Monday, November 30, 2015

Moab in Winter, and whither cairns?

I have long known that the real prime time for Moab is winter; yes, in the spring the temps are warmer and it's been so long since we've ridden/run/climbed in the dez, and the fall is glorious (though fall is glorious most anywhere), but it comes with the price of crowds.  Between the jeepers, the national park tourist crush, and mountain bikers the town seems like a bit of a zoo for about 8 months a year.  But from November through February Moab is pretty quiet but still very much has all of the fun stuff that's present in milder temps; you just gotta bundle up a bit.  Given the state of the Wasatch - not enough snow and cold temps - we opted to blast south, if for no other reason than - paradoxically - the La Sals have more snow than the Wasatch.

Several years ago Moab seemed to (finally) wake up and realize that "real" mountain bikers were going to Fruita and St George to ride those places' singletrack; the allure of the Slickrock Trail and mostly-jeep roads was limited to tourists who loved the vistas and the reputation but "didn't know any better".  So Moab as a community decided to throw down and start cutting new singletrack to get the mountain bikers back, and they have done an amazing job, putting in entire networks like the Bar M, Klondike/Alaska, Amasaback/Ahab, and Mag 7, to the point where there are now probably (low) hundreds of miles of super fun singletrack in the area.  And this year they added the Navajo Rocks/Horsethief trails; as we've driven out to the Island in the Sky/Dead Horse Point area I've often looked on both sides of the road and thought "that looks like good trail terrain", and so it is.
there's a great mix of slickrock interspersed with singletrack. 
Though it can seem a little contrived with little loops as lobes off the main road:
You can put together bigger loops, and by incorporating the out and back on the 7up trail to the Horsethief area we were able to keep ourselves very entertained for 4 or 5 hours.  
this was a mildly-spicy side hill; glad that "slickrock" isn't that slick!
it's apparently Christmastime in the desert
We then had the opportunity to tromp around the La Sals with the local avy forecaster and old friend Eric Treanbeth, with the added bonus that the Utah Avalanche Center's Drew Hardesty and his able sidekick Zinna were in the 'hood and keen to ski as well.  We were actually able to find some powder on top of a good base:
I shoulda tilted the camera a bit!  
But it was a good reminder that the La Sals are challenging; much of the snow that had come in to give them their "base" had blown off towards Colorado, and between the steep, convex high terrain with commensurate wind-loading opportunities and sometimes-long periods between storms it's challenging to get nice moderate skiing; it's either so safe that it's short and pretty low angle or it's super spicy.  But there's virtually no competition for either, and it was great to get some turns and interesting to watch the two old avy dogs sniff each other! 
We had planned on "butte-inyeering" Elephant Butte the next day (a hike to the highest point in Arches that requires a rappel on the ascent, some steep slickrock scrambling, and a rap down in order to make a nice loop) but overnight snow made friction-based scrambling less appealing, so  - in keeping with the concept of the wintertime lack of crowds - we headed for Canyonlands' Island in the Sky to go for a chilly run.  
We headed for Upheaval Dome, since the park guide said that it was the most popular area in the park and we'd probably never go there unless snow and cold was keeping the crowds away, and there's a nice 8-9 mile loop with side trips that made it add up to about 13 miles.  As always, we remembered that there's a reason that national parks are so popular:  it's really awesome out there:

Not a great person shot; you can see the little purple gal just off center.....
One aspect of this little jaunt that I didn't anticipate was the ridiculous number of cairns on the trail.  I am all for cairns that indicate routes - especially in the desert where "trails" are slickrock routes - but it appears that in national parks cairns are inexplicably being used to indicate actual trails:
Um, thanks for that, but the trail itself is actually pretty indicative of....the trail.  
It was pretty crazy; in places there were cairns every 10-20 feet, with some doubling up to make sure that they were seen:
So I did what....anybody? would do, and went on a one man cairn-destroying mission, and literally knocked down probably 50-100 of them (stubbing my toes and clocking my shins in the process). 
In an area like this, cairns were helpful
but when the trail actually has stairs, I think that cairns to find our way aren't really necessary!
Ash pointed out that me knocking them down  - especially on switchbacks, when I was above her - was more annoying to her than actually seeing them, and asked me why I was doing it, which was good because I had to rationalize my visceral reaction to the innocent little stacks.   I think it came down to this:  it's kind of natural litter, or grafitti.  If you are out in the woods and you see a Snickers wrapper (it seems like litterbugs prefer Snickers) it's a little annoying so you might (hopefully) pick it up, but the truth is that a candy wrapper will blow away realistically is not going to harm the local environment in a noticeable way.  But still, it's the point....that we respect the naturalness and don't sully it up, and interminable little unnecessary piles of rocks are sort of geologic candy wrappers.  And it's kind of a persistent reminder that this little micro-adventure is...even less adventurous than it seems because clearly hordes of joeys have been here in the past and have taken the time to build hundreds of stupid little cairns that do nothing but indicate that "I've been here".  
being driven mad by cairns!
It actually has become enough of a phenomenon that it's making national news; here's a story that ran on NPR this summer.  Maybe I'm being too uptight and callous, but hearing someone say that making cairns "provides an overwhelming sense of peace and a connection to oneness" makes we want to connect with my inner redneckness and kick them even harder!  

But whatever; despite the cairn-o-copia I was still able to have fun doing my own posing:
On the edge of the crater
And Ash swallowed her annoyance enough over my obsession with cairns to indulge me with her best Anasazi big guy pose:

and I channeled my inner Colter with the artsy nature photo of snow on cactus:

All without the hordes and heat of the 'better" seasons.  Wintertime Moab is pretty sweet.  

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Is Skimo as silly as it seems?

You have probably seen them:  the skinny guys wearing the neon yellow boots with almost no buckles, carrying too-long poles and tiny packs, on kid-sized skis with toy bindings…..and going past you remarkably fast up skin tracks.  “Ah”  you think, as you step aside to let them swish past.   “Skimo guy.  Dork!  Why don’t those guys just stay at Brighton where they belong?!  And why would I want to race something that I do for fun?!?!”

But perhaps there’s an inkling roaming in the back of your mind, that you almost dare not acknowledge:  “Boy, being able to go uphill that fast and get that much more vert in any given outing would be nice, and I’ve heard that that silly light gear isn’t all that bad?  And if I did a hard effort once a week in those weird nighttime “races” I’ve heard about, maybe I’d be stronger on the weekends when I need to give’er breaking trail all day?”  But those thoughts pass, and you put your head back down to stare at your 20 pound package of fat skis with their fat skins, big boots, and burly bindings and unzip the legs of your huge goretex pants as you recommence slowly shuffling up the skin track, hoping to get to the top before SkimoBoy catches you on his second lap.   But what of it?  Is “backcountry ski racing” really that dorky?  Is it possible to actually ski on that gear?  Is it worth my time at all to charge around a dimly lit ski resort at night with other idiots marching up and skitching down in an anaerobic fog?  

In a word…..yes!

My first exposure to the concept of going fast backcountry skiing was when Andrew McLean initiated the very original “Powder Keg” a couple of years before the formal race actually happened.  He had the idea to set an arbitrary - but logical -“route”, set a time on it, and then other people might be challenged to see how they would do.  I believe the route was something like starting at Alta, going to Pole Line Pass, down to the Cardiff Mine, up Holy Toledo, down to the base of Flagstaff, up Flag, down Days Fork, etc.  This didn’t gain much traction, but was the impetus to create the “real” Powder Keg randonee race that traversed Alta, Grizzly Gulch, Solitude’s Honeycomb Canyon, and Twin Lakes before finishing at Alta, and it caught on so much that it quickly became a stop on the World Cup tour, with the fastest skinners/skiers in the world (Europeans) flying up and down the Wasatch for the ’04 and ’05 Powder Kegs. 

Since then March’s Powder Keg has continued to flourish even without the Euros, and with over 180 participants is by far the most popular “Skimo” (short for “ski mountaineering”, a formal change from randonee racing, but not as good, in my opinion, as the sometimes-used term:  “ski running”) race in North America.  And notably, the second most popular race in the country is….any given Tuesday night at Brighton!  A couple of years ago some of the local enthusiasts had the idea to have a midweek series of 8-10 races, and Brighton was kind enough to agree to let us use their resort.  The races have had an enthusiastic reception, with nearly 100 people showing up to  - indeed  -charge up and down a ski resort in the dark in an anaerobic fog.  And while the skinny guys – and gals - in their skin suits and feather weight gear are the most-obvious sorts, there is actually a majority of folks who are on “heavy metal” (ie anything besides really light) gear who share the same goals:  take the opportunity of a race to build up fitness and improve skills with other like-minded folks, and probably the best part of the races is the socializing afterwards; it’s a good community.  And actually, I think it should be spelled "heavy mettle" since hauling regular gear around as fast as you can and doing it in a reasonable time is impressive!

Despite the "free"  entry (ok, for insurance purposes, there's a season-long charge of something like $30) the midweek skimo races get a remarkable amount of impressively good gear to give away thanks to sponsors like Voile who provide shovels, probes, and even skis to the races, and the prizes usually go to folks who are there for the first time, who came the farthest, who had the heaviest gear, the best outfit, etc.  The “winners” – as if anyone really cares who wins – typically get grocery store punkin pies; that is, unless they’ve won one before, then it goes to the next person who hasn’t won one.  All very serious business! 

Most people go out for a typical weekend ski tour and are satisfied with 5000-foot days, which is great; that’s a lot more vertical than a typical mountain bike ride or trail run, and enables a few good ski runs.  However, one thing that skimo makes you understand very quickly is that the ability to climb faster has a huge effect on your ability to get more done.  Even non-fast people do the 5600-foot Powder Keg under 4 hours, and everyone has the eye-opening realization that 2000-foot hours are not only feasible, they can become common.  Which makes longer objectives and more runs in a day much more reasonable.    And if you get into skimo enough to throw a “workout” in periodically in order to be more competitive relative to the people that you find yourself racing with, that then translates into greater fitness for breaking trail with your buddies on the weekend. 
The Flying Dorais Brothers, who have taken skimo-inspired fitness to do ambitious and inspiring outings in the Wasatch and beyond. 
But what about the gear? Is it really possible to actually ski on those silly pencil sticks?  And are 1-2 pound boots capable of pushing a ski around? And would anyone actually use that gear for “real” skiing?    The skis and boots actually ski surprisingly well in anything other than deep powder, and  - as I have been wont to say – if you think that going fast on big skis is exciting, going fast on little skis is REALLY exciting! 

But you kind of have to let go of your self-perception that your form has to be perfect at all times and revel in the challenge of skiing decently in sub-optimal gear.   And again, if you don’t have have the skimo gear (and unfortunately, it’s a fair bit of investment to go big, tho Voile’s Wasatch Speed Projects are the cheapest of the skimo skis yet are on par with any of the competitors’) you can still thump around on big gear at the local races and find Your People that are comparably paced.  And despite some admonitions that "it's all about the down" the truth is that approximately 94% of the time on your backcountry ski days is spent going uphill, you might as well feel somewhat swift and enjoy the climbs with lighter gear as well.  

A great resource for light gear - both skimo and the emerging "really light but more skiable than skimo" market is the website  This is the first light/fast-focused retailer in the country, and Jason has been successful enough with his online business that he recently opened a retail store near the mouth of Big Cottonwood, and it's my understanding that he's going to have Wasatch Speed Project skis mounted up with adjustable race bindings for people to demo, so it's possible to dip your toes a bit. 

What about transitions?  Is it mandatory to learn to do 20-second top transitions and 40-second bottom transitions?  Yes, and no.  Like everything, fast transitions are a skill that needs practice to execute properly - especially when your heart rate is pegged - and there are some folks who declare "I am NOT going to "practice" ski transitions!" but that's sorta like saying "I am NOT going to become a better rider in technical terrain!"  But while trying to gain 20-30 seconds on a climb is hard, it's really easy to lose that in the transitions, so it's helpful to be efficient.  But if you aren't...well that's fine too!  But thinking about it and getting better might keep you from being the guy your buddies are waiting for at the top of a run, or give you a jump start if you aren't the fastest of your posse up the skinner.  

The first skimo race of the season is Thanksgiving morning at Brighton, and it’ll either be a good excuse to hammer a bit before the evening gorge-fest, and/or an opportunity to crank yourself for an hour before going out for a “longer” tour (limited snow/terrain makes “longer” a bit more challenging these days), with subsequent races on Dec 1 (so you won’t forget all the stuff you learned at the Thanksgiving race) and Dec 15, with more following after the new year.   Here is the site for all the scintillating news about Utah Skimo.  

Is skimo contrived and a bit geeky?  Indubitably:
A superskimo guy practicing his transitions in the garden!  
  Is it eye-opening, skill-building, fitness-enhancing, social, and really fun?  Absolutely. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Grand Staircase Bike Tour

As we looked at the opportunities for a fall bike tour, the desert loomed large for us this year.    After protracted and challenging traveling in Peru we were planning for some good adventure that was logistically easy, there are always opportunities for adventure in southern Utah.  When we told someone we were going they exclaimed "But I thought you had done that before!", and while yes, we have, there are many, many opportunities down there to explore the labyrinth of dirt roads that connect between each other and paved roads, through incredible, remote, and beautiful terrain.  And while we rarely drive anywhere to "go hiking", doing a bike tour through areas with amazing hikes seems to be very natural.  So off to the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument we went.

Ever since President Clinton's surprise 1996 announcement (worth watching) of the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument (at the south rim of the Grand Canyon; sorta weird!) it's been the favorite whipping post by the likes of Orrin Hatch and other conservatives who barely have any teeth left after gnashing them for - already - 19 years at Clinton's audacity.  And despite the fact that we've been down there a fair number of times, we hadn't really explored the breadth of the monument, and Ash's keen eye had found a couple of somewhat-obscure remote roads that enabled a medium-sized loop.  And armed with The Author's (Michael Kelsey, prolific Utah desert adventurer and dizzying-guidebook creator) book on the area we had a lot of great, non-technical canyons and hikes we could do en route.

Boulder was a natural spot to start; the unusually-good Hell's Backbone Grill and Boulder Grill provide great pre-and-post tour meals, we knew we could leave our car there, and Highway 12 - between Boulder and Bryce - is a remarkable section of road that we've been wanting to ride for 15 years.  And it was as good as we anticipated, with amazing views and little traffic:
with some exciting descents:

We needed some lube and I found a character in Escalante who has a motorcycle repair shop in a back shed, and I figured anyone who had a sign that said "Welcome Bikers of The World" would be keen to help out a cyclist:

 And I was right.  He wisely moved there and started up just after the Grand Staircase-Escalante (heretofore referenced as GSENM) was designated in anticipation of the tourism it would bring, and has thrived (more on that later).

Near the end of the day we caught up with David, a guy who's been touring over half-time for the last 30+ years:
Whom we bid adieu at the Kodachrome Basin turnoff, since - even though he'd never been there despite going past it "probably 10 times"  - he didn't want to pay the entrance fee.  I suppose that's part of why people are able to make a career out of bike touring.....

But our camp fee was offset by the nice fellow campers who   -as always  -were happy to donate some cold beer to the scruffy cyclists' cause:
who could resist this smiling young thing when she's begging for beer?
Kodachrome Basin is great; as beautiful as a national park but with very few people, and unlike a national park, you can ride on their easy singletrack trails!

and they have hiking-only trails as well:
getting ready to jump?
 here's to some progressive park management! (maybe we should give Utah control over all the federal lands?!?!)

And speaking of federal lands, I never really knew (actually, had given much thought to) why it was called the "Grand Staircase".  Basically it's a 'staircase" of thick rock layers that work their way up from about the Grand Canyon level upward.  Here's a schematic:
We had been told that southern Utah had had it's rainiest summer/fall ever, and it showed:
mushrooms growing near cacti.  
And the rains had created some interesting situations:
ah, we'll be fine!
After hiking and riding around Kodachrome for half a day we noodled down the closed Cottonwood road for a few miles to Round Valley, where we found a good water source;
And a great slot canyon:

the remains of the last poor chaps to attempt this burly canyon
it rained late that night, and when I woke and heard it, I also started hearing the many voices in my head that had said "Cottonwood Road is a desperate mudfest after a rain".  Fortunately the next day dawned bright and clear, and the road dried quickly, except for a steep, north facing hill that was indeed a bit "desperate!"  

We stopped at the amazing Grosvenor Arch

some folks we had met the previous day said that you could get up to the edge but "you wouldn't go out on it!"  so I did.
the base of the arch had a couple of things that made me re-think my enthusiasm for state park administration:
The geologic and historical info is nice, but "nature's lullaby" gets a bit carried away....

maybe the park service ran out of money and could only afford half of a bench?  or they figured that anyone who could drive to an arch parking lot could lunch while sitting unsupported?
We continued our progression down the Cottonwood Road, which is famously beautiful and -because it was closed - was totally car free.  
halfway along the road is another roadside slot that's a great 1-2 hour sidelight:

Ash can't resist kicking up her heels at how awesome this is!  (and look at the height of that jump!)
More sublime riding took us down the road:

 with only one creature we had to share it with:

the road was beat up in places:
 but all was great until we hit a patch that hadn't dried.  Ash decided to plunge through:

With an hour of cleaning the unreal goo resulting:

We kept working our way down the Cottonwood road pretty slowly, since there's so much good hiking.  The Cockscomb Ridge is to the east:

and the surreal Yellow Mountain to the west:
and Castle Peak looming to the north:
Gratuitous "the two of us in someplace cool" shot...
We got to the Paria Box, which became infamous a few years ago when some rogue locals did a flagrantly illegal ATV ride up into the wilderness study area.  It's clear that they haven't changed their ways much:
that's a "wilderness study area" sign

When we had made David with his Bob trailer and his flag waving merrily behind him I realized I had forgotten my own flag.  But later I happened upon a flag alongside the road that I appropriated, and hoped that it's message would alleviate any possible acrimony we human-powered types might face:
ironically, the Paria Box is nice, but not that special, relative to many other places in the area:

and boy does it have some burly hiking!
the Paria made some cool conglomerate balls when it flooded recently
Back on bikes, Ash was super stoked;

we saw a bit more road damage due to lack of culverts:
There was one culvert on the entire stretch:
and then we arrived at the obstacle that had the road closed:
We were able to navigate around this, but it will take a fair bit of effort to repair.  Apparently it's indicative of the animosity between the local and federal jurisdictions:  it's a county road through a federal monument, so who pays to fix it?  

Our next stop was the White House campground near where highway 89 crosses the Paria river, 40 miles above the confluence of the Paria with the Colorado at the Lee's Ferry GC put in.  A beautiful spot:
sunrise, with the full moon
Our mission was to get a shuttle to go around to the Buckskin Gulch/Wave trailhead and then hike back the 20 miles to our bikes.  Buckskin Gulch is regarded by many as The Best Slot in the World, and while the criteria of "the best" may vary, it's remarkably beautiful, and is 13 miles long!  
Red Leader, we're goin' in.....

moss in the desert; this place doesn't see much sun this time of year....
there was a bit of mud
and a bit of water 
channeling my inner Colter for an artsy shot of sunlight shimmering on muddy water....

The wading started to get serious, so serious canyoneers got serious
Katie Lee, Glen Canyon, 1961:
Ashley Patterson - doing her best Katie Lee - 2015

Anastazi cartoon

Cartoonish guy trying to act all Anastazi
it gets sorta tight in sections:

with some bigass boulders

the old i-phone can capture good light pretty well....
another gratuitous "in a cool place" shot.  It's a pretty cool place...

One little downclimb had some "moki" steps (like fire rings, white men need to go big...)
and then we hit the Paria, took a left (important!) and walked 8 miles of a slightly-bigger "slot" back to camp.

We knew that rain was coming, which made us go deviate from plan A - which was go return to Escalante by the Smoky Mountain Road, an 80 mile section of remote, waterless road that climbs up to and traverses the Kaparowits Plateau and has an even-more fearsome reputation for a road surface that turns to gumbo in the rain - and head for Kanab.  
back on the rainy road with plastic bag gloves, but she's still smiling....
knowing that a motel room and warm shower awaited!  
 Rainy riding is tiring:

But the storm moved through quickly and we were back on the road the next day in clear skies.
Our plan B was to go 16 miles up the paved Johnson Creek road to a Y, then take the Skutumpah Road back towards Kodachrome Basin.  Another dirt/gravel road with a good handful of easy slots to do. The crux question:  how much gravel vs dirt was there, and how fast would it dry?  We hit the initial section of dirt and it was damp but very rideable, so we kept going.  
 but after another dozen miles we hit a new layer, and it wasn't good:

 Ash prides herself a bit in her ability to grind through sand, up super steep climbs, and through sand and mud, but she got defeated by this one:
18 miles of pushing through bike-stopping mud wasn't realistic, so we turned about and strategized about Plan C.  we went back to our Y and then headed NW towards highway 89, to take us up to Bryce on the main highway.  

happy to be back on dry dirt:
We figured if this car could make it, we could:

and eventually onto the World's Nicest Cycletrack from Red Canyon to Bryce:
From Bryce it was about 70 miles back to Boulder on Highway 12 (with some more great slots we hiked on the outskirts of Cannonville) which, though it was indeed our plan C, we had to admit it's about as good as road riding gets, and seeing over a dozen Euro bike tourers on that road reminded us that people come a long ways to ride this iconic section of highway.  

As we traveled through the GSENM I had a recurring thought:  "what is it that makes people so uptight about Clinton's designation of this?"  It's no different now than it was before, with the exception that the communities on the perimeters are thriving:  the aforementioned moto mechanic has made it happen in Escalante, there's another new gear store in that town, a nice new school there, and in Kanab there are three new big hotels going in, probably tripling the existing bed count.  The owner of Kanab's (excellent!) Rockin' V restaurant said he regularly has people waiting two hours for a table!  Brian Maffly did a great investigative story on the area and it seems clear that the old school types in that part of the world refuse to acknowledge the benefits of the federal designation, something that the Rockin' V guy corroborated.  And cattle grazing continues - with BLM grazing fees at the silly level of something like $2.35/cow/year.  The big exception is that there is no mining allowed, and apparently it's that simple fact that feeds the likes of Senator Orrin Hatch's bitterness ("When President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante a monument, I called it ‘the mother of all land grabs.’") that must have rotted out what few teeth he may have left.  

Regardless of Orrin's blatherings, it's a great place for a bike tour/hike combo, and we'll be back with our steel camels to give our plans A and B another go.