Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Farewell lakes to Salmon River Swamps.

The day dawned clear and calm--exactly what I'd been hoping for. I'd laid in the bag for long enough that there was no dilly-dallying and no missteps when repacking in the sharp cold that had settled onto the lake. I made a mental note on how much clearer the process of repacking seemed after spending a few extra minutes cataloging everything I had to pack away, and what order worked best to pack it.

Side note: I realize that it seems extremely obsessive compulsive (anal, anyone?) to have to plot and plan an 'order' in which to repack ones gear. When I raced this route the amount of gear I carried was significantly less--both by design and by evolution. I learned the hard way that the more stuff you have to account for and stash away, the more time you spend not moving, which means you're getting colder by the minute. First thing in the AM when the temps are at their coldest is a difficult time to merely conjure up the mental wherewithal to get yourself out of a perfectly warm sleeping bag, not to mention the guaranteed pain involved in having your hands go numb (repeatedly) while stashing all of the stuff that needs to be stashed. In short, the less time you spend packing, the warmer your extremities remain. And within minutes of being packed and moving, the blood is flowing and everything starts to warm up nicely. So it pays to pack quick.

While stuffing my sleeping bag I couldn't help but notice the track of a lone lynx that had circled the tent sometime in the night.I get a kick out of how well adapted they are to this environment--those gargantuan feet belong to a ~30lb cat!

I make a habit of walking the first ~1/2 mile every morning--basically just to get myself a teeny bit limber before hopping on the bike and clipping in to the pedals. It also serves as a good time to recheck all the cinch straps holding precious gear to the bike, as well as brush teeth, degoopify eyes and glasses, check/replace the batts in any of the appliances I'm carrying (GPS, SPOT, camera, headlamps), and just generally prepare for the day.

Crossing Steele Lake a few miles later it was entertaining to see the tracks of the bikers ahead. Fresh snow had obscured all markers and previous tracks before they arrived, so some of their tracks followed the margins of the lake (looking for where the trail exited) while those that came after (raises hand) could simply look ahead and see where to go.
Gone are the days, however, when you could look at a tire track and know who left it. The proliferation of Surly EndoMorph tires has forced would-be trackers to memorize the soles of their competitors boots! Ha!

My attention to these sorts of things (and the light mindframe that went along with them) was a great mask for what was really on my mind: gear repairs. The morning was far too cold yet to work with bare hands, so I focused on anything else and kept tabs on the rising temp.

Rolling along through the Farewell Hills I had time to reminisce about the dead wolf that some crafty bison hunters had propped up alongside the trail a few years back. They'd found it trailside after it had apparently been stomped to death by a moose. By accident or intent I'll never know for sure, but the hunters had carefully placed the carcass behind an alder thicket so that it was invisible to northbound travelers until they were literally arm's reach away. It was early in the morning (still dark) and I was a sleep deprived zombie when it entered my peripheral vision. My brain registered the shape but didn't believe it. When I swung my headlamp over to double check, the wolf's eye reflected the light and I'll swear til my dying day that that wolf took a step forward. I emitted (100% involuntarily) a 14-year-old-girl-at-a-horror-movie scream, simultaneously sprinting and bunnyhopping (?) as I passed the wolf. I was so certain it was real and so terrified it was chasing that I didn't stop sprinting for at least 2 minutes, and simply could not bring myself to turn and look back. I didn't want to know.

Folks that passed the carcass in daylight hours (or that were less sleep deprived) got a good chuckle out of it but I don't think anyone else was as fooled as I was. Chalk one up for the bison hunters...

Near the north end of the Farewell Hills the sun had risen enough that I could start to consider working with gloves off. The hills aren't big and the vegetation, while thick enough to make traveling off-trail miserable, doesn't really provide any shelter from wind.As I cruised ever northward I kept looking for a windless spot with southern exposure--basically I wanted the sun on my face and hands while fixing stuff. Such a spot never presented itself--the farther I rode the more the wind came up, until finally I had no choice but to stop, drop and deal with my gear issues regardless. The breeze wasn't much but it was pervasive, essentially rendering every effort I made at lighting the stove futile. Not willing to waste any more time while the wind continued to rise, I focused on repairing the tent poles.

Laying awake hours before I simply couldn't think of a reason why the poles would crack at -30 degrees but not at -20 or -10. Had it been cumulative fatigue combined with cold? Was the design of the tent such that the poles were overstressed and as such doomed to fail regardless? I had no answers, just many empty theories coursing through my noggin' as I re-reinforced each pole junction. I used up 75% of my alloted duct tape for the entire trip fixing the poles, and ~half of my zip ties, but when I finished I was confident in the repair.

Optimistic--that's me. I should have known better...

Once I started moving again I didn't have a whole lot on my mind--staying on the trail and upright against the ever-freshening crosswinds took all of my concentration. The wind wasn't malevolent or crazy or brutal--it was actually a lot of fun. No doubt my perspective was colored by the fact that it was midday (big wind at night almost always seems malevolent to me) but I enjoyed fighting the wind for control of the bike, and laughed each time it 'won', pushing me off the trail and into the deep snow. Over and over I'd extricate myself from the deep stuff, push a short distance to get the bike to the right margin of the trail, then remount and alternately finesse (in the lulls) and fight (in the gusts) 'til I got shellacked again.
The miles passed slowly but I enjoyed myself intensely--lost in the minute-to-minute struggle.

Eventually the fun came to an abrupt end as the trail took a northwesterly turn--it was instantly drifted in and that was simply that.

I walked through the afternoon and evening, often stopping briefly to turn away from the blasting of the relentless gale. I enjoyed the sunset while walking and then ingested my only 'meal' of the day in the form of a 500-calorie chocolate bar a few minutes before setting up the tent. My hunger had been manageable throughout the day and I'd deliberately saved the calories until just before climbing into the bag: I'd much rather deal with hunger while awake than while trying to sleep. Although movement had been consistent throughout the day and I wore plenty of clothing (with plenty in reserve) for the temps and windchills, the caloric deficit was catching up to me and I felt it in a rare inability to stay warm once the sun went down.

I pitched the tent in a tangle of downed trees at the edge of a swamp. The wind was still strong here but the tangled trees had removed a bit of it's conviction--swirling and buffeting were the norm as opposed to the relentless driving gales out in the open. I was thrilled to feel warm inside the bag but sleep was restless and tortured--both by the wind, the gnawing in my stomach, more pole failures, and by unexpected company...

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Fifth Night.

As with every other night on The Trail thus far, when the first yawn stretched across my face I immediately started looking for a camp spot. No need to be picky when you have a -60 bag and bombproof tent in the quiver, right? I descended a short hill and rolled out onto the first little pothole lake in the Farewell chain, took not more than a cursory glance around (not much to see in the dark), then started stomping out a trench for the tent. The night was easily the coldest so far at ~minus 30, and as I fiddled with unstrapping stuff from the bike a small chill set in.

Things only went downhill from there.

Once the trench was stomped out just so I unfurled the tent and slid the first pole inside. Arced it up and around and just as I was about to set it in it's spot I heard/felt a *crick* that was anything but good. I removed the pole and visually confirmed what my heart already knew--the pole had cracked.

Damn.

The crack was at a junction--the female end had split open. Not having used tents very often in my career as a racer geek, I hadn't considered that a broken pole was a realistic problem. Suddenly it seemed real enough and I didn't have a contingency plan for it.

Damn.

Although the raw temp was only -30 it had been hours since I'd eaten anything. That fact combined with a lack of movement to produce heat and I was suddenly, acutely aware of how critical that ten cents worth of tubular aluminum was.

Mentally rummaging through all of the 'spares' I had along with (while walking in circles to maintain a teeny bit of heat), I came upon the idea of using a spare spoke to splint the cracked pole. I quickly grabbed my Leatherman and used it to snip a spoke in half, then cinched the two halves tightly to the pole junction using zip ties. Cautiously optimistic yet impatient and *needing* this fix to work, I delicately reinserted the pole and breathed a huge sigh of relief when it held.

However, I hadn't thought far enough ahead when 'installing' the zip ties, and now that the pole was in place I could see that they were poking up into the tent fabric. Drat. I removed the pole again, shuffled over to the bike and unwrapped a few feet of duct tape from the seatpost, then wrapped the tape around the zip ties. Good enough. I delicately reinserted the pole and was again relieved when it held.

Phew.

Disaster momentarily averted, I reached for the second pole. As I arced it up and around and was just about ready to set it in it's little crook, IT cracked.

Damndamndamndamn. Damn!

Half stressed and half smiling (hey--sussing out gear failures is precisely the reason I came here) I implemented the same 'emergency fix' using a spoke/zip ties/duct tape. Full-on shivering now (partially from the cold, partially from the anxiety), I slid it back into it's spot and delicately set it.

And it held.

I tried to be delicate as I went about the rest of the evening chores, but sometimes I had to contort myself (like while disinfecting my feet just inches away from the inferno that is my snow melter) in such a way that I'd bump the tent wall. I'd instantly halt any further motion and hold my breath (literally--I wanted to be able to hear even the slightest *crick*) but no further noises happened.

Satisfied that the poles would make it through the night, I exhaled out the last of the anxiety, smiled weakly, then turned my attention to making dinner.

And then, apropos of nothing, my stove sputtered twice and flamed out.

God. Damn. It.

I set aside the pot full of slushy snow and picked up the stove and fuel bottle. I could only assume that somehow the jet had gotten plugged, so I shook it every which way to dislodge any debris, then gave it a few pumps and relit it. Slowly and haltingly it caught, flickered, burned a bit then flared down. Uncertain as to any 'proper' course of action I pumped it a few more times and that seemed to help--it flared up and burned strong for a minute or so, then would start to sputter and flare down. A few more pumps made it marginally better, but I was getting paranoid about how much pressure was already inside that teeny little fuel canister. Any second now that flimsy rubber seal could give way and allow ~7oz of highly volatile liquid white gas to directly contact the flames. Poof--instant inferno. Staring at the sputtering stove inches away from the foot of my bag (and all inside of a two-man tent), this seemed somehow sub-optimal.

After several more minutes of fiddling the stove extinguished itself for good, and no amount of futzing could bring it back.

Harumph.

Resigned to no dinner tonight, no breakfast in the morning, no lunch in the afternoon, and no water tomorrow (or at least until I could figure out the stove), I snuggled deep into the warmth of my bag and slept fitfully while dreaming of slabs of ribs, a rare t-bone, and, for some odd reason, 4 (not three, neither five) pieces of dry white toast.

I went to sleep hoping that no wind would come up, and knowing that I'd have mucho fiddling and fixing to do during the 'heat of the day' tomorrow.

The zip tie fixes lasted all night.

But but but...

At 4AM not more than the slightest puff of a breeze came over the trees and down onto the lake. I heard it coming, braced myself inside of the bag, then bolted into motion when I heard the now-too familiar *crick*. I scrambled to unzip my bag then immediately felt the tent fabric pushing down on my face while fumbling to switch on my headlamp. Once I had light it was easy to find the newest crack--the pole formed a right angle at precisely that spot. I grabbed my socks (the first soft thing that I was able to lay my hands on) and wiggled them between the pole and the fabric--just a temp fix to keep the fabric from ripping. Then I set about gathering the spoke, zip ties, and duct tape to fix it.

~30 minutes later the tent was more-or-less standing, my heart rate was back to ~normal, the headlamp had been switched off and I was again getting cozy inside the bag. Sleep, however, never returned, as my mind raced trying to sort out why the poles were cracking, how to stop them from continuing, and how to get the stove working again. The only certainty was that I needed just one more day of warm temps and no wind to effect all of these repairs trail-side.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A-Z

The planets aligned in such a way last weekend that I was waiting on parts for every build in the queue, and until those parts arrived I had zero wheels to build. So I snuck out for a roadtrip with a few friends, destination Southern AZ.

I've known about and drooled over Scott Morris' AZT 300 race route since its' inception, but could never figure out a way to make the drive plus car shuttle (it's a point to point route) happen. It's a long way to Tucson and that doesn't include getting to the start, leaving a car at the finish, then getting everyone involved back home without a huge amount of finagling. Like I said above--the planets aligned this time around and I doubt it could have been arranged or executed much smoother even with months to plan it.

The roadtrip was fun, smooth, and soothing, as traveling at ~60mph for a few days in an '84 Vanagon will cure any 'hurry up' issues you may be having.


But it was the riding that we were there for, and the riding did not disappoint.


Scott spends most of his waking/working hours with maps and GPS software as well as being heavily involved in trail design and building. And in his 'off hours' he does more of the same plus he rides a ton. So it shouldn't have been a surprise at all that he devised and mapped such a brilliant route. But still--it was. 'Twas supremely easy to follow (via GPS) with as much singletrack as he could find between A and B, often going out of the way to link more trails and avoid roads, and even more often paralleling roads on first-class trail. Anyone interested in putting together a ride/race/route needs to ride this one first--as far as I'm concerned it sets the standard for this type of event.

"Hey Guys! I think this'd be a good place to camp. Guys?"


Afternoon heat fades into the Golden Hour, and you'd have to be pretty sunbaked to not notice.


This is southern Arizona?


Corporate America take note: Tubeless flat as team-building experience.


Pete bonds with the new bike.


The Arizona I expected to see.


One of the highlights of the trip was this Star-Wars-esque slalom through the saguaro and ocotillo, shooting through washes and playing cat and mouse with the guys. Seemed like it lasted 30+ minutes, and the permagrin lasted days.


Alien life forms?


Reupping on vittles as the sun sets over Tucson.


I don't recommend licking the thistle. But riding Redington and Molino is a pretty good idea.






Although the event is billed as a race I had zero interest in anything other than hedonistic pleasure. Pete and I agreed on a plan to ride fast, sleep well and long, take lots of pics, and beyond that we'd just take it as it came. We stuck to that plan and had a glorious time out there, made even better by the addition of Fred and Scott as company for the bulk of the ride.






Micro-hucking on tour.


No way to avoid assuming the position on summa these trails. Good time to check out the scenery.




Mix several days of dust and sweat with a Fresca chilled to 42.6877* F, then suck it up through a February 2008 vintage Twizzlers Pull and Peel and you too could sport this lid.


Hmmm... something tells me that it could get windy here.


Strange though it seems (and is...), Scott seems to *prefer* hiking with his bike.


The sun beats down on what the fire burnt up.


The forest recovers but we're not that lucky--much more up to come.




Finally descending toward Oracle.






After a gorge-a-thon, a shower, and sleep indoors (<-yes, I felt dirty for having done so on such a perfect moonlit night) in Oracle, our 4-man-party-pack restocked at the Circle K then pointed the bikes back onto dirt.

The local flora had been good every day thus far, but this day it seemed to demand my attention.












Not that I minded.




Pete broiling his way up a steep one.


The King of hike-a-bike.


I'd seen ocotillo before but never when it was leafed out *and* flowering.






~Halfway through the longest waterless stretch we came upon ~15 gallons of fresh agua cached under a tree. A quick glance at the GPS showed that even in a vehicle this was not an easy spot to access, meaning (to me) that someone out there has earned some huge karma.


Thank you--from all of us.


A stinkin' hot afternoon as we headed for the Boulders.




High speed and cruisy descending on the way down to the Gila crossing.


Climbing over the shoulder of Picketpost Mtn.


Pete in the zone, arcing desert singletrack like he's been doing it his whole life.


Some good old fashioned wash bashing.


Don't forget to look around.






With the gang at the end.


Homeward.


Thanks to Fred, Pete, Chad, Carl, and Marshal--glad it worked out so well and really looking forward to the next one. Double extra secret special thanks to Scott for laboriously piecing together such a brilliant route.

Cheers,

MC