This one has been a long time coming. The Wasatch Front 100.
Fifteen years ago, I still lived in Salt Lake City, and I remember exploring remote pieces of trail in the Sessions Mountains, my brothers and I trying to follow the Wasatch 100 running route. My brother carried a borrowed a GPS on one of those rides, my first exposure to GPS, back when Selective Availability was still on.
We would speculate about the prospect of riding and racing this route. Would a mountain bike be a hindrance or a help? Could it be done faster than the runners? Could it be done at all?
No one knew. I left the state. Over the next decade I learned a little bit about how to pace, fuel, night ride solo in unfamiliar places — how to bikepack. Each year I’d return to Utah in the summer, and no summer would pass by without riding part of the course and some big talk about attempting the whole route.
Finally, in 2009, I put the big talk to rest and started from Kaysville early in the morning. I made it up and over Chinscraper with a bad ankle, had a glorious run through the ridges, then fell apart as the 95 degree day heated up and my antibiotic ridden stomach revolted. It had taken me 15 hours just to ride the first 50 miles. This is not an easy route.
Two summers later I had a better plan — start at midnight, pushing through the most difficult miles in the dark in exchange for cooler temperatures on the low part of the course and a shot at making the Brighton Store (only resupply on the route). I made very good time, but the sleep monster reared its head when the going got tough. I had not been sleeping well beforehand, and perhaps not completely recovered from the record run on the AZT 300 — 55 hours with only a handful of 15 minute naps. I also didn’t have a good plan for getting picked up in Midway in the wee hours of the night, and it certainly would have been a late one.
This summer, the Wasatch was always in the back of my mind. With a couple week window in Salt Lake City, I figured I could find a good enough window to make it happen. That proved easier said than done. Visiting family, friends, the odd/even constraint in Millcreek, monsoonal moisture, a still injured knee, and other concerns made my choices limited. Sometimes having the ‘freedom’ to go at any time can be a bit of curse. I would have loved it if there was an organized event I could just commit to and take the conditions for what they were worth.
It wasn’t looking too good, but the intention to give it a go never wavered. I spent most of a Friday night ready to pull the trigger on the attempt, but fretting about the radar. It had been an active afternoon atmospherically, and the radar showed a strange pattern of moisture parked, defining the front range of the Wasatch. Other storms were moving through that moisture, and the radar had been down for part of the day. I surmised it must be an error, but not being familiar with the weather patterns in the area, could not be sure. If I was wrong, the front range was getting drenched.
I was just about out of time, so I had my parents drive me to the start line, this time at 10 PM.
It wasn’t raining at the start, so I threw my bike over the gate and disappeared into the darkness. On the trail at last.
A few minutes later it’s sprinkling lightly. Maybe just an anomaly? I turn east to climb the Great Western Trail and the biggest hike-a-bike of the route.
The start is rideable, even in the dark, if you’re in hero mode. I think it’s a mistake to burn such energy so early on, so I walk. I walk and walk, up into increasing moisture. Turns out the radar was completely functional and I was completely wrong. No turning back now, where would I go, anyway?
It’s not raining hard, but the six hour drizzle was very kind to the vegetation. Droplets have collected everywhere.
Good for the plants, not good for me. You see, the word ‘overgrown’ is a bit of an understatement for this trail. In short, I’m getting soaked.
It’s a bit of a relief when my socks get saturated. No more hot feet, no blisters.
It’s awkward when my shorts get so full of moisture that I’m having trouble keeping them from falling off. I stop and wring each leg out with some of my mandatory hike-a-bike breaks. I realized on the second attempt you can’t move slow enough (with bike) through some of these sections to consider the pace to be “sustainable.” What’s slower than moving? Not moving. Harder mentally than you’d think, only three hours into an effort.
On the plus side, wet plants means less friction. It’s easier to drag a bicycle through, and I’m not getting all cut up. I quickly learn that I can choose which side of me stays dry — my bike is a good shield.
The nearly full moon peeks its flashlight out of the clouds. The rain is gone. I can see the lights of the big city, the mountains on the other far side. I can see for a million miles.
Above 8000′ each encounter with the soaked brush gives me a shiver-worthy cold shower. I’m worried about the road descending later in the night, knowing it’s going to be bone chilling if I can’t dry out somehow. What exactly am I doing out here? Is this a good idea?
I push out of the brush, into the Chinscraper bowl. The effort to continue the climb is borderline bike-a-neering, but there’s no brush to soak me, and the moon shows me the way. At the top, my lights can’t illuminate safer routes above me that they can’t see. I follow what’s directly in front of me. Plant the bike, take a step or two, carefully pull it up, take two more steps.
“This is it. This is exactly where I want to be.”
The next sections are trail are some of the most difficult anywhere, in the dark and the wet. I can’t stop laughing at my attempts to ride them, and the inability to predict what’s coming up next. I’m getting away with all sorts of things and feel wide, wide awake. It’s 2am.
Peg legging it, one foot unclipped, bouncing on unseen rocks, looking out for pedal grabbing roots, descending and gliding on the tiniest of trails, here, up here on the spine of the Wasatch. This, this is living.
At last, the radar golf balls of Francis Peak are within my reach. I’m descending and drying out, but the final 500 yards of trail to the 4×4 road change all that — soaked again!
Even though I’m shivering, I leave the rain coat off, to try to dry out as I round Francis Peak and prepare to descend. At the top, staring into dark expanse of the Great Salt Lake, I pull the coat on, cinch it up, and hang out for a lovely coast.
Click the light to high and really let it rip. Porcupines, deer and other unknown creatures make their exit from the road as I fly down.
I crest a steep hill that triggers an adrenaline burned memory from last summer. Dogs, I was chased by dogs right over this hill. What are the chances the same person will be camping in the same spot? Not high, but I rotate both bar and headlamp to full power just in case. Sure enough, two dogs come at me, full speed, barking and snarling. I knew from last year that this is a very steep and long descent and that they stand no chance of keeping up. But one makes a lunge for my calf, despite my speed. “HEY!”
I make the turn for the deer trail and sigh in relief. Two years in a row, just bad luck, but I should be fine now.
Picking my way through the deer trail, suddenly there’s movement all around me, then glowing eyes where there were none before. I’ve woken up the sheep herd. Oh, and the dogs. “Shit!” They are all over the trail, or what small semblance of a trail there is. I may not ever be able to get around them, and, here come the dogs. Fight or flight? Flight isn’t possible on this trail, even without a bike. I stand my ground and watch in amazement as the sheep move off the trail and up the hill. The dogs keep their distance and seem more focused on keeping the sheep corralled. I talk to the dogs and the sheep, asking for safe passage and assuring them I mean no harm to their precious sheep.
I get a safe distance away and let out another sign. No dogs are chasing me.
Up the hike-a-bike, I’m happy to see reports of major trail work are true. My bike isn’t getting stuck on brush ten times per minute. The night is silent again.
As that thought crosses my mind I hear a distant “baaaah!”, then another, from the other side. Hmmm, probably just a stray sheep or two from the main herd.
I step on a branch that snaps, and all hell breaks loose. Sheep are trotting in all directions, and a different pair of dogs are right in my face. They are not happy that I have found myself in the middle of their herd. I try talking and yelling at them, keeping my bike between me and them, but it’s just a stand-off. I turn around and the trail looks rideable, even downhill ahead, so I hop on for some highly focused riding. I get a little gap, but I can tell the barks are getting closer, not further away. I make some good moves, then fumble on others, sliding sideways on wet fallen trees, tweaking my knee. I stop and turn around, the dogs appear in my headlamp, still growling, but they stop 10 feet away. The rational side of me knows they just want to get rid of me, and aren’t likely to actually attack, but it’s hard to convince the rest of me of that ‘fact.’ Worse, the rational side also knows that my last water source for 30 or 40 miles is coming right up. I start thinking of ways to fill up water as quickly as possible, but don’t like the idea of stopping and turning my attention elsewhere with these guys in my face.
Literally 100 yards before the last stream on the trail (which I had a waypoint for), they stop their pursuit. Phew. As I fill up both bladder and bottle, I keep checking the trail below, hoping for no glowing eyes. Alright, let’s get off this trail, and please, no more “baaah’s” in the middle of the night. There can’t be a third herd, can there?
There wasn’t. I start pedaling the last bits of climb to the Bountiful B road, but then walk to give my tweaked knee a break. After climbing through the barriers, I sit down to eat and give out an even bigger sigh of relief. Adrenal glands were empty, I was tired.
Roads now, for a while.
Those roads held yet another pair of dogs that decided it was a good night for harassing solo cyclists. A camper near Sessions Lift Off had dogs, but I had an open road and strength in my legs. See you later, suckas!
Reaching the singletrack was the biggest relief of all. No more campers, no more human placed sheep herds and their trained dogs. I’ll take my chances with the actual wilds, thankyouverymuch.
The sun crept forward to illuminate the world: storm clouds from top to bottom, orange to purple to blue, on to sunlit rain columns,
then high peaks, ridgelines and lone trees,
culminating in the pink hues of a sky painter’s masterpiece,
and the first rays of life giving, colorful light.
Total white moment. Goosebumps. The energy of the sun in my eyes was unmistakable. I knew this was a special moment in time and space. Thank you, universe.
I continue on surprisingly rideable and manifestly beautiful trail, feeling the strength that good pacing had left me with. The trail through the Sessions Mountains is indescribable.
My brother is waiting for me at Big Mountain. I resolved to do this ride self-supported, but I wasn’t going to tell anyone that wanted to go for a ride not to ride. Pacer time! He’s joined me for this section my other two attempts, and is a good gage of my overall well-being, since it can be hard to judge your own. I power up a steep climb or two, rolling the ridgeline towards Bald Mountain and he remarks, “no way you rode that last time! You are looking good.”
photo by Brian Morris
And when I walk something, as I often would, he tells me he thought it wise to do so.
photo by Brian Morris
The overnight rains left Ball Bearing Hill in primo shape, nearly rideable and only semi-crazy.
photo by Brian Morris
Galloping along the open ridges towards the sheep trail, it’s still early morning. Cloud and rain burst keep the sun from heating things up. It’s almost too easy. I have tons of water from the stream the dogs left me alone at, and plenty of food.
photo by Paula Morris
Climbing Lambs Canyon, I pass the spot of a previous crater and dropout. My parents are there to cheer me on and pick up my brother. I roll across the bridge and begin crushing the singletrack. It’s an invincible feeling, one I have felt before and know will not last. Fleeting moments not to be taken for granted. It doesn’t get much better than this. No hill is too steep, no pile of roots too slippery, I feel like I’m going to finish this thing.
My Dad joins me at Millcreek, for some of the most heavily ridden and easiest miles on the route. Mental expectation is funny thing. The climb to Dog Lake seems hard and slow, the hike-a-bike up to Desolation even slower. I see my Dad getting a little tired and realize that though these miles may be easy by Wasatch standards, they are not easy, and everyone else is riding the other way. He turns left at the crest, to complete what we call the Deppe-Dog Loop, while I turn right to hike up Red Lovers Ridge, continuing backwards on the what is the shuttle ride of the day. It was great to have a wingman on this section, and to have my Dad along for the ride.
These are miles to be cherished, coasting wide open and famous mountain bike trail (Wasatch Crest!), gazing into faraway valleys, and towards the terrain ahead. Mountain bikers are coming at me in groups, all friendly and enjoying the outside and the ride. I get lazy and refuse to stop to cover my knees before dropping towards Brighton.
My one “aid station” is drawing me in, with promise of new food and sugary beverage. The girl behind the counter asks, “how was your ride up?”, and I don’t even know how to respond. It’s been just under 18 hours since I started riding. I’m on pace for a sub-24 hour ride, my secondary goal. Still, my transition is not fast, taking time to inhale favorites such as “Big Tex” cinnamon rolls, Haribo gummy peaches and barbecue chips. I resist the temptation to buy a burger from the guy grilling outside the store.
Pedaling up the gravel out of the resort my knee is grumpy for the first time since slipping and tweaking it. I should have kept it warm.
The weather seems good enough, but all the hikers are heading back from Lake Mary, not towards it. It’s a good hike with mildly rideable stretches, and some very rocky areas. Beautiful alpine.
Was that an airplane or thunder? Time to engage the thunder detection system, unplug my ear phones. Flash… boom. I keep moving around an exposed switchback and then it lets loose.
Flash. Boom. The storm is coming right over the ridgeline. I’m at the base of the climb to the highest point on the route — Sunset Pass. Perfect timing! As I crouch under the trees my knee screams at me. Really? Am I going to come this far, only to drop out due to weather and a failing knee?
It wasn’t the most logical decision, but I’d come to far to turn back. Sunset Pass is the point of no return. I could easily be picked up at the bottom of Big Cottonwood Canyon, but once I cross over Sunset, the only pickup was the finish. Follow the red line on my GPS to the finish, come hell or high water.
I reach the pass, after trudging through the thick sand of “the beach.” An impressive storm was pounding the Heber Valley. It looked ugly, but it was moving away from me and my ridgeline. Hell *and* highwater, here we come!
Dropping into the American Fork Basin, trail conditions are perfect and I am riding well more than a solo backcountry cyclist should. It’s just too good and too much fun.
I reach ‘the Grind’ and start pushing up the heavily rutted trail. This is moto country now. I start to realize that my entire ridgeline was hammered on by the mega storm I had seen from the pass. The trail is a mess, and there are no drains to kick the water off.
What should have been a blissful coast down to Pole Line Pass through thick stands of aspens was instead an awkward, slow and frustrating exercise in keeping the bike upright as the mud flew. I’m just glad my wheels aren’t locking up… yet.
Despair is setting in as I hit a few uphill pitches that are barely walkable. Take a step, slide back, then weight on my bike and try again.
A family butt slides down one mud pit, towards me. There whole bodies are covered in mud, even their faces! They are laughing. This is definitely a situation to laugh at. What else can you do? They’ve got a long walk back to their vehicle, and it’s going to get dark on them. It’s going to get dark on me, too. They wish me luck in getting up what they just slid down. Here we go!
This ~contour trail is all well and good, but what are the Dive and Plunge, the two legendary descents near the end, going to be like?! Will they even be safe to walk down, in the dark? This is nuts. Why is the trail not drying at all — it’s been four hours since that downpour hit? What am I doing out here? This is nuts.
The universe had a brilliant reminder of exactly why I was out here, all queued up and ready to go. Cloud pyrotechnics burn into an endless orange twilight. I check my strength on the next slick pitch and find that my tires hold traction. That’s it, I give authorization to put any and all effort into riding up things. No more holding back.
I’ve got strength, I’ve got food, I’ve got lights. What’s the problem? I’ll get through these miles even if it takes me all night, even if my tires continue to lock up and my bike continues to go into 60 pound mode. I’ll figure out some way to get down the Plunge and the Dive, by hook or by crook. This has been too rich an adventure to even think about giving up, and even then, what exactly would giving up mean?
The trail seems to be drying out as I ride mercifully contouring trail around Mill Canyon Peak. This section of the course is much easier than I expect, even with the mud. But, here comes the Plunge and Dive.
photo by Matt Galland – the start of the Plunge
My tires are gripping at the top of the chute. I can’t see a single thing below, or how stupidly steep the trail is going to get, but I roll into it anyway.
photo by Matt Galland – the Dive from the air
Traction is good! Holy moly. I think I may have the best conditions possible, and both silly moto burned, rutted abominations of “trails” that the Plunge/Dive are, go by without incident. Did I really just ride those, in the dark?! There were some close calls, no doubt, but it was not that bad.
What was bad is the trail that follows the descents. It’s hard to tell you’re making any progress, the rocks and ruts are unreal, and all I can think of is reaching the Pot Hollow turn off, the end of the dreaded East Ridge Trail. To my surprise, I find I have lots of power in my legs, so I put it to good use, gunning it up whatever portion of the ensuing climb-to-hike-a-bike I can eek out. Not bad for 23 hours in. I feel better than I did most of the day.
At Pot Hollow I am released from the torture chamber, and begin coasting, once again getting soaked by the wet overgrowth. No problem, soon I will be on a road, albeit one I have never ridden, but it’s home free at that point.
The road is blissful with its easy coasting, but some tricky stream crossings and a near faceplant into a mud pit keep me on my toes. “It ain’t over til it’s over,” and “there’s no such thing as an easy Wasatch mile.”
Both sayings bouncing in my head prove to be true. I tear a sidewall and flat on the 4×4 road, 0.75 miles from the final pavement. Really? The last thing I want to do right now is change a flat. My rear wheel is toast anyway (cracking and spokes pulling through) so I ride the rim a while, before looking at my GPS and realizing there’s enough pavement left that I really should just suck it up and change it.
“Eszter, I got a flat, a half mile from pavement!” She was waiting for me at the finish. “Want me to come pick you up?”
“No… just letting you know I’ll be there soon. I was riding the rim a while, but decided to change it.”
What other challenges can Wasatch throw at me? Hopefully none.
photo by Eszter Horanyi – hot ‘n ready!
It was awesome having Eszter there with the van. We could sleep in it if it were too late, or drive back if a reasonable hour. It was after 11pm. It had taken me 25 hours and 23 minutes to complete the course. And there was pizza waiting for me!
Wasatch finished, at long last, and in a respectable time. The realization of a longtime dream.
The next step is to ride it in under 24 hours for the “Golden Cheetah” award, then ever faster — perhaps competing with fast runner times (aid stations would certainly help).
I leave that as an exercise for the reader.
I do highly recommend the experience, it was one of the best rides of my life. Thanks for reading.