White Rim in a day, Moab, UT

Just posting this here for reference. I originally posted it to mtbr.com on March 28, 2006.

White Rim …. in one day. Link to the photos is at the end.

White Rim. Say that to most mountain bikers and they think “epic trip, 3 days, support vehicle”. Say White Rim to my mountain bike buddies and they say “yeah, that’d be great day trip”. For the uninitiated, White Rim is a trail / jeep road that is 102 miles long and runs through BLM lands and Canyonlands National Park near Moab, UT. Canyonlands NP has some unbelievable scenery. Right out of a movie. Ride White Rim and you get to see more of Canyonlands NP than most people can imagine exists. To ride it on a mountain bike you get to feel it too.

This all started years ago. A couple of this crew had ridden White Rim years earlier but always multi-day with support. Several more of us wanted to ride White Rim. In a day. For a couple of years we’d been muttering about doing it but never actually motivated. Last October, my friend Brad and I were driving to Fruita, CO (an hour or so from Moab) for a weekend of riding. As we drove along we got around to talking about doing White Rim. We came close to just aiming the truck past Fruita and going straight to Moab but decided against it for some reason that I can’t remember. Doing White Rim in a day was definitely on our short list of things to do. Fast forward to December 2005… Brad is now expecting a new baby in May and decided he’d have one last shot at White Rim in a day for a couple of years so he tossed out the idea and some dates on email and everyone said yes. We must have all been sick of winter (the week Brad sent his email it was -15F here in Monument, CO) and imagined a nice warm spring day in the desert because we all said yes almost as soon as he sent out the email. In all there’d end up being 6 of us. We would do it in one day, all 102 miles, no support…pack it in, pack it out, food, water, and spare parts. Oh yeah, did I mention there is no place to get water along the way except one spot where the trail approaches the Green River and the occasional puddle if it has rained? Depending on which direction you ride, that spot is either 20 miles into the ride or 80 miles into the ride. Neither spot is ideal for water re-supply.

We finally settled on 2 sets of dates that would work for everyone depending on the weather. The last 2 weekends in March. Go on the first if the weather looks good or skip a week and try again. As the date approached it was obvious that we were going to go on the first of the 2 dates. The extended outlook was 50-60F, cloudy. Close to perfect for staying warm enough and not getting to dehydrated.

On Friday, Brad I met in Denver and rolled out at around 5PM headed for Moab. The rest of the group was leaving at various times on Saturday and would meet up with us in Moab. We made great time and were pitching tents by 11.

We found a new BLM camp site at the edge of Canyonlands NP (called Horsethief Campground on Mineral Point Rd) about ¼ mile from the start/finish of the ride on Mineral Bottom Road. Score! We had no idea it was there. Recent BLM and NP initiatives to tame overuse in the area has the BLM creating more organized camping sites. We’d been looking for an old campsite we’d been to years ago on Gemini Bridges Trail but that was now off limits to us since we did not have a portable toilet. We don’t usually go for organized camp sites because they are crowded but this one was brand new and so conveniently placed we couldn’t pass it up. We sat around a campfire, drank some beer, and told lies until later than we’ll admit. Classic guy stuff.

Saturday we got up earlier than I thought we would, made breakfast, wrenched our bikes and then went for a short ride to Gemini Bridges – a set of 2 or 3 sandstone arches with 400 foot cliffs all around. Very cool. There was a multi-sport run, bike, kayak, rappel adventure race in progress when we got to Gemini Bridges. They were rappelling down a 400 foot cliff face and then running to their bikes and riding up the trail we were on. After that we hustled back to camp and loaded the bikes into the truck and went to meet Jeff and Bruce at Bartlett Wash – a sandstone slickrock jungle gym for mountain bikers. We were late and they had made great time. So Brad and I just messed around on Bartlett Wash for about 30 minutes and then we all headed back to camp. We left Matt and Geoff voice mail describing where camp was.

Around 9:30PM we started wondering if maybe the intermittent cell phone communications in the desert had rendered the voice mail message useless so Jeff hopped in his car to drive back into cell range. Of course he crossed paths with Matt and Geoff on the way into town. With everyone in camp we decided on a 6:15AM start — 5 minutes after official sunrise.

At around midnight the wind rolled in. Then between 2AM and 3AM the 35 MPH wind rolled in. (I checked the weather underground – the winds reached 38+ MPH in Moab that night and probably were a good bit higher up where we were camped) Not a good sign. 102 miles is one thing. 102 miles in a 30+ MPH wind is a different thing, a very unpleasant different kind of thing. We all lay awake wondering if the wind would quit. Luckily it calmed to a mere 20 MPH as 5:30AM rolled around. At 5:30 the temperature was 38 F and the weather radio was calling for sunny, 65-75 F, and winds 10-15 MPH!!! Whooohooo! Its going to get warmer! Lets get it on. Dress warmly, dress in layers, but lets go!

A quick breakfast, last minute shuffling, and a$$ dragging had us roll out of camp about 45 minutes behind schedule. Not bad for a group of 6, heck, that’s practically ahead of schedule with 6 people. Of course we immediately had to send someone back to get some cash so we could get into the NP…. just the mere thought of trying to convince a NP ranger to let us in for free after 4 miles of riding was enough to make someone go back. Along the way to the NP entrance Brad flatted. Not a good way to start. At the entrance to Canyonlands NP there was a ranger …. who could have cared less about 6 nut jobs on mountain bikes in 38F degree weather at 7:30 in the morning. “Just don’t die or make me come rescue you, OK?” . We paid anyway and then the real riding started.

We were riding clockwise so the first order of business was a series of steep switchback called the “Shafer Switchbacks”. The White Rim is pretty much a Jeep road. Whoever had the idea to put a road up the side of this 2000 foot cliff face was deranged. The first thing I heard was “Wow!” immediately followed by “Death on the Left” which is mountain biker slang for “Holy cow this is great but check your speed and your brakes because you are going to need them if you don’t want to die on this very nice morning and ruin my ride!” See the photos by Brad. Brad must have really hauled down after he finished taking pics because he caught up with us pretty much by the time we thought to stop and look for him. He also lost a water bottle. Um, yeah, no going back looking for that, but that’s not good. We’d each started with anywhere between 140 and 200 ounces of water/sport drink depending on our personal drinking habits but you never want to lose 20 oz right off the bat like that.

We quickly fell into a good rhythm when Bruce flatted. Almost immediately after this we came to Musselman Arch. This arch is about 5 or 6 feet wide with about 500 or 600 feet of air on either side. Very cool. You have to check out the pics of this. [edit: 5 months later this still can keep me awake at night]

After Musselman Arch we really started to roll. Things were pretty uneventful for the next hour or so. We were motoring along at 12-15 MPH, the wind was fairly calm, the temperature was coming up, and the scenery was out of control. Brad and I were just hammering along out front and eventually came to an awesome keyhole arch so we stopped for some pics and a little solid food. The rest of the group caught up quickly. Bruce and Jeff framed the keyhole for a pic and we moved on.

We flew along. Brad and I were feeling good but looking forward to the 50 mile mark. 2 reasons. First, you are mentally over the hump at 50 miles. Second, at 50 miles you can see the next 50 pretty clearly. In terms pain and suffering. By 50 miles, it is pretty clear if you are going to make it or if you are going to have problems. At 50 miles you can look at the guy next to you and see what the rest of your day looks like. At 50 miles, the rest of our day looked pretty good. At 50 miles you butt tells you what the rest of the day is going to be like … and sometimes your butt lies to you.

Somewhere just after 50 miles we pulled over for lunch. Ah yes, solid foods after too much Hammer Gel and sports drink. Nothing makes you want a steak and potatoes with a beer like eating and drinking the stuff endurance athletes call trail food. However; a cheese and salami tortilla roll up and a Snickers bar chaser travels better in the desert than steak and potatoes. Luckily for the Snickers bar it wasn’t too hot out.

Immediately after lunch we encountered a section called the Hogback. Maybe they called it that because it was so steep you had to lean so far over your handlebar you were only as tall as a hog? Whatever the reason it was steep. Very steep. Mostly we made it up with no real problems. I dabbed once when it got so steep my front wheel unexpectedly popped up on me and I had to put a foot down to keep from flipping over backwards. Look for the road down below in the canyon in the background of the pics and you get the idea. The Hogback got our heart rates up again after lunch. The good news is we get a decent of a similar nature on the other side. But in the back of our minds we all knew that what goes down into the canyon must eventually go back up out of the canyon … under his own power.

Now at 60+ miles into it, it’s approaching 3PM, Brad stops taking the camera out. Its time to be serious and get it done. My kids favorite book by Robert Frost comes to mind. “… and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” But that is about a guy and a sled in a cold snowy woods and we are in the desert with a lot of pedaling left. Now its my turn. Pinch flat. Sort of a mystery pinch flat since there was no obvious feature that contributed. Oh well.

Near Millard Canyon Camp we stop to re-group, only as 2 separate groups. Brad, in the trailing group finds some water and purifies it to make up for his lost bottle. In the lead group a passing Jeep offers me water and I take some, not really needing any but thinking of Brads lost water bottle and the miles ahead. Eventually we are all back together and meet the next challenge, Hardscrabble Hill.

The contour lines on our map don’t do this bugger justice. Its hard. Damn hard. And frigging relentless. I hear more than a few “Dammits” in the background as Brad and I push each other for the top. I eventually wonder out loud when it will end. Finally it ends after several false summits. The good news is we get a decent of a similar nature on the other side. But in the back of our minds we all knew that what goes down into the canyon must eventually go back up out of the canyon … under his own power. Does that sound familiar? Remember the 2000 foot descent we did back at Shafer Switchbacks in the beginning? Well, we are going to pay for every single vertical foot of that with a climb of similar proportion to get out of this canyon.

Now we exit Canyonlands NP and re-enter BLM lands. As we cover the last miles in the approach to Horsethief Bottom and the final climb we string out, the miles beginning to take their toll. Considering I’ve been skiing more than training I am feeling pretty good and riding off the front of the group again with Brad. As the miles count down we do some math. We know there are only 14 miles to go according to the bike computer. We know there are 2000 feet of vertical elevation gain ahead. We also know that there are about 12 miles of dirt road at the top of the final climb. With each passing pedal stroke the enormity of the suffering we are about to encounter grows in our imagination, only we know that our imagination is backed up by a map with a trail going straight across contour lines. We also know each pedal stroke along the flat river bed increases the grade of the climb. I never did like math in school and I am liking it less and less as it continues to change the suffering quotient. It’s some sort of variable equation from hell that spells out “this is going to hurt” in no uncertain terms. Such high drama for a mere 2000 vertical feet. We ride 2000 vertical feet all the time. But after 80 miles your legs have a few things to say about 2000 vertical feet of climbing. None of them are nice things.

Finally we see a truck on the cliff wall ahead. Only we can’t figure out how it got in the middle of that cliff wall. It seems to be moving in a controlled manner but it just doesn’t look right. The road is very difficult to make out against the fading sunlight and shadows. Without stopping to regroup Brad and I plow into the hill head on. We pass the truck and trailer we’d seen on the cliff wall earlier which stopped to let us by amidst stares that plainly said “there’s somethin’ wrong with those guys”. If they only knew. At this point we still couldn’t figure out where the road went above us. It looked like the road just disappeared into one of the switchbacks ahead. About ½ way up we stopped for a minute to look at the wreckage of a couple of old cars that gone over the edge. Eeeeek. Just before the last switchback we spotted the rest of the crew at the bottom. 3 out of 4. Ugh oh. They came over the radio and were looking for Bruce who was presumed to be between us. A quick scan of the road below found no other bikers between us. Luckily, a minute later, just before we were ready to come up with a search plan Bruce reappeared at the bottom, having missed the turn. Good. (I think it may have been wishful thinking that caused Bruce to ride past the turn for the climb)

With everyone accounted for Brad and I decided to abandon our original plan we’d come up with as we started the climb, which was to wait for the rest of the group at the top of this climb. It was approaching 6:00PM and the sun was going to set in the next 15 or so minutes. We’d still have usable light for about another 30 minutes or so but didn’t want to screw around in the dark. We radioed our intentions to the rest of the party and declared a race for the beer cooler to be underway! It was about 50F as we cleared the top of the White Rim. We laid down the hammer and headed for camp. About 12 miles remained ahead. After about 5 or 6 miles with usable light fading and the temperature dropping we stopped and pulled out our warm clothing and lights. Back underway I quickly fell behind Brad. The temperature started to drop quickly in the high desert evening. After a few minutes of feeling like I was in suspended animation I snapped to and saw Brads head light in the distance. I quickly raised my pace to get myself warmed back up and the remaining miles started to click off. After what seemed like forever I finally reached the road and then the campground. The temperature was now 33F.

Brad had arrived in camp 8 minutes ahead of me and was changed and busy starting a fire. I changed and pulled on a down coat. Dry clothes haven’t felt that good in a long time. We made some soup and devoured it along with some nice salty chips and a beer.

After 20 minutes we started discussing how long to give the rest of the group before setting out for them in a truck. These were all some hard core survivors who’d all been through some long rides. All had completed harder rides and had plenty of warm clothing. Of course it was now freezing out and they were tired. But would they want the ride even if we offered it? At this point we realized that the truck we had keys to was blocked by one we didn’t have keys to – doh! $hit! OK, don’t panic, they are just on a fire road not anything technical. Give them a little longer. If we get desperate we’ll do a little creative gardening and 4 wheeling around the other vehicle and go get them if we can’t locate a hide-a-key. Luckily for a couple of desert plants the rest of the group showed up about 5 minutes before we were going to set out after them. In the end everyone made it back with nothing more than cold hands and feet.

We certainly weren’t the first to do this ride in a day but it was a ton if fun doing it.

White Rim in a day. Check mark.
Photos courtesy of Brad Baker.