Friday, September 2, 2011

The Mother of All Rides from Hell

Every now and then, a ride goes awry. Wednesday's ride went awry in a big way. Almost nothing when right. Here's a tale of lightning, greasy red clay and fatigue.

I had scoped out online a section of the Colorado Trail (CT) that I hadn't ridden yet. It hoovers around 11,000ft. My plan was to park at the Bear Creek trailhead on CO-145, ride up 145 to Scotch Creek/FS-550, climb up to the ridge, surf the ridge at 11,000ft for 15 miles, then bomb down Bear Creek trail back to the car.

This ride is close by as the crow flies, but an 80 minute drive by car, as it starts in the valley on the other side of the mountains. It is a bad omen when there is overcast in the morning and I had to use the wipers a few times. The skies looked like late afternoon monsoons at 8am. I figured it will burn off for a few hours and I should be able to clear the ridge line in that time. Bad judgement call number one.

It sucks starting out on wet roads when it is in the 50's out. Plus I had to go slightly uphill on CO-145 along the Delores River into a stiff northeast wind. I drilled it pretty hard for these 10 paved miles, as I wanted to beat the certain afternoon storms.

I reached Scotch Creek in pretty poor time. Tired legs, altitude, uphill and headwind all conspired against me. Now the real climbing would begin. Scotch Creek Rd is a rough jeep road that gets progressively steeper as it gains altitude. It started out as a wet, muddy scree surface. Abusive on the body and tough to hold a line. Further up, I noticed the water bars were recently reformed by a bulldozer. Long sections were loose, sink to your rims, red clay. Eventually I reached the dozer in action. The operator was nice to move aside to let me pass.

Riding up grades at 10-20% of this was nearly impossible.
The climb on Scotch Creek Rd was 6 miles.

It was about this time I heard the first thunder boom. I hadn't even reached 9000ft yet! I looked over my shoulder to the west and saw the sky was turning black. This was really going to suck, as I was not turning around. Bad judgement call number two.

I buried myself on this climb. The further up I went, the more torn up the surface became from dozer work. I had all I could do to go 2.5mph on sections. Thin air, mushy surface, and big double-digit grades. The thunder became more frequent and closer as I climbed. I began looking for areas of shelter to duck into. There was nothing except big trees, nice lightning rods.

I reached the ridgeline. It was starting to rain, but the lightning was passing by just a couple miles to the south. I put on thermal tights, a thermal top and Gortex rain shell. Then I stood under a spruce tree, which make for great umbrellas. The rain promptly petered out. The sky got a little brighter. I took the layers back off and decided to head down the CT a ways. I could always turn around if the weather turned for the worse right away. Bad judgement call number three.

From the CT ridgeline, the storm that just missed me during
the climb. Tried to get picture of lightning, but cameras are too slow.

The riding on the ridge was superb. It was the only part of the ride that didn't suck. The trail was well maintained, buff, reasonably dry and changed elevation gently and moderately. My sea level hematocrit could handle this. I talked briefly with a guy at some kind of a camp on the ridge. He said the weather was funky all week and rain, when it came, didn't last long. He said it didn't get much colder than 50F. The clothing I brought along could handle that, I thought.

CT goodness. Sky looks less threatening here, but only temporarily.

I cruised several more miles on the rolling CT. Nice views to the east opened up here and there. This wasn't treeless like some other ridges I ride. There is a forest service road that crosses the CT a couple times in this area. A forest ranger was parked there in a truck. I thought it would be good to gauge his sense of the weather. He didn't seem concerned that I was out there alone in temperamental weather heading down a trail that had no more bail-out options for many miles. The sky was overcast, and any thunder was from a cell that was moving away.

I committed to finishing the whole loop. This was my final bad judgement call. The riding up here was too intoxicating to say no. I reached the point where a massive 1000ft climb begins to reach the section called Indian Trail Ridge. Sign up top called it the Highline Trail. Whatever. It goes above tree line and becomes exposed. It was here were I began hearing new rumbles of thunder. Uh, oh. Pedal harder. Can't turn around now, way too far away from any trails or roads off the ridge.

My fear wasn't so much the lightning, but hypothermia. With lightning, you'll never know what hits ya. Dying from hypothermia would suck a lot more. I hadn't used my new Gortex rain shell yet, and I wasn't sure how could it would get and if I'd stay dry enough underneath.

The climb went on and on and on. It would never end. I don't think Topo correctly displayed how big this climb really was. At 11,000+ feet, the best I can do is hold 3-4mph on 10% grade. I could see the dark area of sky was heading right for me. I didn't think I'd reach the top before it would hit.

Approaching high point of ride, dark clouds and thunder getting
very close.

I finally reached the junction of Grindstone Trail at 11,700ft. The view was spectacular, but risk of either getting struck by lightning or blown off the mountain was too great to take a picture.Grindstone begins the descent and connects with Bear Creek Trail. Grindstone is very steep, benchcut into the side of extremely steep terrain, and can be quite gnarly in spots. I no more than began the plummet when the skies opened up. I quickly put the layers back on again.

It didn't take more than two minutes for the trail to fill with water. The soil here has a red clay base. It turns into the slipperiest, stickiest quagmire you can imagine. Descending 20-30% grades in an 12" wide trough of this goo with precipitous drop-offs to the outside was a recipe for disaster. I could not keep the bike under me. It was like riding a deep, icy car track without studded tires. I bailed off the bike or went sliding on my back many times when the bike went out from under me. Fortunately I never went over the edge. It rained mightily for at least 30 minutes.

Grindstone Trail. Loose rocks, mud, and exposure.

I reached an open meadow area where the trail traversed an extremely steep slope. The grass and weeds were so tall and dense, you could barely make out where the trail was. It was up to my handlebars. Underneath lie all kinds of perils - rocks, divots, off-camber greasiness. It was raining so hard, that when I got a ways out into the middle of this meadow, I could see absolutely nothing in all directions. Just meadow at about 45 degree incline in my immediate vicinity. And lightning was crashing all around me. Alex would have died of fright right on the spot. I was clearly the highest object around with nothing else in site.

I finished sliding my way down to Bear Creek Trail, 2300ft in just a few miles. Bear descends at a much more gentle grade, which meant I occasionally had to pedal. I soon learned that red clay offers ZERO traction when going uphill. I was forced to walk up almost all inclines. The trail rolled a lot too. Then my drivetrain stopped working. Thanks to Shimano's penchant for high gear counts and narrow chains, chain suck woes become common in anything but fair weather conditions. My bike by now probably weighed 40 pounds. It looked like it was made out of red clay. Nothing on it was recognizable. In one fit of rage, I nearly hurled it over the edge. It would have been far quicker to walk the 8 miles back to the car than lug this thing along.

Bear Creek Trail. Ridge I descended from in background.
Trail was so slippery it was even hard to stand on.

On the steeper descents, my front brake started making grotesque sounds. The pads were gone and it was metal on metal. They still stopped me though.
The rain was letting up. I realized the layers I brought worked well. I would live to ride another day. What was supposed to be the funnest part of the ride turned out to be the suckiest. I bet I walked 30% of the descent. Bike wouldn't pedal and parts were to too slippery to stay upright. It took me hours to get down from the ridge. Finally I heard cars. I popped out by the Delores River. I was no more than 100ft from my car when I took one more nasty tumble at high speed. Front wheel caught 2" trail lip in red clay and I went sliding on my back again. F-bombs!
My moving time (that was registered when I was actually going fast enough for GPS to detect it) was 6.1hrs. Total time out was over 7hrs. Seems I was just saying I did my longest unsupported ride ever, but now this one tops it by a bit.
Cleaning my bike up in the river, I found the red clay to set up like concrete even though it wasn't dry. It was so hard to get off. I probably spent 45 minutes working on my bike. Additionally, I found my GPS got rain in it and went haywire on me. Great. I destroyed my brakes, drivetrain, suspension bushing and now my GPS in one ride. That was an expensive ride. Needless to say, I was not in the best of moods coming back to the hotel where the women were. I was in panic mode to get brake pads (I always take one pair with me) and to find a tiny T6 torx driver to open my GPS to dry it out. The hotel helped me find a closed bike shop that would sell me pads after hours, then I tried Sears and then Home Depot before I found a T6 driver.
The GPS did have water in it. That was easy to dry out. Somehow, water got inside the LCD display too. That will not come out easily. At least I was able to restore GPS operation.
I'd definitely do this ride again if there was zero percent chance of rain with money back guarantees if it does rain. It is a great loop and should be nearly all rideable on dry trails. The ridge was dry and sweet stuff to cruise on. Thursday's forecast called for much higher probability of rain, but it didn't. I got in two great rides. That will have to wait for another post.


Mookie said...

I'm sure I would have messed my chamois. Remind me to never go on a trip to the high country with you.

Alby King said...

At least you're smart enough to bring warm clothes. Folks often don't realize how fast things can turn up there.

Years ago with Lucy atop Ruby Ridge in Snowmass with a thundercracker rolling in she comments.. "Um honey - we're the only thing up here". Stephen King has nothing on that kind of terror. Fastest downhill run ever.

DaveP said...

I know you're, Hill Junkie, but Nature could care less. Don't be an idiot and get yourself killed. But, if you do, can I have your GF 29er?

Jonny Bold said...

Holy Shit Doug! You're scaring me, but I'm very envious of your adventures.