White Rim Blues

White Rim Blues

The White Rim trail of Canyonlands National Park is a mostly dirt road loop of one hundred miles along a dramatic shelf of pale stone beneath the more accessible Island in the Sky plateau, but above the maze-like terrain created by the Green and Colorado Rivers. It is typically ridden in a few, heavily inebriated days of camping with cyclists enjoying twenty to forty mile rides each day between designated campsites as trucks shuttle camping gear, food, and water. Before dawn on a crisp spring morning in 2002, two friends and I planned to mount our bikes and ride the entire trail in a single day, unsupported.

By the time that we embarked on this ride, long distance mountain biking had progressed well into the mainstream of the sport. One-hundred-mile off-road rides were considered an accessible distance, so much so that several mountain bike races catered to that arbitrary and once-lofty century goal previously reserved for road bikers (who had since moved on to double centuries and beyond). I personally knew several people that had ridden the White Rim in a day, albeit truck-supported. I had also heard of the riders really on the fringe that made just one lap around the park seem frivolous. These riders would start from the (not so) nearby town of Moab, go the hundred miles around the park and then ride back to town. Others were rumored to “loop” the century on consecutive days, each day riding the extra distance to the next camp. We had already completed a seventy-mile ride in the mountains around my home in Salt Lake City a week before that involved much greater elevation gains. And two weeks before this trip I accompanied a supported trip to the White Crack campsite at the halfway point in the ride in order to stash five gallons of water for this weekend. To end that trip I rode the fifty miles back to the visitor center as a preview of what was to come, pushing hard up the very steep Shafer trail climb that would also mark the end of the single day ride.

My friends and I broke camp with little fanfare, got back in our car and headed to the starting point near the Island in the Sky visitors’ center, just beyond where the Shafer trail climbs its way back onto the plateau. The plan happily bouncing around in my head as we were making good time in the crisp, cool early morning hours was to head counterclockwise around the loop in order to get the (boring, less scenic) section of paved and improved road out of the way early. Then down off the plateau at Horsethief basin, past the sand and trudgery of Hardscrabble before climbing onto the rim. Then yada yada yada, you know, some riding, triumphantly cresting the arduous Murphy Hogback summit at great speeds, then a coast back to the middle ring-easy Shafer trail climb. I had plans to repeat my assault on Shafer and usurp Chris’s climbing dominance. The hardest part would be the final half-mile of road before downing some cold drinks at the truck, one hundred mountain bike miles to the wiser. Water replenishment was to be taken care of by the stash at White Crack, filtering from the Green and the Colorado Rivers, and from supported groups along the way if need be. The birds sang, we rode, and the sun streaked brilliantly as it rose higher into the sky.

While we were resting and filtering the silty waters of the Green River something occurred to me: “Why hadn’t we passed any groups along the way?” By this point in the ride we should have seen a few supported trips stirring in the passed campsites. Their absence was strange for this time of year where the weather is usually perfect for outdoor partying. The answer became clear to me after we began the surprisingly long climb out of Sandy Bottom toward the rim: they had checked the weather report and it was grim.

utah 1You see the sun had come up, the birds had gone into hiding, and we had started on our journey with Thursday’s weather guiding our plans. Deserts are not to be trifled with, this we knew, but we were still caught unaware by the sudden twist in the weather outlook. Our expected high of 80°F had somehow risen to 105°. The calm, partly cloudy skies were replaced with skin-scorching heliocentric clarity and record winds. Dust storms were likely. This was, of course, reported on Friday as we headed obliviously south.

There is no better indicator of the weather than the weather as it happens, and in this case, hot, dusty headwinds greeted us with gritty gusts as we climbed up towards the White Crack proper. I grew up in a desert and was well aware of how fast a hot, sunny and windy day can strip you of your moisture. You sweat the water out, it disappears, you become a terribly leaky sieve. We were each carrying three water bottles, and two 100oz. water reservoirs that we last filled at the Green River. By the time I had my first leg cramp near Candlestick campground I was already down to the equivalent of two water bottles and my companions no better off.

My riding partners were two good friends I knew from graduate school in Salt Lake City, Steve and Chris. Steve was one of those lucky athletes that never tired. We had ridden all day before, and he usually just got more chipper and strong as the day went on. When Chris and I were suffering, at times walking, up the climb to the Hogback summit (so much for cresting at speed) Steve actually rode it twice, once for continuity, once again with his tired partners. At the time I was thinking, “show off,” but it’s easy to overlook his brashness in light of later events. Chris was also a strong rider, perhaps surprisingly so considering that his training consisted almost solely of year-round bicycle commuting dressed in shorts and sandals. He was given over to the colder climates, perhaps with a little resistance to humidity thrown in from his childhood in Maryland. However, as Steve was happily descending back to us on the Hogback slope, Chris admitted to me he was not partial to heat. His exact words were, “I don’t think I’ve ever been this hot before.”

Six hours into our ride and somewhere in the endless stretch between the Hogback and the de facto midpoint at the White Crack turnoff, Chris began to degrade. I suspected as much because he was uncharacteristically trailing behind me, and because of the less-than-straight line he was tracking in the sand. I stopped and waited for him to cover the hundred feet or so of distance between us, which, I kid you not, took several minutes. He asked me to “just ride in front so I can watch your tire” and so I did. We were both withholding information at this point: I was starting to cramp, he was dehydrated and losing his mind. His hallucinations took the form of absurdly large climbers clinging to the sheer cliffs of Wingate sandstone that marked the rise to the Island in the Sky plateau. He later admitted that he was having private conversations with these “cliff people,” the details of which he won’t reveal. In any case, they must have seemed indifferent if not benevolent because he continued riding toward them.

We made slow progress and met up with Steve underneath the shade of one of the few, large pinyon pines along the road. Steve and I both gave half of our water to Chris, whom we also carefully doused to bring his temperature down. We were all down to low reserves of water and eagerly anticipating the five gallons that I dropped at the turnoff to White Crack. By now the winds were severe and conversation was stifled. With a nod we got back on the bikes and continued.

At the small rise (summit?—damn I was tired) that marks the turnoff to White Crack, I ditched my bike and walked into the boulder-strewn hill nearby where I had stashed precious water two weeks before. My legs were cramping from dehydration, something I was still keeping from my partners, and the walking seemed to take forever. I found the boulder I stashed under and saw that the container was still there but something was not right. It was completely empty, drained by the (obviously more) desperate local rodents. The sand underneath the chewed container was damp but not a drop of useful water remained. The container was riddled with so many chew holes that I felt suddenly ill at ease and so grabbed it and left in haste. What if the culprits were equally hungry?

From the perspective of my friends, my very thirsty friends, there was something obviously wrong with my return trip down the hill. They could see that my arm swung too freely under the lack of burden. No words were necessary when I reached them; we had to get the hell out of there. We got back on the bikes.

utah 2Ten sandy miles later Chris flatted. We all huddled on the lee side of a scraggly desert tree as he flipped his bike over and got the tire off. Steve and I took the opportunity to eat some “power” food which I now realize should have been left in the clearance bin of the discount chain from which they were purchased. While I watched Steve chomp happily away I experienced the novel sensation of having both of my legs cramp up while having nausea overtake me. My secret was out. Just then a fierce gust of hot desert wind caught Chris’s bike and toppled it, breaking the derailleur hanger on the indifferent rock ground.

Steve must have started to finally sense the desperation of the situation because he offered to ride the final 40 miles alone to get to the truck. Chris and I agreed. We gave him most of the remaining water and he darted off with enviable strength and a cheery “see you soon.” Chris reduced his bike to singlespeed (before it was fashionable) and I contorted into less and less painful arrangements of cramping muscles until we were ready to proceed.

Chris and I had decided to make it to the Wilhite trail, a rough descent down to the Colorado River that would take us off of the main trail but would lead to water. We would then filter and drink, refill our bottles, and head back to the main trail in order to meet Steve as he drove back to meet us. However, when we reached the Wilhite turnoff, we instead lucked upon the Angel of the White Rim.

I had heard stories of a beautiful and, importantly, gun-toting park ranger in Canyonlands from friends that make yearly trips along the White Rim. One impressionable devotee claimed to be in love with her based on no more than two meetings. When we saw her Park Service truck my heart certainly took notice, but more so with her dirty, hot water jug. It was love in the purest form.

We drank and revived some. Steve had passed already and continued up toward the final climb after getting water. The Angel did not admonish us when we insisted on continuing the ride. She instead patiently trailed behind us, waiting to deliver us into the salvation of her truck if need be.

A few miles later I was less convinced of finishing the ride than was Chris, who, by this time, was undergoing a remarkable recovery. He was pulling ahead on every pedal stroke, the inequities of his bike and previous mental state following the sun in retirement. I, on the other hand, cramped into a painful ball somewhere around Musselman Arch and became the first soul to abandon. I have never felt a more contradictory sense of failure and overwhelming relief. Before visiting catatonia in peace, I passed my small headlight on to Chris who bravely single-sped ahead to the base of the final climb in encroaching darkness.

His spirits renewed (by the pinyon pine before White Crack? by the water? by the Angel?), Chris was happily cursing unseen obstacles in the rough road during the initial climb but as the road steepened he was near the point at which his limited gearing would be insufficient and he would have to begin walking. It was just then, in the darkness and amongst the very precipitous cliffs in which he had conjured the “cliff people” fifty miles previously, that a desperate voice echoed from the darkness: “Hey!” Fearful of this sudden relapse in sanity, he recoiled at the thought of having to face his hallucinations in the flesh. The voice continued, “Hey Chris, over here!” and he realized he was not, in fact, seconds from having to reevaluate his rational worldview. The voice was Steve’s.

Steve had finally been broken. The difficulties of the ride brought a first time experience for him: he bonked. To those that are not familiar with the term, a “bonk” is an athlete’s term for running completely out of energy. It’s also described as “hitting the wall,” as if one has approached an impassable barrier. In Steve’s case, his first bonk ended instead with his crawling into a ditch on the edge of the unforgivable wall that the Shafer trail was cut into. That’s where he lay when Chris’s headlamp came into view.

The ride we began that morning was to be difficult on a good day and in this case the weather and other circumstances took a turn for the worse. Steve and I were glad to have survived the day’s ordeals. But what happened to end the day is typical of a defining and peculiar love for cycling shared amongst the friends and, I think, others who have suffered to their limits on a bike. Chris loaded his second friend into the Angel’s truck, climbed on Steve’s bike and finished the ride as Steve and I looked on enviously.

—Bryon Wright