Tuesday, November 12, 2013

White Rim-in-a-day (WRIALAD) Bike Ride

White Rim in a Day (aka "WRIAD" or "WRIALAD")
14 hours, 103 miles


Canyon country: canyons beyond canyons of geologic handiwork, carved over epochs with remarkable patient precision.  Think of the naivete of quick perfection being fully formed! -- when compared to the careful chiseling of rock into even more rugged and imposing character -- falling deep from a higher plane, with levels of complexity revealing the history of the making like so many books.

Canyonlands National Park comprises but a part of Utah canyon country, with the Island in the Sky District providing a grand view of the confluence of two of the most important rivers of the American West.  This is Abbey country, along the Colorado, as well as the Green, with eons of destruction creating a complex landscape. The distinctive white rim -- visible from space but even more accessible from a perch near the park entrance -- frames the fractalized contours of the plateaus below.  

I had the pleasure of viewing it from above, on a trip with J almost exactly a year ago.

The White Rim trail, then, follows along these impressive mesas, with occasional switchbacking drops down into the level below.  As a rocky jeep road, the 103-mile circuit is an American classic, often done in multi-day camping trips involving jeeps or mountain bikes.  Of course, the distance and challenge also lend itself to a single day effort on a mountain bike or a jeep.

Alex and I were happy to give it a go.


As you can see already, it was a successful attempt, leading to a satisfying GPS track which traces a solid artificial line on top of where a road is, with accompanying quantitative statistics.  While riding in a day is certainly a difficult challenge, others have run it instead, and mountain bikers have done it twice as fast.  (Think: aero bars, drafting, van support).

Assuredly, Alex and I did it with uncertainty, minimal planning and preparation -- "White Rim on a Whim" -- and had a fantastic experience on a beautiful day, getting our money's worth with several hours of dawn and dusk riding.

We began with the drive from Colorado on Friday afternoon, arriving at Mineral Canyon Road after sunset, with vague hopes of camping on BLM land.  We followed the dusty, washboarded road for nearly 13 miles, knowing that we'd be returning up the same road around sunrise the next day, surprised at the lack of other vehicles, bikes, or visible camps, before the final pulloff above the Green River.  It was after sunset as Alex drove down a steep, ledgy road with little room for error (or anywhere to turn around), so he proceeded mostly on faith that the road would indeed get us somewhere useful.  We first saw the actual road in daylight 2 days later.

It was fully dark when we hit the bottom, and after a left turn and a scant several hundred feet or so, we saw a sandy pulloff to the right which led fortuitously to a campsite with an arranged ring-circle for a firepit.  Being the first available candidate we had seen, it was the perfect spot.  Again, it was a full 2 sunrises later that we actually saw how beautiful the site was, being right on the Green River.

As far as we could tell, we were the only ones camping down by the river.  We made camp and dinner quickly, and fidgeted with bikes and gear.   Just before retiring, we saw headlights coming down the switchbacks, which eventually pointed near our campsite.  A couple guys got out and scouted around, and just as we thought they were leaving, they re-parked and began setting up camp.  Ethan and Josh.  Climbers.  

I've had enough rowdy camping neighbour experiences to fear the worst, and I bring along earplugs just in case, but it's a frustrating alternative to a peaceful camp.  Sometimes, or even often, free camping is even louder than Disney-esque established campgrounds because there's no accountability or authority.  But, so far, these guys were respectful, talking in hushed voices, and closing the doors on the truck -- closing, not slamming! -- quietly.  So I also thought about those looking-in-faith-for-a-campsite moments where I'm just hoping to find a small patch of ground myself under a starry sky, and it was even better to share the landscape with kindred spirits.

I walked over to introduce ourselves, and offered some beer, which they obliged and remarked on the Fort Collins origin.  Turns out, they were from Loveland area and now one of them was in Durango, and they were out to climb Moses rock the next day (a prominent tower on at least one list of "Fifty Favorite Climbs").  They were apologetic for camping nearby, and we were quick to appreciate their concern and respect out in the desert.  They also showed us the success of their "Upside-down fire" -- an interesting thing to consider for future fire efforts, and certainly an archetypal fascination in general that I'm sure is encoded somewhere on the Y-chromosome.  

As we told them of our bike plans, it was interesting to think of their orthogonal plans, moving hundreds of feet vertically, through great effort and risk, while barely budging on the map, while we were doing the exact opposite.
And now you see, if you haven't already, how senseless maps really are!


So now I'll tell you a bit about preparation: the plan started when the womenfolk planned a girls' weekend out in Santa Fe.  I wasn't even sure if Alex was available, and had a mental checklist of options but kind of wanted to see how the weather was fairing.  Two years ago, in fact, a group of us had a great time and perfect weather in the Grand Canyon, so it was natural to be drawn to the desert again.  But I wasn't sure about a similarly long on-foot effort, and neither was Alex.  Even when I was thinking about the bike ride, of course, the government shutdown threatened the possibility through half of October anyway. 

Still, I figured the Gravel Grinder a few weeks prior was a good shake-out, with a few shorter mt. bike rides here and there.  Alex had done a road century in the summer, and I was sure relentless stubborn progress could get us through anything, but I hadn't really warned Alex about the specific idea, and I think the idea was mentioned after a beer or three at a Halloween party, when I didn't even know very many details about the ride.  So I was pleasantly surprised (well, not really surprised) the next day when he texted after reading ride reports and watching videos: "I'm in."  

Other than a few rides, I also started thinking about gear a bit, and most of it worked quite well.  So here you go:
* 29er hardtail (Trek/Fischer Cobia)
* 1.9" semi-slick tires (Geax Evolution, cheap from REI)
* Downtube bottle cage: hose clamp, with tire tube rubber
* Rear rack: Schwinn seatpost mount (cheap from Target), bungee cords
* Seatpost cage: zip-tied to rack and seatpost

I had a Mountain Hardwear waist-pack with 2 more bottles, so 6 bottles and ~130 oz's total (on a cool day, 30-55 deg F).  I hate worrying too much about gear, but had fun with the fact that relatively modifications worked well at keeping weight off my back and shoulders.  The rear rack was tight and didn't sway at all -- I just could have used another strap on the rear bag (extra layers) and rear bottle cage that was a bit loose.  The tires were great as the route doesn't really need knobbies at all, and the lower bottle cage was great as well.  And there you go, for the accounting.  


Anyway, we awoke to cold and dark and frost.  The advantage of parking at Mineral Bottom, and proceeding clockwise, is getting one of the largest sustained climbs out of the way early.  Without daylight to marvel at the views, it was easy to focus on the thin beam of headlight, one switchback at a time.  I through it into the granny gear right away to spin more and, uh, stay warm; and by getting that out of the way, I didn't have to think about trying every climb in the middle ring or other such foolishness.  (Later, plenty of other opportunities of sandy, steep climbs made me grateful for the granny gear as well).

After 20-25 minutes, this was followed by arguably one of the least scenic stretches  (a gradual climb through high-desert brush) in low light.
For "not scenic," it was still a great place to be.  And we had a big climb out of the way.

We had a manageable but cold, sharp headwind, so we were anxious for the rising sun.  That only helped a bit, as we entered the National Park through an unmanned station.  We tacked on the extra mile each way to visit the Visitor Center and pay the entrance fee. Did I mention, we still hadn't seen other riders yet? We figured it would be a popular enough weekend that we'd see several groups around sunrise, but hadn't yet seen any.

I refilled the scant water that I drank already, and tried to warm up a bit (I had 2 unused layers, still, but it was colder when not moving).  As we talked to the rangers, we were told in no uncertain terms that it was a long ride without help or water, that the days were short and it was already 9AM, and that we'd be finishing in the dark.   Yeah, I know that, say, Grand Canyon R2R2R is discouraged, but we had plenty of water and gear (enough to spend the night or more, if necessary), and already had 20-some miles done; so how about some encouragement instead?
(Later, by only seeing about 5 other vehicles all day, I realized how un-busy the park is, ironically, outside of the hot summer season, so even being on the road is more removed than being on any road in Rocky Mountain NP, for example.  At worst, it seems one might be 20 miles or so from water; in some cases, the quickest escape route might be one of the crisscrossing hiking-only trails that lead back up a thousand feet or more to the Visitor Center).

So our next order of business was dropping more than a thousand feet into Shafer Canyon, on a switchbacking jeep road.

This certainly could be a bomber descent, and would be even more fun on a full suspension bike.  Disc brakes are certainly helpful.  As it was, I tried to force myself to stop grinning so as not to get dust and grit in my teeth -- but it was hard.  We took it easy and enjoyed the views, and I stopped to adjust and double-check the gear strapped to my rig.

I heard a voice from above, which would have been tourists from one of the overlooks.
"Oh, wow, I have something new on my bucket list," said the voice to his friend.  "Check out those bikes down there!"

We made our way down to the next thematic section of the ride: long, flat riding surrounded by monuments and canyon walls.  The weather was great for riding but still just a bit cool.  Within a few miles, we would be coming up to a short side-hike to a spectacular rock bridge known as Musselman Arch -- we were looking forward to this as one of the highlights of the trip.

Musselman Arch is flat, solid -- and no wider than a sidewalk, with a steep dropoff on either side.  But it's accessible for hiking access (in years past, people have taken bikes and even motorcycles on it), giving a unique and fantastic vantage point.

Not wanting to walk in bike cleats for various reasons, I asked Alex to take pictures while I jogged barefoot on the rock.

We both took turns out on the arch, and enjoyed a chance to thaw out our numbed feet.

Back on the bike, then, we enjoyed impressive views of sandstone monoliths, with the frosted La Sals in the distance.

As we rode further, I remembered one of the more unique rock names that I had seen on the map, and we saw her plainly and obviously: "Washer Woman Rock."

We continuee flat riding in a land of stone giants, alternating between flat, sandy valleys and slickrock ledges.  Despite descriptions of backpacking campsites being full months in advance, we found most of them empty despite nearly perfect weather.

We kept our eyes out one more major stopping point, "Vertigo Void," which is an undercut section on which the rim is roughly a foot thick at the edge and then only gradually thickens as it retreats from the large void hundreds of feet below.  Supposedly, lying above the void presents the sensation of flying, especially when the wind updrafts from the canyon below.

We approached the edge, with little to no wind.  I'm not sure about flying, but the vertigo part was definitely true: if I focused my vision away from the rim so as not to see the edge holding us up, my legs spasmed and my heart raced to remind me that it was still on solid ground.  A bit of somewhat terrifying fun.  I like to envision that we -- animals -- have an unappreciated sense of gravity, and that we can feel the minute differences between solid objects and voids, between heights and depths (distance squared), perhaps via tiny, unstudied sensors within our bodies; and that this affect is blocked or muted when encapsulated within larger objects, like buildings or cars.
Without proof, though, it'll have to be considered imagination.  Or faith.

And then, more riding.  We encountered occasional groups of cyclists:  with a trailing van, and some spry freshness and odd line and cadence choices, most of them were out for a supported section ride.  Hopefully the smiles and fun are a gateway to further riding.  A few smaller groups did appear to be in for the whole enchilada -- but definitely a much less frequent endeavor than Grand Canyon through-hiking this time of year.

We had a few climbs left, namely Murphy's Hogback and Hardscrabble Hill.

Both are short but steep grunts -- more runnable than rideable -- with a bit of sand and ruts to make things interesting.  And on our ride, these climbs came about mile 70 and almost 90.
A surprising short section before Murphy's was sandy enough to hop off the bike for a short section.  But the climb itself was the right aerobic challenge, as I fought my front tire just barely hanging on to the trail, and used every bit of tiny relief sections of flatness to catch my breath, between intervals of 30-40 second anaerobic grinds.

I didn't get good pictures on the way up, but the view from the top was rewarding.

We enjoyed a fun descent after all that work, and finally were able to appreciate our net decline towards the Green River, with a surprise treat being the sheltered trees still hanging on to golden leaves.

While the dropping sun meant we were running short on daylight, it was an absolutely sublime and mesmerizing set of sunsets.  We were treated to a ride towards a prominent sundog -- three sunsets for the price of one! -- while shadows and reflections upped the visual ante.

And so we were tired and nearly ready to be done, but witnessed some of the best scenery at the best time.

Shortly after this was some fun, hardpacked cruising.  Finally, full dark, with a clean climb of the switchbacking Hardscrabble hill, followed by sandy rollers in the dark.  Trying to anticipate sand was more difficult with limited view, and even after we descended back to the nadir of the ride, the sand, fittingly, forced us to a walk.

And then the "other" entrance, which had a leather-bound book full of not just names and dates, but other assorted prose.  With cold, cramped fingers, I scratched our names on one of the pages.

Just a few more sandy miles, and we were delighted to see our campsite again, in full dark after over 14 hours.  Ethan and Josh had their fire going after a successful climb, and cheered our return, and we made quick work of opening beers and cooking any and all edibles we had.


This was a fantastic ride and Alex was the perfect partner for it, it would have been a much darker experience without him.  We were quite happy with the choice to ride clockwise and to start from Mineral Bottom.  Along the way, I thought of how something like Kokopelli Trail (140+ miles) in a day would be more miserable than my armchair enthusiasm would have predicted, and how comparatively un-fun riding in the dark is (perhaps it's lack of practice, but the "speed penalty" of riding in the dark is much worse than running).  Although not technical, I can't imagine running it -- my hat's off to those that do (not much slower than we rode it!) -- but even with the mechanical advantage of a bike, it was even more satisfying to be "out there" in the distant part of the loop without any knowledge of any sort of nearby rescue or support vehicle.  It was nice to be done with the ride, and we certainly thought about how much faster we could ride it; but we both agreed, if we did the loop again, it would be even more fun to do it more slowly, with even more time to explore the ample campsites and side trips.

Video summary from Alex:


  1. Great write-up Mike. It was a pretty perfect day and I feel very fortunate to have a friend like you to share it with. What's next?

  2. Looks like you had a fun ride! I disagree that with your statement about the "speed penalty" of riding at night. You just need a brighter light ;-) From my experience, you probably need a minimum few hundred lumen for any serious night mountain biking.