Singletrack Magazine issue 119: Never Trust The Weather

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This adventure in Utah’s White Rim was supposed to be simple. And dry…

Words Łukasz Piątek Photography Adam Klimek

Sharp sunlight burns our motivation to pedal. We’re resting on the edge of the canyon. It’s a September afternoon and the Garmin on my handlebars shows 45°C. 

A sudden blast of air turns our heads. An impressive storm front emerges from behind the towering massif of Island in the Sky. The wind gets stronger and pushes the dark clouds, illuminated by lightning, towards us. We look, hypnotised at this spectacle, when an unexpected gust catches our bikes and sweeps them towards the cliff edge. At the last moment, we catch them, just at the first ominous, heavy drops of rain start to hit the ground. With no decent shelter for miles, we hide under an overhanging ledge and observe the power of the raging storm. Within minutes the jeep track we’ve been riding becomes a gushing stream that threatens our tiny refuge. The downpour becomes hail as the temperature drops by 30 degrees within minutes. We lie in the mud while dirty red water floods our refuge under the ledge that barely covers our heads. 

While I’m silently considering the darkest scenarios for the rest of the day, Klimek seems to be absorbed in his view of the lightning. Happy as a child, he’s photographing the scene when bean-sized hail hits everything, including his precious lens, which he is pointing directly into this awesome show. 

An hour later, the storm finally abates and the weather front moves along. We crawl out like lizards from under a stone, chilled and soaked. The majestic landscape comes to life before us: the washed-out green of the scarce vegetation becomes vibrant, the pale ground is now an intense red. Under a wide rainbow, an incredible panorama of the Canyonlands National Park unfolds. 

Over underprepared. 

The rented minivan is packed to its limit with people, bikes and gear. Two passengers find relief in sipping craft beer from small bottles. The driver’s only entertainment is the anticipation of the very centre of Canyonlands in Utah – the Island in the Sky. 

For anyone keen on hearing just the plain, unexaggerated description, Island in the Sky is simply an island of sand, rocks and stones in a sea of sand, rocks and stones. However, even such a fairy-tale name doesn’t fully explain the beauty of this place. Everywhere you look, there’s a once-in-a-lifetime view to see. 

There’s more to it, of course. Island in the Sky is a flat-topped mesa that sits a thousand feet above the river-eroded landscape below. The views from it are spectacular, but it was the tiny trail way below that held our interests and ambitions. For people who like to get closer to the scenery, feel the red dirt in their teeth, and become part of this landscape, a 100-mile wild trip through the Canyonlands National Park awaits. First though, they must first take a wild trip though the Park’s bureaucracy. 

Visitors are greeted by a flag in front of the large, one-story visitor centre where the air-conditioned interior provides a bit of relief from the sun. These visitors are mostly pensioners who, for a moment, let go of their huge campers and swarm around the souvenir displays. Luckily for us, no one is talking to the smiling young woman in a ranger’s uniform. We go up to her and succinctly explain our plan: a self-supported bikepacking trip through the 100-mile White Rim Trail along the canyon edge and around Island in the Sky. To do that, one has to obtain the permit which is strictly controlled. We’d met this obligation earlier online, applied and paid the fee, and now we could get the necessary papers. We fill in another declaration with information about our sleeping places (legal only in selected campgrounds), as well as locations of our water caches, which we want to deliver today. With a smile so prominent among Americans, the ranger gives us useful hints about the trail. She’s so dedicated and radiant with enthusiasm that we genuinely think she might just join our adventure. 

Having done with the formalities, a quick filling of bidons and bladders and we set off to the trail. The game has started… 

The White what?

The White Rim Trail is a 160-kilometre road with no access to water. The linking paths to the river are scarce and even with our optimism it’s unwise to count on passing vehicles. Our survival strategy is based on water drops. We split into two groups, and the plan is that each group descends hiking trails on opposite sides of the Island and hides water in specific locations. This escapade takes over four hours of hiking down to the trail and back up again, testing our strength even before we’ve started riding. To make matters worse, our late start means we finish this mission in the dark and a failed head torch for one of us needs a mini-rescue from the other two. Not a great start – and despite sleeping in the car that night, we still dawdle in the morning and only set off on our adventure around midday.

That night, a storm front passes above us. Thanks to that, the morning sun is unusually gentle. We unhurriedly pack our bikes with all the gear. Soon we city scrugs will be transformed into tough men of the desert and enjoy days of absolutely unrestrained pure fun.

A quick analysis of the levels on our road confirms the commonly held view that the White Rim Trail should be completed in the clockwise direction, so we take the turn eastward to the Shafer Trail. From now on we ride on pure endorphins! All you have to do is to let the brakes go and not fall off the trail. The winding road descends sharply 1,000 feet from the rim of the canyon to the White Rim below. The Colorado Canyon meanders further below us and as we take on the switchbacks of the dirt road between vertical red rocky walls, this sharp, bendy traverse changes into long straights leading gently downhill. Three-inch tyres provide perfect traction and, as it will turn out later, are a perfect choice for Utah’s desert. 

Lit by our headlights, the road leads us to the first campground with the graceful name of Airport. Our night-time visit here isn’t really part of our plan, but rather a consequence of our obligation to sleep only in the designated campgrounds.

This White Rim campsite has only two defining features: wooden signs and brick toilets. Otherwise, the site blends perfectly with the surroundings. The small wooden signs are easy to overlook at night; the brick ‘long drop’ toilet, however, is something else entirely, so we decide to pitch the tent some 200m away. The joy of the first day of fantastic riding is all the bigger when supper time comes. Our meals are based fully on dehydrated food, but in these unusual circumstances they taste like the best restaurant in the world. We’re served Mexican stew, chicken tikka masala and exquisite Polish bigos (hunter’s stew). This day’s last adventure is a culinary one!

Dry desert, dried oatmeal. 

Having had dried oatmeal and coffee for breakfast we discuss the plan, which is to reach the point where we had dropped water two days before. We are aware that dehydration is statistically more likely than a bite from a snake, scorpion or spider (though all are possible), so we took eight to nine litres of water per person. This allowed for a day and a half of comfortable drinking and eating. We need to replenish the reserves.

It isn’t even noon when we stumble upon the only human that day: our favourite ranger in her huge 4×4 monster of a car. With her outstanding enthusiasm and care, she checks that everything is fine, that we have enough water, as well as our permits. And then… off we go to the canyon’s desolate white rim, in an increasingly bright sun and boiling air. 

It’s only when the weather breaks and the hail comes down that we feel a long-awaited relief. We enjoy following the route’s sections of amazing vistas, but also the cool pleasant air.

After the violent storm, the White Rim Road shows a different face. Although it’s dedicated to carrying 4×4 cars, mountain bikes and horses, we see now how quickly it can evolve into a muddy stream whose cascades fall off the canyon rim to the river below. We follow the road, intrigued that it was built as an investment by the Atomic Energy Commission for creating access to the uranium deposits, which were to be extracted and used in production of nuclear power during the Cold War. Luckily for us and other Canyonlands enthusiasts, the reserves turned out to be smaller than they had assessed and the Commission dropped the project.

Towards the end of the day, we reach the water drop and no one craves a further night ride. We surrender without a fight and pitch the tent in the first convenient place.

Southerly point.

We pass the White Rim’s southernmost tip. The road meanders between the canyon cliffs below and vertical walls of Island in the Sky above us. Overdosing on spectacular views, we let our eyes find rest on the dirt disappearing under the wheels. We reach the second water drop. 

We hadn’t expected that the lower temperature and higher humidity would lead to smaller water consumption and at this point we have too much of it. 

Today, our luck continues as another storm goes around us and we manage to stay alive and dry as we watch it, close enough for us to feel the drops on our faces. The amazing spectacle unfolds before us and invites us to spend a couple of hours here as we burn through 300GB on our memory cards. The day comes to an end by the Green River Canyon.

Damn you, maths!

In the morning, we realise that our final stop at the end of the trail is located at nearly 1,900m altitude. That wouldn’t be a thing at all if it wasn’t for the fact that we are currently at around 1,200m. All those arithmetical operations cause a deep sorrow in our hearts. 

But which realisation is worse: that we are up for an all-day climb or that our adventure in Canyonlands is coming to an end? Regardless, with a superhuman effort, we raise our heads! We spot some black birds circling us in the sky… Vultures? Have they got wind of our struggle? Fortunately, as they descend, we can see they look more eagley – they are ospreys. Time to set off.

The remaining kilometres are lit by the setting sun and we take the road axis of the Island in the Sky. We head toward the point where we started a couple of days ago. It’s already after dusk when we reach the empty visitor centre. Sitting on the benches in front of the closed office, we connect to the free Wi-Fi. Civilisation has reclaimed us!

Gallery Extra

Because we always have too many images than we can fit in the mag.

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