Sunday, April 1, 2012

Farmington Canyon Bike-a-Ski, March 31, 2012

Rice Creek drainage from just above the Cabin.

Beavers have been busy the last few years. I counted eight ponds on lower Rice Creek.

Big legs. Not good for running, cycling, or fitting ski boots, but it hasn't stopped me yet.

Rice Bowl.

Mudd Bowl. In a normal year the brush is covered.

Mudd/Rice divide.

Upper Rice Bowl.


Zoomed view of upper Rice from the cabin.

Farmington Canyon Bike-a-Ski. March 31, 2012

The ski season is winding down early, March acting like a dry May, a bad ending to a stuttering winter.  With the current heat wave I knew I had to act fast if I wanted to ski Farmington Canyon.

Due to a minor washout, the road up the canyon has been closed since June. I’ve skied Farmington Canyon for decades and didn’t want to break that chain due to a minor issue such as no automobile access, so I’ve been scheming all winter to ride my mountain bike up to the sheriffs cabin (7 miles, 2200 ft. gain) then skin to the top of Rice Bowl (another 1.5 miles and another 2000 ft. gain). A big day for a 50-something, fat-accountant. The plan was to hit it in mid to late April, thinking the road would be clear of snow by then, but with no snow to speak of since February, and a major heat wave this week, the realization hit that I best not wait too long. Other than the heat and no refreeze of the snow pack, I reasoned it was now or never. I’d curtail the risk of slides by ‘billy-goating’ the fall line and ski lessor angles. Going solo requires thoughtful choices.    

The road has been closed since last June when the heavy weather of 2011 caused a steep slope to slough off onto the road. The Forest Service said they had no funds to repair the road, with estimates coming in around a million dollars, so they close the road. The FAA employees have been flown to Francis Peak ever since. Pricey, on all fronts. So yesterday while riding my mountain bike up the road I finally get a first-hand view of the damage. The ‘slide’ is just above the second switchback, about 1.5 miles above the turn-off to Farmington Pond. The damage consists of a 100 foot section of road partially buried with debris. Of that roughly two-thirds of the road width is covered with one to three feet deep with dirt and rocks (100 X 5 X 3). The outer edge is mostly untouched allowing easy passage for foot and bike traffic. I came, I saw and I’m shocked at the insignificance. A million dollar fix? I’m scratching my head on this one. To me it looked like a Boy Scout Eagle Project. A gang of 20 or 30 eager scouts with picks and shovels could repair the damage in less than a day. With a backhoe it could be done in several hours. What am I missing?       

Back on point, riding a mountain bike up Farmington Canyon is not a big deal, but loaded down with ski gear, and the fact I haven’t been on my bike since November, it was tougher than expected. To conserve strength for the skin/ski portion I didn’t push too hard on the bike, letting my heart rate be the guide. If I approached an anaerobic level, recognizable from years of trail running and B.C. skiing, I’d throw it into granny gear and spin until no longer gassed, then shift up and pound it until gasping. My biker friends may scoff at the granny gear thing, but then they’re not B.C. skiers either. Really just Neanderthals in biker shorts. Above the second switchback the angle lessens and it's an easy ride, aerobically speaking, all the way to the cabin, or at least until the road was pinched off with snow. Snow was first encountered at Sunset Campground and the road completely covered about a quarter mile below the sheriff’s cabin, so I walked the bike through 24 inches of unsupportable snow that last quarter mile.  The bike was stashed in the trees near the cabin and I wade the creek in my cycling shoes, they were already soaked from tramping through snow, and transitioned to skis, only to realize I left my GPS strapped to the bike so re-forded the stream. Although fast moving from snowmelt, the cold water felt good on my tired legs, like a shot of adrenalin just when needed.

Above the cabin lies Rice Creek, and the Rice Creek headwall, or Rice Bowl as we call it.  The summit is about 1.5 miles and 2,000 vertical feet above. The skinning was easy on supportable wet snow, like sloppy corn down low and idiot-proof corn up high. In the shadows, in stands of Douglas Fir, the snow was crusty, defying the 60 degree temperature. Me? I felt surprisingly energetic, considering I’d just ridden my bike for the first time in five months, up a semi-steep road for 7 miles with a healthy elevation gain. Lack of energy was not the problem. The problem was my old foe of muscle cramps, something I’ve battled for years. My snake oil cure is NUUN water treatment tablets; Pistachios (salt and protein) proceeded by a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs. Unfortunately I ignored my own advice, ate a Pop Tart for breakfast and forgot my Pistachios. I did have my NUUN, but only a Snickers and a Cliff Bar for calories. I started cramping halfway to the summit and starting downing my water as fast as my stomach could take it.  Massaging helped, using the bar of my ski pole to rub hard over my cramping quads, trying to force out the lactic acid, but painful all the way to the top.

I’ve skied Farmington Canyon for years and it’s always accompanied by the drone of snowmobiles or, when spring arrives, the whine of four-wheelers on the road. Today I was totally alone. Riding up the canyon I saw no one. For my slow pace I expected to be passed by the hard-men/women bikers who frequent the canyon, but I didn’t see a soul during the ascent. Now, on the skin up to the peak, I could hear nothing but the wind. I ski alone, a lot, and I’m used to going solo, a lot, something that seems to renew my souls after days of way too much humanity in the trenches of my professional life, but today the mood carried an odd apocalyptic feeling for the lack of humanity. When you expect to see others but don’t, nor hear the belching of snowmobiles, it just seems weird or out of character. Further, on the snow I saw no tracks of snow-machines, nor skis, only that of a coyote and a Ptarmigan. It brought to mind scenes from McCarthy’s great book The Road; signs of humanity all around (roads, cabin, antennae’s), but no one in sight. I like the second part of that statement, probably too much.

So cramping and daydreaming about isolation and solitude in a lost world, I top out on a sunny but windy peak, sitting on the spine if the Wasatch Mountains, overlooking the Great Basin to the west, and to the north, my bike 2,000 feet below, and the sunny south face of Francis Peak nearly free of snow on this last day of March. While I feel strong, I am worried about my cramping legs, worried about the pain and wondering if I can ski the wet snow back to my bike. But as I push off, and feel that old, familiar sensation of carving turns on great corn, the pain vanishes and I’m in robot mode, cranking turn after turn, feeling the euphoria that only skiing a well–earned slope can bring. I have no doubt, if Orville and Wilber Wright made it to heaven, they are not flying, they are skiing.

The 2,000 vertical goes fast and soon I’m back down, with only one bit of drama, almost falling into an open beaver pond while trying to traverse a steep slope just above, the wet snow collapsing as I ski a few feet above the water. Luckily a hard crust underneath barely catches my edge.

At the creek I transition back to cycling gear and wade across to the bike, tie on skis and push the bike back through snow up to the road. On the road it’s more pushing through snow, interspersed with riding a bare ribbon of dry ground on the extreme southern edge, a scary ride due to the steep drop-off to the left with tires just inches from disaster. Where the snow ends and dry earth begins I see the first human I’ve seen all day: a young, decked-out biker ‘dude’ stopped at the highest bare spot on the road. He says he’s a mountain bike racer in training, that he rides the canyon as high as the snow permits, two times every Saturday. He takes off and I follow. He disappears around the first bend, but at the next curve he has stopped to talk to two more bikers. I wave as I fly by, wanting to be down and done so I pedal hard. A strong up-canyon wind blasts me as I round each outside bend, catching my fat skis like a sail and pushing me sideways, nearly stopping my descent in its tracks several times.  Pedaling downhill was tough on those outside corners. I expect ‘biker dude’ to pass me at any moment, but I don’t see him until I’m back at the truck. I’m no downhiller, especially while straddling skis and carrying way too much gear, but I suspect this dude was really no racer.

A great day in the Wasatch. Farmington Canyon never disappoints. I hope they never fix that road.

Bike - from Farmingotn Pond to cabin: 7 miles, 2,331 foot vertical rise.
Ski - from cabin to summit of Rice Bowl, 2 miles, 2,000 foot vertical rise.
(Video posted on Facebook.)



  1. Excellent day. I think you would have been distracted if you would have brought a senior citizen along...

  2. You're in much better shape than you think. If I can do it you certainly could. I'm game for another go if your interested, or Cold Fusion, or Timp East Ridge, or . . . .