Saturday, June 24, 2017

Urban paddling.

Perhaps few would think of Vail, Colorado as an urban environment.  After a winter and spring spent paddling increasingly remote canyons and gorges throughout the western US, I can hardly think of it as anything but, especially from the seat of a boat.  Once you slip into Gore Creek you're walled in by the interstate on one side, a bike path on the other, with bridges, retaining walls, power lines, hotels, coffee shops, and trophy homes dominating the view above water line.  Plus some scary pipes that had to be limboed, a low railroad bridge, and a lifetime supply of blast rock right there in the channel.

It was a sort of neat novelty to be so distracted by everything outside the river corridor, to the point that you had to repeatedly remind yourself to pay attention to what was coming.

Jesse had a freak wreck a few months back that landed him in surgery and then in a wrist cast.  Now that the cast is off and we can all agree that paddling isn't an 'impact sport', he felt the need to test the waters and this urban float gave us plenty of III and a tiny bit of IV excitement while remaining accessible enough that if his wrist started to hurt he could step out of the river at any given moment.

And yet -- oddly -- as crowded as the off-river was, the only people we saw on the river were launching into our takeout eddy.

Gore Creek was running 475 and the Upper Eagle was at 1500.  Great low/medium flow on both -- approachable yet still engaging.

Thanks for checking in.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Middle Vallecito reprise + Animas/Grenadier Traverse and Upper Vallecito update..

Knowing what we did after out first tentative exploration of Middle Vallecito Creek, there was zero uncertainty about the fact that we'd be back to explore more.  What I wouldn't have guessed is that we'd return so soon: Scarcely two weeks had elapsed before we found ourselves hiking back in.

Jeff couldn't join us on this go round, but Thor and I were accompanied by the uber-solid crew of Todd Tumolo, Nate Shoutis, and Doom.  Great company for the hike, the overnight, and especially on the river.

Accommodating 5 wildly varying schedules prevented us from getting higher up than last time, while slightly lower water levels, coupled with proper safety set at each drop, allowed us to run much more.  Where on the inaugural mission we guessed that we had ~700 cfs, this time it was likely closer to 550, and that decrease in flow made a tremendous difference.  At 700 the boogie was fast and pushy, at 550 it was fun, playful.  Where at 700 the bedrock constrictions seemed consequential and unlikely, this time they felt doable.

Gearing up just below the former site of 3rd bridge.

Todd and Thor probing the woodpile drop, AKA Hammerhandle.

Thor levitating through some fluffy bits.

Doom and Nate achieving the same.

Todd and Thor probing the sequence below second bridge.

And Todd finishing it out with a boof.

Below: Todd, salivating.  Jeff ran this gorge in 2015 despite the obvious limbo log.  His ~450cfs allowed it to be narrowly ducked, where at our ~550cfs it was clearly a no-go.  We referred to this rapid as Todd's Torment due to the length of time he spent attempting to dissolve the log with his eyes.  The entrance rapid leading to where Todd stands below is complex and juicy -- arguably the crux section of the run -- and once you turn the corner at the log there is but a brief breather then a few more drops.  If the log were out of play I don't think anything here is harder than IV+, but it is long and committing and tough to set safety for.  We hope to remove the log this fall and then hope even harder that nothing of note comes in and replaces it next winter or spring.

Todd absolutely greasing the bedrock drop at first bridge.  With a wink and a nudge and potentially some foul air present, we referred to this one as Inadvertent Shart.

Todd and Doom running safety as Thor drops in.

Nate, killing it too.

Below here I found it difficult to think about anything but NOT bumbling into the main gorge at what would be suicidal high flows.  The next few shots are of Nate and Todd picking apart a chunky sequence just above the traditional put-in.

And from just a little ways below this rapid you start looking for a way out of the river to begin the hike out.

Our first trip opened our eyes to the place.  This second trip allowed us to appreciate the quality.  

What remains is to tie it all together: To that end Jeff and Dan floated the Animas below Silverton this morning in hopes of hiking through Chicago Basin and into the headwaters of Vallecito on Sunday, and from there probing the uppermost bits.

I'll update this space when Jeff shares his media and thoughts from that venture.

Update: Jeff and Dan hiked over from the Animas and ran the Upper Vallecito.  Jeff's words and video:

The section from Sunlight to 3rd bridge is probably the least interesting (still awesome!!), but above Sunlight there are some amazing sections as well as some terrorizing sections. At current flows (~350 CFS), many sections feel bony but the higher boulder gardens are runnable safely in buttboats. Traversing to the high Upper Vallecito put-ins from the Animas section below Silverton into the Grenadier range feels like a very natural and doable route this time of year.

Dan and John were able to run everything from Sunlight through classic Vallecito gorge warmups except the Roell Creek boulder garden crux, including the limbo gorge.

Silverton to Vallecito packraft self-support

-Paddle: Silverton to Elk Park
-Hike: Elk Park to Vestal Basin/Balsam Lake/Leviathan Lake-Creek
-Paddle: Vallecito Creek from Rock Creek to Class V Gorge

2.5+ days with Dan, John joined at Sunlight Creek

* * * * *

Thanks for checking in.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Divide stories: Gary Dye

One of the most colorful characters that you never hear about from the early days of modern endurance racing is Gary Dye.  Then as now, Gary wasn't much for social media or time spent online -- his preference for learning and experiencing was to be outside doing what came naturally.

One of the early races in this genre was known as the Grand Loop.  Gary was the first person I ever heard call this collection of trails by that name, and also the first person I'd ever heard of riding it in one go.  While Gary's early traverse of the route (in '98 or '99 IIRC) wasn't what we think of these days as "racing", he did it in less than a week which simply wasn't conceivable to anyone other than Gary way back then.

Knowing that he was one of the few both up to the task and keen to try, I leaned hard on Gary all through the winter of '03 and spring of '04 to join us for the inaugural divide race.  In those days Gary spent most of his time riding a 6 x 6" travel 26" bike -- hardly an ideal sled for the GDR.  As the date drew nearer and he seemed more and more likely to participate, I offered the use of my Willits B2 29 incher.  After a brief test ride on it he wondered aloud why I wasn't riding it -- so ideal did it seem for the task at hand.  13 years on, and his bulbous rear rack/bag/pack notwithstanding, I still believe it to be an ideal bike for this route. 

Gary and I had raced together only a handful of times, largely because if he gets an idea to go do something he doesn't wait around for someone to organize an event -- he just goes and does it.  If memory serves, prior to this GDR the stars had only aligned for us to race together on the Grand Loop in '01, '02 and '03, and the Kokopelli Trail Race in '04.  

Gary was the sole finisher of the '01 GLR .  We'd leapfrogged off and on for ~160 miles, until my frame broke near Tabeguache Creek and I had no choice but to watch him diesel away solo.

Then in '02 Gary led Pat Irwin and I out on a brutally hot Grand Loop start.  Across the desert west of Grand Junction we toiled through the first night, with a desiccating headwind, uber-sandy trails, and temperatures only bottoming out at 86* before shooting up above 105.  I caught Gary a short distance up 'the shandies' (also a term coined by Gary) where he lay in the shade of a creekside cottonwood, moaning, with a moist bandana over his face to keep the flies off.  I spent a few minutes there with Gary, trying to assess what ailed him so that, if possible, I might offer some assistance.

As Gary told it, the night had been so hot that he'd blown through double the water he'd expected to, and when he arrived at the turn for the Cisco boat ramp he detoured over to see if he could somehow beg or borrow more.  It was far too early for boater traffic, so he went to plan B and "did some dumpster diving".  That effort netted him enough water to continue, but now, writhing in the dirt, he suspected his ill begotten loot had somehow been contaminated.

As I ran though my mental rolodex of what we might be able to do about his predicament, he rolled onto his side, grunted, and released an enormous fart.  Then he settled back down and uttered a line that will forever bear repeating:

"I don't know if I'm gonna puke or shit my pants, but I hope it happens soon..."

The oppressive heat and desert aridity would prove to be the undoing of us all that year -- there were no GLR finishers.

That fact had both Gary and I primed, a year later, when we again rolled across the desert and up into the La Sals.  Starting in the heat of afternoon and pushing hard all through the first night, Gary was always just a ridge ahead as we crawled across the landscape.  Roughly 20 hours in I finally caught him when he halted for a brief break.  Determined to take advantage of the gift he'd given in stopping, I pressed on up the shandies, repeatedly looking over my shoulder but never catching sight.  Convinced that I'd opened a decent gap, and positively worked from ~23 hours of non-stop movement with at least that much more to go, I laid down for a quick siesta.  

The spot I chose was where a writ-large juniper cast enough of a shadow that I could take advantage of it while still remaining in the literal middle of the road.  That placement ensured I wouldn't sleep long -- if a vehicle came I'd be awakened by the crunch of gravel, and likewise, I hoped, if it was Gary approaching.

My sleep was brief but productive -- maybe 20 minutes at most before I was awakened, refreshed, by Gary's voice asking "..the hell are you doing?"

Concern in his voice turned to annoyance and then acceptance of his role as alarm clock as I hopped on the bike and motored away up the hill.

Gary wasn't a finisher of the '04 GDR -- he pulled out somewhere in Wyoming or Northern Colorado due to a malady or overuse injury that escapes me at the moment.  I just thought it important to mention that he was part of the event, because he'd laid so much groundwork that made it possible for the rest of us to think, and go, further.

Thanks for checking in.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Exploratory: Middle Vallecito Creek.

Less than a year ago I got my first taste of Vallecito Creek -- the one that people call the best mile of creeking in Colorado.

I don't have enough experience to verify that claim, but I can unequivocally say that Vallecito is intense, riveting, gratifying paddling.

With that first run out of the way I was able to relax a bit on the second trip a few weeks later, and it was on that day that it occurred to me to wonder what was above the standard put-in.  If one mile was good, wouldn't two be better?

I asked around and got nowhere.  Sure, people had theories based on the character of the existing run, but I couldn't find a single person that had paddled it or even knew of anyone that had.  Once the monsoons shut off and the flows vanished my attention was absorbed by other projects and I sort of forgot about it.

Then this spring I started paddling with Jeff Creamer, whom possesses a rare combination of boundless energy, limitless motivation, months of summer unemployment, and a polymathic understanding of how to translate one-dimensional mapwork into reliable three-dimensional visions.  

Simply put, Jeff had wondered about what lay above years ago, and after significant mapgeeking had already gone to explore it.  Jeff's missions in 2015 were at ~450cfs -- a flow that he now considers medium for this run.  

Last weekend Jeff, Thor Tingey, and I loaded boats and overnight gear into packs and hiked up to see what it looked like at ~700.

Jeff's map and footnotes:

We hiked ~10 miles -- to just above Johnson Creek -- before camping, and then put in there the next morning.  I consider the bridge there ("4th bridge") to be the dividing line between middle and upper.  

Jeff takes over the story from here, with my stills and video from our June '17 trip interspersed.

Middle Vallecito Creek
High Water: 700+ CFS @ Gauge
Medium Water: 450 CFS @ Gauge
Low Water/Min flow: unknown

Shortly after picking up packrafting and moving to Durango in 2013, there was a trip that I started dreaming about completing someday: link a section of the Upper Animas with a stellar alpine crossing of the Grenadier and Needle Mountains and ultimately a descent of Vallecito Creek. Obviously the keystone was the unknown (to me) conditions in Vallecito Creek above the classic class V gorge. This had to be checked out in isolation before expanding the mission, of course. In June 2015 I scouted and paddled this ~15 mile creek section beginning at Sunlight Creek over two separate day missions, and in the two years since it's become increasingly apparent that within the context of the Four Corners region, this is a gem of a backcountry run on its own.

On my initial descent(s), it became clear to me that wood problems were the exception not the rule. Only one section had wood in the upper half, and this 1/4 mi long steep rapid would probably have been a mandatory portage with medium-high flows anyway. Lower down in some of the gorge sections, there are a few logs which are dodgeable at medium flow but too dodgy at high water. Overall, very clean, fun, varied and scenic. As the upper open valley transitions into a tighter, more gorgey valley, the river transitions from cutbanks and discrete large boulder gardens into occasional scraps of bedrock channel and walls on one or both sides of the creek. These bedrock rapids, which began in earnest just below the site of the missing 3rd bridge (and mandatory ferry on the hike up at high water), punctuate an otherwise consistent gradient of about 140 ft/mi. The drops were the absolute highlight of the run at medium water but the majority of them ended up being too much for Mike, Thor and I on our June 2017 high water descent.

In the vicinity of the 2nd bridge, just below the first box canyon (termed Foot-in-Mouth Gorge as a result of my shoe-saving strategy during a long swim), there are at least three significant bedrock drops of 3 to 6 feet that can develop significant holes. The clear gem of the run arrives about a half-mile below the 2nd bridge: a deep box canyon that narrows to 10 feet wide and holds about seven discrete boulder and bedrock drops separated by moving pools, the longest being the 600 foot long IV/V entrance (much of which you can portage). The tragedy is a riverwide sweeper that has so far survived flows over 2000 CFS and is a dangerous limbo duck even at medium flow. I won the limbo lottery once but will avoid this in the future. Below this box (20 minute portage), at high flow the gradient rarely eases for over a mile of continuous III/IV at high water until the 1st bridge is reached. This bridge contains a class IV/V low angle 8 foot drop featuring potent helical rotation within bedrock narrowed to perhaps 5 ft width. The creek below here is more channelized and can contain many fun features at low and medium water but devolves into madness at high flow. Choose your exit carefully, but most of these features have good pools or eddies above them.

If the headwaters of this run contain a boatable amount of water, the classic class V gorge will be above even pro-level flows so the run exits with a 1 to 1.5 mile hike to the trailhead.

There remains one un-paddled (to my knowledge) boulder garden high up just below Roell Creek. It might go as a committing IV+ at minimum flow, but it quickly inflates into a V+ monster that dumps into an extended class V runout if the rest of the upper section has a good amount of water. The only trick remaining is to link together good Upper A and Upper V flows with passable conditions above treeline along the intervening divide. It looks difficult in the best of times but I hope to complete it one of these years!

Above, route architect Jeff Creamer hiking the last ~mile out after a successful exploratory mission.

Finally, some moving pixels to fill in the gaps that the above stills and words cannot.

If there are details that I've omitted please ask in the comments below and I'll amend the above text to include those answers.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Divide stories: Jan Kopka.

Of the 7 that toed the line on the original Great Divide Race, Jan Kopka was the only non-American. A mostly unknown with a reputation as an old-world strongman, Jan was entirely a wildcard for this event.

Jan flew over from the Czech Republic and with his pro-roadie history I knew he couldn't be counted out.  A recently retired-from-racing Pat Norwil fetched Jan from the airport and drove him half a day across Washington, Idaho, and Montana to meet us at the start.  Pat would later tell me that on that drive he'd repeatedly instructed Jan to stick with me and do whatever I did, since I was the only one that had seen a good chunk of the route before.  Jan 'got it', and never let me out of his sight the first ~24 hours of the race.  Thanks Pat...

Going out hard on a 2400-mile race seems self-defeating, but I sensed that the others were a little more stressed than I so I took it out a bit faster than maybe I should have, hoping to further stretch them beyond their comfort zones.  Within an hour it was just Jan and I at the front.  

It was immediately clear that Jan's background and base as a professional road racer gave him a clear advantage over my purely mountain bike/trail riding roots.  Jan climbed effortlessly away and then when gravity took over he'd whip out a small camera and bang out snapshots in every direction.  Determined to make every second count on this go-round, I was often in the aerobars and ticking over the big ring on the descents, and it was here that I would make back up the time on Jan.  I'd usually bottom out before him and start climbing again, and when he caught up, hauling, he'd place his hand on my pack and bring me immediately up to his speed.

Many hours of this brought us into the town of Whitefish at ~100 miles into the race.  There was a gucci-esque quickie mart at the edge of town, right on the route, and I'd spent some time surveilling it the day before.  I'd walked through and noted exactly what they had that I'd want at this stage of the ride, how much each item cost, and did a quick calculation to arrive at ~$22.  Thus when the race started that morning, I already had $22 in cash set aside in my left jersey pocket.  OCD much?  When you're as slow on the bike as I am, you have to be OCD in every way, all to the end of saving seconds wherever you can.

Rolling up to the quickie mart I leaned my bike on the trash can next to the door, shuffled in and grabbed a few gatorades, some twizzlers, some jerky, and a hot plate of roasted chicken and noodles.  I paid the kid and sat down beside my bike.  Jan was still inside as I finished inhaling the first half of my meal and dumped the gatorade into water bottles.  By the time Jan came outside with his haul I'd finished stashing jerky and licorice in my frame bag and settled in to finish my meal.  Elapsed time from parking my bike to this moment was less than 6 minutes.

As Jan dropped his haul of loot on the sidewalk he reached across and placed an open beer next to me, making clear that it was mine.  I'd heard stories of Jan's training rides involving pub stops and camelbaks full of suds, so his kind offering wasn't a surprise.  The thing is, I don't much care for the taste of beer, and certainly not when riding.  So I thanked him but declined the gift, reaching it back his way.

Jan speaks excellent english with a thick slavic accent, and I wish I could properly imitate both his disbelieving look and the response that accompanied it:

"But, how are you so good without beer?"

In one long, fluid, deliberate sequence of motions I poured the last of the pasta into my mouth, deposited my trash into the can, zipped closed my frame bag, then executed a running cyclocross-style remount of the bike, still chewing pasta as I sprinted out of the parking lot.  Once on the white line I looked over my shoulder to gauge Jan's reaction.  He appeared to be casually finishing his (my) beer as I shifted into a harder gear to continue accelerating south through town.  A truck passed closely, and after it did I glanced back once more to see an explosion of activity all around Jan as he packed to give chase.

Jan caught me wordlessly as I wove through Columbia Falls and across the Flathead, and we resumed our climb/descend rhythm into the evening.  Sunset was gorgeous but shortly after the skies thickened and began to drizzle, and would continue to do so through the night.  It was already obvious that my motor was no match for Jan's -- my motor was never a match for anyone's in any race I ever attempted.  As we spun along through a grey bucolic scene on the edge of the mountains, I knew that I couldn't outride him, thus I needed to start working on outstrategizing him.  Plan A: Ride into the wee hours, in the rain, on the first night of a 16-day race, and see how he reacted.  Easy enough.

As the hayfields and ranchettes began to thin out I could see Jan's headlamp searching through the drizzle and into every barn and hayloft -- to my eyes it appeared as though he was longing for the shelter that they offered.  This solidified my commitment to do without on this evening -- I'd just keep riding until he either peeled off for dry sleep, or I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.

Glancing at my cue sheets clued me in to the fact that we were about to leave this "main" road and climb deeper into the mountains, and as the turn approached I heard Jan clear his throat just behind me.  "Mike" he said, "Do you plan to sleep in nature tonight?"

Because he was just behind he couldn't see the smile forming, and I remained facing forward as I responded, "Jan, I have no plans".  

On we went.

By 2AM, soaking wet and bone tired with Jan still dieseling along next to me, I had to concede the first round to my new friend.  As the road tipped upward into a dripping larch forest, I pulled over into a clearing to get some sleep.  My bivy routine was simple and quick: snap my car-windsheild-sunshade/sleep pad out to full length, sit down on it and remove my shoes, slip legs into my zipperless sleeping bag, pull chamois shorts down around my knees to let things air out a bit, then wiggle the bag over my shoulders.  I could brush teeth in the morning, I told myself most nights.

As I drifted off I could hear Jan fumbling and fiddling with gear a few meters away, and that commotion quickly became background noise as I faded out.  But then I was startled awake and found Jan looming over me.  I can't quote him directly as my head was rummy with sleep, but he essentially asked where my food was, because we were in bear country he believed we needed to bag and hang it.  Without realizing what I was doing I pointed him toward my frame bag.  He quickly removed it from the bike, dropped it into his stuff sack, then strung the whole bundle up into a tree as I drifted back off.

Hours later, grey dawn as I woke and began stuffing gear back onto the bike, the lack of a frame bag reminded me of what had transpired, and made me realize what a brilliant strategist Jan was proving to be: No way I was sneaking away without him, since my food was in his bag, strung just above his bivy.  Score another for the Czech.

I finished packing before Jan, and as I exited our bivy spot explained that I like to walk the first ~10 minutes every morning to get a little blood moving before pedaling.  "You'll catch me just up the road" I assured him, being careful to seem honest but not earnest.

As soon as I was out of his sight I poured everything I had into the pedals.

As it turned out, that was the last I saw of Jan -- not because of anything I did, but because the cue sheets were listed in miles and Jan's cyclometer was calibrated for kilometers, and he missed a few key turns that day that prevented him from latching back on.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Divide stories.

I spent a solid chunk of a past life racing bicycles across vast chunks of landscape.  One of the more ambitious (given the era) of these was the Great Divide Race on the GDMBR, a ~2400 mile dirt road sufferfest paralleling the continental divide.  

I organized the first race on this route in 2003, but no one else showed up so I ITT'ed it.  My frame and rear rack were broken and my psyche considerably bent before I arrived at the halfway point of the route, forcing a DNF and a long year before I could head back to finish what I'd started.

I've been outspoken in my dislike of this route since forever, primarily because even though it was labeled and sold as a mountain bike route it has nothing in common with mountain biking.  97% of this route could be driven in a low-clearance 2wd sedan.  Calling it the Great Divide Gravel Grinding Route would have been more apropos, more honest, and would have pushed me in a different direction from the get-go.  I don't know what I would have cooked up instead, but I know that today I'd have a lot less nerve damage in my hands and ankles and would probably still be able to ride a solid mile of gravel before vomiting onto my shoes.

After finishing the GDR in a virtual photo finish with Pete Basinger in 2004 I pretty much walked away from racing, and never really shared much about that running of the race.  Consider this the initial installment of those stories, anecdotes remembered 13 years later with accuracy assistance courtesy of the snapshots I took along the way.  I have no plans to give a play-by-play, rather to simply share some of my favorite anecdotes.

Back with the first of those in a bit.  Thanks for checking in.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A ride, recently: New neighbors.

The local Audubon Society has a variety of owl boxes along the greenbelt that extends NW from my shop.  Starting in late January, every winter, you can spectate the doings of at least one family of great horned's that inhabit a repurposed wicker basket affixed in the crotch of an enormous cottonwood.

Through April the only thing you'll see -- and it remains a subtle sort of thrill -- is an enormous raptor napping neck deep in a laundry basket.  I take interested friends and customers that have arrived during my lunch break down to see her with some regularity.

Things get more engaging in May when the young'ns get big enough to start exploring the world beyond the basket.  

For a ~week they'll perch delicately on the rim and then eventually they get curious and work their way up and out into the branches.  That's where we are now.

Mama clearly gets tired of being crowded in the nest with them, so she flies to a nearby tree to keep tabs from a place with breathing room.

On nights like last, when the day has gotten too long to get a real ride in, spinning down the bike path to check on the owls is a great way to refresh and refocus.

Thanks for checkin' in.