrops and start climbing.
Up and over the rocky rims we descend a steep and rocky road to the river’s bank. Recently arrived
swallows circle the air above the muddy water (that’s why they call it the Colorado which means “red” apparently). Across the river we spot a golden eagle circling the opposite bank. After a break Jan wields his mighty whip again and we’re off.

Not too long after we reach highway 128. I decide to take the highway which will save me about 10 miles. Joining me are Kathleen and Chris from Iowa. Meanwhile Jan, John, and Doug decide to take the Yellowjacket trail – a decidedly more arduous itinerary which will put the days mileage at around 50.

The highway is an easy cruise to the Dewey Bridge which takes us to the other side of the Colorado. I remember on one of my trips to the area parking near the bridge one evening, walking out on the old bridge with my sleeping bag and sleeping there above the river. Since an arsonist set fire to it a few years back this is no longer possible, unfortunately. It’s still pretty early in the afternoon and we pedal up a steep jeep road a few miles to where Nick has set up our camp. Relieved to have made it through day 2, I have a little time to relax below the sheer sandstone cliff that towers above us and wait for the others to roll in.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Kokopelli Trail: Day 1

Many virtual and paper pages have been filled with descriptions of both mountain bike touring and racing on the famous Kokopelli trail. I will thus spare everybody a boring turn by turn description of our first day of the tour, which started at the Loma trailhead and finished at the Bitter Creek mesa campground. An excellent guide to this route can be found here.

I will rather try to make some observations on how our first day on the trail went, sort of from an amateur sports psychology point of view. This is admittedly a very subjective point of view, because it stems from my own past experiences and reflects my own expectations about the ride. On a chilly morning, thirteen of us, equipped with the latest mountain bike technology, gear (detailed maps, gps navigation, cell phones), enough food and water, extra layers, tools, spare tubes, etc., were dropped off at the trailhead and started pedaling onto the technical Fruita trail system.

Photo by John Puziss
As I expected, all riders took of before you could say "front derailleur", our group of four being the last to go. I knew this ride was not a race, but I have to say, long mountain bike stage races provide one important factor: organization and discipline. If the stage starts at 8AM, nobody wants to be at the start line at 8:15, even if you are not that competitive or aim at placing at the top. Having bunch of riders behind you is also better than being at the tail, in case of mechanicals or such.

A touristy group ride should be casual, with time to chat, take photos, refuel and check directions. Yet the daily distance and the challenging terrain dictates that you keep focused on the goal: to get to the finish as soon as you can with as little energy wasted as possible. This focus is something I look forward to every time I go for a bike ride. The moment I get to the saddle and start pedaling, I try to block out all factors that are not related to my ride and which I think are distractions. I know that there will be lots of distractions and a growing discomfort as I get tired and hungry, but I focus on pacing myself, sensing my body, feeling the terrain under the tires and constantly rationing my strength, water and fuel. This mode actually puts me in a calm state and I usually don't think about what could possibly go wrong.

Photo by John Puziss
 During the first miles and several hours, our group could not reach a rhythm, a flow. There was lots of stopping for many reasons, to pee, to grab a bar (even the otherwise well written guide linked above suggests eating one energy bar every hour!), remove a layer, add a layer, check how much water is left in the Camelbak, text the last photo home, etc etc etc. First, I just could not understand what prevented us from just keeping to move forward, except the few hike a bike spots. Then, I started to realize that this must be a new and perhaps somewhat overwhelming feeling for my friends. Riding for couple of hours on your favorite trails is something most of us do often, but being out there with long distance to the camp on unknown trails could be intimidating. So I think that in situations like these, when the only sensible thing is to suck it all up and just keep spinning the pedals, our minds start to play dirty tricks. Anything but pushing the pedals feels more comfortable and so our brains, trained by so many days of our everyday lives to maintain the comfort homeostasis, push all the red alarm buttons and try to make us stop.

All in all, it was a hard day with plenty of technical riding and bike pushing up rocky slopes, with the bonus steep climb to the camp site. On this climb, no matter how much I wanted to tell myself "it is all in your head" and pacified myself with sucking on a sugary gel pack, I got off the bike and walked.

 The Garmin track is here. Total time 2 seconds short of 8 hours. Time actually moving, 4:02:50. See what I mean? In a race, we would not make the cutoff. On a vacation ride, we reached the campsite safely, in late afternoon hours, with enough time to set up camp and cook, but with four extra hours of wasted energy (since we all burn calories even when we are not moving) which would surely be needed somewhere over the remaining 120 miles of Kokopelli.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Kokopelli Trail: Pre-ride Stuff

To ride the Kokopelli trails from Fruita, CO to Moab, UT in April had been my friend's John idea and it had been planned over the winter months of February and March. John invited two of his college buddies and we decided to use the services of Hermosa Tours even before they were featured in the Dirt Rag magazine.
The planning and preparation phase included several areas: first and foremost, Rob nailed the food part by creating a shared menu and shopping list. Each day had detailed menu for breakfast as well as post ride appetizers, followed by the main course and concluding with deserts. Once this was taken care of, we could pay attention to the lower priority items: training, transport to the ride start, and of course, the bikes.
For myself, the "training" phase was reduced to convincing myself that I had lots of base left from the last year (I did manage to convince myself about it and quickly dismissed any ideas about actually testing the base by riding). Two days before leaving for Colorado, I rode a very nice loop on paved paths and gravel trails around Seattle and decided that 1600ft vertical over 65 miles was a clear proof that I would be OK climbing 4000-7000ft a day on the Kokopelli trail.

Getting to Fruita, CO was just a routine: get up at 3:30AM to catch a 6AM flight, watch the sun rise over the Cascades as we climbed out of Seattle area... in Denver in the middle of a snow blizzard, wait for John's delayed flight, rent a Subie, hit I-70 and get stuck for hours on the freeway in heavy snow.

But the decor of this fancy restaurant clearly indicated that we were approaching a bicycling friendly area.
Nevertheless, after 15 hours of travel (it was a 2:30 hrs flight from Seattle), we were finally in Fruita.

Next came the question of bike: pack and fly my Mojo there or rent a bike in Fruita? I eventually decided to rent a Rocky Mountains Element 970 29-er, BC Edition from OTE Sports.

This beautiful carbon bike has been reviewed extensively online, so I would just skip four days ahead and add a few observations: it was very light, felt very tall and nervous when trying to climb in a straight line, did not feel efficient at all climbing in the granny chain ring, but changed its personality hugely into a very capable trailbike when descending technical trails, especially with the Reverb dropper seat post lowered. And I kept clipping my pedals on rocks more than any other bike I have ridden, as several reviewers pointed out.

John and Doug chose the beefier Santa Cruz Superlight 29ers in bright orange colors, making sure we would not be shot at by the local hunters.
 John and Landon setting up the Superlight 29
 Rob brought his version of trail weapon, proving that full suspension, carbon frames, straight handlebars, narrow saddles and heavy Camelbaks were all but unnecessary.

So the only minor task that was left was to actually ride the 150 miles of Kokopelli trails over the next four days, camp, cook the elaborate meals, enjoy the scenery, meet new people and have a good time during a supported luxury mountain bike tour!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

H Two O

Water sure is the basis of life on Earth. The evidence is all around us here in Seattle and WA. Things grow like crazy! Where does all that water go? If it rained this much in California, the whole state would slide into the Pacific within a month. My move to Washington from California was accompanied by advices like "you will have to get used to some wet biking" and I thought, big deal, it is just water and my bikes are Ti and carbon, they don't rust. The fact is that my sinuses and middle ears hate riding in cold and rainy weather and every time I do ignore them and ride, I pay the price. If I get soaked on a work commute, it is kind of OK, since I know I will be home in 30 minutes. No, it is not OK, why am I kidding myself? I hate every minute of biking in a pouring rain! So that's it, when it rains, I do not bike (I do sometimes with the above consequences).
This weekend, after a longer sunny and dry period the weather became active again. Saturday morning was sunny, and I thought "Get out, now!" By the time I was done with some household chores, the first strong cold front moved through. Behind it, a window opened and I did get out, for 7.5mile run. I struggled up every hill, feeling sore and tired. I was thinking how come, did I do anything hard last week? No I did not, I rode my bike to work twice, ran stairs on Tuesday (OK, 250 stairs, four times) and tried to keep up with my young colleagues on our lunch hour workout (2 miles run and three sets of lunges, pushups, squats, and other silly moves). As soon as I got my sore self home, the skies opened up again and the clouds and radar images seemed like it was going to rain for a week.
Come Sunday morning, I used the proven method of escaping rain: go where the water is solid. I drove 80 miles to Crystal Mountain, since I haves not yet been there and it was also supposed to be colder there. Over 10" of fresh snow fell overnight and it kept puking snow as I rode up the gondola. Visibility was nil and the snow was not the lightest powder, but it was OK.

I kept doing laps on the double black diamonds in the Campbell Basin, until my quads burned and all the deep snow was tracked. There is something special about skiing the fall line in deep snow - you know if the conditions were not this perfect, you could not get down that slope by any other means.

In the afternoon, I discovered there was much fresh powder left at the Bear Pitts, but after two more runs, I was done. Nearly five hours with no breaks, no lift lines, I was tired. I admit, downhill skiing is not a typical aerobic strenuous activity, but I was out of breath, I sweat and all my muscles ached at the bottom of each five minute "ride".
So there are ten days left before leaving for the Kokopelli Trail MTB tour, still with few miles in the saddle. Some of these days are going to be spent icing my sore knee, getting my bike and gear ready and perhaps, if the H2O god Aquarius cooperates, possibly one more bike ride (please!).

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Happy Easter

While the Orthodox denominations have to wait for their Easter on May 5th, and the Passover ends tonight, we Central European pagans follow the western tradition and celebrate Easter Sunday and Monday on the catholic dates. I have to say, Seattle's Easter scene far exceeded my expectations, although I did not see any men whipping girls booties on Monday (you can google what we pagans do on Easter Mondays...).
Sunday was not a day of a baked lamb cake or painted eggs. It was a day of our third attempt to reach the elusive Snow Lake on snowshoes. It was 72 degrees in Seattle and 55 in the mountains. The approach was easy, we already knew the route to Source Lake. Once we reached the expansive bowl below the Chair Peak, we saw this:

The avalanches did not look too fresh but the man-sized chunks of heavy snow make you think about the powers of Nature. So we took the direct route up a razor sharp ridge directly above us, making a fresh track. The ridge rises about 600ft in perhaps half a mile and it was a scramble often on all fours, with cakes of slushy wet snow sliding down the slope upon each attempt to get a foothold.

After a little rest at the plateau, a final push another incline and the view of Snow Lake opened.The picture below was taken from this location: 47.46010, -121.4504

 It looks like a nice lake to take a swim at in the summer. On the way back down, we realized that our snowshoes had practically no stopping power in the deep wet snow - the crampons just slid right through, making us loose balance, putting more weight on the rear of the snowshoes, resulting in an inevitable fall backwards. This was OK until we came back to the cliff we climbed up an hour ago. There was just no way to get down the "nose" other than uncontrolled fall. Since that seemed too risky, we chose to get closer to the avalanche field, where the hill slope was somewhat less steep. I have read before about how sliding snow packs the sides of its path, but the edge of the avalanche was like a bobsled track, packed hard and icy. So that's what we did - tobogganed 100ft down on our now quite wet behinds. Digging the snowshoes in had zero effect on slowing down, but eventually our ride ended at the runout zone.
At the end of this five hour outing, we were really glad to be back at the parking lot and 45 minutes drive from home.

Note: multiple chocolate animals were seriously hurt after this trip.