Saturday, May 16, 2015

Bikepacking 101, or how NOT to bikepack.


Today I had big plans. Not necessarily good plans, and not particularly ambitious plans, but big plans just the same. I had planned on driving to Vantage WA, parking the car, and riding my fully loaded fatbike to a place called Whisky Dick Bay in the Quilomene Wilderness area and camping overnight. The area is in Central WA right above the Columbia River, and it is mostly high desert and very hot. Some of my super-fit bikepacking friends call it the Washington Outback, and they love riding out there. It has also recently been dubbed The Deadly Q for an incident where some riders almost got into real trouble, but that story is for them to tell. Unfortunately (or as it turned out, very fortunately) I was going to ride solo because my riding partner John had to cancel. I had mixed feeling about that because on the one hand, I really love riding with John. On the other hand, knowing this ride was going to be a big challenge for me meant that by riding alone I didn't have to worry about holding John up, or not being able to complete the ride and ruining it for him.

Now this is the part where we start to learn the things NOT to do when bikepacking. The first thing is to not lock your water bottle in the trunk under your bike rack on the drive to the trailhead. I knew it was going to be really hot today and I wanted to be well hydrated before the start of the ride, but that is hard to do when your bottle is inaccessible. Once the ride began, I was already way behind the hydration curve because the 2 hour drive to from Seattle to Vantage was HOT.

 I arrived at the gas station where I was told to ask about overnight parking, and the cashier told me that as long as I parked on the gravel behind the building it was fine, and there was no charge. Awesome!

 I loaded up the bike, excited because I had arranged my gear in such a way that I wasn't going to have to ride with a backpack in the oppressive heat. I started sweating immediately though, disconcerted because the weather forecast had predicted mid 70's. This was more like upper 80's, and getting hotter by the minute. The second thing I learned was if you are doing a desert ride, plan to start your ride early in the day. It was almost 2pm by this point and the sun was just cooking. 

I started riding out of the parking lot and onto the main street which leads to the Old Vantage Highway, and about a half mile later to the trailhead. I knew I was in trouble because even on the relatively flat pavement ride to the trailhead I was already sweating profusely, and the temps were continuing to climb. By the time I got to the trailhead I was drenched, and the trail starts off with brutal climbing. It didn't take me but a quarter mile and I was already pushing the bike, and sucking wind like I was running a marathon.  It was ride for a few minutes, stop and desperately try to catch my breath, then push for a few minutes, stop and try to catch my breath, etc. I had ridden out here once before and it was no problem, but that was with an unloaded bike on a cool day. This was something totally different!

It began to dawn on me that I may not have the strength to do this ride when I started to get a little dizzy, and then nauseous. I have had heat-exhaustion once and it is no fun, and actually really dangerous, so the thoughts of turning around started to become more and more compelling, particularly when I was only able to push for a minute before having to stop, and the thermometer was now reading 95 degrees! It got harder and harder to catch my breath, and when I looked at my GPS I saw that I had only come 2.3 miles from the parking lot, not even a quarter of the way. There was just no way I was going to repeat the Idaho Hotsprings Deathmarch, so with the disappointment of another failed attempt at a ride I turned around and headed back down.

While pedaling ignominiously back to the car I was trying to think of an alternate place to ride to for an easy overnight option, and I thought I could just head back up towards Snoqualmie Pass, hop on the Iron Horse Trail, and ride to one of my favorite campsites on Keechelus Lake where it would be nice and cool and I could just take it easy for the evening. Usually I approach the campsite from the West, but I thought it might be nice to approach it from the East and get a chance to ride a bit of the Iron Horse Trail that I had never been on before. Looking at Google Earth showed a trailhead at Easton, so I unloaded everything off of the bike, strapped the bike back on the rack, and started driving back West. And yes, you guessed it, the water bottle was again inaccessible in the trunk. Sigh.

As I got back up towards Snoqualmie Pass the clouds started rolling in and turning dark, and the temperature was dropping like a stone. I finally found the confusing Easton trailhead, parked the car and started loading the bike up, again. Taking a look at the thermometer showed that it was now 55 degrees...a 40 degree temperature variance! Now all the sweat in my clothing was becoming cold and clammy and I was getting a chill loading the bike up. No matter, as soon as I start riding I will warm back up, right? Nope. I had a headwind, it was getting colder, and I forgot that there is a fair amount of elevation to gain on the 15 or so miles to the campsite. Of course, I hadn't eaten much all day because who can eat in that kind of heat? So here comes the bonk, a sensation of empty legs and woozy head. I managed to cram down a Clif bar, sip some water, and kept riding. I must be getting close, right? 

It seemed like I had been riding a long way, and the lake must be getting close, and I was feeling like if I didn't get to a campsite soon and get some hot food and drink into me I was going to drop. I took a look at the GPS and saw that I had ridden less than 7 miles out of the 15 to the campsite. I started to get that trapped animal feeling, knowing either way I went I had more riding than I wanted to do. Screw the lake! I needed to find a place to pull over and make camp, ASAP.

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally saw a spot next to a small stream, with a nice flat spot for a tent, and a fire-pit. This seemed like it would be perfect! I leaned the bike against a fallen tree, cleared an area for my tent, and started unloading the bike. I grabbed the tent, and...wait a minute. That bush has 3 leaves on every branch. And there are a million of them everywhere I look, right next to the bike, right next to the spot for the tent, next to the water, everywhere! Yep, it was Poison Oak, and it was covering almost every inch of the campsite. I almost shed a tear as I realized I had to pack the bike back up and get back on it. 

I was totally beaten. I was hungry, cold, wet with sweat, and the sun was going down in about an hour. I had to make the decision to face my second failure in one day and head back to the car, the shortest of my diminishing options. At least I had the benefit of a gradual downhill as I rode the railroad grade back down to the car. A half hour later I was back at the car and I had the bike unloaded for the third time today, and what a day it had been. Thank goodness the heater could bake me back to warmth, and the car could carry me back to the safety and comfort of my house. Adventures can be so amazing! But, sometimes they just plain suck ass. There's no place like home.

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