Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Happy faces starting a day's adventure
If last weekend's fat bike ride out of Gorham with the Coos Cycling crew was the start of a cycling rejuvenation for me, then yesterday's ride with Cathy was a rebirth or ressurection. It was back to the roots and reminiscent of some of the most memorable winter adventures we have ever had. Historically speaking of course, those adventures of days past were on sleds rather than fat bikes, but the terrain, views, solitude and epic expanses remained consistent.

Sunday evening Cathy and I decided to take a chance and head to Grafton Notch late in the day. The temperature had been well above freezing for days but was supposed to be headed for a drop. The notch typically has some of the best snow around and retains it better than places at lower elevation, naturally. Luckily as we got riding, just before dusk, the hard packed sled trails were pretty good. As the sun dropped they firmed up nicely and we had a great little ride on a gorgeous winter evening. On the drive back home I thought at length of how much I missed the adventures we had sledding out of Errol NH into the North Woods. Huge, barren expanses of nothing but wilderness.Vast, remote and unforgiving yet easily accessible. "We should drive over to Errol and ride from there." I said to Cathy. "We used to do it all the time on sleds.". And so the plan was laid for a destination ride.

Excellent trail conditions abounded
That evening I poured over the sled trail maps for the Umbagog Snowmobile Association and the Swift Diamond Riders snowmobile clubs. We have been members of each of those clubs in the past as well as our home club, Greenstock Snowsports in ME. Time to re-up I think. Anyhow, I chose a loop that had some pretty aggressive climbing based on recollection as well as some great trail and scenic vistas. I figured that the loop was about 30 miles and should be a nice quick run on what should be, based on the trail reports, good trail.

We packed up our new Borealis Fat Bikes Yampa carbon fatty wonder bikes and hit the USA club parking lot just off RT26 before Dixville Notch in the late AM to a wonderful warm sun under clear skies and well below freezing temperatures. I mounted up Cathy's new Becker Sewing and Design frame bag that Tucker made me custom for Cathy's bike. This allows her to carry extra clothing and gear without the necessity of wearing a backpack, which causes your back to sweat and ultimately, get cold. Trails were rock solid and despite the fairly low snowpack at base level, trails were smooth. The club had been actively grooming and things looked great for the most part. Given that it was a Monday in low snow conditions I was confident sled traffic would be low. We started out on trail 110 bound for Dixville Peak.

Dixville Peak looking south-west at bare ground below
Funny how general terrain feel has radically different perspectives based on how you access that terrain. On sleds I remember that there were some good climbs to get to Dixville Peak, roughly eight miles from the parking lot. Now let me tell you that when working for each and every one of those vertical feet by pedaling a bicycle up the ascents, you really get the true lay of land. That trail is crazy steep and all up. To put a definitive number on it, we climbed 577' in the first 1.6 miles, the first half mile of which was approach. Then we kept climbing, steep steeps with double digit averages and sections over 20%. The first section of climb was 2.7 miles at a modest 5% average netting about 800' of gain. Traction on the frozen granular was incredible though and much like riding sandstone, we just keep churning up without issue.

Boreal Yampa doing what they were made to do
Finally we made the main truck road section of trail 110W which was groomed flat and wide. The pitch eased and we rolled along nicely, finally breaking into the double digits for speed. The first few miles had proven challenging for sure and had taken the better part of an hour. We rolled along pleasantly on 110W for a couple miles and then came to trail 134N and the start of the real climb to Dixville Peak. I fondly recall the other worldly experiences near the summit of that peak on extreme winter weather days. Rime ice covering the short, scraggly alpine scrub. Winds howling, near zero visibility and a sense that you could fall off the top of the world at any moment. The reality of a northern mountain summit that is one of the first things the weather hits coming straight out of the relatively flat farmlands of Quebec. Luckily today was bright and sunny and the temperature was much more hospitable.

The climb took me about 35 minutes and was 2.8 miles at 9% average grade, picking up over 1100'. There were numerous sections in the high teen low twenty percent range, just to keep you honest. We climbed the south facing flank, in the warm sun, working hard and sweating. We were afforded a spectacular 180 degree view of the west facing region along the Connecticut river. Oddly, Colebrook south was devoid of snow having instead the pale brown of dead grass exposed across the fields of the panoramic landscape. The summit as well as the peaks of the entire range are now covered with wind turbines so you can no longer actually get to the true top of Dixville Peak. As a benefit though, the trail is now a full on roadway, required to get the turbines up the mountain and to maintain access to them. It used to be a relatively sketchy squirrel trail up and over.

On top we regrouped out of the wind as best we could, changed glove liners and put on a wind layer for the upcoming descent off the peak. Immediately we were thrust into the shade of the north facing flank. The wind picked up, the trail dropped precariously and became washed out rutted and icy. Sections of the descent were crazy steep, reviewed after the fact on the GPS nearing 40% grade. We froze solid almost instantly. Half way down the hands were gone and working the brakes was a chore with the frozen digits not cooperating. Near the bottom yet still in shade, I was starting to get worried. As we broke out to RT26 just below the Balsams the snow disappeared and what was once snow, was packed to ice. Our hands were blocks of that very same ice. We stopped in a sunny, sheltered spot to try and thaw a bit before pressing onward into the barren tundra.

Keeping in theme, the Balsams Grand Resort was devoid of activity. It appeared that portions of the grand old dame were being demolished, left in a state of decay and death. Sad. I'm not sure what thew plans are for her but though a rebirth was in the works under new ownership. I certainly hope so as the resort has been a pillar of the community for such a long time. I remember my cousin used to work there way, way back. From the Balsams we quickly climbed back into good snow cover along trail 134 heading north. The climb was another brute, ascending another 2.6 miles at 6% average, netting almost 900' of gain. Part way up as I waited to regroup, my frozen hands starting to defrost with searing, sharp pain bringing tears to my eyes, fear set in. I was afraid that we were not going to make it. Daylight was wearing dangerously thing and although we had lights and some spare clothing, we did not have the right clothing to deal with a dramatic temperature drop. Worse, we were swamped up, both hands and feet. I knew all too well that as soon as the warm sun was gone and we did one long descent after a sweaty ascent, we'd be all done.

At the top, however, we were in a gorgeous softwood forest with ample snowpack and perfect trail conditions. Optimism returned, as did hope and sometimes, hope is all that it takes. Give a man hope and the change can be miraculous. As we descended down to the intersection of main corridor trail 18 the conditions only improved. The groomers had been out before the refreeze and despite having some sled traffic that day, the trail was wide, flat and hard as cement. We were treated to great scenery and nice easy, fast rolling trail for miles.

Miles until we hit the familiar intersection of trail 18E and 112N. Most of our local sled rides used to start on 18W and then take 112N on our way to Pittsburg when we would spend the entire day, dawn until after dusk, on the sled racking up a couple hundred miles in these very same woods. That intersection reminded me of the long, winding and steep descent we'd make on our way in in the morning. The ascent that we'd hit on our way out in the evening signifying that we were nearing the ride's end. On a sled that is, doing at least the speed limit of 45mph. On a fat bike, this climb was going to be brutal. Cathy knew it as well ans was starting to come unglued.

The climb dragged on for what felt like an eternity. The sun was nearly gone but sweat still beaded on my brow from the work at hand. Not brutal nose of the saddle just steady, big ring grind. By the day's standards a relatively easy 2.2 miles at 5% average grade gaining 726'. Cathy was a bit back so I opted to turn around at the top and descend back to her in order to keep moving. My fear of freezing was now at hand, what with the sun now being the ridge. The longer I could stave it off, the better. When we both hit the top of the climb we quickly pulled our wind jackets on and descended as quickly as possible down the long gentle slope. In my comfortable conditions this would have been incredibly fun but with the specter of the cold nipping at swamped up hands and feet, it was mostly about getting down and out clean.

As the trail intersected a side road, we accessed our options. The trail out would drop us a couple miles from the parking lot on RT26. This road, albeit a complete and utter sheet of ice, would get us half the distance again closer to the truck. Never take the apparent easy way out. Never. Although we made it clean it was slow and miserable and we generated no body heat tripoding down the road. Additionally, had we stuck to the trail proper, we'd have branched a side trail, which brought us another half the distance again closer to the truck. I knew that as we used to always take that trail, however, I forgot. Lesson learned.

We made it back to the truck and struggled to get the boots, zippers and various buckles undone with frozen hands. Finally we were changed into dry clothing and down jackets, heater blaring, and off toward home. Not before stopping at LL Cote for the sum of the day's remnants of their pots of Green Mountain coffee, a couple of Koffee Kup jelly doughnuts and a couple of Hostess apple pies. Forgot to mention, between the two of us we went through 2/3 of a large water bottle and a granola bar each in five hours on the trails in well below freezing temperatures. Seemed to be just about right.

The best adventures are often those that may have well been your epitaph is what I wrote as my social media status after the ride. Sure, I'm embellishing a bit but really, we were ill prepared for this one. Had anything gone awry, events could have taken a much different path. Still, we will remember this one for some time. Not the biggest or the baddest, but a good season opener I think, or a good close to the year.

Here's to an upcoming year that is more about the real adventure and the memories and living each day like it's the last. Thank you Cathy for sharing that passion and these adventures and not letting us, collectively, lose track of what really matters.

Adventures and kittens.

1 comment:

Hill Junkie said...

Some of that scenery could be from Alaska. Awesome stuff. Would love to ride up there some day. Too bad prior experience with fat bike didn't go so well with me. Maybe you guys should carry a sat-phone or Spot transponder with you. Just sayin...