Sunday, September 7, 2014

Scarp Ridge - I thought you were an alien!

Every trip I try to pick one or maybe two rides that define the trip. On my current trip, these would be Scarp Ridge by Crested Butte and the Colorado Trail from Cataract Lake to Lake City. These rides follow ridges at 12,000ft and 13,000ft respectively. There are always risks riding up this high, as it takes a long time to get up there, you can't get off just anywhere, and the weather can turn in a heartbeat.

Scarp Ridge is not a mainstream riding trail. In fact, there's really not an official trail on the ridge, but hikers and a few riders have defined a trail along most of the ridge. It is really, really hard to get up there. Gunsight Pass road, a rough jeep road is about the only way. With its large talus fields, I suspect most riders will incur significant hiking time. Not what gravity challenged riders are looking for these days. I expected a fair amount of hike-a-bike on this ride, but I had to endure much more than I expected.

The temp was still in the 30's starting out. The sky was pristine bluebird. I thought surely with such an early start I couldn't possibly have to rush to beat unstable afternoon weather. After an easy(ish) day Saturday, climbing felt pretty good. Gunsight Pass Rd hovered in the 9-12% grade most of the time. Pretty loose and chunky, but with 2.35" 29er tires run at low pressure, it wasn't a problem. I also kept the suspension fully active, which helped a lot.

Then I got to Redwell Basin. The grade pitched up to 18-22% and the surface became very large, loose talus. Not only was I unable to ride this, I must have looked like a total drunk stumbling my way up. My average speed dropped to 2mph. What was disheartening was you could see to eternity on this grade and it all looked the same. I still had something like 1000ft of vertical to go just to reach Gunsight Pass. The pristine weather and drop-dead scenery kept me from developing a sour attitude.

As I reached the pass, which is really just a tiny notch in the ridgeline at 12,000ft (thus the name gunsight), I saw movement on Scarp Ridge. I looked again, couldn't make anything out. But then I surely saw movement. What was it? Creepy. We were approaching each other, I from below heading up to the pass, the other dropping down to the pass on really rough terrain. It was a guy in full camo that blended in perfectly with the terrain he was walking in. What would a hiker be doing up here in full camo? And if it was a hunter, there surely wasn't game up this high. But as we met, he had a large rack from an elk on his backpack. He was a bow hunter.

He was quite happy to meet somebody and asked if I could take his picture on the ridge, as he could only take goofy selfies with is phone. I asked why elk would be way up here. He said to get away from the flies. Then I asked how on earth do you bring your harvest back? He said just what he was doing. It was his second trip with 60 pounds of meat in his backpack. That's some dedication, I tell you.

The hunter continued down the way I came up. Presumably the truck I saw parked at the bottom of the talus fields was his.  I ambled up to the ridgeline proper. It was freakishly scary on this section, as in no matter which line you took, it would be way too easy to slip and tumble potentially 1000ft. It was hands and feet climbing with a bike, each foot hold carefully placed.

Once on the ridge, the bluebird sky filled in with dark gray overcast at an alarming rate. I only had three miles to traverse on the ridge before heading back down. But dang, was I at risk? I wanted to hang out up there for a while, set up carefully for some nice photos, but there would be little time for that. It was clearly raining already in certain directions.

I presumed the ridge would be mostly rideable, a recurring Hill Junkie blunder. Maybe at sea level with fresh legs the climbs would be rideable. The deal was, looking at the profile ahead of time, you barely notice the bumps on the ridge.  They just pale in comparison to the 3400ft climb to get up there. But once up there, the bumps are 100-200ft walls. Lots more hike-a-bike ensued. If the sky had stayed clear, I wouldn't have stressed over this. I did not bring any thermal layers along, just a lite Goretex shell. It was pretty windy too.

As I approached my ridge line exit, I noticed movement again. This time a solo woman hiker was approaching me. A few moments earlier I was fussing with my camera on a short tripod to get a selfie along the ridge. She could only make out my silhouette against a bright cloudy background. She was confounded what I was with pointy helmet, what I was messing with, thinking maybe I was a alien. Ha! First I'm the confounded one starting along the ridge, then I do the confounding as I get off the ridge. These were the only two people I saw in three hours moving time.

Just as I pointed my front wheel down, the sky opened up with snow and sleet. You gotta be shitting me! I was still in short sleeves and the Garmin said it was 46F. I could see the Erin Lake Lodge (shuttered) about 1500ft below me. I have to get down there fast. I knew nothing of the descent, only that it was steeper than the climb. Would it even be rideable? Yes! It was all rideable singletrack. A few bits were wicked sketchy at speed, but it was a bombable descent. I can't believe my brake rotors didn't melt or the brake fluid boil. The air got warmer as I dropped, and the precip changed to just spitting rain.

I now had to think about jumping on Kebler Pass Rd and bailing on the Dyke Trail or risk getting soaked, cold and very dirty. It was clearly raining pretty good across Kebler Pass. But there was big patches of blue sky all over too. The mountains make precip depending on wind direction, temp, how much moisture is in the air and how many hours of convective heating has gone on. In other words, the precip tends to cling to certain spots unless it is a weather system moving through. So if it wasn't really raining much at the lodge at the moment, I might be ok hitting Dyke Trail. Dyke is locally very popular and I've never ridden it. I gave it a go.

Initially, you descend, descend, descend. Wicked fun, lightly bermed, in and out of aspen groves and open meadows. But what goes down must eventually go up. You have to ride over the "dyke," a natural geological feature that resembles a man-made dyke. The grade was non-trivial, and my sorry tired legs capitulated to more walking on the steepest bits that approached 20% grade. From the top though, was an insane descent to Kebler Pass Rd. This required even more heavy braking than dropping off Scarp Ridge. I was beginning to really like this ride. Brutal climbing with oh-so-fun descents.

I knew once I popped out on Kebler Pass Rd there would be a 1200ft climb awaiting me on the mostly gravel road. I had to go over the 10,000ft pass.  The upper portion over the pass was paved. I thought years ago when I drove over this it was all gravel. Anyway, from the pass there is the Kebler Wagon Trail to take half of the way back down to town that keeps you off the road, which can be a bit busy this time of year. It roughly parallels the road, presumably the original wagon route before the modern road was constructed. The 1200ft descent back to CB was a nice way to finish the ride.

I did have an extended route loaded into my GPS. My water was almost gone, my food was completely gone, and my legs went AWOL after 6000ft of climbing. They did not have another 2000ft left in them to hit Carbon Trail and the highly rated Green Lake descent. That will have to wait for another trip. I finished with 38mi, 6100ft in 5hrs riding time on the Garmin. Much slower average than I anticipated, but I was thoroughly satisfied with this bucket list ride.

A major weather event is in the forecast for Monday and Tuesday, as the remnants of hurricane Norbert move through. We could get inches of rain, which rarely happens in September. It could shut down trail riding for the rest of my trip. If it is still dry in the morning, I may hit Hartman Rocks here in Gunnison on Monday. I'll leave you with a bunch of photos from today's ride that took nearly an hour to upload with my hotel's crappy internet service. Thanks for reading.

This is what I like about Crested Butte. This is what you get riding five minutes out
of town on Upper Lower Loop.

Lots of flower climbing jeep road up to Gunsight Pass.

Object of my destination on the horizon. After much climbing, it doesn't seem any closer.

20% grade and loose talus. Utterly unrideable. You can just make out this diagonal cut in image above. Let the hiking begin.

Redwell Basin. Scarp Ridge on left.

Nearing 12,000ft and still too steep, too loose, and not enough oxygen to ride.

The hunter I met at Gunsight Pass.

Redwell Basin. Mostly hike-a-bike in this image.

Looking north(ish) along Scarp Ridge.
Top of the world.

Quick selfie on the ridge with dark clouds building off right side of image.

Off-camber, loose with a 1000ft drop.

Slightly different perspective. Creepy riding long here.

One more with some of the sky. It went from mostly blue three photos above to this in just a few minutes.

One of the few flat parts along the ridge.

Looking back on what I traversed, climbing the next rise.

Most of the way across the ridge now.

The area to the north of the ridge is the Raggeds Wilderness.

Starting out on the Dyke Trail.

Many mature aspen stands on the Dyke Trail. Bet it gets pretty in a couple weeks.

The Kebler Wagon Trail that parallels Kebler Pass Rd part way back to Crested Butte.
Almost no pedaling and no brakes.


aspenmike said...

So Awesome Doug, love the write up and pics. Colorado! There are some fantastic hot springs in the area if you get weathered out, maybe tuesday.

jason_ssc1 said...

Thanks for letting us vicariously follow your amazing adventures!