Monday, February 8, 2010

Big Adventure Out North

As we at dinner at the picnic table in our campsite in Catalina State Park Sunday, Gary and I discussed strategy. Weather was our nemesis. We clearly had a blue chip weather day coming for Monday, and Tuesday also looked promising. Wednesday's weather was a question mark.

The ride that we had been planning to do with AdventureLee, the Ripsey Section of the Arizona Trail, was the must-do ride that neither of us wanted to miss on this visit to southern AZ. We were hoping to ride Tuesday with Lee, and ideally we would have gone together up to Kelvin, AZ that day. But Lee told me that he really couldn't afford the time to go all the way up there again.

We decided that we really should go up there and ride it. We should get up in the morning, load up our stuff, and then drive up there. We would ride the ride then camp where we finish. We figured that we would drive up to Kelvin, where we were going to meet Lee, and do the loop he was going to lead us around.

Lee was going to send us the GPX for that loop. And I also had a GPS track from the AES site for the Antelope Peak Challenge, where a new option for the 2010 ride went north from Antelope Peak to the Ripsey Section, then looped back using the Florence-Kelvin Highway, a graded gravel road. Chad called me that night and I told him what we had planned. When I asked him how we should do the ride, he said we should just go out to Antelope Peak on the Freeman Road and do the ride as a lollipop just as the APC had done in January. So in the morning, that was the idea I pitched to Gary.

We stopped at the Catalina, AZ library on our way north, got some GPX info, looked at Mapquest to see how we wanted to get up there, and then got going. Chad had recommended that we just take the Willow Springs Road north to the Freeman Road, but we saw that following highway 77 north to a place called Dudleyville could get up pretty close on pavement, then we could pick up the Freeman Road and head west to Antelope Peak. We stopped in Oracle, AZ to drop off Valentine's Day cards for our sweeties at the postoffice.

It was a pretty short drive to Dudleyville, and when we got close we started slowing down for each possible left turn to look for a sign saying "Freeman Road". Lots of the intersections were not marked, and none were what we wanted, so after we started leaving Dudleyville behind, we went back to the only gas station/convenience store there to ask directions.

Inside there was only one employee, a woman probably in her mid-3o's. I asked her if she could tell me how to get to the Freeman Road. Her eyebrows went up and her expression became strained. She blew out a deep breath and said something like, "Oh boy, I don't know exactly what to tell you. This is going to be kinda hard."

"You don't know where it is?" I asked.

"Well, it's hard to find, and they're trying to close it. It's them conservationists. They want to close it down to us. Guess there's some kind of bird up there."

"But there are people up there all the time, ranchers and gas line workers, aren't there?" I asked.

"Well yeah, there's people that live up there, and they probably don't want you up there either. Be careful if you go, you might find stuff in the road."

I pictured things like sharpened rebar. "So there might be pieces of metal or something?" I asked.

"Or road closed signs." She said knowingly.

"Well, I think we'll take our chances if you'll tell us how to find it."

She blew out another breath and then gave us directions, turn at the old crusher, cross the San Pedro River (about a foot deep, no bridge) then follow the railroad tracks...

We headed out, saw a road crew working across the river from our crossing, and Gary got some more complete directions from them. And we were on our way.

The conversation with the woman at the convenience store was a bit of amusement, but in retrospect I regret not following Chad's advice. I think it would have been a more direct way to just get there without all the farting around.

We drove south on the side road that goes to the foot of Antelope Peak and found a place to car camp. Then we set about starting on our journey. We had burned a fair amount of the day. It was getting close to noon. Chad had said the lollipop was a 7 hour trip. And those are 7 Chad hours. Gary is faster than I am, but he would probably be forced by good manners to take as long as I would take to finish. And that would most likely be more than 7 hours, assuming no mechanicals or vomiting from too much exertion.

Basically, it was pretty much a sure thing that we would finish in darkness. We attached lights. I looked for my Oakley M-Frame clear lenses. I have prescription lenses. As I like to tell people "I don't really need these glasses. Unless I want to be able to see." I looked and looked. I started looking in places where I had already looked. After half a week of living out of the truck, things were a little cluttered. I burned too much time looking for the damn things, and finally took a spare set of regular inside glasses I keep in the truck that stay on my face fairly well. Food, warm clothes, plenty of water. I had some trouble getting my hydration pack to zip closed.

At something like 12:30 we rolled. Gary had his GPS bar mounted (my bar mount sucks a$$ so my GPS was in a backpack side pocket). Gary was new to GPS navigation, so this was a pretty good exercise for him.

I've ridden the Boulders section of the AZT several times. It's fun and flowy, and it rolls out into desert that is more and more remote. The Freeman Road travels through some pretty remote country, but once you head north from there you're really getting out into it.

Very soon, the feeling of being rushed to get going passed and we were just out there. Yep, it was going to get dark before we finished. We had enough food, clothing, etc. Might as well stop and take some pictures.

My camera, did I pack it in the stuffed "no room for anything more" backpack?? I looked. Nope. All the pictures would have to come from Gary's camera.

We progressed through the Boulders section, past the namesake boulders, then beyond any of this AZT section I had ever seen. New frontier. There were a couple sections of powerline service road, with the standard man-eater erosion ruts and v-bottom crossings. Then there were some sections of singletrack that were completely faint, mixed in with cowpaths. I told Gary, in some of those places I think trailbuilding was really just a process of gathering rocks to stack into cairns. The recent rainfall had obliterated most of any tracks other than a horseback rider. Gary and I made note of this, and both wanted to be through this bit before it got dark enough to make route-finding tough. Turns out that we did do that, make it past this area while there was still ambient light, but just barely.

At some point we passed a sign that said "Ripsey Hill Section of the Arizona Trail". As we continued, things got pretty damned cool. There was so much. The single word that I think both of us agreed summed it up: spectacular. I'll let the pictures tell some of this:

We dropped off the high ridge down a series of tight switchbacks. It was really an elevator ride down. Then the trail dumped us out onto a jeep road. We gave up another couple hundred feet of elevation and then arrived at the intersection with the Florence-Kelvin Highway. If there had been more time, it might have been fun to go check out the Gila River just a little way down the road to the north. But we were burning daylight, and it was time to make the return.

From here, the GPX file became more than valuable. We used Gary's GPS to find the right turn off the dirt road onto a doubletrack, and we used it actually to select the correct doubletrack of the two that branched off from that turn. There were countless forks in the doubletrack after that, and we were not on the AZT so there was no expectation of signage. When we did rejoin the AZT, we encountered forks that were not signed as well. Some we remembered because by then we were tracing our track back. But some were a mystery. A map would not have been helpful. There was simply too much detail, and it would have taken too much map-reading time.

The sun went below the horizon about the time that we got back onto the AZT and our outbound route. The sky was beautiful, but we were both anxious to get past the hard-to-follow sections while we were still in twilight.

By the time full darkness fell, we were pretty much back to singletrack AZT. Now it was just time to plug away at the miles to get back to camp where we could eat and go to sleep.

The Boulders section just feels really flowy on your way to the north from the Freeman Road. And that's because it's just slightly downhill all the way. On the way back to the Freeman Road, it's slightly uphill all the way. That's just how this stuff works.

Our starting point was actually the highest point on the whole ride, as you can see from the elevation profile:

It seemed like it took forever. My legs were really getting tired. I love night riding, but it's a lot more fun when you aren't feeling trashed.

But we got done. And we ate food, and with almost no conversation or sitting around, we went off to sleep.

53.25 miles
A little over 7 hours moving time
A little over 8.5 hours elapsed time
Total Climbing: 6643 ft (is that all?!?)


ScottM said...

Always love to read and see people riding the far our reaches of the AZT.

Glad you guys got to experience Ripsey, and in epic fashion, which is pretty much the only way it can go.

Keep it comin'.

Ed said...

I can't believe you decided to try and "improve" upon a local's (Chad's) route instructions...bad Tom!

JJ and I were looking up at all the hills as we drove along 77 on the way home on Monday. We were thinking there had to be trails up there.

Nice pics, nice ride!


Gary B. said...

Nice Tom! You remember all the details really well, thanks for taking me back.

I had to laugh as you described the lady in the gas station. Weird.

I really (!!!) want to ride out in this area more...and right now wouldn't be too soon.