Monday, September 16, 2013

Black Canyon - Phillips Ridge double loop

Saturday's ride was a spanker and left me in shambles on Sunday. I had planned two big back-to-back days before taking a day off to tour Yellowstone. The forecast for Sunday was marginally improved with 40% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. An early start was mandatory.

A little data mining on Strava and other sources led me to the Teton Pass area just west of Jackson, Wyoming. Riding those parts without shuttling is not for sissies. Big vertical.  There are several Downhill runs from Teton Pass, downhill with a capital D, as in body armor highly recommended. I wanted nothing to do with that. These can easily be shuttled from Teton Pass. There was another trail down that required more climbing to access from the pass. This was the Black Canyon Trail from the Mt Elly summit. Nice view, less insane descent, with stiff 3000ft climb to earn it. My deal exactly.

The second half of the ride entailed climbing most of the way back up Teton Pass on the closed Old Teton Pass Rd to pick up the Phillips Ridge Trail. I knew this trail had a lot of switchbacks on the descent, but I had no idea how sweet it would be...

I parked in Wilson to begin my 3000ft climb at pretty much 10% steady grade. This kicked my ass after the previous day's epic, on a dualie with 15 pounds of water, food and foul weather gear. At least the first couple thousand feet were paved. I wasn't 45 minutes into the climb when it started raining. Not again! I'm sure some of the nearby walkers heard my frustration. I zip-locked the camera (had my good one this time) and put the Goretex rain shell on. Funny how the sun can be out and it suddenly starts raining. But this quickly subsided.

At Teton Pass, I picked up the Mt Elly trail. Double track at first, then narrow benchcut singletrack into the side of very steep terrain. This felt a lot like climbing away from Monarch Pass on the Monarch Crest Trail. I reached the summit about the same time a local woman hiking with her lab-mix did. She too was an avid mountain biker and shared some of her favorite area rides. Wish I had a week to ride here.

The Black Canyon descent was a white knuckle affair. Extremely steep always, narrow, rutted, and constantly turning. I could never let my speed run out for fear of catching the edge of the rut or over cooking a turn. My wrist and triceps began to scream after a few minutes. I also wondered if my brakes would overheat and fade on me.

About two thirds of the way down, following closely to the stream, I pondered what would happen if I careened into a bear in this gully. While pondering that thought, I nearly broad-sided a moose with calf! Scared the willies out of me. I stopped, maybe no more than 30ft away with the calf tucking in very close to its mother. I was in a stare-down with cow moose with calf, a very dangerous situation. I learned Alaskans fear moose far more than bear when I visited there a few years back. I very slowly got off my bike, backed up without turning my back, keeping my bike in between me and moose. When I got a safe distance back, I pulled the camera out. By then the moose started to move off the trail.

That left my heart beating a few beats faster. The trail had some pretty rough sections toward the bottom, where it was less steep and much faster. It crossed the stream several times too. I lost nearly 3000ft in a crazy short distance. I pedaled no more than 20 seconds the whole way down.

I climbed about 1000ft back up the paved Old Teton Pass Rd to a connector trail that went over to the north side of Hwy 22 to pick up the Phillips Ridge Trail. I made a huge navigational blunder here. I assumed there would be only one trail with the word Phillips in the name, so when I saw a sign that simply said Phillips, I took it. It deviated a little from my intended track, which I thought would rejoin my route. Cool, I was on singletrack sooner.

The trail I was on started deviating a lot from my intended route. Soon I realized I climbed much more than I had planned, and there was now a huge canyon between me and Phillips Ridge, which I could see in the distance. Son of a bitch! The sky was growing darker by the minute too. The trail I went out on turned out to be Phillips Pass trail, which I later learned isn't even open to bikes. Nice riding, but not where I needed to go. I had forgotten my map, which might have helped prevent this half-hour boondoggle.

Back on track, I began climbing up to Phillips Ridge. It started to rain. The crown jewel of today's ride was the descent off Phillips Ridge, and now I was looking at two days in a row with a multi-thousand foot descent in treacherous wet conditions. Had I not made the error, I might have cleared the ridge before the rain moved in. You could see a heavy squall moving in across the Teton Valley. Camera went back in the bag, shell went back on body.

It never rained hard, just enough to grease up the rocks and roots on the ridge. The rain obscured what no doubt was a fabulous view from the ridge too. However, as I began the descent down innumerable switchbacks, the trail dried up. The rain never quite reached that area. Now this was descending. I could let me speed run out in between switchbacks.

The Phillips Ridge descent was an engineering marvel. I've never seen so much sculpting in one trail before. I think there were upwards of a hundred big bermed turns. The trail traversed talus fields several times too. Tons of rock were moved to "pave" a surface though these otherwise completely unrideable areas. The trail snaked around for almost 10 miles, losing 2000ft, before bottoming out. Phillips Ridge comes really close to being my all-time favorite descent. I'd love to do it a second time, now that I know what to expect.

A couple miles of pavement took me back to the car in Wilson. The sky turned dark again. This time I didn't escape so easily. It poured mightily. At least I was on pavement. The bike actually got cleaner than before I started the ride. It was still a mess from Saturday's ride. I finished with 34mi, 5800ft in 4.3hrs on the Garmin. A satisfying ride for sure. That tallied up almost 10 hours of hard riding in two days. Here's a few photos from Sunday's ride.

Looking back down on Teton valley from Teton Pass

Looking down Mt Elly trail towards Teton Pass. Has some Monarch Crest vibe to it.

Self portrait on Mt Elly, trying to not fall over waiting for camera.

Looking down Black Canyon Trail towards Teton valley.

Mama and baby moose. They were on switch back as I came barreling down.

On Phillips Ridge just before rain squall hit.

Phillips Ridge, looking north-easterly over valley.

Phillips Ridge descent, showing some armoring. Slippery wet rocks initially.

Phillips Ridge berm, one of dozens just like it.

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