Monday, November 12, 2007

Utah trail of tears

The phrase “Road Trip” always evokes visions of wide open skies, scenic vistas and long stretches of open highway. When the opportunity to plan one after this year’s Interbike Show presented itself ten of of us jumped at the chance. The plan was simple, do an epic two-day mountain bike ride on the Virgin River Rim Trail in southern Utah and experience breath-taking views, twisty singletrack and some high altitude camping. We would employ the expert services of Red (Editor in Chief of Outdoor Utah Magazine) to arrange our lodging, shuttle services to the start and finish of the trail and be our trail master.

Three vehicles departed Las Vegas after the close of the show on Friday afternoon in route to Brian Head, Utah. The members of the Thule Crew consisted of Fred, TJ, Mark, Tripp, Christine, Martin, Schuyler, Bob and me, Karl.

After arriving in Brian Head it was evident that the base altitude of 9600 feet was going to be an issue. Climbing to the third floor of the condo with our bags over our shoulders completely winded us. This should have been our first sign of things to come. After an all-star dinner by the Medium Rare Chefs it was time to get some sleep for the days to come.

Sleeping at close to 10,000 feet is not a fun or easy thing to do. The air is so thin and dry that it makes getting a solid night of shut-eye virtually impossible. I know I was not the only one who couldn’t sleep as I heard Martin and Tripp tossing and turning in the bunk room all night.

Day 1 – 22 miles of singletrack
As the morning came around everyone started getting their gear together for the two-day adventure that was forthcoming. We went to Brian Head Mountain Bike Park to pick up our bikes and meet Bob, our shuttle driver. I was very happy to see that my trusty Santa Cruz arrived without a scratch thanks to my Thule Round Trip Bike Case . With all the bikes loaded, Bob drove us the 30 minutes to the trail head of the Virgin River Rim Trail. After unloading our bikes, Camel Backs, Clif Bars, Bear Naked Granola, Princeton Tec Head Lamps and Pedro’s Tools he drove off with a cloud of dust. We were now on our own.

As we started the initial climb we knew this was going to be a long day in the saddle. Within the first half-mile both Mark and TJ were off their bikes with chain issues. Somehow Mark managed to twist his chain 90 degrees to how it is supposed to be and TJ was holding his chain in his hand. We managed to get Mark’s chain straight thanks to the pliers from a Leatherman and we got TJ back up and running thanks to Martin’s supply of Shimano HG pins.

The first 2.5 miles were straight up. I mean, STRAIGHT UP! Let me quickly remind you that none of us are professional mountain bikers and that this trail is well over 9,500 feet. Even though we all ride road bikes at lunch over very hilly terrain it didn’t do much to prepare us for this. At the top of the 2.5 mile climb we stopped to regroup, get out of the cold wind and eat some lunch. At that point we made the hard decision that due to the low temperatures (43 degrees and scattered flurries) and lack of air that it would be safer for some to head back to the start rather than continue on for the remaining 20 miles of unknown singletrack. With that decision we lost three riders who elected to back track to the start and await one of us with a truck to pick them up.

Being down to seven riders we decided to break into two groups; each with a mechanic. Tripp and myself would be group one and Martin, Fred, TJ, Bob and Schuler would take up group two.
Tripp and I rode off at a steady pace passing some of the most beautiful views in the South West. As the day (and the climbs) continued we decided that I was to ride ahead in order to get to the camp site and pick up the crew that elected to turn around.

Riding alone in rural Utah can be an exciting and freakish experience. I experienced groups of mule-deer, elk and a fox. It is a bit unsettling to see a herd of 300 pound mule-deer running across the trail in front of you. I was just hoping that the last one in the herd was actually the last one and that I wasn’t going to get clipped by a straggler.

As I arrived at our first night camp I was met by our backwoods cooks from Medium Rare Chefs, Amy and KJ. Dutch ovens were busy cooking our dinner over hot coals. After catching my breath, I told them that I needed to borrow a vehicle to go after the three that had turned around after lunch. After a quick check of the map to getting my bearings I set out in the truck to find them. I was pleasantly surprise that they were more than ½ ways to the camp via the road when we met up. We loaded their bikes on the Thule hitch rack (LINK) and drove back to camp.

Within five minutes of arriving back to camp we started to see the rest of our group finishing their epic day of riding. Two-by-two they showed up from with the strain of the day visible on their faces.

Stories around the campfire.

As we gathered around the campfire it was evident that this was truly an epic day of riding. The crashes, near crashes, mechanicals and views were ones worthy of mountain bike magazines or adventure guide books.

After all those miles, dinner that night truly hit the spot. Inside one Dutch oven was home made corn bread which we ate with clam chowder and a fresh salad. For desert was another Dutch oven creation, pineapple upside-down cake. Yum! One unfortunate story came that came back from the trail was one of a mishap with a log at mile two. It seems that TJ was going over a log when a slight miscalculation led to his ejection from the bike. After trying to break his fall with his hand he managed to hurt his elbow. Suffering through the next 20 miles he knew that something was more seriously wrong than he originally had thought.

When the decision was made to get TJ to a hospital in the morning it opened the door for some others to get a ride back to the condo for a warm shower and a soft bed. We couldn’t blame them for heading back. It was an extremely hard day in the saddle and by just finishing day one was an accomplishment into itself.

That night the remaining group that braved the sub-20 degree night consisted of Fred, Tripp, Red, Bob, Schuyler, our chefs Amy and KJ and me.

Day 2 – 12 miles

As we awoke on day two it was evident how cold it actually got over the night. Frost was on my hat and covering my tent. As I opened the rain fly on my tent I could see that Fred was already up getting the fire started. A quick check of my cycling computer revealed that it was currently 21.4 degrees.
As we got our gear ready for today’s ride (and thaw out our Camelbacks next to the fire) Tripp told us about how he could not get warm up at all during the night and that no matter how many layers he put on couldn’t lose the chill he got from the day before. Never being one to quit half-way through a challenge Tripp decided to mount his bike for day two.

Since we were on the western edge of the time zone the sun took a bit longer to rise. However, as it did we knew the cold temperatures of the day before were long gone and today we were going to enjoy some comfortable riding weather.

Bob and Schuyler decided to swap places with Amy and KJ and let them ride the 12 miles out with us. At around 10:30am our group set out for the final leg of the trip.

The day was pretty uneventful in terms of crashes and mechanicals. A quick fix of Red’s flat tire reveled that his rim strip was shot. Being a good Boy Scout Fred had some duct tape with him that we used to fabricate a new one. We mostly stayed together as we rode though groves of aspens, high meadows and washed out jeep trails.

We stopped for a quick snack and Tripp mentioned that he didn’t have much energy left in the tank and was just going to ride at a slow steady pace. Since the day before was so tough we brushed it off as just fatigue.

The final three miles of the ride were all down hill. The first mile was a series of twisty turns through trees and fields. The other two miles were a full-on downhill over a washed out jeep trail. This was a great way to end the ride.

At the bottom of the jeep trail we met Bob the shuttle driver. We loaded the bikes onto the trailer and Bob drove us back to our condo.
When we arrived at the condo we finally got word about TJ’s condition. It seems that he suffered a radial fracture of the elbow. He was in a half-cast and was advised to see an orthopedic doctor on Monday morning.

Most of the group had early flights out the next morning so there were only four of us left in the condo. The next day we were planning to ride a 12 mile downhill off the back side of a Brian Head. Going to bed that night we were all pretty trashed but excited that we didn’t have to do any climbing the next day.

The adventure continues...

That night Tripp was up all night coughing. He couldn’t lie down and when he did it sounded like he was making espresso in his lungs. As he continued to cough he started to spit up blood. This was clearly more than a case of altitude sickness or fatigue.

Since Red was heading down to Cedar City to bring TJ to the orthopedic doctor, we felt that it would be good to get Tripp down out of the altitude and get checked out by some doctors.

Needless to say, we canceled the ride for the day. Fred and I went over the Brian Head Mountain Bike Park (LINK) to pack up our bikes and gear for the shipment home and drove down to Cedar City to check in on Tripp and TJ.

As we pulled into the hospital we were greeted by Red and TJ. The orthopedic doctor told TJ that he would be fine in a few weeks and to just take it easy. That was a relief.

Tripp’s condition was still unknown but we knew that they wanted to keep him overnight for observation. After a quick stop at the hospital gift shop to pick up some flowers and a cheesy card we wandered down to his room where his male nurse was checking him out.
It seems that with the cold conditions combined with the altitude Tripp managed to get a case of H.A.P.E (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). Now we knew why he didn’t have any energy the day before. Tripp was released from the hospital the next day and is now on his way back home.

Since all members of the Thule Road Trip are now all accounted for and are either back home or off to other business engagements it is time to reflect on how truly epic our road trip to the Virgin River Rim Trail was. We are all looking forward for our next road trip and the adventure it brings.

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