Sunday, March 18, 2012

AZT Deathmarch

I follow blogs from a few people that live in places I like to visit and share a similar passion for epic off-road adventures. One of these people is Scott Morris. Some months ago, Scott wrote about new sections of the Arizona Trail (AZT) being completed in between the Picketpost and Kelvin trailheads, the final sections of the AZT to be completed. Much of this segment was benchcut by trail building machinery into steep, rugged canyon country.

Cresting gap on Rt 177

I believe most riders would either bike pack or shuttle this section. Dave and I have just one car and no way to shuttle the ride by leaving a car at the Kelvin trailhead, then driving back to Picketpost to start the ride. We had to shuttle ourselves by pedal power, the only way! It meant 20+ miles of pavement with an initial 2000ft mountain pass climb starting right from the car. We parked in Kelvin, which was the far trailhead from Phoenix, so we wouldn't have to finish the ride with a 20 mile buzz killing pavement ride. In between the two trailheads were 40 miles of continuous singletrack with no bailouts, and no water (the Gila river is contaminated with heavy metals from mine run-off). It was going to be hot. There will be rattlesnakes. The trail could be quite technical. The ride would entail some risk.

Beginning of AZT at Picketpost Mtn

Dave leaving Picketpost

We got an early start to ensure we did not run out of daylight. The climb up Rt 177 went well. Already warm out, we were sweating profusely. I had stashed an extra water bottle at the Picketpost trailhead on the way to Kelvin for a jersey pocket. This with 100oz Camelbak and 28oz bottle on frame was not going to be enough in this heat for an all-day ride. We stopped briefly in Superior where we picked up some more water. In about 90 minutes time, we were off the pavement and on the AZT singletrack.

Dave on AZT

Working our way up to high point on the AZT

The trail was very well designed. Nice flow, 100% rideable. We encountered a group of older walkers on the trail near the trailhead, coming back from a Picketpost out and back hike. They were just heading out when we dropped water there 2hrs earlier.

Hill Junkie, trying to trackstand with Dave fumbles with camera

Cruising around high point on AZT

For the next 10-12 miles, we slowly gained vertical until reaching a maximum elevation of around 3800ft and rolled at that altitude for a while. Grade reversals were continuous. Many deep digs per minute were required to make it up the punchy rises. These were not only taking a toll on the body, but they also ensured high sweat rate. I became concerned about water consumption. The scenery helped take the mind off worries though. We cruised through some pretty amazing canyon country. Exposure was ever present. Not the die if you fall kind, but certainly you will be taken out by helicopter if you fall kind.  A mishap was not an option.

Canyon wall riding. The most amazing part of this ride. Can you
follow the singletrack?

Flowers and exposure in the canyon

Hard to keep eyes on trail with views like these

Canyon benchcut

Mid ride, we encountered a solo female bike packer, spending the night on the trail. She was probably not much younger than us and commented about how much hike-a-biking she'd been doing the last few hours. That meant our descent to the Gila River valley was soon to begin. We encountered only one other person on the trail, a solo male hiker. We pretty much had the trail to ourselves.

On the descent

Continuing descent to the Gila River in distance

The descent was a blast. A test of brakes and wits to be sure. Glad I put new pads on before I left. It was well into the 80's at the river. From there, we had to ride about 20 miles upstream back to the car. A small net gain, but there would be several significant climbs up the valley wall and back down to river grade along the way.

Finally, Gila River

Panic quickly set in. Much of the trail at river grade had the consistency of either talcum powder, beach sand or 6" deep pea gravel. It was barely rideable. What should have been an easy 10mph average pace turned into 4mph at very hard effort. We clearly did not have enough water for another 4hrs of riding. We were already 4-5hrs into the ride. After several miles of pretty cruddy, buzz killing riding, the trail began climbing. Up and away from the river, the typical decomposed granite surface resumed. But good riding had to be earned with significant effort. We'd climb, cruise on some nice trail for a bit, then bomb back down into sandy quagmire.

In one of these quagmires, I must have spooked a rattler. Dave heard it, riding further behind me. He stopped to look and didn't like how well it blended in with the environment, as in, you'll never see one in time just riding along. We were too far past it before he caught up to me to get a picture. Dave has girly fears of snakes.  I was hoping to see a Gila Monster on this ride, but no such luck.

We reached the train trestle. I seemed to recall that was only half way along the Gila to the car. I totally panicked. Dave was already out of water and I was finishing my last sip. We could not go another 2+ hours in 85F heat, already dehydrated, with no water. We still had a 500ft climb described as a hike-a-bike by others too. I was the most dehydrated ever, during a ride. I hadn't peed in 8hrs. We were clearly in death-march mode at this point.

We got to the 500ft climb shortly after the train trestle. Fears started to subside, as I knew the top of this climb was only 4mi out from the car and it would be mostly downhill.  The climb was not a hike-a-bike. Steep, very steep for legs with over 6hrs riding in them, but nicely graded. I did not clean a couple switchbacks though.

From the summit, the trail was wide and freshly graded. We soon encountered large heavy equipment blocking off the trail. Fortunately, the crew was done for the day, as reading the link at the beginning of this post, we would not have been allowed to pass if they had been working. They were doing the most interesting thing, something I have never seen before. They were converting a road into a singletrack. I guess this is so only human powered transport can pass through that section of the AZT and not four wheeled vehicles. Looked like 2-3 miles might be going through this conversion process, which looked quite tedious, with a very large excavator and bulldozer. Had to cost big bucks.

Seeing the car was a marvelous sight. I had two jugs of Gatorade in there, which were piss warm, but never tasted so good. I finished one in about one chug. We thought about scrambling down to the Gila river to rinse off, but it looked hard to get to. When I pulled my jersey off, a cloud of salt dust fell off it. My entire body was encrusted in lost electrolytes.

We finished the ride in 7:04 hours moving time, covering 62.8 miles, with 7000-8000ft of climbing. That was probably the hardest, non-race MTB ride I've ever done. One of the most satisfying too. The scenery and flow of the ride rivals that of my favorite Colorado rides, such as Trail 401 in Crested Butte or the Monarch Crest Trail. Very different climate, air to breath, and the views go on for hours and hours. I would easily do this ride again. Other than underestimating how much water was needed, the ride was flawlessly executed.  At nearly 50yrs old, I wonder how many more years I can do stuff like this?


Isaac said...

Great write up Doug. When I was 15 my Dad and I went to CO. We finished the Hermosa Creek Trail and met a gentleman in his early 70's who had ridden it a couple days earlier. You've got a lot of years left in those legs!

Lynda Wallenfels said...

That was me (Lynda)you met! Glad to hear you guys made it. I saw 2 rattlesnakes that day and one jumped up and scared the poop out of me. I had a dream that night that the solo hiker we saw got bit and I found him!

My blog post with pics of the trail work in progress is here The trail crew were happy to let me past and friendly that morning. I asked if it was ok to take pics and they said yes.

I bikepacked for 4 days but was only solo for the final day as my partners tire came unravelled and he had to limp on the road back to Picket Post. He said he saw you guys.

It was a great day to be out there. That climb felt at least 90F to me!

Hill Junkie said...

Lynda - When Scott linked to your post, I didn't at first piece it together that you were the one we saw out there on Thursday. We passed DH on 177, then he must have passed us when we stopped for water in Superior, as he was at the Picketpost trailhead when we got there.

Interesting how Scott piqued our curiosity in this section of trail, and we crossed paths on the same day riding it. I've been following his diary for many years now. I try to get out to Arizona in February or March each year to ride trails, and Scott's adventures and GPS tracks have shaped many of my rides. Might have to give bikepacking a go one of these trips too.

Anyway, nice meeting you out there. I'll take the warm day we had over what we had later in our trip - 40's and sleet.

Doug - Pelham, NH