Thursday, October 31, 2013

Most Excellent Slot Groveling

For the last several years our great old friends the Hanlons and the Elovitzeses have been coming out to Utah in the spring for a week of canyoneering; Greg first brought Sawyer when the latter was 9 (and was barely able to reach the pedals of the rental while he drove on the back roads so that Greg could read the guidebooks) and each year we've done a slew of great canyons.  Canyoneering is fun enough at all levels that it doesn't need to be "burly" to have a great time, and the moderate canyons are fun for everyone who is relatively fit, athletic, and has a bit of gumption.  However, with experience comes a bit of a desire to tackle some of the more difficult endeavors, so last week Mike and Greg came out for a few days of doing the less "family friendly" canyons, which - considering that the only times I've spent unexpected nights out was with these two guys - had the potential for some excitement.

Quandary Canyon - in the southern San Rafael Swell - was the first canyon I ever did a few years ago and it has two faces:  the fun, very moderate romp down a beautiful canyon with a couple of short rappels and some scrambling/downclimbing, and the infamous "TKPS" in the middle:  a Technical Keeper Pothole Section that features an unusual number of hard-to-escape-from potholes in a few hundred yards.  Last spring we did the fun romp that bypassed the TKPS on a day that was too cold to consider a lot of swimming in icy pools, so we were keen to return in milder conditions, which the beautiful Utah fall weather delivered last week.

A note of reference:  a "pothole" is basically a hole in the canyon worn into place by water coursing down the canyon and creating "puddles" that range from the size of a bucket to the size of a swimming pool, and in the Southwest canyons they can be anywhere from bone dry to completely full to everywhere in between, and the "rims" typically are quite rounded on the downstream side and the water typically scours the face and the rims pretty smooth, so getting out of them can be a challenge.  Here's Greg bobbing in the bottom of one in the TKPS:

There are a variety of techniques used in getting out of those that are not full of water:  toss a rope attached to a pack or a strong bag full of sand over the edge and let the friction of the heavy pack against the rock below provide an "anchor" to haul yourself up the rope using mechanical rope ascenders, get two people in the pothole and boost each other up (hard to do when you are both bobbing; easy when it's dry), or use big wall climbing techniques of trying to put hooks in the rock and then climbing up the rope that's attached to the hooks.  Generally speaking, like any good outdoors geeks we had all the gear and had read all the books, now we just needed to actually do it!
finding my inner Spidey

Turns out that those techniques do indeed work, and after a couple of hours of grunting we found ourselves safe and sound at the bottom of the TKPS a bit sooner than we anticipated and decided that our return would be going up the adjacent Knotted Rope canyon, one that I had also descended on my inaugural canyoneering weekend. Climbing up canyoneering routes is not very typical due to the rappels and the smooth watercourses that make climbing pretty tricky, but we had a bit of info that indicated it could be done, so we gave it a go.

Walking up the lower canyon was in full sun, and as we got to the fairly obvious challenging section the thought of putting on wetsuits seemed unappealing at best and unnecessary since "we're hot and it's short".  But we quickly realized that it doesn't take much of this:

and this:

to get cold quite quickly, and the wetsuits started sounding pretty good.  But of course since we had already invested in a (bad) decision we kept it going so we got colder.  I was aided in my chill by trying to do a relatively easy traverse around a full pothole and right at the crux moment both my feet peeled out from under me and I plunged in over my head, much to the merriment of my compatriots. But we finally exited and started marching up out of the canyon and warmed up.

Utah's terrain is notoriously complicated and convoluted, and that night we found ourselves driving two hours to get to a spot that was......6 miles from where we started.  We felt a bit silly for doing that, but there were two canyons in the same area that we wanted to do, and starting out on a shorter fall day with a 6 mile hike before embarking on what was described as an 8-10 hour adventure seemed like a poor idea.  Not to mention the fact that we are entitled  'Mericans and drive everywhere anyway.  The two canyons we wanted to do in this area were Cable and Seger's Hole, with the latter being described as "the best canyon in the Swell" (so we had to do it).  Both canyons started with good marches up the Moroni Slopes:

 with sweeping views of the Muddy Creek area:
Greg canyoneers for breast cancer!
Despite the fact that southern Utah had gotten hit by some of the same torrential rains a month prior that had made headlines in Colorado and pushed the Dirty Devil river (just downstream of us) up over 7000 cfs, we found that Cable Canyon was quite dry:

 and the "challenging" potholes were quite easy to exit when we could stand in the bottom and boost someone up and out, and practice our "aiding" out:

That said, remembering the chill from the day before I did put on my old neoprene top, tho I have to admit it was partly to simply look like a cool guy:

We knew from the description that Seger's Hole was going to be a bit of a step up in terms of both difficulty and coolness, and  it most definitely delivered on both fronts.  At the first sign of water we wetsuited up, and encountered our first challenge when we needed to rappel into a pool and the anchor bolts had been cut out, which was not a big deal because we could put a hook into an old bolt hole and rap off that; not a bit deal, that is, until we couldn't flick the hook out of the hole when we were done.  After trying many different flicking techniques we finally were able to use Greg's apelike arms to use a pole to push it out, and on down the canyon we went.

The pothole section was impressive.  At one point all we could see downcanyon were potholes that had the water level at least several feet below the rim.  And being in a canyon like that feels a bit more committing than some other activities I've done:  if it looks challenging, there's pretty much no other option than to make it happen somehow.  There's no portaging, going around, going a different direction, or going back up.

We got to one pothole that required a rappel in and was very conducive to tossing a pack - with the rope attached - across it and down to the next pool, visible about 20 feet below.  No problem.  I wanted to go in and use the ascenders - which I hadn't really tried yet - to get out, and all went well until I started hauling up on the rope and got a bit of a sinking feeling as I simply hauled it towards me: the pack was sliding up the wall on the downstream side of my pothole.  Hmmm.  Not really supposed to work like that.  I kept pulling at the rope/pack hoping that it would start to provide more friction, but of course the pack just continued its merry ride up the wall towards me.

As I swam around in the pool, getting colder and colder, we discussed our options, and Greg decided to come in to see if he could give me a boost. We then got firsthand experience with two bobbers trying to boost each other out; doesn't really work.

We finally pulled the pack all the way up with the intent to pass it back up to get more weight in it and were surprised when it actually stuck at the rim where the ramp it had been on went up more steeply, and I clambered out quickly.   A good lesson to test the friction of a pack toss before committing to it!

We soon caught the only other folks we saw in our four days of canyons:  very nice Salt Lakers who had with them a young guy who was doing his first canyon!  I guess we weren't being so burly after all (but the truth is the "challenge" is getting one person past an obstacle; once one person is past, it becomes very much family-friendly).
However, would you trust your family to this man? 
Soon enough we did the beautiful final rappel and popped out into Muddy Creek right where it exits its last dramatic gorge for a nice sunny snack spot.

Our last day we hit a little canyon called Trail Canyon that crosses highway 24 as it goes towards Reservoir Powell's infamous Bullfrog Marina.   The description sounded a bit dire:  they gave it an R rating - which indicates some notable exposure - and make a big deal out of the fact that everyone needs to be a 5.7 climber, and despite the fact that Mike said "I don't really know what that means" we figured we'd be good. As it turns out, it was neither as difficult nor as exposed as we anticipated, and the only real challenge came when Mike's pack dropped into the bottom of a very tight slot and needed to be retrieved, but as it turned out someone my size could just barely fit through with some strategic breathing to keep my chest small.
Putting a new Black Diamond top to a good abrasion test
Suck in that gut, soldier!  
As ever, adventuring with the presidents/secretaries/treasurers and the majority of the members of the New Hampshire and Cincinnati Canyoneering Clubs provided plenty of shivering, lost skin, torn/worn gear and clothing, rental car cleaning, and many, many gut-busting yuks.  Thanks gents.

and thanks to Mike for most of these pics....

Monday, October 21, 2013

a Partial Zion Cross

This past weekend we were able to sneak away for a couple of extra days so that Ash could not only play with her new toy on some of Utah's best singletrack, but also do a mini version of the one-day Zion Traverse.  

Moab may be world-renowned for it's great mountain biking, but the truth is that the St. George area is arguably better (and is getting increasingly renowned for it).  The singletrack is killer, the technical riding is really athletic and demanding, and the setting is superlative.  

40-50 miles of snaky singletrack near St George
slickrock ramblin
this is way burlier than it looks; I swear!  
Dancin on the edge on Little Creek Mesa.  
working out her Red Bull Rampage line....
We have been wanting to do the iconic Zion traverse run in a day (or maybe as a 2-day) for a couple of years, and were hoping to make it happen this fall.  However, Ash has had a nagging hip injury, and after a five week wait to get in to see the miracle-body worker Emma, she figured that - like a car going into the shop - it would be fixed.  Alas, not only did she not bother to tell Emma that she was planning an all-day run in a couple of days, it wasn't quite cured with one session.  So as a compromise, we decided to do a run across a good chunk of Zion, without tackling the whole 47 mile deal, but with much of the best scenery Zion has to offer.  So instead of starting at Lee Pass on the Kolob Canyons area, we started at the West Rim trailhead (which, with only one car, was logistically way easier; we just caught a morning shuttle there with the Zion Adventure Center).  
The first few miles were roly-poly through this kind of terrain
then we started to drop a bit......
And then soon enough we started to get into "the meat" of the scenery:
The peaks and canyons of Zion are ridonculous
Soon enough we started seeing people, including a couple of guys just past where this picture was shot who asked "how far is it?"  We responded in perfect synch:  "to where"?  "Angel's Landing"!  I was tempted to tell the guys that they were quite possibly some of the only of the thousands upon thousands of people who make the pilgrimage up to Angel's Landing who actually not only missed the turn, but actually the trail itself turns away from Angel's Landing, which looms hugely right there!  But it was beautiful where they had gotten to, it looked like they could use a little exercise anyway, and I didn't necessarily need to reiterate their dunderheadedness (though oh-so-tempting), so we just pointed them back into the right direction.  

Soon enough we found ourselves on the valley floor, where we refilled our water in our geeky little running packs:

While our fellow adventurers refilled.....their kegs:

We trotted up the road to the weeping rock trailhead and started chugging up the hill, heading for the park's east entrance, and eventually arrived just in time to catch a ride with a nice Salt Laker who was happily a recent joiner of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance!  
A great little adventure
and then back to the St Geo area, for more sublime singletrack:
This is actually only a few hundred yards from the freeway!
with some awesome slickrock, both cruisy and technical (Thanks Emma and Joe for the beta)
The joey factor of Utah's first and best national park and the adjacent town of Springdale is high, but the quality of recreation in that area is mega!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Speed Dating on two wheels

Most people don't need new gear; they want new gear.  But Ashley - after 11 years on her trusty K2 Razorback mountain bike that was ridden a lot and subsequently consistently subjected to the head-scratching maintenance by Ash's terrible mechanic (me) correctly decided that she did indeed NEED a new rig.  The die was finally cast when I took her bike in to the guys at Wasatch Bike Support and told them to "just fix it."  Fix it they did, but when I picked it up, they said:  "Duuude.  We did what we could with'er.  But she's not got much left in her."  It was like the bike had terminal cancer and they gave it the last blast of chemo.

And so began the quest for a new mountain bike, which - if you have haven't been paying much attention to the market for the last 10 years, like we haven't - is a pretty daunting task.  Especially when the annual incremental technology improvements have had ten years to accumulate, the inflation rate on bikes has been extraordinary, and no one in town actually demos bikes so your multiple-thousand dollar purchase is dependent on hopping up and down curbs near the urban bike shops without actually being able to ride on trails, so you are dependent on  reviews by putzheads on The Interweb and shop punks' recital of what little they can remember from the sales reps' marketing-speak.  So wither to get an actual user-experience that will result in an educated purchase of a mountain bicycle?  In a word:  Outerbike.

Ashley Kornblatt, the apparently-fiery owner of Western Spirit bicycle tours in Moab, recognized that there was an increasingly-large disconnect between the bike manufacturers and their consumers.  Yes, there was the annual Interbike show in Vegas, but that is exclusive to the industry, and aside from random trailhead demos by sales reps, there was no actual opportunity for actual people to take actual bikes out on actual trails for actual comparisons to other bikes. So she created "Outerbike"; a multi-day demo adjacent to a variety of trails complete with guided tours, parties, shuttles to other trail systems, and - most importantly - a venue where virtually ALL the mountain bike manufacturers could set up booths and bring bikes for consumers to use (the biggest notable absence:  Trek/Fisher!).  So simple, yet so....previously unheard of!

We were both dreading this event a bit:  spending one of those brilliant fall Utah desert weekends around so many people talking out of their asses about inches of travel and head tube angles between bumblefests on contrived trails sounded like the antithesis of the magnificent desolation of the west desert or even the nearby Moab-area desert environs.  But we adopted the right attitude and Ash was on a mission, so we made the most of it, with great success.

We tried them all:  full suspension, hardtails, aluminum frames, carbon frames, 27.5 inch wheels, 29 inch wheels; etc.
getting ready to check out another bike.  
We tried the big guys and the boutique brands, and we were able to ride something like 10-12 different bikes and take them on some fun, varied singletrack
We realized that Moab has treated it's trail building as very similar to a ski resort:  lots of little fun trails in close proximity to each other, never out of view of the "base", maps at every one of the many intersections, and they use the same green circle/blue square/black diamond rating system (some were blue diamond/black square, and some were black diamond/blue square; perhaps the trail-difficulty equivalent to partly cloudy vs partly sunny)? 

Not surprisingly, the bikes were ALL good; if you are in the mountain bike business and you are making poor bikes, you don't last long.  And for the prices that they are asking for mountain bikes these days, they damn well better be friggin AWESOME!  But the beauty of trying lots of bikes meant that you could start to discern some differences, some of which were easy to identify/articulate, and some of which were more of a nuanced "feel".  On the first day we rode the same few-mile loop nine times on nine different bikes (which actually added up to a decent-day's worth of riding) and Ash began to hone in on her faves.  

Not surprisingly, some of her enthusiasm for any given bike was a function of the customer service that the booth-tenders provided, and generally we were impressed; since they were industry pros versus young shop rats these guys (and they were mostly guys) recognized the need to treat their "customers" with respect, even if they were chicks!  Interestingly, it was only the generally well-respected Santa Cruz who were the token tools:  they were very much "dudes" lounging on a couch drinking their noon beer and jammin' to too-loud metal and helped Ash out only very reluctantly; needless to say, they did not sell a bike to her.  
The demo in the desert
However, the antithesis of this was Ibis, which was mostly-manned by its founder and owner, Scott Nicol.  A boutiquey brand for sure that may not have the economies of scale of the Giants, Specializeds, Cannondales, etc. but he's been making nice bikes for a long time and - as he pointed out - he was the only founder/owner at the event, which he described as "The Best" demo event of the year.  So not only was he able to woo Ash - as a recovering esoteric consumer product retailer herself - but also she found his new Carbon 29" FS "Ripley" to "feel" slightly better than the others she tried, including their 27.5-wheeled bike.  
plunging down a steep slab that she would not have tried on her old bike
I had my eyes opened a bit; riding a rigid singlespeed and not really paying attention to the market means that there's a lot to learn about these new bikes.  And for sure, they are fun: the bwang-bwang of 4-6 inches of travel means that rocky trails feel buffed.  And if indeed making difficult, rocky trails way easier is your goal, the companies have done very well in that regard.    It's very analogous to skis:  the bigger the better, and the bike companies have addressed the bike equivalants of Middle Aged Powder Pussies (MAPPs) very well.   

That said, an outlier that has - I think - had a lot of growth (admittedly from near-zero to a bit more than zero) is the Fat Bike:
This thing only weighed 23 pounds and RIPPED!  
And so, we came away knowing what Ash's new bike is going to be:  she ordered her Ibis today.  We know what we'll be doing a lot of as the riding season wanes!  And even though it's spendy, she will get her money's-worth out of it than most folks who typically trade out their multi-thousand dollar rigs every couple/three years after riding it the requisite 40-50 days/year.  Me?  I might demo a FS bike next time I head into Moab; they are damn fun, and at "only" $60/day it'll take me over a hundred  days of demo-ing to make up the price of many of the bikes that I tried and liked!  Nutty.  

Many thanks to relatively new Moab transplants Laurel and Rodney who not only hosted us at their cool house (which has a finished pump track before the house was finished!):

But Laurel was also largely responsible for the organization of the impressively-run Outerbike event.  
I don't think Laurel meant to look like she was wearing Mickey Mouse ears, but it's a good look!  
Now having participated in Outerbike, I can hardly imagine NOT going there before buying a bike; it's a golden opportunity for us, and we were stoked to have it be so close by and so well-run!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Meeting Mr. Merrell

This past weekend Colin and I blasted out to the East Desert (went west last time, going south this coming weekend) to shred the growing-in-popularity Vernal area trails.  And that we did:

Colin rippin' the dez singletrack

Where's Waldo?
It's hard to believe spandex can almost be camo'd in the desert....
It's not quite the same pristine mountain bike environment as some of the other, more famous areas, since we had to share some of the trails with these guys:
but I guess they are better than motos....or are they?  
We did the requisite stuff:  rode a lot, camped, drank beer, etc.  I was also able to fit in a quick run:
Fully embracing my inner dork as I do the activity transition.....
Vernal riding seems to be ever-so-slowly emerging as an mtb destination, but the likes of Fruita, Moab, St. George, and Park City still overshadow it, though not due to any lesser-quality riding.  

We did have the opportunity for an interesting chance meeting. I've had the good fortune of working with Merrell Footwear for the past 10+ years helping them with product testing and design and watched them grow from a fairly niche brand to a major player in a very competitive market.  Today they arguably rule the outdoor hiking/multisport/casual market, and have recently made a big splash with their minimal shoes.  What may be forgotten is that they started out as a classic Boot Brand, and helped define modern telemark skiing with the landmark Merrell SuperComp:

I knew that Merrell was founded by three guys:  John Schweitzer (the president of Garmont USA until about 2009), Clark Matis (still a product developer for Merrell), and a guy by the name of Randy Merrell, whom legend had it hailed from Vernal, Utah.  I have worked closely with both Clark and John, but had never met Randy, who was long gone by the time I came around and  - being from Vernal - seemed to be a bit out of the loop, since Merrell the brand was part of the Karhu team in Burlington, VT before being sold to Wolverine World Wide in Michigan.   I always thought it was a bit odd that an Italian/American boot company had its roots in eastern Utah, but I sorta forgot about it as the years went by.  

That is, until this weekend, when on the way up towards the Uintas to ride the Flume Trail we passed by this sign:

Even though it was Sunday evening, and the fine print at the bottom of the sign says "by appointment please" I told Colin to swing in there.  And sho nuff, there was the man himself:

He's a super nice guy, and invited us into his shop, where - not surprisingly - he still makes boots, though now - as he did in the beginning, before getting caught up in the global footwear market - they are custom. It's kind of a long, rambling story, but basically John and Clark were footwear guys looking for a brand to build, found this wacky dude in Eastern Utah who was a shoe dog's Shoe Dog doing highly-regarded boots, found factories to make them on a larger scale, and built a brand.  

It took a few years, but Randy got burned out on the globetrotting lifestyle of a branded footwear guy and somehow exited the brand that bears his name in order to get back to a mellower lifestyle back in Vernal.  He now has clients around the country who use him to build/modify footwear for their problem feet (hence his preferred title of "Pedorthist", and he says that many of his customers make the journey to visit him as part of getting the perfect footwear.  He was badly stymied a few years ago when he got a particularly virulent strain of West Nile Virus (which nearly killed him and left behind some permanent nerve damage; good reminder to put on mosquito repellent, even in the desert!) but he's back now and lives in a cool quasi-earthen home:

and has a shop with all the various shoemaking gizmos:

Where it began, and will end?  
And then we shredded more singletrack, and headed back home.....