I’ve been interested for a while in bikepacking; read about the countless adventures chronicled here by Scott M. to find out what this is all about, or check out the Colorado Trail race for an extreme and rather captivating example.
I’ve done one trip before that could be described as a bona fide bikepacking trip, which was my two-day loop around Lake Tahoe, so consider me a genuine rookie; though lots of fun overall, it sometimes felt a bit as if I was riding around with a boat anchor strapped to my back; so I’ve been doing some homework since then and devised a setup for my Salsa. Now I needed to try it out. My goal was to figure out if I could carry enough stuff to comfortably camp out while still having the ride feel like real mountain biking. Multi-day mtb races typically also involve lots of solo night riding, under the motto ‘sleep is overrated’, so this would be my secondary goal: do a solo night ride in a (semi-)remote wilderness without getting all too creeped out.
Enter Henry Coe; the perfect place to
break test your gear, get lost in the dark and be on your own to sort things out. Well, maybe not the getting lost part, as I’ve somewhat learned my way around there.
Here’s my setup (including mystery rider with backpack): frame bag with top bag (‘fuel tank’) from
Epic Revelate Designs in Alaska, with a 4 lbs heavy tent strapped on the handlebar (long live velcro straps) . In the case of a race the tent would go and probably be replaced by a bivy bag weighing less than nothing but note that I said ‘comfortably camp’ above; also, this is a $30 tent that I bought years ago, I’m sure with some more investment I could get one two or three pounds lighter. Note also that I’m not using a seat cargo bag (yet), but we’re working on that as well. The fully loaded bike weighed in at ~37 lbs (of which 12 lbs consisted of non-bike parts; more details on all the crap I took along maybe in a later post), then my backpack with full water bladder added another 10 lbs or so.
I showed up at HH around 6.30pm and started making my way up Lyman-Willson. First test: would I be able to clean the Wall, fully loaded? I’m happy to report, yes indeed, and no foot was put down between Hunting Hollow and Camp Willson – probably mainly thanks to the fact that the rutted step-up near the sinking pond on Bowl has been bedded in nicely lately. Up and down Wagon then, and the bike handled fine on the descents, though the extra weight on the front required some getting used to. That should be taken care of with a lighter tent or bivy, and it wasn’t actually even too bad as it was. I was a bit more concerned about the potential of brake fading, as my Hope Mono Mini’s aren’t exactly designed for this type of hard labor.
Up the peak at Crest trail I took a break to watch the sun set and ponder my plans for the rest of the ride – these were, in good tradition, yet to be improvised. I decided not to go ahead with the actual camping, but only do pretend-camping, for two main reasons: (a) I realized I had procrastinated patching up my Big Agnes air pad (which is great, except when it has a leak), and this would wreak certain havoc on the quality of my beauty sleep out here and (b) I had beer stashed in a cooler in the car and unfortunately not on or near my bike. After I was done lingering around, staring at Coit Lake deep below me and studying the farther expanses of Coe near the horizon I put on my lights and took off in the dusk, heading to Willow Ridge road.
Remember my two goals stated earlier? I figured the descent of Willow Ridge trail – the singletrack that drops you 1200ft down into Los Cruzeros – would kill two birds with one stone. If I’d be able to enjoy the winding descent and not feel bogged down by my gear, it would certainly qualify as ‘real mountain biking’, and at the same time it would make for a proper night ride, as the twilight was fading quickly and making place for a deep darkness. The downhill was thrilling indeed but some of the thrills came from the young poison oak sprouts all over the place and my frantic attempts to stay clear of them. I remember we worked on this trail just over a year ago and we pretty much nuked all the PO, now however it seems to be back in full force; quite a weed, this thing. Nevertheless, the bike was handling fine, and I’m not able to report any noteworthy issues regarding braking or cornering.
But now I got myself into a hole and needed to get out of it; a scenic, though dark hole it was, Los Cruzeros, surrounded on all sides by steep climbs. I noticed some campers but didn’t take the time to go exchange pleasanteries, as they were about one hundred yards off the trail and I wasn’t sure whether they were that eager for interaction with some nutcase showing up out of nowhere with a huge headlamp.
Up the Mahoney Meadows Wall I dabbed for the first time – not a shame as even on a good day and with a light bike the long, 30 degrees steep pitch consisting of mostly soft and loose dirt isn’t quite my cup of tea. I was able to clean all the climbing on Lost Springs however, probably thanks again to the plentiful poison oak infestations that made me stick to my line and power through the steeps like a madman high on steroids.
The section of Mahoney Meadows to Coit road – even on a sunny day a rather unexciting affair – was in the darkness of the night even more of a pain than usual: coastal fog had been rolling in, reflecting the beam of my headlight, killing visibility and making the ride rather tricky; well I guess at least it wasn’t as boring as it could have been. At this point I also started to succumb to some night riding paranoia – weird sounds in the woods, sudden movements caught in the corner of the eye – mostly birds and rodents, but there are always the creepy thoughts of being watched by the mountain lions. Either way, this is why the iPod was invented, so I cranked up the volume to tune out any funny noises and carried on: up the short section of Coit road, and then at last the descent home, one of my favorites, down Cross Canyon to Grapevine. My most fearful trail encounter happened a bit later, right after I was having a pretty good time negotiating the Grapevine rock garden in the dark (final test for the loaded bike: it performed nicely also on the techy bits): I found myself with a skunk running in front of me on the singletrack; at some point it jumped into some shrubs on the side and started making fart noises – I swiftly switched into a higher gear and accelerated out of trouble; it had been a close call! There were no more incidents to report on the final stretch of Coit and the Hot Springs road back to the parking lot and soon I was able to look back at a successful first experiment in bikepacking with my new setup.