Swapping snow for sand: Montana to Utah
“You don’t have to practice being miserable”. These were the wise words of Conrad, our AirBnb host in Helena, Montana.
We had started the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in Banff with all the intention of riding the whole way to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, where the venerable ride ends. We knew it was late in the season to start the ride, but hoped we would be lucky, and that winter would come late to the mountains. Many times along the trail we had met people who were surprised that we were starting so late in the year. As the weather became cooler and we ran into our first patches of snow, we kept telling ourselves that it would warm up again, that this time of year often swings between cold and warmer weather. However the further south we went, the colder and wetter it became.
By the time we arrived in Helena, Montana, we realised we had some tough decisions and soul searching ahead of us. Should we continue and brave the cold and hope the snow holds off? Or should we pull the pin and change tack completely? We had already invested so much effort into the Great Divide, yet we were barely through the first US state the route passes through. We had both been suffering with the cold. I thought I was getting the beginnings of frostbite in a few toes, however after reading part of my “Wilderness Medicine” textbook, I realised my symptoms actually represented a “non-freezing cold injury”. I was amazed to learn that I actually had what is historically known as trench foot. A mild case to be sure, but my symptoms perfectly matched the description. What worried me most was that this is something that has long-lasting effects, and often causes the affected body part to become exquisitely cold-sensitive in the future. This has proved sadly to be exactly what has happened to me. My left big toe and a couple of others on my right foot now become acutely painful whenever the temperature drops to around 5 or 6 degrees Celsius.
We spent a few days in Helena, eating, drinking and relaxing at our lovely accomodation - the Mountain Bike City. Such clean, crisp white sheets and such a lovely soft mattress! Conrad the owner generously lent us his tandem cargo bicycle for scooting around the city - it was a lot of fun to try out a completely different style of riding! We also managed to catch up with Claire and Christian who had battled through their own share of cold weather. Thinking ahead to the next sections of the ride, through the plains of Wyoming, and then the high altitude of Colorado, we finally made up our minds. We would leave the Great Divide in Butte, a few days away, and make a beeline for the warmer climate of Utah.
We booked a car rental online, that we would pick up in Butte, and hit the road. The great divide went high up into the mountains from Helena, but even in the 3 days we had spent in Helena, the snowline had moved significantly further down the mountains. We would definitely be riding in snow if we went that way. So we decided to ride the highway instead. It wasn’t so bad in the end, and we even managed to find some dirt roads that paralleled the bitumen for most of the way.
Our last couple of days on the Divide were not to be without adventure, however. Our bear fear was in low-gear, as it didn’t feel particular beary where we were riding. However as we were riding along a section of road near a farming community, we both pulled up short. We could clearly see three black bears, gambolling in the ditch beside the road, a couple of hundred metres away. I tried to get a closer look through my telephoto lens, and this confirmed our fears. Maybe it was even a sow and her cubs. But we certainly didn’t want to get any closer to find out! We were very frustrated, however, as it would mean backtracking onto the highway, where we would then be forced to ride the bitumen for 30 odd kilometres. While we were stopped on the side of the road, a car came around the corner, slowed where the bears were, and then approached us. The driver rolled down the window. He told us the road ahead, although there is a sign stating it is a dead end, definitely continues, and would take us toward Butte. This was excellent to know…. but….. why hasn’t he mentioned anything about the three bears just up ahead? “Err… thanks for that info…. but…. What about the bears just up ahead?” “Huh? Bears? Oh, they aren’t bears, they’re cows. It’s open range, you know.” We felt a shiver of relief, and rode on. (To be truthful, I’m a bit scared of cows myself. I just think they look a bit evil, how they stare at you and swivel their heads as you pass them.)
We had been in touch with Adam and Julie via WhatsApp ever since meeting them months ago in Haines, Alaska. No matter how fast and how hard we rode, we could never quite catch them up. We had been swapping war stories with them, and they had been feeding us beta about the route ahead of us. We knew they were also struggling with the cold and were similarly dreaming of warmer climes. As fortune, or misfortune would have it, we managed to catch up with them in Butte. They were sheltering in a cheap motel, having run into heavy snow and being forced to turn back.
Over beers, burgers and milkshakes, we discovered that Adam and Julie were also planning on making a beeline for Utah. However, instead of renting a car for just a few days, they were considering renting a van for a month or so, and slowly working their way through the state, riding shorter bikepacking loops along the way. We were immediately convinced. After a flurry of phone calls the next day, we had suddenly rented two vans between us, complete with bike racks! One way to Las Vegas baby!
That afternoon was delightfully warm and sunny, making us second guess our decisions. Maybe winter would hold off after all. The next day took away any doubt, however. We woke to thick white fog, and…. snow! It snowed heavily all day, all the way down to the valleys.
The next week was a delightful change of rhythm as we became used to van life. We suddenly had the luxury of a mattress, a fridge, a tiny toilet and even a shower in the van (although you needed a black belt in yoga to contort yourself sufficiently to use it). All our meals were now had inside in the warmth. Our first stop was Flaming Gorge, an area riddled with dirt roads that I would love to explore by bicycle some other (warmer) time. The mercury plummeted to a frosty -8 that night.
We relished being inside a hard metal vehicle - especially through Yellowstone, where dangerous wildlife abounds. And it was cold and snowy indeed. Yellowstone was a delight - beautiful in the snow, and teeming with life. We saw bison, pronghorn antelope, and even wolves (thanks to some wildlife spotters who kindly let us peer through their telescopes).
We crossed Wyoming in a few short days - which would have taken weeks by bike - and dropped out of the mountains into Fruita, a small mountain-bike crazy town in Colorado. Here we parked our vans on BLM land, and explored some of the local trails. They were great fun, even on our fully-rigid steel bikes.
I had come across the Kokopelli trail on bikepacking.com. This trail has been around for a while, and links the two mountain biking hubs of Fruita in Colorado, and Moab in Utah. It blends singletrack with dirt roads, and takes in some incredible canyon scenery. We were all excited to give it a go, including Elissa who had managed to track us down during her detour from the Great Divide. Day one of the Kokopelli began well - sunny and warm - this was exactly what we had come south for! Having the vans enabled us to ditch our panniers and leave a lot of our heavier gear behind. This was a boon, as the singletrack leaving Fruita was quite challenging.
We had been warned of how treacherous the mud in the Utah desert can be after rain, making trails completely unrideable. With this in mind we had checked the weather forecast, which foretold of a vague possibility of a scattered shower or two. The weather gods were not on our side, however, and just after midday, the “scattered shower” morphed into an hour-long downpour. We sheltered under an overhang and watched with awe as our mountain bike trail quickly became a brown river. Eventually the clouds passed, the sun came out and the water cascading down the trail quickly disappeared. However what we were left with was thick, bright orange, sticky mud. As the day progressed and some moisture evaporated out of the mud, it only became thicker, and more glue-like in consistency. The thicker it became, the slower our bikes rolled, as mud stuck to the tires, and then more mud stuck to that mud and so on. My bike was the first to surrender, and the wheels refused to roll. Slowly everyone else’ bikes stopped rolling too. Digging the mud off with a stick would only allow them to roll another few meters, before another layer of mud replaced it. We were in a “sticky” situation. Almost exactly halfway through the mileage for day one, with no paved escape route near, we we left with no choice but to push on - although “push” soon became “carry” as we were forced to shoulder our bikes up a very steep hill.
What would have been a challenging yet shortish section of hike-a-bike up a hill became a monumental challenge with the addition of mud. It took four of us to carry each bike up - bikes that were made significantly heavier by the thick layer of mud clinging to them. Five bikes in total meant that we each hiked the section of hike-a-bike five times over. We were exhausted when we dropped the final bike at the top of the hill in the glorious late afternoon sun, yet we still had another 15 kilometres to our campsite. We were hoping the trails would be drier up here, which they were. On a section of downhill, we managed to get our bikes rolling again, and sped along, clumps of mud flying off our tires. Maybe we would make it after all!
The sun had set, and light was fading fast when we encountered yet more thick, thick mud. Standing up on my pedals to push through one of these sections, I felt a horrible clunk, and my pedals stopped turning. The mud coating the drivetrain had been collecting small rocks and pebbles. One of these jammed the derailleur and caused it to bend in half where it joins the frame. I would not be cycling any further that night!
In the dark by the feeble light of our head torches, I tried to break the chain and convert it into single speed so we could make it to our campsite. It was impossible to do in the grime and mud, so we decided to pitch our tents there, in the mud, on the side of the trail. The following day Adam towed me back to Fruita behind his bike! There the excellent mechanics at Over the Edge bike shop had me back up and running in no time. The interlude allowed the trails to dry off enough, and our second attempt at the Kokopelli was sublime! What an incredible adventure - I'll let the photos speak for themselves.
Part two of this section is still to come!