Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Ride Home

Week four of the Fat-Bike Ski-Mo Sufferfest. My hands and feet ached constantly, along with the screaming saddle sore on my taint.  This is a sufferfest, and we suffer until it's fun, or we suffer the whole way home.

In the land of wolves.
Riding through Yellowstone on the return ride was 5º with a -15º windchill. Once again the wind was in my face, serving me an ice-cream headache between the sunglasses and helmet.

I had 50+ miles to ride to get through Yellowstone Park. Camping anywhere besides Mammoth would be illegal, and I had been warned by the rangers before.

Pushing hard across a wild and beautiful landscape, it felt raw and primal to be cycling past bison, elk, and a pack of six wolves. I saw eagles, bighorn sheep, foxes, moose, ducks, geese, coyotes, muskrats, beaver, hawks, herons, ermine, mice, squirrels, ravens, a few birds I didn't identify, rabbits, deer,and mountain goats. Then I howled at the wind. I love this place.

The ride home is when I let go, and truly savour the experience.

In the winter, the cold bonds all life in the wild together. It is the time of death, and the hunter Orion is highest in the night sky.

At the end of the day's ride, with the moon overhead, and the temperature dropping again below zero, I stripped naked, and soaked in the hot springs. My mind wanted to explode as I took in the night sky. Was this my reward? I drifted off, and imagined myself becoming part of the landscape. A man, wild in nature again.

Days later, I got my ass kicked, riding 14 miles up Bozeman pass from Livingston. Yeah, it's not a steep pass, but it's long, and the wind is in your face almost every time.

How many times have I done this ride with ski gear? Six, seven, eight? I've lost count, and think how absurd it is I'm riding a five inch wide tire fat bike. Getting slower, not faster.

Haven't I learned anything? Maybe I should buy a mo-ped, move to the beach, and pick up surfing!

The Black Keys keep rocking on the earphones, but I log a slow pace. I'm fighting the wind to stay upright, and cursing to make sure it's not a one sided battle.

"Is that all you got, you fucker?"

There's no shame. I'm sure of that. The wind doesn't care, and will take you down if you let it.

Mind numbing fight with the elements. 

After three hours, I'm still miles from the top. I scream. This is the way home, and I'm not stopping. I must look like a mad man with tourette's, screaming profanities at nothing.

Doesn't matter, because there's nobody around. It's lonely on the bike. Days on end of sitting in the saddle, growing weaker, getting mad at the wind and the traffic, pushing ahead, wondering how far till water, or camp, and always thinking about food.

It's a miserable way to taste freedom. But keeps me coming back.

Making it over Bozeman Pass on the frontage road, I chose to ride the long way home on the state highway, over Jackson Creek, and down to Bridger Canyon. This added another four miles of hill climbing, and all with a mind-numbing headwind.

Making over the last big hill. I screamed, "Yee-haw!" The Bridger Mountains shown bright in the afternoon sun. I felt comforted by the familiar sight. I was close to home.

The big tires lumbered down the pass, bouncing like a large tracker gaining speed. My taint screamed louder, as I tried to find a comfortable place to sit in the saddle.

Why am I doing this? I don't enjoy pain, and I'm not impervious to the cold.

Is it the adventure? The need to feel alive? The struggle? The unknown? I surely don't know, beyond the abstract sense of that which guides me, I'm an addict. Addicted to flow.

Catching a tailwind into Livingston.

Another cold morning for a bike ride.

 Feeling the flow. 

Elk crossing.

Ice on the Yellowstone River.

Riding with a full moon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Kin Ring Face

The Kin Ring Face, Yellowstone.

Week number two of the Fat-Bike Ski-Mo Sufferfest, and camping conditions take a dive.  -25º Fahrenheit is a brutal temp to be outside camping, and anyone who wasn't ready, went home.

The daytime temperatures hover at -5º,  a cool operating temp for climbing, and skinning through the forrest, but the wind on the ridge tops and the summits, caused gloves to freeze solid, cameras to quite automatically, boots to get stuck in walk mode, and snot to freeze sideways.

I still don't have feeling in the tips of my toes. While at the same time, my face is sunburned and chapped, all the way inside my nose. Feels like fried-icecream.

Week number two I moved camp and joined the scene in the dump. I had my bike locked up in a friends cabin, and was glad to be off the saddle, and closer to town for a while.

One of the most difficult parts of my trip, was carrying a bike and heavy packs through the snow, multiple times, in and out of camp, away from the highway, out of sight. I also love being in the forrest, and deeply value my time there. (Thank you camp-site.)

Some nights were humid, and -7º, freezing everything in my tent together like a pancake. Painful cracks running across my fingers got superglued shut. If it was clear out, it was guaranteed to be below zero at night, even though the forecast never predicted such cold temperatures.

Growing up in Montana, I know Yellowstone can be the coldest, most brutal place in winter. When I'm camping for weeks or months at a time, I don't pay attention to forecasts, because I've learned to pay attention to the weather, it's patterns, and being spontaneous.

With help from friends, and great snow conditions, I skied off three major peaks right out of town; Republic, Abiathar, and Wall. And, I opened up a potential new line on the far side of Amphitheatre.

My second day out, skiing alone below a formation called The Submarine, the left boot froze in walk mode, and a buckle snapped. From then on, I became known as Bootstrap Bangs to my friends. In part to do with the novel of pirates and slave ships I was reading, but also because I had a ski strap cinched down to replace the broken buckle. I skied that way for the next three weeks.

Sitting in the bar one night, I kept looking at pictures of Amphitheatre and the face hiding on the far side of the mountain. Ben, from Beartooth Powder Guides, had pointed it out to me, and I took the photo when we were standing on the summit of Republic together, after chasing his ski-mo friend Tim to the top.

"Never been skied. Not that I know of. You could name it the Bangs Face." Ben said.

Name it or not. I wanted to ski it. And at the same time, she was the best looking thing in the bar.

The face looks like a giant stingray, airborne, flying straight out of the water. I saw steep snow, ice, and rock bands. And I started feeling the initial impulse of the flow state, well up in the back of my spine.

Earlier in the week I skied the east face of Abiathar. Same aspect, similar face, but not as steep. It had snowed twice since then, but only about 3-6 inches at a time, and everything was still bonding very well.

Conditions were right. "Time to sack up Bootstrap."

Nate joined me on the tour out to the far side Amphitheatre for an attempt on the face. Not carrying crampons or an ice axe, Nate wanted nothing to so with climbing the flying stingray, and offered back-up for the day.

It was one of those days where you never know what's going to happen. We walked around the wrong direction on the approach. Stopped to warm Nate's feet for half an hour. And almost vomited butterflies, as if I'd had them for breakfast.

It was a good day. We pressed on. The temp was -5º, and I brought over-pants, hot soup, and toe warmers, so Nate could stand around and take pictures.

Looking up at the top of the face, the snow was stable and almost perfect, only a little wind.

Reaching the face, I scrambled up quickly, excited to be swinging my ice axe overhead into solid ice. On less steep climbs, ice doesn't exist, or it's buried by snow. But on steeper routes, there's ice, and the secure feeling of kicking and swinging the ice axe and crampons into the frozen mountain.

As I neared the top of the face, where the angle is steepest, I continued to gage and read the snow. Was it forming layers, or loading near the edge of the saddle? I climbed higher and looked down between my legs a thousand feet. If the route were to slide, this would be the place.

Skiing into the wave on the face, looked like a tranquil moon, but where it rolled over, and I rolled into it, everything around me started sliding at free fall speeds. As the snow moved faster, I peeled across the face right to left, skiing hard and fast to out-run what I could.

"Stay in control Bootstrap. No mistakes." I told myself.

Half way down the face, my sluff passed me like a runaway freight train. Surreal, angry, and loud. It wanted to be a real avalanche and chased its self like horses trampling each other, gaining volume, searching for me.

As it exploded off the lower cliff band in a cascading visual, I thought about Nate. He's far enough away isn't he? We both knew this thing was coming down, but when you see it for the first time, it's like, "holy shit, dude! Get back."

After I got down, Nate said, "holy shit", and "Bet you're glad…" a dozen times.
"Bet you're glad you didn't ride that one." "Bet you're glad to be alive." "Bet you're glad to be,,, holy shit dude, that was awesome."

Thinking about it, I would like to name it the Kin Ring Face. Named after Kin Ring Sackett, the man in the novel I was reading during my expedition. But first I need to realize this isn't my mountain. Others may have been here before, possibly making this the first recorded descent.

Either way, a face this pretty needs a name. A warrior's name, and something to be remembered by.

The Kin Ring Face, on the climb.

Avalanche on the face.

View of Amphitheater, and the Kin Ring Face, left of center.

Nate on the long tour to the far side of the mountain.

Starting the climb.

Nearing the top of the climb.

Camp life.

Sunny, sunburnt, cold and frost-nipped.
The warm up run. East face Abiathar.

Racing snow down the mountain.

Stoked, and comin' in hot.

Looks steep. Got crampons?

Editors Note:
Ski-mo, is short for ski-mountaineering, and is a popular term amongst people who race up and down mountains in ski gear, or spandex.
It's a growing sport, where the boots cost $5,000, and the spandex is not free.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sufferfest Sled Skiing

When in Cooke City, you go sledding. Even if you're into climbing mountains and traveling by bicycle.

Rolling into town on my bike, I see 50 sleds in tight formation, parked down main street. The sleds were here long before the skiers and the climbers. And long before I rode in.

Now days, it's skiers and snowboarders with sleds that's the hot ticket. Packs of them everywhere, like wolves once were.

I've been to Cooke enough to know I wouldn't be riding my fat bike up the sled trails. At least not to go skiing, and not on this trip.

People asked if I was riding up Henderson, or other groomed roads for sledding. The answer is, no, I did not. I came here to ski and climb peaks. I rode the bike from home to trailhead. That was it. That was the plan. I don't identify myself as a cyclist, and never have. I'm a skier and a climber, and a dude riding a bike to get somewhere.

Starring at the bike, one strange man spoke about all the places I was riding to go skiing, with out looking at me. I think the bike hypnotized the guy. By the time I told him, "riding up a snow trail, with 25 pounds of ski gear, is slower and more difficult than walking," he was out of his trance, but didn't trust me. Like I'd suddenly made mountain biking up hill easy, because the bike got bigger and cooler looking, and there's snow involved.

Maybe it's the idea of cycling up sled roads, to go skiing, that gets people excited. I tried it years ago on my first fat bike, with ski gear, and didn't make it anywhere. I could still see the parking lot when I stashed the bike and switched to skinning.

I have no problem with going sled skiing, and I do it once or twice a year. Doubling on a sled is tough, with one person standing on one side of the sled, and the other person standing on the other. I've got the brake, he's got the gas, and we're flying up hill at 40 mph, hanging sideways off the running boards, stretched out, pulling as hard as you can on the handlebar. It's a rush, and I totally get it. It's one of those sports that requires an aggresive attitude, the smell of motor oil, and a nip of whiskey.

Still balks in comparison to the art of solo mountaineering, but most things do.

I also uderstand why sleds are so popular amongst skiers. We all want to ski the backcountry and the bigger lines, but can't get there easily. Even with a sled it isn't easy. But now the sleds are better, the riders are better, the routes identified, and everyone is getting after it…. If you got a sled.

I didn't have a sled, but I have a friend named Nate who wanted to ski with a partner. We skied a few days together, tailgated it at the dump in -25º weather, and spent one night camped at 10,000 feet in white-out condition.

It was great. I learn a lot from the younger generation, with their funny shaped skis, and weird ideas. How else would a guy like me, who doesn't own a car, or cell phone, stay in touch with the modern world, and get a chance to go sled skiing?

Skinning around to the top.

Off the summit, the highest place you can ski from.

Nate picked a good run.

Tailgater scene at the dump.

Camp at 10,000 feet.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fat-Bike Ski-Mo Sufferfest Week One

Silver Gate, MT.

From Louis L'amour's book The Warriors Path. The book I read on the trip.

"Yet all men can fail, and each man must somewhere find his master, with whatever strength, whatever weapon. So we must be weary, we must use what guile we had, for it was upon my shoulders that nothing we had ever attempted or done was so fearsome a thing as this we would now try."

Feb. 10, 2015

It's 30º degrees and snowing. The camping conditions are ok and I take a day to rest. I post up for the night at the dump, in my small tent.

The next day I rent a cabin down the road in Silver Gate for a few nights to dry my stuff out, and plan my attack for the month. The 150 mile bike ride from Bozeman felt great, and I silently thank my trainer Hulk Bender for the last year of torture.

It's quite in Silver Gate compared to Cooke City. Actually, it's quite in Silver Gate compared to anywhere. There's nothing going on here, just a few people who stay the winter, and a few cabins open for rent.

Everyone tells me I have to meet the local hero Jay, "cause he's climbed everything around here." So I meet Jay, and like any gruff old school climber, takes one look at my bike, and cusses me out and calls me stupid.

"What the hell are you going to do on that thing when it snows four feet? You moron!"

Days later when we aren't drinking, Jay is nicer, and lets me store my "dumb" bike for a week at his place. I knew I would like it here.

My plan of attack is to ski and climb, but first I have to find a safe place to camp for about a week. Then I'll move camp again, just to be safe and lawful.

After three nights at the cabin, and days spent climbing ice falls behind town with a bunch of great friends, I set a camp on the outskirts of Silver Gate near Amphitheatre Mountain, and the mountain called Abiathar.

Abiathar was High Priest in the Court of King David, and the mountain its self sits upon the earth like an emperor in his thrown. Ridge lines stretch between the two peaks for miles, arching up and down in a giant crown shape, overlooking all of Yellowstone Park from the north.

I had seen these peaks thirteen years ago, maybe earlier. From the first moment, I knew I wanted to go up there. Some peaks do that. They call out, and beg to be climbed. There's passion buried there, and I could feel it.

Climbing is scary and takes skill and courage. For me, the amount of emotional effort must be greater than, or equal to the climb, every time, or it's dangerous. Hell, it's always dangerous.

So why do it? What am I going through during a lonely day in the mountains?

There's the cold, and the cold must be dealt with, and excepted. When you're alone, you can't allow yourself to get cold, but you will, and you have to except it.

I don't mess around. I slam in toe warmers in the morning, and sleep with my boot liners. It's painful and smelly, and not romantic, but that's how I deal with cold feet.

Then there's the mountains. When climbing with someone else, we're always talking about the line, and where we're going. It's what we do.

Climbing alone, there's no conversation. My eyes look up and follow the lines of the mountain. My mind sees the hazards, the safe spots, and the obvious pathways that exist. I love it. I feel totally connected to what I'm doing. My mind's chatter goes away, and I simply observe my surroundings, judging for danger, looking for signs of avalanches, and listening.

If I don't feel safe, I turn around and go home. I pay attention to my gut feelings, and I'm searching for that sense of flow. If I find it, I follow it.

The day I skied off the summit of Abiathar by myself, was one of those days I found it. I climbed between spindrift avalanches that were coming down the face in ten minute intervals.

My sense of purpose for the day was direct, as it would have been hard to talk me down, or ask me not to go up there.

After climbing one ridge line, and dropping south into the giant basin made up of Amphitheater Mountain, and Abiathar, I got my first close look at the face.

I stood there long enough to have a smoke, and I watched the light spindrift avies wash down the face. I was in the zone, feeling the flow, and knew I would be safe, (as long as I didn't wreck.)

Skiing big remote lines that require climbing skills, stable snow conditions, and the right gear, are rare. Skiing them in the winter in boot-top powder is even more rare. And more rare still, is doing it by yourself after riding a bicycle 150 miles to the trailhead.

This is one of the reason my batting average as a human-powered mountaineer kinda sucks. I'm batting at about 220 for skiing big lines, but because I'm one of the only people doing it, by a modern fair means approach, I feel like a top contender, gunning for a shot at the title.

Fire going at camp one. Week one.

The outdoor bike garage at camp one. Needs a roof.

Locking the bike in the forest near the Highway.
Switching to ski gear and skins from here.

Kyle climbing the falls on the right.
A party from Jersey climbing the falls on the left.

Jack standing below on belay.

Sam on Hydromonster.

Adam on Hydromonster.

 Abiathar, and the north couloir.

Nate climbing up the north couloir.

Traversing below spindrift gullies on the climb up.
And skiing the 50º east face of Abiathar in boot-top powder.
Ski tracks on the East Face of Abiathar.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Fat-Bike Ski-Mo Sufferfest Part One:

Fat-Bike from Bozeman to Cooke City

Day 4, mile 140.

Why did I call it a Sufferfest, and give it a name like Fat-Bike Ski-Mo?

Day one; leaving from home and yet still in town, the back-rack explodes off the bicycle, and skis and 50 pounds of camping gear jam into the tire and frame like a woodchipper gone wild.

Oh my! Is this really happening? I read somewhere that expeditions can make you neurotic. Is having a total breakdown in Lindley Park on the first mile of an expedition qualify? At least I have music.

There was a family walking by in the cold who offered help. I'd taken everything apart and was attempting to fix the problem, feeling like a fool, and thankful someone was taking pity on me.

I hadn't even left Bozeman. Did I have the resolve to keep going? A lot of effort was put into getting this expedition together, and it's hard not to get emotionally attached to the success of pulling it off.

Of course the problem was pilot error. I'd forgotten to tighten down all the nuts holding the rack in place, and I didn't use loctite like I'd told myself I would.

After 30 minutes I had the rack fixed, and was ready to go again. The skies were grey and ominous, and there was a strong wind blowing on the ridges. I had chills already, both from the cold and my nerves running amuck.

Keeping morale high can be more important than reading weather reports.

I chose to ride a six mile stretch of Interstate 90, and then the Frontage road, putting me in Livingston in as short of time as possible. Turning south into a strong head-wind and towards the Paradise Valley, I thought, "oh shit, here we go again."

This area of Montana is known for the high winds that can rake through the valley like a constant jet-stream. Paradise Valley is both a beautiful and harsh landscape, and the people who live here reflect it.

My plan for the day was to ride about 50 miles to Paradise Campground on the Yellowstone River, but the intense wind was slowing me down. I ended up camping at Loch Leven instead, 3 miles from Paradise.

Day 2 of the Sufferfest never started or ended like a day should. I didn't sleep at all over the night because I was holding a tent pole with one hand, and covering my ears with the other. The wind blew back and forth, bashing my tent around, smacking me on the head, and making it almost impossible to cook or do anything.

Day 2 of the Sufferfest I rode for 6 hours into that fierce wind, and covered 19 miles. Good thing Chico Hot Springs was at mile 13, and I had good soak, and drank a few beers. My nerves were fried, and my brain could barely hold a conversation.

The best part of the day was when a small 4-Runner unloaded about eight or nine people I didn't recognize and cheered and shouted at me like I was winning the tour de France. I didn't stop, or look happy, and I was riding about 3 mph, just able to keep the bike in a straight line.

I remember trying to smile and wave, but I almost crashed by attempting to take one hand off the handle bars, and I think I made a face at them like, yeah this sucks, thanks though.

Day 3 and the wind was still blowing. I had lunch in Yankee Jim Canyon, and I was getting closer to Gardiner, and Yellowstone Park, and the idea that this wind would somehow stop, or slow down, or go the other direction.

Day 3 offered a soak in the Boiling River, and I camped up the hill at the Mammoth Hot Spring Campground. The wind was still blowing. And camping conditions still miserable. Morale was still high.

Brutal conditions, and beautiful too.

Day 4 was the best of the worst. Why had I called this a sufferfest? Did I really wish this day upon myself? And what good was to come of it?

Day 4 started at 8am and in a light rain. I rode for two hours getting soaked, because I didn't have hard shell or rain gear with me. I didn't expect rain in Montana and Northern Wyoming in February.

I had only soft shell clothing and down layers for insulation. I dressed light so I could ride hard, but I was getting soaked to the bone and could barely feel my hands or feet. As I rode higher into the park,  the rain turned to snow, and I stopped at a rest area and I stood under an awning to dry out. I put my down layers on over my wet layers, and slammed in toe warmers in my running shoes.

I told myself this is what separates the men from the boys, and it was going get real hard for the next few hours. These conversations with myself help. I don't know how, because I feel like a crazy person talking to myself. But the conversations help when I get scared, and when things get real.

My neoprene overboots were soaked. My shoes where soaked. My gloves were soaked and the temperature was dropping. I had 35 miles to go, and rode on.

By the time I got to the Lamar Valley it stopped snowing, but became cold and the wind was blowing again. This time it was a tail-wind and I was on my way to Cooke City at last. Oh yeah! Just keep riding.

The Rangers in Yellowstone that day who were betting against me, lost big. Not only did I make the 53 miles to Cooke in one day, I made it before dark and the bartenders at the Minors Saloon bought me drinks and welcomed me into their little town. Thanks Josh, Danny, Brian and Chris for stoking the fire and keeping the morale high.

Looking back at Bozeman on day one. 

Elk crossing in the river.

Sufferfest selfies. 

A solid fuel stove burning on a rock, in a tent, in a wind storm. Careful.

Another Elk Crossing ahead. And you can almost see the wind in your face.

Breakfast stop on the river. Day 3.

Stoked on healthy things that resemble candy bars. Thanks Amazing Grass!

Stoked on big Bison in Yellowstone.

Light rain, morning of day 4.

Ready to take on day 4.