Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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    Tales of trails: My very bad, no good night on Porcupine Rim

    Popular route descends from Sand Flats to river; writer's first ride turns into harrowing ordeal

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    Porcupine Rim parallels the Colorado River for about two miles before dropping the rider off on Highway 128. The stretch of trail has some of the scarier obstacles, as they sit uncomfortably close to a roughly 500-foot drop. Photo by Carter Pape

    My first bike ride on Porcupine Rim was a disaster. Telling the story is like reliving a train wreck. It’s useful as a cautionary tale, though, so I feel compelled to give you, the reader, a chance to know just how bad it was.

    My first encounter with Porcupine Rim was accompanied by other important firsts: I was riding my first full-suspension bicycle during my first summer in Moab, and during the outing, I got my first flat tire on my first night ride. Both of the latter firsts were unintentional.

    I set out Thursday afternoon, July 11, 2019, to ride up Sand Flats Road with the ultimate goal of riding down Porcupine Rim and back to my apartment. This goal was not in itself a horrible decision; I still plan sometime to do Porcupine Rim as a loop rather than a shuttled, downhill ride. Nearly every other decision I made before and during the ride was, however, horrible.

    When I set out from my apartment, the temperature in the valley was 100°F. All I had in my pack when I left was 3 liters of water, a granola bar and my phone. I did, however, go prepared with a spare tube and a bike repair kit.

    Reporter Carter Pape takes a small drop slow and easy during a ride earlier this month. Porcupine Rim consists of many drops like this, and in some cases, it is easier to gap them by approaching fast and letting gravity do the rest. Others prelude technical features to which speed is not the solution. Photo by Carter Pape

    The 10-mile ride up Sand Flats was a slog, but it felt productive. I take pride in finishing a bike ride where I start it. It’s good for the soul. Whenever I get a friend to shuttle me to the top of a trail, sure it’s all downhill and fun, but is it moral? Is that how God intended bikes to be used? One thing is for sure: He certainly does not condone the invention of the e-bike.

    After making it to the Porcupine Rim parking lot, which is next to a pair of water troughs, I finally got onto the 4×4 connector trail, excited to start the downhill. My excitement turned out to be a mistake, as I still had three miles of climbing left to do.

    Despite the surprise protraction of the climb, I finally made it to the peak 13 miles in, 2,700 feet higher than where I started, and I did it all on my own power. I was greeted by a wonderful overlook of Castle Valley, and best of all, it was all downhill from there. It turned out, though, that the only downhill I’d get to enjoy was a metaphorical one.

    I reached the top of the trail just after 9 p.m., well into twilight. Starting the 30-mile ride at 6:43 p.m. didn’t give me nearly enough time to beat the start of the 8:43 p.m. sunset. Taking an extra minute of planning before the start of the ride probably would have clarified that.

    This overlook onto Castle Valley offers a similar view to the featured overlook at the start of Porcupine Rim. The trail in this photo, named Lower Porcupine Singletrack but better known as LPS, is just uphill of Porcupine Rim. It invites the rider to get within inches of a sheer, 300-foot drop. Photo by Carter Pape

    I did not linger at the Castle Valley overlook once I got there because, ahead of me, I still had 11 miles of treacherous, nighttime riding to get through. I did have a bike light with me, but it would turn out to be the only useful tool I had.

    Not more than two miles into the downhill portion, my back tire went flat. It didn’t just leak; it went flat.

    The damage on my back wheel suggests that, at some point early in my descent, I made hard contact between a rock and the metal rim of my wheel, which ruined the airtight seal with the tire.

    I was annoyed to be losing the little bit of light I had left to fix a flat tire, but I was pleased with myself for thinking to bring a spare tube. As I started unpacking it, though, I realized that I had no means of inflating it.

    Map compiled by Carter Pape, imagery courtesy of Google

    I’ll pause here to recap. It was 9:20 p.m. — pitch black outside. I was 14.5 miles into my ride with 15.6 miles left to go to get back to my apartment. My tire was flat, and I had no way of fixing it. I was left to walk.

    I checked my phone to see that, by some miracle, I had cell service. My immediate response was to call 911 and request that search and rescue pick me up.

    I realized as the dispatcher asked whether I was injured (no) and had water and food (yes) that it was a stupid request. My life was not in danger, despite how scared I was. A call soon thereafter from a sheriff’s deputy helped me realize that I did not, in fact, require a volunteer search and rescue team to come help me, so I rescinded the request.

    I did need some kind of help, though. I was not prepared to walk my bike back to town from where I was. Quick mental calculations suggested that I could be walking for four to six hours if I tried to get back that way.

    My bike leans on a vertical climb that the path takes, leading into a trail parallel to the streambed some 10 to 20 feet below. The climb is representative of the bonkers nature of the obstacles that the back half of Porcupine Rim throws at the rider. How do you even get up this? Photo by Carter Pape

    Fortunately, the deputy who called me was amenable to picking me up at the trailhead, so we arranged for me to call him back when I got back to the road. It did not dawn on me to save him some trouble and instead ask a friend to pick me up.

    Regardless of who would pick me up, getting to the trailhead would not be easy. It was a 4.5-mile journey there from where I had broken down, which could take one to two hours to walk. That was better than four to six, but still. I needed to go to work the next day, and I wasn’t too stoked on the idea of being out in the dark for hours on end, especially under duress.

    So, I looked for a shortcut. A map on my phone showed that the 4×4 trail paralleled Sand Flats Road in a few spots and at one particular point got within a few hundred feet of it. If I could cut the trail there, I could get to the road faster and get picked up sooner.

    The shortcut saved me three miles of walking, which equated to about an hour of time saved. I could tell on the map that the shortcut would involve a steep climb from the trail to the road, but the 500 feet of steep uphill walking would surely be quicker than 3 miles of walking.

    After an hour of escorting my bike back the way I had come, I reached the shortcut and quickly realized that it was too steep to bring my bike along with me. I hid it in the bushes, where I would retrieve it the next day, and proceeded to scramble up the steep hillside.

    Porcupine Rim winds through the outer edges of Sand Flats Recreation Area, providing overlooks of Castle Valley, the Moab Valley, the Colorado River and plenty of other sites. The trail crisscrosses with the Porcupine Rim 4×4 trail. Photo by Carter Pape

    As I would learn later, it turned out that my chosen shortcut was a half of a mile away from a better shortcut: A connective path between the 4×4 trail and Sand Flats Road, already blazed for me. Given the trouble I went to scrambling up my own shortcut, the alternative would surely have been a faster route back to the road, but I missed it on the map in my late-night panic.

    The nightmare ended once the deputy picked me up. He brought me back to my apartment; I successfully retrieved my bike the next day and made it down Porcupine Rim safely (albeit with a broken shifter); I installed an emergency pump on my bike; I bought an extra light for my helmet; and the connector path I had missed that dreadful night is now my regular drop-off point for Porcupine Rim rides.

    There is a menu of lessons to learn here, and how I managed to make all those mistakes in one trip is still a bit of a mystery to me. Regardless, I lived to tell the tale, and I have since gotten to enjoy many Porcupine Rim rides.

    I look forward to one day completing the 30-mile circuit I originally set out to finish.

    Porcupine Rim is part of a larger series of trails named The Whole Enchilada, which starts in the La Sal Mountains, shown here. The high drop point where commercial shuttles typically leave riders, Burro Pass, can remain under snow well into the summer months. Photo by Carter Pape

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