Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hut to Hut Hanging Chamois – Mountain Biking Travails from Telluride to Moab

This isn’t just a clever title. More than two months on from this epic adventure with seven friends, and the first thing that comes to mind is the daily hanging chamois ritual. Each day of this seven day trip ended with eight chamois hanging in different parts of the cabin in various states of stink, some dripping on top of bunk beds (ahem -- Jason), while others accompanying us at the dinner table.

Chamois photo bomb
The daily end-of-ride routine

Immediately though, my thoughts shift to what an absolute stellar time we had riding our mountain bikes from Telluride to Moab this past August. This was truly an international gang – four Americans (Kenny, Jason, Adam, and I); two Brits living in the US (Tash and Laura); one Brit living in Britain (Helen); and one Aussie living in the US (Katie). The whole plan was concocted by our fearless leader, Laura, who rallied up Tash and I from DC, much of her MIT cycling team gang now living on the West Coast, and her sister from Britain. We all made our separate ways to Telluride and met up at a rented condo to assemble bikes and start our grand adventure. 

Downtown Telluride -- the whole town is maybe five blocks long
Bikes unboxed and ready to roll
Given the pedigree of the pack (MIT, LSE), there was no shortage of geekdom, with evening conversations ranging from space travel to deforestation and everything in between. This was of course till the lemon drops came out (purchased and consumed legally in CO except by those among us who couldn’t due to work restrictions). Then the conversations shifted to how long it would take a bear to tear down our cabin door or to other urgent concerns such as the mysterious and leaky gas stove.  

While the evenings were relaxing with laughs and good food for hungry cyclists especially with master chef Kenny at the helm, the real fun was the biking during the day. The San Juan hut-to-hut system is the real deal. Its legitimately good mountain biking on singletrack but each day also has easier dirt road and doubletrack options. The huts are filled to the gills with food and not just non-perishables – they have coolers filled with cheese, eggs, meat, and drinks that are restocked on a regular basis. Without the weight of sleeping bags or food and water for seven days, the riding is significantly more enjoyable. Most of us just carried one large handlebar or saddle bag and a camelback. Bikes ranged from hardtail to high end full suspension.

Typical hut exterior
And interior
Master Chef Kenny hard at work (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Laura resting after a long day of riding. Tash is asleep on top bunk (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
The riding did not disappoint! Although I must admit the first day was tough. I recently discovered that I don’t deal that well with high altitude without proper acclimatization so I knew that starting out in Telluride (at 9,000 feet) and going up to Last Dollar Hut (11,000 feet) on the first day was going to be difficult. But the views were magnificent and the weather cooperated and we made it up to the hut with plenty of daylight still remaining.

Day 1 crew. Others were either ahead of behind
Views weren't bad

Stopping for pictures (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
MTB Camaraderie (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
The fun part of riding all day is that at the end you can pretty much eat anything you want and not feel guilty about calories. We took full advantage of all the food available and got creative with pasta, potato, and meat dishes – all great with the clear exception of Kenny’s Spam charcuterie platter one day which wasn’t a hit. Not surprising as spam tastes like, well, spam.

Day 1 musings (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Planning out the next day's ride (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Sunsets were spectacular (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)

Given the international crowd it was fun to compare uncommon terms used in different countries. For example, what we call an outhouse in the US is called a longdrop in Britain. Quite literal, these Brits, as it is a fair bit down to the compost pile from where you sit. Note to self: never use an instadrop!

Day 2 brought rain and thunderstorms with plenty of lightening. Tash and I trailed off to put on rain gear and saw at least ten lightning strikes in the distance. Thankfully, weather in the mountains moves very quickly and soon the dark clouds were past us and sunshine returned. There wasn’t much singletrack along the way, however there were options available to ride after we reached the second hut.

Several of us went off without bags and had a blast. The trails in this part of Colorado are fast and flowy until they’re not and you quickly find yourself in the middle of rocks. The unfortunate truth about riding rock gardens is that you can clear them better if you ride with speed and power, but many newbies struggle with speed on technical terrain so it can be a double whammy. But fun was had by everyone. It was quite amusing to watch and wait while Laura dutifully pulled out and consulted her paper map at every trail intersection, highly suspicious of the GPS track loaded on my garmin. Needless to say the garmin was always right.

MTB selfies
Kenny showing off
There was also a bear encounter when an overenthusiastic cub ran across the trail in between Helen and the rest of us behind. Mamma bear couldn’t have been far so we decided to make loud noises to ward her off. Sadly our collective brain bank couldn’t come up with any songs that we all knew so we resorted to singing happy birthday loudly to the baby bear. Imagine coming across that scene in the woods!   

Day 3 was perhaps my favorite as Tash got to ride a lot of singletrack and enjoyed it quite a bit. There is a personal sense of accomplishment to see your partner become a better mountain biker. Or maybe its just serving my own interests as now we can go on more mountain biking vacations! Other interesting aspects of day 3 were Jason and Helen getting lost and almost freaking out but not quite, separating from Adam and Katie, re-finding them at a later intersection and eventually making it to the third hut where the rest of us had prepared a yummy meal for all.  

The train is on its way
Lunch stop on Day 3
Not a bad place to meditate
Just cruisin...
Day 4 was in many ways the opposite of Day 3 in terms of Tash’s enjoyment of singletrack. The trails were really narrow with lots of brush or exposure on both sides, plus some of them were pretty wet and muddy. Plenty of cow poop was also inadvertently consumed by both bikes and riders, which eventually resulted in a bleach-athon at the hut in the evening. The good news was that this hut offered hot showers, which were much needed – deodorant doesn’t do much after four days of sweat and muck. Helen managed to convince the others to ride every available singletrack option that day, even riding back up the road to tackle something they missed. Spirited one for sure!

Helen fueling up at lunch
"Me no likey this trail -- hiss!"
Day 5 had some super fun singletrack. Katie and Tash decided to take the dirt road option and the rest of us went for the singletrack. It did not disappoint. First we descended down some mega steep and technical shoots with lots of loose rock and sand. Thanks to my dropper post I rode this fast and with confidence. Soon the trail opened up in the valley to magnificent views all around.

But moments later, disaster! Or at least a few of us thought so. Adam and Jason had tailed off a bit on a descent and we waited for them a bit further ahead. And we waited, and waited. Then we got really worried. So Kenny and I started walking back to check on them. Thankfully, it was just a mechanical with Adam’s chain really jammed up behind his cassette. No amount of pulling or tugging got it loose.  

We had a cassette tool with us but no wrench so leave it to the MIT engineering nerds to figure out a solution. First they found a rock which had a sufficient crack in it to fit the chain tool. Then they used allen keys to file open the gap a bit more so the tool could fit deeper and more secure. The idea was to use this engineered rock wedge as a wrench and rotate the wheel around it to loosen the cassette. I’d love to tell you that it worked but sadly it didn’t, the rock was too brittle. Finally, a non-engineer in the group (i.e. me) suggested trying to yank out the chain with more leverage. And guess what, it worked! But we had to loop the chain around the crank backwards and then give the crank a big kick and out came the chain. Science: 0 – Brawn: 1.

Adam's got some serious arm strength!
Jason at it again with his camera (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
We weren’t done with our mechanicals for the day, though. The last part of the day was an insanely steep dirt road descent which pitched down 25%+ in places. I was happily descending like a banshee till my front wheel started squirreling violently. Somehow I managed to slow the bike down just in time for a turn away from the abyss and stopped the bike several feet later. That was a close call. After some flat repair we all made it to the next hut without further incident, thankfully.
The other memorable part of the day was when I decided to give Adam MTB tips on riding with confidence thinking he was a newbie, only to discover later that he is a Cat 1 road racer! He then proceeded to lay the hammer down at every single hill that followed – doh!

Mountain Panorama
What contrast! (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Laura dropping into the 25+ percentage grade (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Katie and Tash having some fun
Multi-tasking: recuperation and next day planning
I wasn't the only one tired!
We were now close to Moab. Two more days to go. Day 6 was tough. We started down in the valley and had to go over an entire mountain range in order to descend down into Moab on day 7. The climb was entirely on a dirt road but man it was steep. 25%+ in places, only this time going up! It was great fun to watch the time-trial matchup between Adam and Katie as they rocketed up the slopes. Obviously two collegiate national champions going at it was fun to watch. We all met up at a lake at the top to take some well-deserved, though thoroughly freezing dips.

Looking down on the climb
Katie putting down some watts
The lake was SOO cold!
Laura making friends with a friendly ranger

The whole crew
 This was our last night sleeping in a hut and it was bittersweet. While we were all pretty tired, none of us wanted this trip to end. One memorable highlight from the evening was me losing Tash’s sock in the river much to her chagrin. She later claimed it wasn’t too bad, though the widowed sock still occasionally shows up in our bedroom strategically placed as a reminder that I owe her a new pair!

The final day was mostly downhill and promised to be exciting. We were going to ride the Porcupine Rim trail down into Moab. For those who don’t know this is quite a spectacular trail that drops you down amidst steep and bouldery slickrock. Some of the crew opted for the full experience while others rode for a bit and then traversed across to the dirt road. Some even managed to ride the slickrock trail which is a mountain biking rite of passage.

Porcupine rim trail (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Approaching Moab
Resting on a cliff
Feeling on top of the world
Finally, we rolled into Moab tired but extremely satisfied. After well deserved (and needed) showers and a celebratory dinner at a local restaurant, everyone disbanded to make their separate ways back home. Tash and I stayed an extra day to go visit Arches National Park, which ended up being a nice way to unwind and relax off the bike.

Delicate Arch
 This was such a fun trip! We’re already plotting to get the gang back together for next summer.

(Photo Credit: Jason Sears)