Friday, February 5, 2010

Splorin' and campin'.

Last summer I visited a new-to-me place in Arizona: The Kaibab Plateau. It's off the beaten path no matter where you're from, which mostly explains why I've lived nearby for almost 20 years but only recently set foot there. Somewhere near North Timp Point on that first trip I spied a snowmobile route sign, and that got me thinkering. Those thoughts ballooned through the fall and ultimately led to my inviting Scott Morris and Brian Blair to join in some wintertime 'splorin' and campin'.

We three met at Jacob Lake Inn and proceeded to disgorge heaps and piles of bike-geek-gear into their parking lot. Brian showed up nearly ready to ride, needing only to stuff some food into his well-thought-out kit. Note the homemade frame pack--he's getting pretty dang good at those.

Scott had never snowbiked before. Nor, to my knowledge, had he winter camped. Which means he was taking a pretty big leap, made bigger by the fact that he doesn't really own any of the appropriate gear. He'd had to rely mostly on advice gleaned from helpful online personalities and quite a bit of loaner kit. Here he's mid-way through the process of winnowing what he'd like to take into what he can actually carry.

I loaned Scott a proper snowbike with rear rack and frame bag, as well as a puffy jacket, mittens and a few other essentials. We cinched our last straps down, checked under seats for errant geegaws, then locked cars and rolled south.

A scant 1/4 mile of pavement led to snow, and then immediately the plowing ended and we were atop honest to goodness packed-by-sledneck track. A massive PSI drop was in order for all of us, plus some minor gear fiddling, then we were well and truly off.

Off like a herd of turtles! Remember the part about this place being off the beaten path? Not much sledneck traffic, which is critical to packing the snow that we're riding on. We could ride ~75% of it, but were off and walking frequently. The upshot to the hoofing is that you don't need to be hard-focused on 'the line', allowing a lot of looky-looing. Fine by me.

The day was warm. Actually, it was a scorcher. I spent the bulk of it gloveless, hatless, and sleeveless. My shaded thermometer read 46* throughout the afternoon. That heat was nice on the skin but really softened the snow. Conditions like these aren't uncommon when snowbiking (the softness, not the temps!), and what's needed is to mentally gear down and just take it as it comes. Easier said than done when you've got limited time to spend before heading back to work.

More than once I found myself pausing momentarily *in the shade* of big trees before continuing on. Odd, that.

Chunk, snowbike version.

A story unto itself, and one for another time. Two words as teasers: Homeland Security.

'nuff said.

Lengthening shadows drew us into the afternoon.

As with most places I've ridden on snow, when the trail crossed open meadows (allowing the slednecks to disperse) it became punchy and unrideable fast. Once back into the literal confines of the trees we could usually hop back on and, with proper attention and technique, ride.

The falling sun was matched by dropping temps, and I swear you could feel the collective mood of the group descend as well. Perhaps we just became contemplative as we were intended by nature to do at this time of night and in this place?

Perhaps not.

One last flash of ethereal light then we were left with the dark of a long winter night.

Which, of course, is when Brian's rear der pulley froze up. A quick powwow and a tag team effort had it repaired in just a few minutes, but not before we all chilled off a bit more than maybe we'd planned to.

As we resumed riding I heard both Brian and Scott comment (paraphrased for effect) "Huh, so that really does happen..." as they discovered that their uninsulated hydration hoses had frozen.

Less than an hour later we'd agreed upon a campsite and were settling in for the night. First, a pit stomped out for a fire, then dead branches collected to feed it. While Scott and I unpacked stoves and commenced to melting snow, Brian conjured a lasting inferno. And it was good.

Meals were rehydrated, then consumed. Bladders refilled with hot water and even a thermos for the AM. Then we told lies until we exhausted the easy ones. Aware of the length of the January night and not excited to get into sleeping bags any sooner than necessary, we collected more wood, told more lies, then eventually retired for a solid night of sleep.

The long darkness was punctuated by choruses of yips, barks, and howls from the resident 'yote packs, as well as the constant overarching presence of a certain just-past-full spotlight.

I was ready for sunrise hours before it arrived. The first sleep of any overnighter (for me) usually means poor rest, perhaps part and parcel of leaving the day-to-day behind? Whatever the cause, I tossed and turned for a few hours until there was enough light to get up and stretch out. The sound of my rustling brought Scott and Brian's heads up out of their bags simultaneously. Coincidence? Hmmm...

We packed unceremoniously and started down the trail, with Scott leading the way.

We'd hoped that the overnight cold would harden things up, and the trail *was* marginally better. But the same temps that froze it up also pulled hoar out of the surface, which served to slow us right back down.

In the space of less than an hour the sun cleared the trees and we went from zipped into layers to shedding down to bare heads and hands. Another scorcher on tap.

The pace was none-too-spirited and during a break Scott suggested that he wasn't too keen on continuing. We'd hoped to make it out to the North (or Rainbow) Rim of the Grand Canyon but our progress thus far had been disheartening, prompting Scott to wonder aloud if it was worth slogging all the way out there only to turn around and slog all the way back. Brian was on a tighter schedule than either Scott or I, and felt like cutting our losses and heading back to ride dirt in St. George might be a better use of available time. So that's what we decided to do.

Riding in our own outbound tracks increased our homebound speed, but not nearly as much as the discovery that we'd done a significant amount of climbing without really noticing.

We moved *much* faster on the way back, so much so that we even stopped for a midday snack-and-chill break atop a surprisingly steep yet somehow rideable hill.

As we packed up to resume travel we became ground zero for the only traffic jam on the entire plateau. 5 snowmachines converged from differing directions all at once, overwhelming us with stimulation and company and just as quickly leaving behind a slightly-more-silent-seeming silence.

The passing of the sleds achieved what we'd been hoping for all along: they left behind a much more rideable surface.

Scott found wings, or at least motivation, on the inbound ride.

Ya don't say?

Brian's lack of body mass (and huge freakin' motor) had him out front setting pace the bulk of both days.

If he had a competitive streak within I'd think him a lock to podium or outright win any snowbike race he chose to focus on. Instead he seems content to eke enjoyment out of each moment as it comes, an outlook I'm becoming fond of myself.

Scott puzzled aloud over how down he'd been on the walking we'd done the day previous, even though he's always game to hike-a-bike in the unfrozen world. His logic for liking one kind of bike hiking but not another eluded me, and I'm not so sure it was clear to him either.

Perfect temps and golden light carried us through the evening and ever closer to the barn.

While the others seemed energized to race faster and faster the closer we got, I opted to back off the pace and savor the quiet of the place for the last ~few miles back in.

Our brief trip out had been a welcome respite from 'the everyday'. Clearly the conditions weren't ideal to complete what we set out to do in the time allotted, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. I think it'll be a great 3-dayer with the right combo of temps and snowpack. Or, maybe add in a 4th day if you bring some runners, proper motivation, and a desire to sup at Phantom Ranch...

Thanks for reading.


P.S. Scott's verbiage and pixels from the trip are HERE.


  1. outstanding post! very complete...i dig it!

  2. awesome post, and awesome pictures!

  3. looks like great fun was had by all!!!
    thank you for sharing.


  4. I'd like to try this ride someday

  5. Wow! Incredible photos. What a fantastic adventure. Thanks for sharing.

  6. There's nothing quite like snow biking. Thanks for sharing the story ... loved both the photos and descriptions.

  7. The Kaibab is a special place indeed.

  8. awesome post, and awesome pictures!