Saturday, September 20, 2014

Cold Frosty Mornings - Idaho Day 2

Thursday, Sept 11
It was a cold frosty morning. My tent had a thin ice layer on top, which was charming. A less charming feeling came from my arm and leg warmers that I had left outside overnight and they were frosted over as well. 

So off to a cold start....

Ketchum (the biggest town on this ride) was less than 20km away and I went for a warm breakfast in town. Not a racing move, but by the time I finished, the temperatures were perfect for the rest of the day. 

After yesterday's riding, Ketchum felt like a huge metropolis in Idaho, with overwhelming traffic volume, and innumerable restaurants and shops. I ignored the Starbucks. I was more set on an omelette with smoked trout, which I found at the Kneadery that advertised itself as the "finest in Rocky Mountain Rustic Homestyle Cooking". Good choice as the portions are way too big for normal people, but perfect for bicyclists. Then I wanted to get out of the big city as quickly as possible, which didn't take too long despite my initial impression of Ketchum because the population is just around 3000 people. 

Out of Ketchum, there is a small stretch of a bikepath and then a gravel road, roughly paralleling the highway. It could be fun if the gravel road were really parallel, but instead the "Harriman Trail" crosses the highway back and forth and puts in gratuitous swoops. If the trail ran far away from the road, that might be enjoyable but doing all those obviously unnecessary turns and ups and downs in plain sight of a straight flat road is aggravating. Eventually, Harriman trail moves to the other side of the river from the highway and that improves the psychology of that stretch, but the highway remains visible throughout and it clearly does not have those up and downs! 

looks pretty, but would be more fun if the gravel path wouldn't have gratuitous turns in sight of a flat, straight highway.

It is about 50km past Ketchum on this trail, then a long climb to Galena summit begins. Galena Summit is almost exactly the same altitude as the Dollarhide summit the day before (about 2650m) and also a gentle gradient. There may be a dirt road that can be used for the climb, but I didn't see it and rode pavement. Not too terrible for a road climb and can't complain since that was the worst part of day 2. 

Once over the top of Galena, the rest of the day is very pretty riding. The route immediately leaves the pavement and has a lovely descent into the Sawtooth Valley on smooth dirt with nice views. 
descending into the Sawtooth Valley

The next few hours are all on empty dirt going north, with the Sawtooth range on the left. Maybe one car per hour, I can deal with that. 

The afternoon had a special treat, but at the price of some extra highway miles (not very many) going up and down on highway 75: Fisher Creek single track loop. The Fisher Creek loop is about 30km long, maybe 600 m elevation gain, and has a reputation as one of Idaho's best mountain bike trails. The climb is up on a fire road that gets progressively steeper and rockier, ending with hike-a-bike towards the end. With some grimacing and without gear, it could be rideable as a hard effort fresh in the day, but not on a multiday ride with equipment.
starting Fisher Creek loop with Sawtooth range in background and lots of sunscreen on the face, photo by Ken Runyan

Before the trip, I had planned to get to Redfish by the end of day 2. Since I was hours ahead of schedule, I chose to make it a relaxed afternoon, with a mid-afternoon break and short nap at the top of the Fisher Creek climb. The Smoke and Fire Route turned out to be a lot easier than I expected, but that is preferable over the reverse - which is much more common on bikepacking routes. 

The single track starts with a narrow mountainside descent in a massive burn. The trail is very smooth and beautifully maintained, not at all what you expect after a big burn. In contrast, the Station Fire in the Angeles Forest (Los Angeles County) took out all the trails and closed off the whole area to any use for 5 years. However, despite being a wonderfully rideable trail, the burnt forest is still depressing on the Fisher Creek loop.  
Fisher Creek  - wonderful single track, but still depressing
Burnt trees provide the backdrop for the large majority of this trail, I estimate about 3/4 of the single track section. 

Only near the end of Fisher Creek loop do we leave the devastation of the Orcs, Mordor, Sauron/Voldemort and return to land of fairies, elves, and unicorns (unless they are as big as moose, then it may be too steep them).  

But now I had puttered around long enough and it was close to 7pm and there were still 2 hours left to get to Redfish Lake. Once the sun sets, the Sawtooth Valley gets bitterly cold. By 8.30, I was cold despite warmly dressed. While I had great expectations of Redfish Lake based on pictures, it turned into a disappointment as it felt like riding into Disneyland with all the cars and traffic. Of course, should have anticipated that the pretty lake near a major highway is not a quaint backcountry place, but a tourist trap. So I turned around right at the (huge, Disneyland-sized) lodge and rode back towards Stanley. However, I did use some day-use bathroom facilities nearby to clean up a bit and get ready for the night. I never actually saw Redfish Lake. 

Before reaching  the highway, I pulled off to camp  away from any cars, traffic, dogs, people. It was probably below freezing already, although still earlier than I would usually stop.  I quickly set up my tent (which I did bring only for cold weather) and went into my sleeping bag. I had to share the sleeping bag with my water filter because the filter element doesn't survive freezing temperatures. Although the night was going to be cold, I was very comfortable in my sleeping bag and even took off a layer because it was too warm.  
This was the first time in a few years that I brought a tent, mainly because of the expected subfreezing night temperatures. I also didn't know about insects and rain and wanted to be prepared, but neither of which was remotely an issue on this ride. In Southern California and Arizona, I bring just a tarp. The tent is a bit bulkier and heavier, but both are very light: About 400 grams for the tarp with stakes and extra rope versus 900 grams for the tent, including poles and stakes. The tent is actually a bit lighter than my 20 degree sleeping bag, so it is not luxurious, but still a tent (really a superlight tarptent. It has a good floor, reliable insect netting, but it is a small and has no double layers). I detest bivy sacks: the inside and outside get wet from condensation and they offer less protection from rain or bugs than a tent, yet are much heavier than a tarp. 

The Sawtooth valley night temperatures may have been the toughest test of equipment on this ride. I was comfortable at night, but could have been warmer for riding. Better gloves would have gone a long way. But this route is safe even for the most unprepared as there are motel rooms available, which was the first choice for many people. 

Overnight choices may be where the biggest variances between riders appear. A bad decision can make for a really bad night and cast a pall over the rest of the ride and a nice spot makes for fond memories. So if I stop for the night, I want it to be a nice place (no cars, no dogs, no electric lights is part of that). I am generally not aiming for a particular destination, just keep going as far as I want. This time, having targeted Redfish Lake as a goal for day 2 was a mistake, I should have gone on, resupplied in Stanley, and kept riding later, maybe to the beginning of the next single track section. Because of having been fixated on Redfish Lake, I only covered 2/3rds of the distance and 1/2 the elevation compared to day 1, about 100 miles/160km and 1700 m. Not a recovery ride by all means, but nothing "racing" about it. 

There is a long-running debate whether staying in motels makes for slower rides because people get too comfortable, an idea advocated by Matthew Lee. On, you can find endless discussions on this issue. For me, it might almost be the opposite: I'd be going quicker leaving a roach motel than a nice camp spot.

My approach is to camp, unless it is raining hard and cold (or snowing), or it was raining all day and everything is soaked. Heading to civilization is for the weakest moments, having cracked, getting sick, running a fever, or nothing dry left and temperatures are dropping. Bikepacking should be about sleeping under the sky and my fondest memories are not about motel bathrooms. Instead, it is when settling down to a view like this (Coconino loop in AZ)

or waking up to a view like this (Los Padres in Southern California):

Having equipment for staying outdoors overnight has its limitation and won't get me into the fastest finishing time. The fastest rider go with minimal equipment and take no (or probably rather uncomfortable) breaks at night. Some, like Forest "Outhouse" Baker, seem to prefer low cost, ooh, alternative indoor accommodations. I heard that this time he found an unlocked door near the Redfish Lodge to escape the cold. Anyway, that would be an incentive to get off to an early morning start and he reliably gets more riding hours into the day than I do, always starting much earlier than me. Forest has many good stories, one of this jokes: "Free, and it even comes with climate control. If it gets too cold, just open the lid". 

The unambiguous downside to going with camping over staying indoors (whether high or low quality) is extra weight. An emergency aluminum blanket that some of the fast racers take is not going to cut it for sleeping comfortably outdoors, rarely even in California (except low desert) and definitely not in the Sawtooth Valley. Pared down to the minimum weight, I have an extra 4 pounds just for the night. Most tents will be heavier than my 900g tarptent, I don't use a sleeping pad, and even my sleeping bag is about the lightest you can get for that temperature rating, so weight could easily be 6 or 8 pounds. That has a noticeable impact on climbing speeds. On the other hand, it is easy to sit it out a nasty rain or even snow storm in high mountains without discomfort. I had to stop by midafternoon due to uncooperative weather at other occasions and never was uncomfortable.

I sometimes can catch up to the faster group with a full throughride at night. But the conditions have to be right for that and I can only do that once on a ride. I don't do all night rides very often either, but some of them have been among my favorite parts of previous tours (e.g. on Stagecoach or Tour Divide). 

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