Adventure on the White Rim Trail. in Moab, Utah

FasterSkierJune 2, 2003

The White Rim is a 103-mile trail located about 30 miles west of Moab in some
of the most spectacular desert landscape the area has to offer. The trail essentially
encircles the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, located
at the convergence of the Colorado and Green rivers. Most of the riding on the
White Rim trail is non-technical on dirt jeep trails and one can drive the whole
thing with a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. The length, however, is the daunting
part. Most cyclists chose to do the loop (or part of the loop) over three or
four days, using a truck as a sag vehicle with extra water and all the necessary
camping supplies. Yet a group of Park City-based cross country skiers had batted
around the idea to do this trip (or workout) in a day for a number of years, and the
motivation intensified after their coach Torbjørn beat them to it a few
seasons back.

This weekend a group of ski racers, including some of’s
editors, tackled the White Rim. US Ski Team member Andrew Johnson, Subaru Factory
Team skiers Scott Loomis and Nathan Schultz and Atomic Team skiers Cory Smith
and Erik Stange, together with former Dartmouth College skier Lara Kendall gathered
in Moab on Friday night, ready for the ride. The weather forecast for the weekend
promised warm weather, with highs in the upper 90s.

Our group met in Moab on Friday night at Eddy McStiff’s, a bar that has
more or less become a landmark on the main drag of Moab. (If you ever make a
trip to Moab, make a point to try their Black and Blueberry: it’s a delicious
mix of their own micro-brewed stout and blueberry wheat beers). Most of the
group had to brave the Memorial Day weekend traffic along the Wasatch front,
extending the drive from the normal 3 1/2 hours to a little under five. Nathan
and his wife Terry drove from their home in Boulder, Colorado, and had even
more highway time to get there.

We camped for the night at a spot on the road to the Canyonlands park, and made
a point to rise early so we could get as much riding out of the way during the
cooler part of the day. By 7:00, we had packed up, eaten, dressed and driven
the 12 miles of dirt road to get to the portion of the trail we chose to start
on. The entire loop features three major climbs, and we thought it best to get
the biggest out of the way early. That meant we started out ride, and our watches,
at the lowest point of the loop: Mineral bottom. The air was already warm as
we rode up the Horsethief Trail and back towards Hwy 313 that would take us
into the Park. Alex Schaffer, a member of the US Alpine Ski Team, had agreed
to drive a support vehicle for us. With such high temperatures expected, this
was going to prove absolutely necessary.

Going up… looking back down after our first major climb

Since the first 25 miles were on well-graded dirt roads and a paved highway,
they passed quite quickly. Cory, who had just finished a 61-hour adventure race
earlier in the week, spent the time adjusting to his heavier-than-average rental
bike, and becoming reacquainted with the feeling of spending the better part
of a day on a mountain bike. The rest of us were feeling fresh enough to get
an echelon going along the highway, establishing a trend of riding just a little
faster than we had expected to. We dropped down the switchbacks of the Schafer
Trail and before long we were on the part of the trail that gives the trail
its name.

By the time we had ridden over three and a half hours, we had yet to meet up
with out support car. There was a little confusion about how closely the car
should follow the group of riders, and this problem was compounded by the fact
that we were riding at close to a car’s top speed over this kind of terrain.
We were basically out-running our support. The key to insanely long workouts,
especially in heat, is to drink early and often. We needed to take in fluids
and food before we felt we needed them, just like you would in a ski marathon.
We knew this but we didn’t really want to stop riding and wait, and there was even less
interest in turning around to ride back to the car, so we just kept going.

At one point we stopped to get everyone a chance to group up, Lara rolled up–bouncing on her fork. It had frozen on her and she was trying to loosen it up.
It just took a quick fix, but as Nathan asked her about it we learned that it
had been frozen all morning! Readers who have been on the Schafer trail can
appreciate how punishing that descent would be on a rigid fork.

Looking down the Shafer trail descent. That thin line on the valley floor is
where we were headed.

The car did catch up to us at about four hours, and we loaded up on water, energy
drink, pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bagels, fun-size candy bars
and yogurt. (I had stashed a Hostess fruit pie calorie-bomb for later in the
day, but didn’t remember it until the next morning). We lingered a little,
but looking back it seemed like more of a grab and go. As we pedaled on I discovered
that a plain bagel, held for a few minutes in a sweat-caked glove, tastes a
lot like a soft pretzel.

The White Rim trail rolls a little, but for the most part it remains fairly flat as it
meanders along the rim of white sandstone that sits above the river bottoms
hundred of feet below. From time to time, we would stop briefly to check out
a natural arch, or marvel at the precipitous drops straight down to the river.
But for the most part, we just rode. There were a perhaps six to ten other groups
out there that same day, and we might say 'hi' as we rode past. After about
seven hours of riding, we stopped to let the support vehicle catch up to us
again. We were still managing to out-pace the top speeds of a 4WD car on the
same terrain, and I began to feel the effects of the energy drain.

Andrew (left) and Nathan

Once the car got to the point where we were waiting, at the top of Hogback hill,
we learned that Alex and Terry had been wrestling with their own problems. Gallon
jugs of water had exploded from all of the jostling and filled the ski box on
top of the car. There had also been a couple of close calls over some sections
of the trail what clearly put Subaru’s claim of building all-terrain vehicles
to the test. Alex later said that years of studying race courses and having
to make split second decisions about traction on snow had served her pretty
well when it came to four-wheeling. I doubt any of us would have had the same

We rummaged about in the car’s stash of food, but without the same enthusiasm
as before. Although I downed a few bottles of energy drink, the dehydration
I was experiencing had all but killed my appetite and I was eating solely out
of either obligation or the notion that I knew I should be hungry. We quickly applied
some chain lube and dropped down the backside of Hogback Hill. Only one major
climb remained, and we figured we were about 25 miles from the end of the loop.
Nathan, Scott, Andrew and I rode in a fast-paced group along the flatter sections,
but it was that last climb – Hardscrabble Hill – that proved to
be my undoing. Shortly before we hit the ascent the sun popped out from behind
the clouds and really beat down on us. I fell off the pace, and we all ended
up climbing Hardscrabble on our own. What energy reserves we had left were milked
out as that damn climb went up and up. The descent and the last five to seven
miles could best be described as a death march.

The support vehicle caught up to us again, just as we finished the loop in somewhere
between nine and nine and a half hours. We drove into town, returned the rental
bike, and went over to the soft green grass in Moab’s City Park to fall
asleep. Nathan, despite leading the charge for most of the ride, was 'shattered'
(as he put it) enough to go to the hospital for an IV. The rest of us were also
exhausted, but a nice cold smoothie did the trick to get us feeling better.
On the drive back into town, Cory did some quick calculations and determined
that he had trained over 70 hours in the course of one week. At this rate, he
will have the most obscene totals any training log has ever seen!

Licking our wounds at the end of a long day


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