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Episode 5: Rattle and Huck - Moab

Things I learned on this trip:

1) I am not Nate Hills

2) Moab trails will break bodies and bikes

3) Zip ties are amazing

Earlier this year a couple of friends and me formulated an idea for a Moab trip. Soon after the idea was conceived, disaster struck. One of my friends crashed while riding and broke his shoulder – it would be a year before he could get back to any real riding. A year sounds like an eternity and me, I’m a rolling stone gathers no moss. So when I saw a return flight to Denver (from Houston) for a grand total of $42 (+$75 for the bike) I left a sticky note at the back of my monitor at work and ventured out to Moab for a quick 3 days get away. From there it’s a pleasant 5 and a half hours drive to Moab. That may sound a lot but Texas is huge, 5 hours barely gets you halfway across the state. So it wasn’t a big deal for me.I rolled into Moab shortly before noon, and went about claiming my territory for the next couple of nights at the King’s Bottom campground. It’s a small campground, 10 to 15 sites or so, with basic hole in the ground type of toilet facility. However its appeal is that even though it’s right off the road (which isn’t very busy) it is scenically located within a canyon and along the Colorado River. I wouldn’t class it as a remote site but it does have that appearance and also only a short 5 minutes drive from town, and offers quick access to several trailheads. That’s a happy compromise in my books.

To be honest these technical, chunky, rocky mess that forms most of the Moab trails is not my favorite kind of riding. I know I would suck but at the same time stepping out of my comfort zone is something that has always formed a nutritious healthy diet for my personal growth. In preparation for the trip I did 2 things. Firstly, I bought a full face helmet (I didn’t end up using it) and secondly, I heavily researched the trails and studying footage on YouTube from other riders. My intention was to hit Pipe Dream, Slickrock, Porcupine Rim, Captain Ahab and Mag 7 for the grand finale.

Pipe dream was first up and I had purposely done so for several reasons. It’s an intermediate trail, and after watching footage from Nate Hills, it looked like it had a nice mixture of technical chunk and flow. I figured it would be at a nice level for me to get accustomed to the riding style required here and at 4.8 miles long it is nice and short for the half day riding I have left on the first day. Oh, by the way Nate Hills is one of those sublime riders and has his own channel on YouTube with his ‘Follow me Friday’ series which is a real treat. Within 5 minutes of riding Pipe dream I had a fresh reality check. Mostly it was because I forgot to factor a crucial element – I am not Nate Hills. We have the same bike but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The flow that I witnessed on his video is only possible because he dissects the rocks like a skilled surgeon and when there is simply too much chunkiness, his laser like precision in line choices allows him to carry the momentum and speed to just skim over the top of them. I have none of those skills, which left me awkwardly pin balling and bouncing in all directions (including backwards) all the way down the trail. If you look closely, pretty much all the rocks on the trail have metal and paint chips from the pedal strikes and various parts of the bikes smashing against them. By the time I got to the bottom, my confidence was shattered. That trail made me feel like I have only just learned how to ride a bike yesterday.

I knew I couldn’t end the day on such a de-spirited manner. I had an hour or so left before sunset so I decided to head over to the Slick rock area to regain some confidence and if nothing else, grab a scenic sunset on the rocks. The main Slickrock loop is 10.7 miles long – I ain’t got time for that, so I opted for the much shorter 1.6 miles Slickrock practice loop. It doesn’t have the same grand features as the main loop but nevertheless it was a blast and incredibly unique riding landscape, almost extraterrestrial. And the rock offered unbelievable amount of grip allowing you to climb pretty steep angles and ridiculous lean around corners. So much fun to be had at sometimes you lose track of the painted white lines that marks the trail. This is not recommended because you’ll get lost and more importantly you might fall into the many crevasses. With the short practice loop done I sat down for the splendid sunset which was uplifting after the Pipe dream nightmare.

Observing sunset over Slickrock

As I poked my head out of the tent the morning after, I was greeted by an impressive sight of a group of women running up a steep canyon trail. After that I felt guilty of even entertaining the idea of a lie in. While consuming breakfast I was debating in my head over the choice of trails for the day. I had intended to do Porcupine Rim and Captain Ahab, but given my poor performance on Pipe Dream, I felt my riding needed much improvement and was seriously reconsidering other alternatives. Fortunately for me a friend had ridden out here and she recommended a few of her favorite trails. I settled for Navajo Rocks Chaco Loop (17.6 miles), mostly because I detected a good funky vibe from the name. That trail definitely delivered miles of smiles (thanks Devra!!). The trail has everything - technical chunk, steep climbs, slickrock, exposures, ledges to huck, and flowy single track. These were all mixed in such a way that no parts of it were too overwhelming, the constant mix and change of trail features keeps you guessing and entertained all the way to the end. And the cherry on top was the wonderful rock formations. As a geologist and mountain biker this was just an overdose of pleasure. I spent just as much time off the trail looking at the rock as I did riding on the trail. This accounted for my slow progress. I’m glad I was riding alone as no riding companion would have been accommodating of my geologist geek mode. If I were to complain about anything it would have been the crazy wind. The area is very exposed and that day we had 30mph gusts which is really not conducive to riding along rock spines and cliffs with steep drops either side. There were times when I actually had to lean into the cliff drop to remain upright on the bike.

My riding and confidence improved much over that ride and I felt I was ready to take on Captain Ahab for the afternoon. However the crazy winds had other plans. It became dangerously gusty after lunch and even though Captain Ahab is in a more sheltered area I didn’t feel stupid enough to take the risk. So I decided instead to explore the town by bike. What I found impressive was that almost every other car in Moab has one or more mountain bike attached to them. That is something I have never seen before. There are the usual tourist trap shops which I don’t care much for but there are also quite a few arts and craft shops selling works of local artists. I like those very much and even purchased a few small items to decorate my barren walls at home.

Local arts for my barren walls

The other neat about Moab is that for such a small town, it has an unusually high density of ice cream parlors. My top pick is called Moab Garage Co. In a past life it was an actual garage and now turned into an ice cream place – one of those which actually make the ice cream fresh in front of you when you place the order in. I can testify those are delicious, as well as their waffles, and probably their coffee too.

After being rejuvenated by the ice cream I rode along one of the many bike paths that form an impressive network of bike path which connect the town to almost all the trails in the area. It is usual practice to get dropped off at the trail head and you would just ride all the way back to town. As I ventured north out of town I crossed a bridge at the mouth of one of the canyons. It was still gusty and it was even more extreme over the bridge as the wind was being funneled into the canyon. There was a rope attached from the middle of the bridge to the north bank of the river and unbelievably, there were two women tight roping on it. I was barely able to stand upright and yet these ladies were bouncing and balancing on the ropes. Wow.

That night I attempted to record a timelapse shot with my GoPro. It also happened to be a full moon and oh boy, it was bright. In my tent it actually seemed like it was daylight outside. The moon was casting spooky shadows of the trees and canyon face on the tent. So predictably the night time lapse shots didn’t turn too well. On the video it almost looked like it was shot during the day but I promise you it was taken around 1am!

For the final day I grabbed a shuttle (from Moab Cyclery) to be dropped off at the Mag 7 trail head. Mag 7 is one of the long distance (21.7 miles) premiere rides in Moab. Short for Magnificent 7 it connects 7 trails together – Bull Run, Arth’s corner, Little Canyon, Gold Bar Rim, Golden Spike, Poison Spider and Portal. The upper half down to Little Canyon is the relatively easier part, fast flowy and pretty much downhill all the way. The second half is where it gets very challenging requiring a lot of focus, skill and stamina for the technical sections that pretty much follows the canyon rim – offering equal parts stunning and terrifying views. And the last section – Portal is really what separates the men from the boys. Speaking to the shuttle driver, she recommended bypassing Portal, simply because the week prior had dumped a lot of rain making Portal dangerously washed out in certain section. Thus it was ill advised for first time riders like me. I happily took that advice and planned to take Poison Spider all the way down instead of Portal. Also on the shuttle was a gentleman from Switzerland, couple of local riders and also a couple from San Francisco (Victor and Lara). They both were asking me a bunch of questions about the trail. They were not quite sure what to expect, and of intermediate level riding skill/experience so I gave them my best tips to help them have a safe and enjoyable ride. At the trail head I was the last to set off since I had to set up the gimbal and camera. I finally set off on Bull Run which was super-fast and ledgy, requiring a lot of hucking. There is a fun little section which is a sequence of 5 ledge drops, each one was a good 3 to 4 ft of drop. As I worked through the section I noticed Victor and Lara at the side of the trail. So I went back up to check up if everything was ok. It turned out Victor had gone over the bar on one of the ledge drops and landed heavily on his hands and arm. When I got to them he was feeling nauseous and numb in the arms, most likely from the adrenaline and shock. Good news was that nothing was broken and he just needed to be patched up and regain some composure. So I whipped out my first aid kit, cleaned up the cuts and bandaged him up. After that we just sat and chatted away while his shock and adrenaline subsided. They were very appreciative of my assistance and glad I came prepared with first aid kit. It’s very easy to underestimate these trails and it always pay to come fully prepared. I joked with them that I’m simply building up my ‘trail Karma’ – who knows when it would be my turn?The wonderful thing was that even after all that they kept on going and was not discouraged from continuing the ride. It would have been very easy to just quit and bail but they persisted with a bad ass mountain biker attitude. After that episode I continued my merry way, hucking and smashing my way down the trail.

All smiles at the end with Victor and Lara

About 30 minutes later I came to rest at a scenic spot overlooking a small canyon. As I put down my bike I noticed something odd about it. There was a pin sticking way out at one of the pivot points on the rear swing arm. Now it turns out that the pin connects the rear shock to the swing arm. Without it the rear end would just simply collapse. Normally it is held in place by 2 bolts on either side. The constant rock smashing and violent abuse from the trails had completely knocked loose one of the bolts and the pin gradually inched out. I was very fortunate to have stopped when I did, and noticed it. Had the pin fallen out completely, it would have been a catastrophic and I could only imagine what would have happened to me. I did in fact perform a full health check up on the bike prior to the trip –knowing that any mechanical failure would have been disastrous on these unforgiving trails. But I really should have been constantly checking the bike after each ride, given that I have never subjected the bike to such degree of abuse before. That was my bad and I was lucky to escape unharmed this time. In fact when I spoke to some local riders later that day, they all do a weekly service. Moab trails are very hard on the bikes. I tried to see if there were any other bolts on the bike that I could sacrifice but it seemed that every single component is critical. The only non-essential bolts were the ones for the water bottle cage which I don’t ever use anyway. Unfortunately however they were just a wee bit too small in diameter. There were a bunch of riders that stopped by and tried to help out but none carried spare bolts (not the usual thing one would carry anyways). Eventually Victor and Lara caught up, saw my predicament and laughed as they joked that it was too early to pay forward in the trail Karma cycle. After more than 30 mins trying to find a solution I nearly gave up and resigned to taking the jeep road half a mile back up the trail and call it quits, which would be a shame.

The zip tie handy job

Then I remembered that in addition to the standard tools and spares for punctures, I also carry super glue and more importantly a bag of zip ties. The zip ties were the right size that I could thread 3 of them through the pin and that would secure the pin in place. Again I was very lucky by the fact that I hadn’t lost the pin itself. It is a major load bearing component and without it the zip ties wouldn’t be able to hold the bike together by themselves. Instead their function was simply to keep the pin in place. I tested them by jumping off a 4ft ledge twice and they worked like a charm.

So back to the rock smashing and hucking.Now even though the zip ties were doing a phenomenal job I wasn’t willing to bet my life on them for the second half of Mag 7. This is where you need to place 100% confidence in your abilities and your bike. On any other trails the worst that could happen would be some broken bones but along the rim section death was a real possibility. It would have been epic but again I just wasn’t stupid enough to take the chance. So with that I opted to ride with a few local riders – Trevor, Sean and Michelle who escorted me out via Gold Bar Rim and Gemini Bridges Road. It’s always a treat riding with locals who knows the lines and could just tow you in, and also helps to share the pain on long painful climbs at the end of Gemini Bridges.

After the pain exit climb on Gemini Bridges with Trevor and Michelle

The very last section though is fun a long descend down a bumpy Jeep track – also known as ‘Get out of my way’. I told Trevor about the $42 flight from Houston and he replied 'heck, you might as well leave your bike at my place, come fly out every weekend and ride with us!'. Oh Trevor ... don't tempt me! Once out we took one of the bike paths back into town, and along the way we even did one more fun short trail called Sidewinder.By the time I got back to town it was getting dark. I grabbed a quick dinner and did the 5 and hour drive back to Denver. Not something I would recommend after a full day of riding.