Ubehebe and the Racetrack

Racetrack from Ubehebe

Racetrack from Ubehebe


The Racetrack is a famous Death Valley feature, a large dry lake with strangely moving stones. Recent research using GPS sensors and time-lapse photography has shown that the rocks move under light winds while embedded in large, thin, melting sheets of ice during the winter. The dry lake, or playa, has the scaly appearance of a dried-up mud puddle, but is hard enough when dry that walking on it leaves no marks.

Final terrible road

Final terrible road

I had read about the Racetrack and seen pictures many years ago, but it was always one of those things that was too far off in the middle of nowhere to visit. Standing on top of Dry Mountain the day before, I realized this was probably my best chance to see the thing. Waking at dawn near Teakettle Junction, I drove the final bone-jarring miles to the Racetrack, parking near a large camper at the trailhead for Ubehebe Peak, at the north end of the playa. Unsurprisingly, the “no camping” edict was not enforced.

Starting up Ubehebe

Starting up Ubehebe

After going for a walk on the northern end of the lake, I headed up the trail for Ubehebe Peak, more to get a better view of the Racetrack than to bag the summit. I met the owner of the camper along the way, a retired park ranger who had served in parks as far north as Wrangell-St. Elias. We talked for awhile, then he descended to look for “racing” rocks, while I continued toward the peak. Though it is hard to judge scale in the desert, this is actually a 1900-foot climb, though there is a decent trail most of the way.
Creosote flowers

Creosote flowers

After sweating my way up through the black rock and flowering creosote, I lounged on the summit for awhile, watching the others wander around the huge playa looking for the famous rocks.

The race is on

The race is on

I jogged the descent, then drove to the southern end of the lake-bed, where the rocks are supposedly more likely to be found. Spying a likely-looking candidate from the road, I parked and walked a few hundred yards out to what proved to be a football-sized, rectangular black rock. This rock had apparently not moved recently, as its track had faded to near invisibility, but it was still neck-and-neck with a nearby lizard. Wandering around the area, I found a few smaller rocks with slightly more obvious tracks, but none trailing the deep, obvious gouges found in the brochure. Maybe I needed to look in a different area, or come back in early spring when the tracks were freshest.

Tin Mountain

Tin Mountain

Having spent most of the morning sight-seeing, I took the wretched road back north to do some “work” and tag Tin Mountain, Dry’s neighbor across the valley. I pulled off the road at a likely starting-point, then watched the afternoon thunderstorms build as I had lunch and made my sandwiches. Though Dry was spared, things turned ugly above Tin, so I gave up on the summit and played tourist.

Ubehebe Crater

Ubehebe Crater

Next up was Ubehebe Crater, a volcanic blast crater north of Tin Mountain. Despite there being an obvious (and obviously-fun) path straight down to the bottom, I was the only person to run down and slog back out. Part of me wanted to do a couple more intervals, but that would have been ridiculous, so I emptied my shoes and continued my tour.

Nice flowers

Nice flowers

The final stop was Scotty’s Castle. Seeing it on maps on previous Death Valley crossings, I had assumed it was just a castle-shaped rock formation, but it is actually a castle-themed mansion, built in the 1920s by a crazy rich man befriended by a local con man named “Death Valley Scotty.” There are tours, and with them tourists, but I was content to just walk around the outside, admiring the flowers and the collection of water and diesel generators in use over the years. Evidently the water generator, like the carillon and tower clock, still works after almost a century.

Distinctive weathervane

Distinctive weathervane

Retreating to my car under the threat of rain, I drove into Beatty (motto: “We make Tonopah seem cosmopolitan.”) to get my tire patched. With an extreme climate and a fair amount of truck traffic, the town supports a healthy tire-repair business, though this seemed to be the slow season. What I thought was a nail puncture was actually caused by my driving too fast over sharp rocks (surprise, surprise), so while the guy put in a patch, he advised me not to trust the tire. After grabbing a few apples (choice of “green” or “red”) at what passes for a store, I returned north, then very gingerly drove miles of dirt road toward camping near Grapevine Peak.

Last Chance, Dry

Tin from valley floor

Tin from valley floor


Waking up at Last Chance Spring, I glanced at my again-flat tire, then headed up the canyon on foot to tag Last Chance Peak (oddly not the range highpoint). I passed an old mine shaft and crude shelter, then continued up the branching washes, choosing whichever seemed largest at each split. I didn’t know anything about the “official” route, but figured it didn’t matter in such gentle and un-vegetated terrain. When the washes started to become frustrating, I headed up the spine of a ridge, climbing through sparse trees and sage to eventually reach the main north-south crest.

Last Chance Mine

Last Chance Mine

Last Chance from the south

Last Chance from the south

After putting on all my warm clothes, I hiked to the next highpoint south, from which I located the apparent highpoint a few bumps to the north. After crossing a few intermediate bumps, I found the ammo box with the register. I eyed the clouds a bit, then took the vaguely-cairned standard route back to the car. Inflating a 31″ truck tire with a bike pump takes some work, but I could use the exercise, and I figured it was faster to do this a few times than to change the tire. Plus, maybe the sealant would start working if I gave it more time.

Crankshaft Junction

Crankshaft Junction

Returning to the main road at Crankshaft Junction, I continued south toward the main Death Valley, stopping at the pavement near Ubehebe Crater to top off my tire before driving 10 miles of the obnoxiously-washboarded Racetrack Road to a pullout where SummitPost suggested I start the hike to Dry Mountain. This is actually a bad place to start: the easiest route starts up the alluvial fan clearly visible 8-9 miles up the road. This fan leads to the base of Point 79xx’s south ridge. Climb the ridge, and Dry Mountain is finally visible after crossing through the saddle between two slightly higher peaks to the west.

Starting toward Dry (not visible)

Starting toward Dry (not visible)

Anyways… With a suboptimal starting location, the online route description did not match the terrain. I headed up and generally southwest, crossing undulating terrain and looking for the best way up the main ridge west of the valley. With nothing but sparse sage and the occasional barrel cactus to get in the way, the route was mostly easy going. By the time I realized that Point 79xx was the nondescript thing to the north, I was looking at it from the other side of a 1000-foot valley.

East from Dry

East from Dry

Not wanting to lose that much elevation, I instead followed my current route west to the main ridge, then made my way northwest to a wash that seemed the most efficient path toward what looked like the range highpoint. This involved losing a depressing amount of elevation, dropping from something like 7,800′ to about 7,000′ at Dry’s base, but there were no better alternatives, and I could cover the horizontal distance quickly in the dry wash.

Racetrack from Dry

Racetrack from Dry

From the base of Dry’s southeast face, it was a mostly-straightforward 1,600′ climb, following a gully, then a ridge that joined the standard route near the summit. It was cold enough that I did not stay around long to enjoy views of the Eureka Valley to the west and Tin Mountain across the way to the east; however, the clear view of the Racetrack to the south tempted me, despite the tire situation, to drive the extra 15 miles to check it out. After all, when would I ever return to this corner of the backside of nowhere?

I followed the standard route back, dropping to 7,100′ before climbing over Point 79xx and descending its south ridge. This was easier than my outbound route, and would have been even more-so if I didn’t have to cut across some low hills on the straight line back to my car.

With an hour of daylight left, I decided to finally address the tire situation. The first tire change in a “new” car is always a bit of a pain, as I need to figure out where the various wrenches and rods are hidden (often under my gear or sleeping platform), and how to apply them. The thing to lower the tire was awkwardly buried under the (folded-down) rear seats, requiring me to prop up my sleeping platform with my ice axe to get at it. After taking off the bike rack, I was able to lower the spare and take care of the easy part — jacking up the car and swapping the tire. The 31″ “clown tire” didn’t quite fit in the space allotted for the normal-sized spare, but I shoved it in as best I could, put the bike rack back on, and was on my way around dark. After a few more miles of horrid washboard road, I reached a “no camping beyond this point” sign at Teakettle Junction, where I pulled over for the night.

Sandy

Eureka Dunes and "sporting" route

Eureka Dunes and “sporting” route


Basin and Tom with fresh snow

Basin and Tom with fresh snow

Ah, the DPS list: peaks for when you have nothing better to do. Sitting in Loony Bean looking at the current and imminent snow in both the Sierra and the Whites, I was at somewhat of a loss for what to do. My “hit the Sierra early” plans were toast for awhile, and even the drier Whites were looking unexpectedly white. I hit up a friend for a shower and bed, and she, being a desert rat, suggested a trip to Saline and/or Death Valleys. After a week spend fighting rain and snow, some time in the driest part of the country seemed like a good idea.

Snowy Whites

Snowy Whites

Topping off on water, gas, and supplies in Big Pine, I headed a couple miles down highway 168, then turned right on the Saline Valley road. Despite having crossed between the Sierra and Rockies too many times over the years, this remote route was new to me. I stayed north instead of heading into Saline Valley, continuing past the end of the pavement to park at a saddle in the Last Chance range. Though the sporting route up Sandy Peak climbs from the Eureka Dunes, the common, boring route from this saddle is easier and involves less driving.

View west to Sierra

View west to Sierra

After lunch, I filled my pack, walked around the car, and noticed I had a flat tire. No problem: I come prepared with both a spare and a can of fix-a-flat. I read the instructions, shook the can, screwed it onto the valve stem, and… listened to it pathetically sputter out after a couple of seconds. More shaking, screwing, and unscrewing forced a bit more of the sealant into the tube, so I moved the car until the tire was puncture-side down, pumped it up the rest of the way with my bike pump, and took off for the peak.

Random desert flower

Random desert flower

Sandy proved to be a classic, boring DPS peak, a long walk through rolling, dusty washes and hills, trying to optimize one’s route to minimize elevation gain and avoid volcanic choss and occasional rocky outcrops. I distracted myself with the occasional flower and views of the Eureka Valley and cloud-shrouded Sierra to the west. Despite finding only occasional cairns and bits of use trail along the way, I saw quite a bit of traffic in the summit register, including a number of friends as well as the desert regulars.

"Desert grouse"

“Desert grouse”

Retracing my steps, I startled some sort of desert grouse and about a dozen of its chicks. They scattered, hiding under sagebrush before I got a picture of the whole gaggle, and the hen clucked to her brood from a safe distance until I moved on. Returning to the car, I topped off my rear tire, which was still leaking slowly, added a bit more sealant, and drove on to Last Chance Spring to camp.

Tinemaha, St. Jean Couloir

Split from below Red Lake

Split from below Red Lake


Looking at the forecast, I knew I should have done this a day earlier, but I felt unexpectedly beat-up when I woke up at Red Lake Trailhead, so I lazed around for a day before heading up the trail packing boots, tools, and camping gear for a quick mission. Though Split Mountain is a grim talus slog by its standard route, it has two interesting couloirs on its east face, which I hoped to climb and document.

View up Red Lake trail

View up Red Lake trail

Both the road to the trailhead and the trail itself seem to have decayed somewhat over the past two years, but I had little trouble following either, and the willow maze was easier without leaves. Despite the previous week’s snowstorm, the trail was dry all the way to Red Lake, which was completely melted and already noticeably below its normal level. I set up camp at one of the luxurious spots, had a leisurely lunch, then wandered off to tag Tinemaha, a nearby SPS peak.

East (l) and St. Jean (r) couloirs

East (l) and St. Jean (r) couloirs

Lying at the end of a ridge extending east from the crest between Split and Prater, Tinemaha seemed likely to have a nice view of the valley and surrounding peaks. Heading north from Red Lake, I turned right into the next drainage east of the standard Split route, hiking through acres of fairly-stable talus and small patches of snow. I eventually climbed some steeper terrain to reach a saddle just west of the peak, then turned right to follow the ridge to the summit.

Split (l) and Prater (r) from Tinemaha

Split (l) and Prater (r) from Tinemaha

The view wasn’t quite what I had hoped — the higher Ed Lane and Birch Mountains blocked the palisades, but it was a nice place to sit for awhile before returning to camp. It also has an excellent view of Split’s St. Jean and East Couloirs, the two routes I had come to do. While the former looked filled-in, the latter featured a discouragingly bare rock band low down. Hmm… Returning to camp, I read until the sun dipped behind Split, had my hot glop pot, then crawled into my sleeping bag to read myself to sleep.

Base of couloirs

Base of couloirs

I woke to gray skies, but consumed my morning glop, suited up, and was on my way by 6:15. The forecast suggested that things wouldn’t get serious until the afternoon, so it was worth trying at least one climb. Reaching the base of both climbs a bit more than an hour later, I saw that the East Couloir was not to be: starting with a 20-foot frozen waterfall, it continued with some snow, a bare rock step, and some extremely thin ice. It had started snowing, but I figured I could at least do the shorter, easier St. Jean.

Starting up St. Jean

Starting up St. Jean

After a bit of névé and aerated snow getting into the couloir, I climbed an easy 20-foot ice bulge low down, then proceeded up endless, fairly consistent névé/snow for most of an hour. The climb was never particularly challenging, but still fairly fun, passing through scenic rock and sheltered from the storm. Looking around online, I gather that conditions can vary wildly between months and years, from skiable powder, to deep slush, to solid alpine ice, to awful scree-covered rock. Given the options, I suppose I lucked out.

View up from descent

View up from descent

I stopped to put on my goggles shortly below the rim, then topped out into blowing snow on Split’s broad northwest talus plain. Without even contemplating the summit, I made my way down over talus and variable snow to the standard descent, which would have been very hard to find were I less familiar with the route. Returning to camp, I packed up as quickly as I could, and set off through the snow toward home.

Camp post-snow

Camp post-snow

I noticed some fresh footprints in the willows, and startled an older backpacker just below. Unfamiliar with the trail, he had camped the night before at a nasty, lesser lake only a few hundred feet below Red Lake, then sensibly turned around when he saw the weather. While talking on the way down, I learned he had been forced to park his 2WD vehicle and walk all the way from McMurray Meadows, so I kept pace with him to drive him back and save him the walk. This small kindness paid off in barbecue — the only thing to eat in Big Pine besides C-store food — after which I holed up out of the rain to mope and plot my next move.

Langley Loop

Langley from NE

Langley from NE


It made sense at the time

It made sense at the time

After a couple unusual days in SoCal waiting for the new snow to cook down in the Sierra, I rallied back up 395, left my bike at the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, and drove back to Tuttle Creek. Driving at night and unsure of the road conditions, I backed down from about 6,600′ to a camp spot at 6,500′. The road was every bit as sandy as I remembered, but my “new” car is more suited to such things than the Celica I drove last time, so I didn’t leave it on three wheels in the middle of the road.

Ashram and Lone Pine Peak

Ashram and Lone Pine Peak

Compromising between my need for sleep and desire to get on a northeast-facing snow climb early, I set my alarm for 5:00, and was hiking by 5:30. After passing the “trailhead” around 6,900′, I followed a well-defined trail to the ashram, then continued along what was essentially a cairned game-trail up the north side of the south fork of Tuttle Creek. The trail stays 50-100 feet above the stream to avoid the worst of the brush, finally climbing steeply to an open area where the valley broadens.

Flower in Tuttle Creek

Flower in Tuttle Creek

The trail fades as it climbs through this section — most people are smart enough to do this snow climb while there’s snow — but a line of cairns eventually crossed the stream and makes its way along the base of the talus to the base of the couloir. With the insanely-dry Sierra winter, what I remembered as low-angle snow last time was instead a vast talus-field partly covered in fresh snow, with some slabs to one side. The snow was breakable crust over sugar, so I treated it as lava, hopping from rock to rock where I could where I couldn’t march up the bare slabs.

Entering the chute

Entering the chute

Finally turning the corner into the main northeast couloir, I saw that it was well on its way to melting out, but a winding line of snow remained. The snow seemed easier than the loose debris beneath, and I was here to do a snow climb, so I took out my axe and started kicking steps. It was a bit of a mess, with new, drifted and/or crusty snow over the remaining winter snowpack, but with a bit of experimenting I was usually able to find a supportive line, sometimes even following an old boot-pack.

Dry year...

Dry year…

Somewhere around 12,000′ the snow finally became steep and hard enough to require crampons, which I donned sitting on one of the many exposed rocks. The branch I chose eventually melted out a couple hundred feet below the summit plateau, so I went back to scrambling from rock to rock until I topped out. Like last time, the temperature dropped dramatically as I transitioned from the sheltered snow of the couloir to the wind-blasted summit. I found a sheltered spot, read the register (other people complaining about the poor snow quality in the NE couloir, mostly), and took a look at the surroundings. The area south toward Horseshoe Meadows looked mostly dry and warm, while the alpine lakes between Langley and Whitney were still frozen.

This sucked

This sucked

A sane person would go back the way he had come, but this was a “work” climb, so I headed off on some version of the standard route to Old Army Pass. With the crust-over-sugar snow everywhere, I quickly lost the increasingly-established trail, cliffed out a bit, and spent quality time punching through the crust and then bashing my shins on it. My optimistic belief that the spring Sierra in a low-snow year would be as friendly as the summer Sierra in a normal year was proving ill-founded.

Treacherous Old Army Pass

Treacherous Old Army Pass

Old Army Pass was every bit as treacherous as one would expect early-season, with a steep, hard snow-slope covering the normal summer trail. I bypassed parts, carefully side-hilled others in crampons, and eventually got below the serious snow a few hundred feet above the highest Cottonwood Lake. Now there was nothing left but the standard sand-slog back to the trailhead. I passed only two people on my way through the normally-crowded area, reaching the trailhead to note happily that no one had stolen my bike. Now for the fun part.

The fun part

The fun part

I hit 42 MPH on the first drop, ground out the little climb, then sat up and braked to keep my speed to a sane 30-35 MPH on the straights and 20 on the turns. I felt pretty stoked as I blew past some people walking down the road, probably hoping for a lift. Rounding the final turn onto the last, straight switchback, I assumed my best tuck and let go, and was elated to hit 51.8 MPH before reaching the valley floor.

Climb back to the car

Climb back to the car

The road drops more gradually to the Tuttle Creek turnoff, so I could cruise along easily at 20+ MPH for awhile. Unfortunately, I had something like an 1,800-foot climb from Horseshoe Meadows road to my car, and was completely out of water. I could take it easy on the roughly-paved Granite View road, but the sandy track to Tuttle Creek was another matter. It was a long, grim slog, with several stops, a bit of walking, and a terrified slow-motion sprint past some jerk’s bee colony right next to the road. After about 9h30 of varied “adventure” I was back at the car. I’m glad I did it, but wouldn’t do it again.

Climate vs. weather

Good morning!

Good morning!


My plan for this season was driven by (changing) climate, with the increasingly-normal dry California winter convincing me to start in the Sierra. Unfortunately climate is not weather, as this past week has proved, and I must adapt.

North Schell from trailhead

North Schell from trailhead

After filling up in Ely, I drove up to Timber Creek Campground, where a dusting of snow from the previous day’s storm was taking its time melting. My goal up here was North Schell Peak, one of two ultra-prominence peaks in the area I had yet to tag. (The other, Ibapah, is something like 100 miles of dirt from the nearest pavement, making it unappealing.) The forecast for the next day called for cold and wind, but relatively little precipitation, so this was the best chance I would have.

schell-currant-2Thanks to the time change, I was on the trail at 6:10 without an alarm, easily following the faint climbers’ path under the dusting of snow. I had downloaded the route description the previous day, but mostly ignored it, as I could see the peak from the car. Despite North Schell having 5,400 feet of prominence, the climb is only 2,500 feet and a bit over two miles.

The trail follows the north branch of a stream, circling around the west side of the peak as it climbs. Where it finally disappeared under an old snowbank, I continued along the stream, then followed game trails north to gain the ridge, where I had my first taste of the eyeball-freezing wind. As I gradually realized, I had emerged well northwest of the summit, and so had a long, cold traverse back to reach it. I meandered back and forth, trying to optimize my route over loose scree, grass, and drifted snow while occasionally turning to warm my right eyeball.

Cold ridge to the summit

Cold ridge to the summit

Finally reaching what I thought was the summit, I saw the actual summit another quarter-mile to the south. By this time my feet were getting cold, but it was too cold to stop and put on plastic bags; I just had to get it over with. I slogged on to the summit, where I savored the experience for all of five seconds before retreating along a more direct route to the stream and trail. The whole experience had taken a mere two and a half hours, leaving me plenty of day to do something else.

Currant from parking spot

Currant from parking spot

I was headed along highway 6 to Bishop, which passes right through the White Pine Range, one of the better of Nevada’s many small mountain ranges. Stopping in the Ely McDonald’s for breakfast and internet, I determined that the loop over Currant and Duckwater Peaks would be right along my way, and should be feasible in the long afternoon if the weather held. Leaving the highway toward the White River campground, I followed the good dirt road for 10 miles, then turned left on the slightly less-good FR-407, and right on a much worse spur road. Parking near a rock dike protruding into the ravine, I watched some graupel pass, then put some more warm clothes in my pack before starting up the deteriorating road toward Currant’s impressive summit crags.

Looking down NE ridge

Looking down NE ridge

The route description mentioned following an old logging road to enter a ravine, but the main road and adjacent fields seemed much easier, so I just did that, leaving the road to follow deer- and cow-paths straight up open terrain. As the path of least resistance headed too far north, I left it to follow a ridge heading southwest toward what appeared to be Currant’s summit. The ridge was a mixture of manageable pine forest and rock outcrops; the rock, reminiscent of Eagle Peak near Death Valley, was incredibly sticky when dry or wet, though much less certain when covered with fresh wet snow.

Currant from ridge

Currant from ridge

I stayed on the ridge crest to avoid side-hilling where possible, though a couple of narrow sections and serrations forced me into the ankle-deep snow on the southeast side. Showers constantly threatened to the south and east, but for some reason stayed where they were. One final, larger serration near the top forced me to detour 100 feet down the south side, until I could scramble and slide into a gully returning me to the base of the summit slabs.

Ascent ridge from descent

Ascent ridge from descent

Being super-sticky rock, this class 3-4 slab would have been a quick romp when dry, but was somewhat more complicated when covered with patchy ice and snow. It was still fun and non-threatening, but kicking steps, sweeping off foot-holds, and routing around difficulties took time. After a few final, somewhat more tenuous moves, I reached the summit ridge, to find I was well north of the summit, and in for some Serious Business.

Final knife-edge to summit

Final knife-edge to summit

Currant’s north ridge extends in a long, jagged knife-edge well north of the highpoint. Most of the climbing is only class 3-4, but with the snow obscuring the angle of the top of the ridge, it was slow and sometimes nervous going. On a couple of the steeper narrow sections, I was forced to go a cheval, an uncomfortable maneuver on sharply-textured rock. The crux was a rotten drop just after a cairned sub-summit. Kicking off as much of the snow and loose rock as I could, I downclimbed about 6 feet to a gently outward-sloping ledge, psyched myself up, then jumped the remaining 6 feet to a dirt flat on the next part of the ridge. Desert peaks aren’t supposed to be that hard!

North along knife-edge toward Duckwater

North along knife-edge toward Duckwater

Currant had taken more time and mental effort than I had expected, so after glancing at Duckwater, I headed down Currant’s standard route without hesitation. Unfortunately, the top of the chute one is supposed to follow is not obvious from above, so I got to spend some quality time cliffing out in other, lesser chutes filled with thigh-deep slush. I eventually found my way to the bottom of the correct chute, then postholed my way down a ravine to the bottom of the snow. Other than some dry-falls that required a little scrambling to bypass, the rest of the hike to the car was straightforward. I found the “old logging road,” but it was almost invisibly faint, and near-invisible where it joins the main ATV track.

Southern White Pine range

Southern White Pine range

I returned to highway 6 by following FR 407 south, which was rougher but more direct than retracing my route. After filling up at the secret ghetto station in Tonopah — one of the most depressing towns in America — I drove on into the night, crossing Montgomery Pass into California before pulling off on a well-graded dirt road to sleep. Though it was bare dirt when I nodded off, I woke to find a half-foot of snow outside. Fortunately I had four-wheel drive, because otherwise I would have been stuck until someone decided to wander down this random road to nowhere. With 6″ of snow at 7,000′ in the Whites, there has to be well over a foot in the Sierra. In the short term, weather trumps climate.

Wet, wet Moab

Sudden shower

Sudden shower


I had hoped to ride the White Rim Road, a 103-mile loop around the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands, so I wanted to take an easy day after Phil’s World to prepare. I also didn’t want to drive much, so Abajo Peak, the highpoint of a small range west of Monticello, seemed like a good low-ambition goal for the day.

Dinner?

Dinner?

After sleeping at the base of the old ski area, I decided to take the dirt road up the south side instead, figuring that the remaining snow in the woods would be annoying. It had rained the night before, and the bottom part of the dirt road was wet and mucky. Not wanting to coat my bike with mud, I drove past the area of the localized rain shower, then started riding from around 8,000 feet. The road was consistently steep, but dry until it turned the shoulder of South Peak to cross a north-facing slope, where it was blocked by snow.
Gooseneck aspen

Gooseneck aspen

Locking my bike to a tree, I walked the rest of the road to an exceptionally large and ugly collection of buildings and radio towers on the summit. Not being in any hurry, I walked most of the way back to my bike, then coasted to the car.

Abajo summit

Abajo summit

After getting some new and hopefully less mobile cleats, I hung out in Moab for awhile, then drove up to the start of the White Rim Road to camp. Waking to steady rain, I abandoned my riding plans and headed back into town, where I killed a day in the public library with the other dirtbags, then drove back to my previous camp. A large group of cyclists was finishing a multi-day tour of the White Rim as I arrived, looking generally miserable as they straggled in on mud-caked machines. As they described repeatedly dismounting to knock the mud out of their dérailleurs, I decided I would give things a bit more time to dry out.

Klondike trail

Klondike trail

After driving back to the highway, I pulled in near the Klondike Bluffs trailhead on BLM land to camp, and was surprised to find maps of what was apparently a relatively new mountain biking area. Maybe I would have a chance to ride it the next day while the White Rim dried.

Klondike Buttes

Klondike Buttes

Unfortunately, I woke to find it had rained more overnight, so after driving through some nasty muck to the trailhead, I instead decided to jog 4-5 miles of jeep road to the Klondike Bluffs. A couple of riders pulled up as I prepared, including one professional woman with a striking quantity of wavy red hair. Though they were apparently willing to ride the wet, sandy trails, I preferred to wait for things to dry out a bit. I explored the Bluffs a bit, got poured on for about 5 minutes, then jogged back to the trailhead, passing a convoy of about 10 jeeps on the way.

Fun?

Fun?

More riders arrived as I ate and eyed the weather. Though it never truly started raining, it sprinkled off and on, and it looked either overcast or raining back toward Island in the Sky. Clearly I was not meant to ride the White Rim this spring. With miles to drive and a one-day weather window in Nevada the next day, I looked through my list of things to do, then headed west for Ely, Nevada.

Fear and sucking in Durango

On the one hand, she can be frustrating and high-maintenance, and occasionally breaks down unpredictably. On the other hand, she is fun to spend time with, and introduces me to new areas and activities, so I’ll probably keep her around for awhile. Plus, she’s a good ride…

Home and "woman" at Phil's World

Home and “woman” at Phil’s World

Luxurious home improvement

Luxurious home improvement

Based on Mike’s recommendations, I stopped at the Durango Walmart to improve my sleeping situation, then drove over to the Horse Creek trailhead to explore the nearby network of supposedly easy trails. Early on a Saturday afternoon, the large parking lot with the sign was mostly full. Heading up the old road, I mistakenly bypassed the trails, eventually ending up on a well-graded country road on the other side of a minor pass.

I fell for you!

I fell for you!

After realizing my mistake, I returned to the first obvious trail on the north side of the road. Less than 100 yards up the first climb, I slammed on my brakes to avoid running over a lethargic snake, then fell over when I couldn’t unclip fast enough.
Trail toward Raiders Ridge

Trail toward Raiders Ridge

I shoo-ed the lethargic snake to safety, then continued up toward Raiders’ Ridge, mostly hiking up some steep slabs that I probably should have been riding down. I probably should have turned around.

Reaching the ridge, I turned uphill, riding up miserable little sandstone steps. Occasionally, one of them would be big enough to stop me, and I would either manage to unclip in time, or topple over on my side. After doing this a few times, I realized that my cleats were slipping, frustrating my attempts to unclip. I tightened them as much as I could, then turned around, getting off the wretched ridge at the first opportunity.

Telegraph trail

Telegraph trail

Once back on the road, I headed toward the trailhead a bit, then turned south into the Meadow Loop area, where no-skills people like me are supposed to ride. Life improved considerably, modulo occasional stops to reposition and tighten a cleat — I still haven’t figured out how to make them stay put without stripping the bolts. After much climbing, the descent on a counter-clockwise tour of the outer Meadow Loop was fast and fun.

With plenty of daylight and energy left, I decided to explore the Telegraph trail, which climbs a hill south of the meadow past some old telegraph poles. This I also found manageable, though the signage at the spread-out 4-way intersections was confusing at times. I had intended to ride something longer, but ended up returning via Sidewinder, a fast, swooping, banked descent toward a different trailhead. This was probably the highlight of the day, as I was able to get out of my normal terrified-self-preservation mode for most of the descent. I took the paved Animas trail back to the car, ate some stuff from cans, and drove on toward Cortez.

Main trailhead

Main trailhead

After camping a bit farther up the road, I returned to the well-signed and -developed Phil’s World parking lot, empty at this early hour. The night had been relatively warm, but the sky was overcast, and rain threatened to the east.
View south from Phil's World

View south from Phil’s World

While Mesa Verde and Ute Peak rise fairly impressively to the south, Phil’s World lies in gently-rolling terrain covered in juniper and sage, the kind of land I would normally think is best suited for dumping old mattresses. The trails have two parts: the smaller “Trust Loop,” and the main collection of loops across the road from the parking lot. All of the trails are one-way: not only are they signed for clockwise riding, but they have been expertly built so that drops and other obstacles are encountered on the downhills. Also, simply turning left at all but one well-signed intersection results in riding all the trails.

Having nothing else to do all day, I started by riding the outer perimeter of the main area. This was mostly fast and fun, with the smooth, banked trail meandering among the junipers as it goes around and over small hills and sandstone outcrops. The main exception is the Ledges Loop, which spends more time on unpleasantly rough sandstone. I ate it once on this section, possibly bending my rear derailleur, but found most of even this part ridable.

Where the good stuff starts

Where the good stuff starts

The highlight of Phil’s World is Rib Cage, a smooth trail that swoops and dips along an arroyo, with perfectly-banked turns and a variety of dips and jumps. After trying it once, I returned to the car for more water and canned food, eyed the weather for a bit, then checked out the Trust Loop. That proved mostly easy and underwhelming, though increasingly hot as the sun finally came out. Returning to the now-crowded parking lot, I refilled my water, then did three more increasingly-fast laps on Rib Cage — it’s that good.

2015 begins

With the end of my lease and the start of May comes another season on the road. I’m compacting my belongings, repairing my gear, and getting an oil change and tune-up for my house. Though much of the mid-season is still in the air, this winter’s Pacific drought has led me to start in the high Sierra, which I skipped entirely last year. Most of the climbing will be “work,” climbing old peaks by new routes, though I will add a few new things, especially toward the end of June.

After that, I have some unfinished business in Washington, including the remaining volcanoes, the Olympic Range, and Mount Logan, my last Cascades 9,000-er. Then it’s off to Canada for some time in the Coast Range, Selkirks and Rockies; hopefully Edith Cavell will play less hard-to-get this year.

So… more of the same, but different. Welcome aboard!

Hopefully... (photo by Joe Catellani)

Hopefully… (photo by Joe Catellani)


P.S. — Moving the blog to have sane URLs, something I should have done long ago, broke a bunch of old links and photos. I’ll be fixing those as I have the time.

Copper Canyon

Climb out in the afternoon

Climb out in the afternoon


Or, “Gueros getting serious about fitness tourism.”

With some time to kill between sunrise and when auto shop opened, we naturally decided to do a few intervals. A bit of panning around on Google Maps showed some roads unlikely to have too many cars or dogs, we suited up and went our separate ways. Not having planned to run on this trip, I had brought neither real shorts nor headphones, so I had to make do with zipping off the legs of my hiking pants and taking in the “scenery” as I ran northeast out of town past a gravel yard and who-knows-what else.

Afterward, we took the van over to the mechanic, who ran a somewhat bigger and better-equipped shop than the last one. Sensing people who would pay promptly, he got right on it, attaching a pressure gage to the engine block, pulling on some wire to rev the throttle a few times, letting the van run for a bit, then plugging some hand-held device into the diagnostic port. His diagnosis: “fuel pump; should be fixed in a couple of hours.” After killing more time at the hotel, we returned about two hours later to find the van already fixed and parked on a side street. Total cost: $100, or only slightly more than places in the US sometimes try to charge simply to read the diagnostic port.

Headed north again, we returned to the southern outskirts of Chihuahua, then headed west to Cuauhtemoc, passing the time listening to Bach, PDQ and otherwise. Just as we were extracting ourselves from the center of town, the van momentarily lost power — not the total death we had experienced before, but a sort of “hiccup” like a bubble in the fuel line or something. Since Cuauhtemoc is basically the “end of civilization,” we returned to downtown to consider our options. There were almost certainly buses from Cuauhtemoc to Creel, our gateway to Copper Canyon, but we didn’t know their schedule, where the bus depot was in town, or where we could find some internet. After some indecision on my part, we passive-aggressively psyched each other up to take the “stupid” option and power on to Creel in the van. What’s the worst that could happen? We rolled on, through acres of apple orchards filled with wood-fired barrels to protect the blossoms against frost.

Turning off the divided highway at La Junta, we passed a caravan of tanker trucks being inspected by the state police, toting a truly Mexican number of large and fierce-looking guns. The van gave an occasional kick from time to time, but mostly behaved itself as we headed southwest and climbed into the Sierra Madre. After days spent in various un-scenic varieties of desert, it was a pleasant change to begin passing through terrain resembling the Gila of southwest New Mexico, with broad grassy plains, pine trees, and even a shapely volcanic plug.

San Juanito at its best (morning)

San Juanito at its best (morning)

We passed through rolling forest, over an 8,000-foot pass, and down into smoking, ruined hellscape of San Juanito. It was quittin’ time, and dead-eyed men sat along the streets next to the bodegas and crumbled buildings, drinking beer or just watching the passing traffic. It was cool at night at this elevation, and smoke from people’s wood stoves created a gloomy haze over the town.
Serving San Juanito's liquor and FUD needs

Serving San Juanito’s liquor and FUD needs

A pickup truck full of bored-looking local cops pulled in front of us, then fortunately turned off on a side street.

Central Creel

Central Creel

Reaching the outskirts of Creel, the GPS misdirected us off on some side street, taking us through the seedier side of the city, and we briefly worried that we might be looking for lodging in San Juanito’s sister city. Fortunately, tourism supports a clean, well-lit, and safe-feeling area near Creel’s city center. We had hoped to stay in the incredibly cheap and well-appointed hostel, but it was full of Mexican tourists for Holy Week, so we were forced into a “costly” ($25/night) hotel behind a canned goods store. This was a luxury establishment, with four layers of wool blankets on each bed, and a “calefactor” for our calefaccion.

Creel's main street

Creel’s main street

After dropping some stuff in the room, we went touring the downtown in search of things to cook on my camp-stove (and also next to the “calefactor”). Though the town was clearly swarming with tourists, we seemed to be the only gueros, which made us feel a bit out-of-place.
For all your calefaction needs

For all your calefaction needs

The local Mexican and Tarahumara vendors didn’t seem to make a distinction, with one offering apples, beef jerky, and peyote. On our way back to the store, we passed a Mexican army truck rolling slowly down the street with the rest of the traffic. It was everything you would expect: four men sitting in the bed with assault rifles, and one manning a roof-mounted machine gun, all wearing helmets, bullet-proof vests, and camo balaclavas. I’m not sure if it should have been reassuring or not; none of the other tourists paid them much attention.

Creel seems to be trying to promote itself as a place for mountain biking, so the next day I headed down the street to start the next part of the “fitness tourism” agenda by renting a bike (Mike had brought his own, of course). The rental place had plenty of more-or-less maintained and usable bikes for a reasonable price, but convincing the guy to rent me one took some doing. He needed his entire cycle-herd for a large family the next day, and needed mine back in good condition by 6:00 that evening. I foolishly told him we wanted to transport it in a private vehicle — ¡tu romperlo! — then ride to Batopilas — ¡no es possible! — and barely made it out the door after giving him my passport and swearing to have it back in good shape.

Cliffs and abandoned house

Cliffs and abandoned house

From Creel to the gorge containing Batopilas, the two-lane road winds in and out of canyon after canyon, many over 1,000 feet deep, past white cliffs and hoodoos poking out of the pine forest. Though as deep as the Grand Canyon, the Copper Canyon area is not a single, awesome hole in the ground, but a maze of plateaus with deeply-cut canyons running between them. The road, well-paved and almost entirely free of traffic even while Creel was full of tourists, would make an excellent road bike tour.

Descending a larger canyon

Descending a larger canyon

Looking at the surrounding country, we saw how the Creel area had acquired its supposedly-excellent network of singletrack bike trails: generations of Tarahumara, walking from house to house, had worn foot-paths along the valleys and across the mesas. We saw a number of them as we drove, the men wearing the universal uniform of blue jeans and button-down shirts, the women mostly in the traditional full, colorful skirts and blouses. Most had large shawls over their shoulders, which they used to carry both possessions and children. Some were walking comfortably along the trails, but most were simply sitting by the side of the road, miles from the nearest town or house. They didn’t seem to be trying to sell anything or hitch-hike; I have no idea what they were trying to accomplish.

Our plan was to drive to where things “get interesting”, either at the edge of the big canyon or where the road deteriorated to dirt, then bike the rest of the way to Batopilas and back. I had expected the pavement to end at a certain intersection, but it continued for miles beyond. Near the edge of the main canyon it started to become potholed enough to be annoying to drive, so we parked at a dirt pull-out around 6,900 feet and started riding.

Up from 3,100 feet

Up from 3,100 feet

After a bit of gently rolling, thoroughly-potholed tarmac along the rim, the still-paved road plummets in just five miles to the river at 3,100 feet. Though relatively new, the road is poorly-designed, and was frequently reduced to one lane by piles of fallen rock. My El Cheapo rental bike’s brakes weren’t all they should be, so I had to be a bit cautious; Mike gamely took it easy. At the river, we found a somewhat lackadaisical construction crew and some large Caterpillar equipment apparently working on a new bridge. The old one, a sketch-ball looking wooden thing, looked more suitable for the old one-lane dirt road than the new paved one.

From the bridge to Batopilas, the river drops 1,100 feet in only 16 miles. So does the road, but via an endless series of rollers rather than a smooth descent. We passed a few natives hanging out or walking along the road, and, across the river and on the hillside above, we saw the occasional foot trail leading to an isolated home, but the canyon was surprisingly quiet. The pavement degraded to chip-seal, then finally ended a couple of miles short of town.

Impressive mystery-building

Impressive mystery-building

After passing an amazing and well-maintained building that might have been a hotel or a monastery, we crossed a final bridge to reach the outskirts of Batopilas.

Batopilas bridge

Batopilas bridge

Mindful of the need to return my bike by 6:00, I had been riding fairly hard down the canyon, and only paused briefly for a couple photos to prove we were there before turning around for the grim slog home.
Downriver to Batopilas

Downriver to Batopilas

This was fitness tourism, and it was time for type II fun, not sight-seeing. The day had been blessedly overcast, but it was still hot some 5,000 feet below the rim, and that began to get to me on the rolling climb back along the river. I had no power on some of the steeper rollers, and shamefully even stopped on a couple to cool off before crawling back into the pain cave. We passed more Tarahumara on the side of the road, and a road crew of four slowly clearing away one of the many rockfall piles with shovels. At the rate they were going, they could remain fully employed indefinitely, clearing the last 20+ miles of road to Batopilas at the rate of a couple dozen feet per day.

Resting (yet again)

Resting (yet again)

I hoped that the weakness would pass if I drank more water and kept up a moderate pace, but a 6:00 return looked impossible. I finally convinced an increasingly-bored Mike to take off at his own pace, fetch the car, and meet me on the climb out. That turned out to be every bit as bad as I had expected, a slow, grim accumulation of vertical feet in units of 250, with rest stops between each of these weakness-induced “intervals.” With unlimited time I could have made it back to the car by dark, but would almost certainly have had to play “giardia roulette” with one of the roadside streams, as I ran out of water some 2,000 feet below the rim (and had not been saving my own urine).
Burros along the climb

Burros along the climb

On the good side, this unpleasant process gave me an excuse to take a few pictures.

Sunset on the way out

Sunset on the way out

I timed things just right, mounting up for another 250-foot push just seconds before Mike drove around a bend. I tossed the bike in the back and collapsed in the passenger’s seat, and Mike began rallying the van — to the extent that’s possible — back to Creel. I took some decent evening photos of the scenery through the window, but stopping was not an option. At 5:55, we pulled up 50 yards short of the rental place, and I “triumphantly” pedaled across the street to give the surprised rental guy his precious bike. Then it was time to shower and visit the grocery store for chorizo, eggs, and vegetables to make an extra-large pot of nutrient glop.