In which our intrepid duo climbs the world’s longest, most boring fire road, traverses the Talus Field From Hell, and finishes in complete darkness, riding by Braille. Was this fun or what?! This btw concludes our holiday “classics” series. Happy 2010, ride safe out there!
Still basking in Sun Valley’s halo, Jim Lyon and I headed off for another multi-day adventure, this time in the Washington high country. Neither of us had ever done the Devils Backbone-Pot Peak epic, so we pointed Moby Dick toward Chelan and cruised on over. Before leaving I did a search on my BBTC [Note: Now Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance] database, dating back to the late 1990s, for tips on the ride. I was surprised to find almost no references. Jeff Mack did a partial stab last year, but this obviously is not among the club’s more popular excursions.
We got what I thought was an early start, but it took us four and a half hours to get to the Snowberry campground and mount our bikes. It was a late start, but Zilly puts the ride at between 6 and 10 hours. As long as we were on the short side, we’d finish before dark.
[Before I go further, I’d like to thank all the BBTC (Now Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance) folks who responded to my wife’s plaintive pleas for information by phone and e-mail. I have a pact with Cecile: I can pretty much go anywhere as long as I report back in after the ride. Not all post-ride environments offer cell or phone service, however, in which case Itry to remember to alert her that I won’t be able to follow the drill. In this instance, I dropped the ball. I didn’t realize how far from anything civilized we would be.
When it got late and Cecile still hadn’t heard from me, she went to code orange. I have the BBTC Web site and Yahoo! address on our bulletin board for her to check in an emergency. She started clicking away and soon had talked to half a dozen or more regulars, who thankfully reassured her that Jim and I were probably OK. Art was most helpful, telling Cecile that Jim and I had “done a lot more dangerous rides than Devils Backbone.” While this led afterwards to cross examination worthy of a John Grisham novel, it was definitely the right thing to say at the time. I should apologize for any inconvenience to club members – since obviously we’re both fine – but by the same token am encouraged that the unintentional triggering of the system worked so well. Talk about having our back! You can’t do better than the BBTC.]
The big loop begins with a long, 13-mile fire-road climb of around 4,000 feet elevation gain. That’s right, 13 miles of dirt road. Zilly suggests at least a partial shuttle, but as regular readers of these missives know I hate shuttles. Although on the long side, the ride up seemed innocuous enough on the map, and fire roads by nature aren’t all that challenging. By mile seven, however, I was beginning to question the wisdom of the long slog. Unlike most fire roads, this one had virtually no level, or “rest,” sections. It was unrelentingly up. Not steep, really, just unremitting. Think five continuous rides up Tiger and you have an idea (except that Tiger, like most normal fire roads, does provide some respite sections). [Note: What were we THINKING??]
On top of it all, I was feeling pretty lousy with some bug. I’d just found out that a good friend, spending the summer in Colorado, had contracted West Nile virus. Although Washington’s mosquitoes have been blessedly light in a lot of areas, I usually get bit once or twice at campgrounds. Factor that in with my advanced hypochondria and you can see where my fatigued imagination was taking me. Jim was having a better time and asked me at one point what I’d had for breakfast. It so happens that I’d eaten a crumpet with jam that morning, which is more than I usually do. A big breakfast fan, Jim is trying to convert me over, as have innumerable other friends and loved ones through the years. I may be coming around – burning 4,000 or so calories in a day might require more than a fruit drink or muffin at the onset. What do you think? Possible?
The road might be more tolerable if there were any distractions to recommend it. Unfortunately much of the route is lined with the blackened skeletons of burned-out pine, left over from the Tyee Creek fire nearly a decade ago. The area, dry as soda crackers and about as thrilling, is not coming back all that quickly. Thankfully it wasn’t too hot. There was, however, a smoky haze settling over the ridge. We were later told it was drift from the B.C. forest fire, but it seemed to have come from the southwest, around Wenatchee.
At one point a carful of tourists – not sure what else to call them – came driving down the road, having started on the Entiat side. I asked what brought them up. “Just out to see the sights,” the driver said. “Oh yeah,” I said, gesturing at the expanse of burned trees and barren terrain, “It’s really spectacular country up here, isn’t it?” They oohed and ahhed, failing to catch my admittedly cleverless sarcasm.
Jim was cruising up ahead, but not enjoying it any more than I. At one point he got a flat — even after changing it we were at a loss how — and we got to commiserate on the ungodly climb. The only possible payoff for this pummeling would be a ripping downhill, as promised by Zilly’s review.
Finally, after a brief downhill run where I almost crashed dizzily from whatever viral gremlin was hooky-bobbing me, we reached the Devils Backbone trailhead. It’s a marvel of understatement – ugly, really, and not at all inviting, a spine only Beelzebub could love. There was more climbing ahead, through more charred timber. To top things off, or bottom them out, the trail was in pretty sad condition – dusty and trenched-out in places. Up, up, up we went, climbing moto’d-out switchbacks, sweating like pigs and cursing our fates. After one zig-zagged section I started screaming, “Down! Down! My kingdom for a downhill!” hopeful that the MTB gods would show some mercy. The one remedial interlude was spotting a couple of mountain goats up the rockery. Dignified, proud, erect, they stood motionlessly on an outcropping, gazing toward the Entiat. We envied them their altitude, strength and splendor.
Finally we reached the top-out, or at least the first top-out, at a scenic overlook (scenic if you like looking at the spilled cargo of a gravel truck). We corkscrewed down a whole lot of rocky, pitted switchbacks, plunging at least 1,000 feet on not-all-that-pleasant singletrack. Then we had our Holy Shit moment. The trail now was redirecting us back up the ravine. This time the trail, such as it was, traversed a huge rock slide for nearly a mile. This stuff, dinosaur teeth, goatheads, Beelzebub’s toenails, whatever you want to call it, would be tough to walk on in hiking shoes. Our Sidis were sorrowfully overmatched. If indeed we were strolling on the devil’s backbone, I remarked to Jim, he was in dire need of disc surgery.
It was getting on toward 7 p.m. Fortunately, temps were staying hospitable even as the shadows began cloaking the ridge with leopard spots. I did some quick calculations: It would take us the better part of an hour to climb out of this granite hellhole, then another 45 minutes at least for the 10-mile cruise back to camp. We’d be ending in dark forest. What had we been THINKING?!
On the way up, more pike-a-bike than hike-a-bike, where you literally have to test every other footstep for stability, I thought about why I’ve mountain-biked for so long. MTB is a continuous, life-long challenge, akin to mountain climbing, where you’re always pushing toward some new, challenging test. But MTB, unlike mountain climbing, utilizes wheeled transport. The only reason for going up is coming back down. So for every ride there’s an axis to the undertaking, where challenge crosses fun. The perfect ride makes a perfect X. The further it strays from an X, to a say lazy T, the less attractive it becomes. If you’re just beating yourself about the body hour after hour, the raison d’etre gets lost.
Six hours into this colonoscopy of a ride, we had experienced plenty of pain and dread but had yet to encounter anything really approaching fun. Climbing an interminable fire road, pushing your bike up endless switchbacks, hobbling over vicious rockeries – well, you could have walked most of this and had a better time. Why bring along a bike?
At the top of the ridge, we looked back on our route for the past two hours. We could practically spit across the ravine and hit the lookout where we’d started. “This is a sorry excuse for trail-building,” Jim said. “Where are the Nepalese rope-bridge builders when you need them?”
OK, now we were ready for the downhill. Ten miles of descent, and not a moment too soon. Most of the ridge was wreathed in a shadowy smog, the combination of darkness, thermal inversion and smoke. As I stood looking out, I thought, there’s not a whole lot to recommend this place. Chelan isn’t as spiritual as the desert nor as scenic as alpine country. It’s just there, lost in the transition.
Off to the side we could see Pot Peak, aptly named. A squat uninspiring mound that, in our condition, conjured up desire for neither the herb nor the bean. And we had nowhere near enough liquid left in us to consider the third connotation.
The cruise down began depressingly like the walk up. Lots of switchbacks and way too much loose rock on exposed ridge. Had we been fresh, and were there plenty of daylight, it might have tweaked our skill meter. As it was, we just wanted to get it over. We needed a lot more speed if we were going to make it back before black.
The trail did straighten out after a bit, and we got to rolling. But still, things fell short of optimal. The surface was too powdery and rutted, and the brush too overgrown, to really provide the sled-run it should have. There’s a serious need for maintenance up there, particularly around the 4,500-foot level skirting Pot Peak itself. We saw one and only one set of MTB tire tracks – otherwise nothing. No footprints, no moto tires. Certainly no other people.
Ten miles is a long downhill, and toward the bottom the trail gets to moving. By then, though, it was nearly 8:30 and I could not see the trail surface. Riding by Braille, as Jim put it. I wear the darkest sunglasses I can find on sunny days – they’re prescription, and my eyes are hypersensitive to light. But I’m nearsighted, so when I took them off in the dark I couldn’t see the trail enough to give it the proper haul.
We got back just as the final glimmer of light faded from the west. In a way, we lucked out despite the wretchedness of the loop. I went back to Zilly’s description, where he states: “I guarantee that when you complete this ride, you will say it’s the best singletrack descent you’ve ever done.” I’m not a Zilly-basher. I think the guy has compiled an unbelievable body of work and respect all the hard work and detail that went into his research. And I’m certainly not going to ask for my money back on the basis on one wrong guarantee. But I can name half a dozen downhills, from Tahoe to Downieville to Big Bear to Moab to B.C. to Sun Valley, that beat this one hands down. At one point we asked ourselves what John must’ve been smoking that day. Then we remembered the name of the trail.
One thing did occur to both Jim and me: The way to salvage this ride would be an out and back. It would still give you 4k of climbing but would be trail both ways (much of it rideable on the way up) and get you the downhill for far less pointless agony.
Devils Backbone/Pot Peak elevation gain: 6,860 feet. Elapsed time, including bitching, moaning and whining: 7:42.