BaseCamp alumnus Alison Knutson shared her experience on the bikepacking adventure of a lifetime!
“Do hard things.”
Day 1: Clifton, Arizona, to Glenwood, New Mexico
Nine adventurous souls, some longtime friends, some acquaintances. We drove from Tucson, Arizona, to Clifton. Once we arrived, we unpacked and set up our rigs. We weighed the bikes loaded; the lightest was ~41 pounds, mine was 57 (and some change). Sean, one of the other riders, said, "Oh, Ali, that's not good." I got worried, but I didn't remove anything. This wasn't even counting the hydration pack I carried. I knew I had some heavy, dense food, a tent, probably too many (or not enough) clothes. I would just be slower...
As per usual, we didn't get going until after 11:30 a.m. and had a 60-mile day. The guys found an alternate route that avoided the narrow/no-shoulder highway and took us immediately up a climb, Ward Canyon Road. My Garmin wasn't recording power or HR, which was a bit annoying. I waited until we got to a quick stop and restarted it. The route met up with a little gravel, some nice stuff, some chunky and loose. The guys had been carrying burritos, and some of them lost half their burrito over the bumpy stuff. I was able to make it safely through, but on one climb, my sleeping bag popped off, and I had to stop. It was a little challenge to get spinning and clipped in. We got back onto pavement with some rollers. I was slower than everyone but felt pretty good and was happy to be doing my own pace without any pressure. I was warm from the effort, despite the temperature dropping from the storm beginning the brew in the distance.
The big climb of the day would wind up Highway 78 on our way to New Mexico, just under two hours after we started. I couldn’t really stand on the climbs due to where I had my feed bag attached to the handlebars, as I would bump my knee against it. It was awkward to pedal bowlegged, so I stayed seated for almost all of the ride. Cadence was slow, but I managed not to keep the lactic acid buildup in check. We stopped at the top to put on our rain jackets and prepare for a quick descent. The storm had dropped the temperature a bit more, but we were still avoiding the rain. I descended more conservatively, getting a feel how it would handle with the weight of the gear -- the handlebar bag, fork bags, top tube bag and large saddle bag. It was stable, and the weight made me faster (at some point I hit 40 mph that day). Sean waited for me at the prodding of our friend Kyle, who was concerned that I was alone. I was fine by myself, but the company was nice, too. We chatted and gawked at the scenery and the sound of the wind rustling through the cottonwoods. I was sweating a lot. At some point, the sweat drops made my Garmin screen change and disable the HR monitor sensor. I didn't know this at the time and just figured it was kaput again (I had gone through two Wahoos within a few weeks).
When we hit Highway 180, we were riding into a cross headwind. Travis started an echelon paceline, and I latched onto him as best I could. His steady pace, patience, and blocking of the wind would save me. Periodically he would guide (push) me up the hills so that I could gain some watts yet conserve my energy. When I could be on the front for the descents, I was able to use my weighted bike advantage to keep momentum up the next climbing roller.
Eventually we hit Glenwood and checked into our cabin. We had avoided all but a few sprinkles from the storm. My legs were doing their spasm thing in my calves, but not overly sore and felt pretty good.
I made a Tasty Bites dinner with oats, and the gentlemen headed to the bar for pizza and beers. I joined them later for laughs, conversation, and bad pool playing.
I almost didn’t go on this trip, but it was going well so far, and I was stoked to be doing something new.
Day 2: Glenwood, New Mexico, to Blue, Arizona
I hydrated well Thursday: three Skratch Superfuel bottles and almost 2L of water. I got up three times in the night to pee and had to go again first thing in the morning. It was cold when we woke, but the cabin had been very comfy. The day would begin with a climb to Alma, where the guys wanted to stop and have breakfast. I opted to eat my hearty carb loaded oats with banana chips and a bit of "full power vegan cookie dough" I had made for the trip before we left and bought some snacks and a kombucha at the store.
I left ahead of the group, since I was often the slower one. It was cold, and I got sweaty on the first bit to Alma, but I quickly heated up again and lowered the arm and knee warmers. The jersey and net-like base layer would be enough for the rides. My HR monitor would not work again today, even though it lit up (I still didn't realize I had disabled the sensor on the Garmin). Travis offered pushes again, but I told him I was happy to ride my own pace. I would catch up when they would stop. My legs were a little sore, but I was comfortable and could still find tempo on the climbs.
There was some concern about snow on the gravel road we would be riding, but it was hero dirt. At least for a while. It was beautiful, and everyone was happy. Then we hit the mud. At first it wasn't too bad. We were able to work our way through it, but the bikes started to get heavier when it began to stick and we were still climbing. I had 27.5 tires, so I fared better than some. At some point, Colin, who was on my steel-frame cross bike, started walking and grumbling because the mud had gotten so gummed up in the frame it nearly stopped him. I kept pushing through it, determined not to walk my bike. It was slow, but I would not give in to putting my foot down. We hit an exceptionally muddy bit. Colin was walking, Travis was cheering (heckling) us on. It was a slip, slide, spin fast, and engage those CX skills section. I made it! I was a bit cooked but stoked I blew through that bit. My chain was starting to make awful noises, and I knew I needed some lube.
We continued to climb, hit rollers, descend, climb again, and take in the incredible views on the road to the Blue River campground. I think this was the best day. Surprisingly, more climbing than day one and less miles. I loved the challenge of the climbs, the techy descents, and even the bit of chunky sections that took some line choice navigation.
We readied camp and filtered water, and the guys scrounged the driest wood they could find and built a fire. Brian washed his kit and jersey in the river, and we teased that it wouldn’t be dry, but he said, “I know what I’m doing.” It wasn’t his first Yonderbouts, after all. Most of us were ready to hit the sack about an hour after dark, but the stories continued, and I was the first to go to bed at 8:40 or so. It was to be a cold night…
Day 3: Blue, Arizona, to Hannagan Meadow, Arizona
The ride day would be much shorter in mileage, but the climbing was substantial in that distance. This one would work us.
It didn't help that it gets very cold at the Blue River campsite, even without snow on the ground. We woke to frost on bikes, tents, and the sleeping bags of those who slept under the stars and moon. The area is next to a river and stays damp since the sun doesn't dry out the canyon well during the winter. TJ indicated that he woke up at some point in the night, and the temperature was 14 degrees. I had an 18-degree bag, liner, warm clothes (wools, a tuk, and even my puffy), and a tent, and I still found myself cold and very achy in the night. A bad dream had me closed-mouth screaming, and I eeked a "get out of here" to scare away the animal I thought was at my tent in the dream. Everyone heard me, and I explained it in the morning. Brian’s jersey and bibs were frozen stiff. It was a classic I-told-you-so moment.
After a hot oatmeal breakfast (with my cookie dough yumminess and banana chips), we packed and got going. There was no easing into the day; we climbed immediately. I didn't bother with the HR monitor today because I figured it was dead and opted to go braless since it would just get soaked with sweat on the climbs, which got me cold every time we would stop. This option kept me warmer when we would stop, and I decided I would do it again on day 4. Everyone pulled away, and I felt my legs start to whine at me. I was fatigued from lack of sleep, and it was evident in my pace. Slow grind, stand, just keep momentum, keep a good attitude (BaseCamp voices playing in my head). I found it hard to push myself into tempo, even on the climbs.
We had pretty good conditions with little mud. There were some little sections of packed snow at the end as we climbed higher, but they were easy to flow over since we were descending. Travis got a flat, and I gave him my pump. We started up again, but he kept losing air, so half of us continued to Highway 191, where we waited for a while. The plan was to get to Hannagan Meadow for food, but we were nearing their lunch closing time, and we didn't know if they were actually open, even though we called and left a message as soon as we had some cell service, because Brian, our organizer, likes to keep things mysterious and off the cuff so doesn’t confirm in advance. Travis made a plan for the fast folks to roll up to HM and catch them before they closed. If they weren't open, they would turn around and catch the rest of us and we would backtrack and continue to Alpine, 28 miles from HM. We all made it to Hannagan Meadow a bit cooked. They were closed but still fed us. It was good money for them, because we also ended up getting a cabin and having dinner. We devoured the food; there was only one real option for me, the GF vegetarian, but oh well. I survived with French fries and Fritos.
While the two lodge staff readied the room, some of the group fell asleep sitting on couches in the common area while others chatted and played Jenga. The next day would be 70ish miles, and with the mysterious planning of the trip, most of us would not have food, either for dinner, breakfast, or both, had we continued as planned. Plus the gravel route we intended to ride would have been excessively muddy, with sections of some snow, and a less positive attitude of the group. Brian called day 3 “mutiny.”
We ate dinner at the lodge, played the card game Golf and heated up the cabin too much. I still can make a damn fine fire in a wood stove. Sleep would be good for some but too hot for others. I was much happier, though. Kyle said it was like being punished for complaining about the cold the night before.
Day 4: Hannagan Meadow to Clifton, Arizona
I woke up early, fidgety and wanting to pack since I seemed to take the longest to get ready, but it was loud, and others were hoping to continue to sleep. Breakfast wasn’t open until 8:00 a.m., buffet style. At 7:00, others began to stir, and we started getting ready. I was still almost last to be packed.
Hannagan Meadow is at 9100 feet elevation. There was snow on the ground, and wildlife tracks could be found in the snow. A young boy at breakfast said it was a bear track, while I figured it was the big malamute the lodge owners had or a wolf.
Someone said today would be all downhill. Sean corrected that by saying there would be climbing. There certainly was. It would also be my day for mechanicals.
After climbing for a bit out of Hannagan Meadow, I was off the back again and wanted to cry a little. I was not happy at how my legs felt. Travis slowed and gave me a push, which I quietly accepted. After getting to the top of the first ascent of the day, descending, then hitting rollers, we came to the vista viewpoint and stopped for a bit. After we rode past where we would have camped for the night, I caught up with Dan, and he heard the puncture. I had plenty of Stan's in the tire, so we stopped and tried to seal it. TJ offered to plug it, so we pumped it up and continued. The tire was losing air, though. It got bouncy, and I slowed and pulled off the road, swearing a bit because bye-bye, fellas. I was about to get ready to put in a tube as Travis and TJ rolled by and stopped to assist. The plug was good, but there was a leak elsewhere I could hear. We determined it was in the stem, resolved the issue, and pumped it up again, and it held. Yay! We rolled off together and it continued to hold air.
We had a brief "lunch" stop (more Fritos and some dates) and started to descend again.
The next mechanical was my front handlebar bag dragging on the front wheel. It had been pretty close during the trip already, periodically rubbing when I would hit a bump, but not concerning. I had packed a little differently today and weighted it too much. I had to stop as the others were all flying down the road and remove a lot of weight: puffy, water filter, some other clothing. It wasn't very full now. I was angry I had let this happen, and it felt like it took fifteen minutes to resolve, and on a descent that the others would crush. I swore a bit and let it get in my head. But I got rather focused, too. Breathing deep, I worked my way to the guys, passed by, and cleared my head. I had a moment and needed to deal with it on my own. I think I also was in a caloric deficit and not very resilient to additional stresses. I stopped and waited for the others when I was ready to be social again. I began riding in front of them. They happened to be drilling it and raced past me. Travis ended up coming back and giving me pushes up the climb, and we chatted. He said they were even attacking each other. We rode together for a bit, and then he moved up the road with my encouragement to catch Colin. I was in a better headspace.
Even with all the descending, it was a challenging fourth day. The descents were curvy and steep, with some sections of gravel over the roads for traction on snow from Thursday's storm. I was conservative with my speed and still concerned about the front handlebar bag. It was a long, technical descent, and there were two more kicker type climbs out of the Morenci Mine. Those hurt. But we descended into Clifton safely and shared Cokes and chips. We weighed the bikes again, and mine was 10 pounds lighter (less water and more stuff in my pockets and in my hydration pack). The person with the lightest bike on day four had to do the one-chip challenge with some gross, blue-colored Paqui ghost pepper chip. Poor Dan was the winner (loser?) of the challenge and took it like a champ, spitting blue saliva and cursing. He would have fire tummy the remainder of the night, even with a few Rolaids to help ease the heat.
196 miles, 18,589 feet of vert.
In the end, I am very happy I did this trip. It was challenging and rewarding, and it was neat to do something new. It made me want to do more of this type of riding, and I am excited for the next adventure.