Saturday, April 18, 2015

Easter part 2: Aggressive alpine skiing

This is part two in my series about ski touring during Easter vacation. Read part 1 here.
Our friends Sigmund, Andreas and Ken Roger arrived Monday evening, stoked off a long day of touring 1800 vertical meters of Skålåtårnet. The snow, apparently, had been atrocious. Score for Sogndal! I thought. We were in the right place with the right conditions and the right weather - a combo that doesn’t often happen.
It took a long session of consulting maps and guidebooks to decide our goal for the next day. Not knowing the area very well, the shear number of possibilities was overwhelming. In the end, we settled one of the self-proclaimed classics, Frudalshesten. Due to the low avalanche danger and our suspicion that the snow would be better on the other side of the mountain, we decided to take a back route up the mountain.

Frudalshesten start
At the base of Frudalshesten. Photo by Zoe
There were a lot of cars at the parking lot, but luckily everyone headed for the main route up Frudalshesten. Our route (up Tverrelvdalen) had us first bushwacking through saplings, then traversing across a steep avalanche debris zone.
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Zoe and Kenny crossing the avalanche debris.
We spread out to cross the avalanche slope, although it was clear that the debris had fallen from above, and it was too early in day for more to come. Skinning alone made me feel apprehensive. I hate steep traverses. I tried to focus on the skin tracks in front of me, and not to look down to my side. Every time I did, I start to imagine sliding. Not good!
The top of this first steep pitch felt like the entrance to a hidden valley. We were alone in a untouched landscape of appealing snow.
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Sigmund, Andreas and Audun enjoy the view
As we continued upward, the hidden valley transformed into a baking oven. The snow reflected the bright spring sunlight off all of the steep faces and onto to us. It was HOT!
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Gotta love spring skiing!
The large face below Frudalshesten offered numerous possibilities for descent. We scanned possible routes on the way up, until Sigmund found the perfect line. When he pointed it out, I got shivers down my spine. It was just steep enough to make me nervous and excited at the same time. And the snow was perfect, 15 cm of loose powder on a stable layer below.
It started clouding over as we approached the summit, and to our dismay a group of skiiers appeared above us. They had taken the normal route up - would they steal our perfect line on the way down? They hadn’t had the time we had to inspect possible lines, so they just followed our skin track up the least steep part of the face. HA! The perfect line would be ours on the way down.
Frudalshesten climb
Climbing in the other skier’s tracks. Photo by Zoe.
There was a stiff breeze on the summit, so we changed quickly and headed down. Unfortunately, the light was really flat at this point, but the snow was good enough to have us whooping down the first section, until we reached the top of the steep gully formation that was our Perfect Line.
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Summit photo!
Audun went first, and reported back on his walkie-talkie: “I couldn’t see anything… I think it was pretty steep a the end though!” The rest of the boys went, one by one, and finally it was my turn. If Audun said it was pretty steep, it must be really steep, I thought, my stomach clenching. Even if the visibility wasn’t, the conditions were all one could ask for. I charged down the slope, feeling fabulous and following the other’s tracks. I kept wondering if there would be a cliff, if it would become scary steep. But it never did, and so I flew down the slow, exhilarated. 
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Kenny charging into the gully
We got backed to the campsite relatively early, and had time to swim in the fjord (yes, we don’t care how cold it is!) before making a gigantic burger supper. It was during this evening that the song Aggressive alpine skiing was introduced, and promptly became the theme song for whole trip. I would definitely recommend listening to this song as you read the rest of the post.
Badings
Andreas, Kenny and Sigmund post-swim. Picture from Sigmund’s camera. 
The next day, we decided to try one of the less famous peaks, Skjerdingane, in the same region as Frudalshesten. It was a grey day, but the weather forecast claimed that good weather was one the way. Ominously, we were the only car at the big parking lot, the same that had been full the day before. “Oh well,” we said to one another, “Guess nobody else read the weather forecast as carefully as we did."
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Skinning into Frudalen in so-so weather.
There was new snow on the ground and more in the air as we slogged up the gently valley. I caught glimpses of towering rock around us, but the tops of the peaks were shrouded in thick fog. It doesn’t look like this weather is going to pass, I thought, pulling on my hood and clinching it around my face. As we reached the first steep pitch up the mountain, I started to feel uncomfortable with the whole situation. After, we couldn’t see what was around us - what if the steep valley walls decided to avalanche?
The wind was blowing, slowly compacting the new snow into a loose, cohesive layer. This was a bad development in the avalanche danger situation. We stopped and I voiced my concerns. “Why don’t we go ski something in the trees, something where it doesn’t matter so much that there’s low visibility?"
Audun and Sigmund insisted that yr.no must be right, and that the weather would clear off any minute now. We waited, slurping hot drinks from our thermoses, and a gap in the clouds did form in the peaks above us, just giving a glimpse of the top of the mountain we aspired to climb. It was a beautiful, sharp peak, and seeing the top made me want to gain it.
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Sigmund and Audun below Skjerdingane
We continued climbing for a little ways, hoping it would clear off even more, but it never did. In the end, we decided the pitch to the summit ridge, which involved climbing at 40 degree couloir, looked too sketchy in the newly compacted snow conditions. We turned and got in a few good turns in all the new snow before a long session of double-poling to the car.
Undeterred (it was only 1pm!) we decided to ski up Togga again, and perhaps see if we could continue further along the summit ridge. 
When we set out from the car, I lead the way, and I decided to see how long I could stay in front for. Sigmund especially had been climbing very fast, often leaving me slogging at the back of the pack. I just wanted to be in front for a little while; I wanted to feel fast. Something about my pace must have triggered Sigmund, though, because after a few minutes he shot past me like a rocket. Audun, ever competitive, soon ran after him as well. Well, boys, I thought, Guess I’ll try and join you. And I accelerated as much as one can do with well over 5 kilos of ski equipment on one’s legs.
I could not keep their pace. I went at the limit of my speed, hoping that I could at least keep them in the sight, but they were sprinting up the hill. Finally, gasping for breath, I gave up and sat down, defeated. Kenny, Andreas and Zoe came along and picked up my shattered pieces. Then we headed up the hill together, to where Sigmund and Audun were waiting, far ahead.
Above treeline, the wind pick up, and it became clear that we were on a divide between two weather fronts. On one side was sun and blue sky; on the other was fog and wind. I shot a panorama, trying to capture it:
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Weather divide - so cool!
We reached the first top of Togga and decided to turn, think that enough was enough with wind and bad weather.
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Audun and I on top of Togga. 
The next day, the weather was much better, and we decided on Sogndalseggi, which gaves us the possibility to choose between 3 different tops. The ski started with a slog on cross-country trails into Anestølen. Shortly after, Zoe informed us that here blisters were too much and that she would go back to the car and relax. I kind of envied her; I was starting to get tired after 4 mountains in 4 days!
Although the sun was shining, there were intermittent clouds along the ridge of Sogndalseggi. As we later learned, the massif had formed another weather divide, with sun on the side we were climbing but bad weather on the other. We decided to shoot for the intermediate of the three possible tops, Sogndalseggi 1476 (referring to its height in meters of course). 
We met one other group, headed down as we headed up, and I marvelled at how few people we had seen the last few days. Sogndal is this mecca of ski touring, so I had kind of expected crowds during Easter, especially with the big boom in ski touring in Norway during the last couple years. Whatever, more powder for me!
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Kenny, Audun, Sigmund and Andreas on the climb. Our peak is behind the rocky outcropping to the left.
The climb to Sogndalseggi was long but uneventful, with exception of the final pitch to the top. The slope grew steep, and with all the new, heavy pow, we split up across the slope for safety.
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Audun and Sigmund, with the top just above them.
Sigmund was breaking tracks and he made it look hard, something he doesn’t usually do. There was a lot of new snow, and it was heavy! The slope was stable though, even if the trail breaking was hard. The wind was blowing hard enough to make conversation difficult on top, and we quickly peeled off our skins and put on our helmets. It was time for the main event.
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Sigmund and Audun on top. Not so much view.
The visibility on the ski down made it tricky, and unfortunately the snow, however plentiful, was not super forgiviing.. I got frustrated as I kept catching my back ski under the heavy snow and falling as though in slow motion. Others, however, had more fun:
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Sigmund in action
I’ll let Kenny’s video speak for the rest of this ski down. If you didn’t listen to Aggressive alpine skiing earlier, you can’t avoid it now!

video
With several amazing days in Sogndal, we headed north, towards Sunnmøre. But that’s story for another post!
- The Wild Bazilchuk
P.S. For anyone planning a trip/for you map geeks out there, here’s a map with all the tours mention in this post drawn in:
Sogndalsdalen
Key: Red: Frudalshesten, Blue: attempt on Skerdingane (up to the point we turned approximately), Yellow: Togga, Purple: Sogndalseggi 1476

Friday, April 10, 2015

Easter part 1: This is awesome

As Zoe, Audun and I sat cross-legged eating our breakfasts outside the tents, the stoke was low. We had spent eight hours driving the day before, headed for the promise land of backcountry skiing: Sogndal. And here we were, quietly crunching müsli in a dismal drizzle. All I wanted to do was crawl back into my tent and wait for sunshine and pow.

But it was the second day Easter vacation, and the first had been spent in the car - it was time to ski. So we packed up the car and drove up to the mountains. Magically, only a few hundred vertical meters above Sogndal, the rain turned into snow, steadily driving into high snowbanks along the side of the road. Then the snow stopped, and the sky cleared. It felt like a omen of good things to come: there would be pow and sunshine a plenty for those who went to the mountains.

It was warm out and we quickly overheated as we climbed up the forested slope of Togga, sweating in our heavy plastic ski boots.

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Zoe ascending Togga

Togga is a relatively modest mountain compared to the surrounding peaks. The top at 1205 meters is really just the start of a ridgeline that arcs several hundred meters higher. I had a hard week of marathon training still heavy in my legs, and so I was glad that the top came so quickly.

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Me, Audun and Zoe on Togga

The ski down was as steep as the climb up, and there was good fun to be had in the slush through the forest.

 Togga telemark

Photo by Zoe, awesome telemark style by me

The weather forecast for next day was better, and so we set our sights on a larger goal: Hest (which means Horse, although I didn’t see how the peak resemble a horse) in Jostedalen. We rendezvoused with another group of friends and set out into the bright, blue morning. 

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Zoe with the ridgeline of Hest in the background. I drew in the route we ended up taking. Green for climbing and red for descending.

Old ski tracks followed a summer road up to a large dam at the base of the mountain. The tracks were crusty and hardened from the night’s frost. I hoped that the sun would soften up the snow, or we were in for a rough ski down. 

As we skinned up to treeline, I heard Audun and Øyvind talking about skiing straight down the steep-looking ridgeline from the top. The route was described in our guidebook as wind crusted during the winter, but a nice descent in the spring. At the end of March in Norway, it’s hard to tell whether a spring or winter description would likely apply. I hoped it would be the former.

Several members of our group were cross-country skiiers, and they sprinted up the hill like they were racing the Birkebeiner. Soon we were spread out up the slope, climbing in the increasingly dry and light snow. It was… dare I say… powder and sunshine again!

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Climbing up to the saddle, the snow was already drier at treeline.

Just below the saddle leading to the main ridge up to Hest, we stopped to regroup. Zoe was lagging, and informed us that her ski boots, after several years of excellent service, had decided to give her blisters. Awesome! She and another guy, Kristoff, opted to head for the smaller top of Grøndalseggi, taking this incredible picture on the way:

Cornice grøndalseggi

Cornice on Grøndalseggi, photo by Zoe

The rest of us slogged along the undulating ridge towards Hest i swirling mists. I couldn’t help but wonder if we would be able to see the slope straight off the top that we had purposed to ski. And would the snow be the same powder we had skinned up in, or the icy windpack we occasionally hit along the ridge?

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Eirik comes out of the mist

The last pitch to the top was very steep and slanting off into nothingness in the valley below. We put our skis on our backs, even though we met two women on the way down who had said that the visibility was too low to ski straight off the top. They had turned around for the long slog along the ridge.

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Booting it to the top of Hest. Don’t fall!

The snow on the last section was icy and loose, and it would be harder to get down that section safely than it was to climb up. I nervously hoped that the clouds would lift. We kept seeing gaps of sunlight in the clouds - the mist wasn’t that heavy!

When we reached the top, the clouds lifted just enough to tantalize us with the line straight down from the top, but not enough to see all the way down to the valley. It was unanimously decided that we would ski straight down from the top. The first section was broad, and I could arc big turns. But the ridge grew smaller, perhaps only 10 meters wide at one point, with a larger cornice on the left, forcing me to straight line as much as possible. Luckily, this was just a short section and the ridge was covered in really good, loose snow. 

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Øyvind comes out of the clouds off the top.

The clouds opened up as we descended and we were rewarded with sunshine and powder again.

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The Audunbird flies again.

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Looking back at our tracks. Stoked!

After the initial descent, we climbed back up to our uphill tracks to get even more turns in on this beautiful day. Could it be topped? We would see when my friends Sigmund, Andreas and Ken Roger (of this blog post) arrived...

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ski Optimism

It’s hard when your sitting in the city, watching the rain pour down outside, to decide whether that 4 hour drive to the mountains will be worth it. Will there really be snow there? Or are the powder day pictures on your Facebook feed all an illusion?

Inevitably, curiosity wins over laziness, and I find myself in a car for my whole Friday evening again, crossing my fingers and hoping.

In early February, Audun and I met our friends Vibeke and David in Isfjorden, Romsdalen, one of my hands-down favorite places in the world for ski mountaineering. Audun and I rolled in to agreed-upon campsite in Grøvdalen late and set up camp. Vibeke and David, driving up from Oslo, rolled in even later even later. Saturday morning dawned grey and misty, and my optimism dwindled. We got a slow start, so by the time we rolled into the parking lot the weather had started to clear off. 

I changed into my boots, packed up the last bits of my pack, and got ready to click into my skis and settle into a steady, uphill rhythm. That was when I realized that the store had put the wrong size of my new NTN bindings on my skis. The bindings were hopelessly large; there was no way I could use my skis. I was, to say the least, devastated. Not only had we driven 5 hours to Romsdalen, but I had been looking forward to using my new boots and bindings since I bought them in early January!

Luck was on my side. David had just purchased new skis, but had brought his old skis just in case something was wrong with the new ones. A complicated exchange ensued, and I wound up borrowing Audun’s enormous Icelantic Keepers, which are nearly 30 cm longer than my skis (Icelantic Nomad). His boots were two sizes too big, but I put on extra socks. I would go skiing!

It was nearly lunch time by the time the ski situation was sorted out and we headed up Galtåtind.

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At the start of the ascent, Store Venjetind reigns supreme in the background.

The snow was surprising light and fluffy as we headed up onto the main face of Galtåtind. The shy February sunlight radiated from across the valley, illuminating the surrounding mountains. That feeling of being a tiny ant-skier, climbing among spiky mountains, was enough to make the long drive worth it.

Due to our late start, we arrived on top of Galtåtind in the late afternoon, and discarded the original idea of doing a traverse across the ridge to Loftskardtind.

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Audun, David and Vibeke on the top of Galtåtind, the ridge to Loftskardtind on the left and Klauva on the right.

The descent wasn’t too shabby either, although I struggled with cramps from the too big, aggressive boots.

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David enjoying the view.

We spent a magical evening in our little tent camp in Grøvdalen, digging a nice snow pit to sit in, attempting (and failing!) to build a campfire with ridiculously wet wood and cooking the best pasta ever. All food tastes better when eaten under in the stars. Evening snow forced us into our tents early, and I slept like a log for nearly 12 hours.

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Campsite cooking - the smoke in the headlamps is steam from the boiling pasta!

The sun rose pink the next morning, illuminating the massive slope up towards Gjuratind behind our camp.

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Audun packing up in the sunrise. Which isn’t super early in February in Norway.

We rounded off the weekend with a windy ski up Smørbotntind, a Sunday classic because of its short, fairly uncomplicated nature.

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Thank you, Romsdalen. I’ll be seeing you again.

Ski optimism struck again when we drove to Øksendalen a few weeks ago. Hurricane Ole had passed through Norway, dumping a bunch of wet snow everywhere before the temperature abruptly rose to well above freezing (seriously, I was out cross-country skiing Sunday at the tail end of Ole, when the temperature transitioned from around -5 C to +5 C in the space of the two hours we were out!). Enormous wet avalanches had been triggered by the weather, although the avalanche danger had decreased as the weather cooled off again. 

Still, we expected to be skiing on hard packed ice. We clung to the hope that the (hopefully not too) light snowfall on Thursday and Friday would soften the conditions slightly. The weather forecast, after all, was for beautiful, sunny weather, so even if the conditions were crappy we could enjoy the sun! 

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Unpacking the car

Audun, Dad, Odd Arild (Audun’s dad) and I headed up Fløtatind at around 10 am Saturday morning after an hour drive from Tingvoll. The snow was rotten and non-existent in certain places through the forest, and we had to take our skis off for a couple river crossings.

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Exhibit A: crossing a river. Can this really be winter in Norway?

As we passed above treeline, we started to get the conditions we had prayed for. The hard layer formed during the thaw cycle wasn’t all ice, and there was 10 cm of fluffy new snow on top. The weather seemed to be determined to do the exact opposite of what the forecast had told it to. The clouds came in, it started snowing, and we could barely see the mountains around us. So much for soaking in the sun!

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Dad on the ascent, clouds shrouding the mountains and Øksendalen spread out below us.

When we came on to the main face of the peak, the light was so bad we couldn’t judge the steepness of the slope, and we ended up on a steeper aspect than we intended to. On this face, the fresh snow was slipping a bit on the icy hard pack below, making it difficult to pack down a good skin track. After a quick discussion, Odd Arild decided to turn, while Audun, Dad and I strapped our skis on our packs, stepped into our crampons, and headed straight up.

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Audun booting up towards the top of Fløtatind

This turned out to be a great decision, and the final hundred-odd meters of vertical just flew by. We reached the base of a steep outcropping of rocks, somewhere on top of which the top must be. There was no obvious way up, and we thought our adventure might end there until we skirted around the outcropping and saw a steep couloir. There was a solid cornice on top of it, but it wasn’t overhanging, and there was a tiny hole to squeeze through on the side. So we got our ice axes out, and went for it.

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Audun between a rock and a cornice, with me in the foreground waiting my turn.

And low and behold! The top was right there! Hilariously, just as we popped up on the ridge, a group of skiers who had been ahead of us all day appeared, booting it up the ridge. They had traversed all the way around, where as we had gone straight up.

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Audun and I with the frozen summit cairn

We descended through our icing hole and back down our couloir like groundhogs, to the amusement of the other group of skiers. And just as we clicked into our skis, the clouds lifted, just a tiny bit. Just enough to make the ski down really, really fun.

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Dad on the descent, the clouds just starting to lift.

 

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Me on the descent.

Below treeline, descent through the forest was all tight, twisty turns on wet snow. As we reached the base of the mountain, a tiny stripe of sunlight appeared on Skrondalsnebba across the valley.

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Thanks, Øksendalen, I thought, I’ll be back.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bikin' USA

Once I finished the John Muir Trail (much more about that here) this summer, I figured that the only way to celebrate 25 days of hiking was to go mountain biking for two weeks. This is the story of those weeks.

It was nighttime - way past JMT bedtime - by the time my boyfriend, Audun, arrived in Mammoth. He had an absolutely heroic drive, picking up the rental car at the airport in San Francisco directly after flying in from Norway with both of our bicycles, and then driving 6 hours to Mammoth through the night Norway time. He is the only person I know who could do that. I had had one day of respite from the JMT, and spent it eating and walking around Mammoth, looking up good bike routes. 

The next morning, me, Audun, Zoe, Mom and Dad went out for an enormous breakfast at the Stove before the rest of the family headed to San Fransisco for the flight home. The Stove's a popular place, so we had to wait in line. The result was that I was super hungry by the time we sat down, and order one of the biggest breakfasts on the menu. I have the appetite of a small wolf, I thought as I tucked in. My stomach was not on board with my brain however, and a half an hour later I had a serious tummy ache that lasted for the rest of the day. I simple wasn’t used to that much rich food after a month on the trail!

Despite the late start, Audun and I got in two laps on the Mammoth Rock Trail, Strava data here.

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The day was hazy, actually smoky, because of the proximity of some forest fires, so we didn’t get the spectacular view of the Sierras we could have had. But Mammoth Rock Trail provided good, mellow, mountain biking fun - the perfect start to the many days of biking our trip would contain.

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Audun under Mammoth Rock

The next day, we forked over 50 bucks for lift tickets, and explored the paradise of the Mammoth Bike Park. Unlike most of bike parks I’ve ridden in, it wasn’t super downhill-oriented. There were even stretches of trail that were meant to be ridden uphill! For once I was happy not to be riding a bike with 200 mm of travel...

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On Juniper Trail (I think)

 

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Audun rides a super-double-black-diamond pro segment, or whatever the rating system called it.

I was also surprised by the rating system for the trails. In Norway, it’s usually just green, blue, red and black. At Mammoth there was no red, but there was black diamond, double black diamond and pro, which made it sound like all of these trails would be really hard. After trying first a blue, then a black diamond, then a double black diamond, I started to feel like the system was a bit inflated.

I was even more surprised to learn I had ridden a ‘pro’ stretch of trail - just a steep ramp at the end of some technical singletrack. The grading was definitely soft in on some trails, but maybe not on this one:

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Audun goes off the big jump.

Luckily there was a chicken run!

We then drove north to Tahoe, hoping to get away from the fire smog and test some legendary trails. In retrospect, Tahoe was our favorite biking of the whole trip. The trails were technical, but graded so that most of the riding was fun uphill as well as down. They climbed up through beautiful forests to sweeping alpine vistas, and were devoid of hikers.

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Headed up to Armstrong Pass the first day in Tahoe.

Our first day in Tahoe, we biked up to Armstrong Pass and over to a challenging downhill trail called Mr Toad’s, Strava data here. I was in a daring mood, and biked down a bunch of technical pitches that I usually would have stopped, inspected and probably chicken out on. Clocking in 1200 vertical meters starting at 2000 meters was a hard day, but we agreed to put in one more day of riding in the marvellous terrain.

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Audun along the alpine meadow above Armstrong Pass

The second day in Tahoe, we biked up to Star Lake and around Freel Pass to Armstrong Pass, and then down the same way we had biked up the first day (Strava data here). Soon after heading out, we had the choice between biking up a trail or a dirt road. Thinking to conserve energy, we opted for the dirt road. This turned out to be a mistake. The road did long, steep rollers with grades of close to 25%. My legs burned, and I only managed to bike the whole road because it flattened out enough occasionally to stop and have a breather.

The riding grew fun when we finally got on a trail, but I was glad when we finally topped out at Star Lake. I was starting to feel our fourth day in a row biking!

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Poising at Star Lake before the obligatory alpine lake skinny dip.
 

The trail continued slightly uphill under Freel Peak, and then headed down in some exposed singletrack to Armstrong Pass. I had to work hard to stay on my bike. Although I wouldn’t have minded narrow trail if I was walking, riding a bike sometimes make feel like I’m perched on a pedestal, about to tip off. Maybe some day it will feel natural!

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The trail final flattens out and I relaxed 

After our last ride in Tahoe, we headed out to drive across Nevada to Utah. We kept looking for a place to eat dinner, hoping to find a charming diner in one of the black-dot towns on our road map. The towns just got smaller and smaller the further we got into Nevada. We finally had to drive past Walker Lake, where we had planned to camp, to go into Hawthorne, which was our last real prayer of finding food. Driving into the tiny town that hosts a military base of some sort, we were both praying for any-any sign of food. We saw the golden arches from the outskirts in town and cheered. I have never been so glad to see a McDonalds. Luckily we didn’t have to eat there, as Hawthorne also hosted a Pizza Factory (we toss ‘em - they’re awesome!)

We pulled into the BLM campsite along Walker Lake well after dark, and spent a fitfull but cheap night there listening to semitrucks blaze down the interstate. In the morning we woke up to a spectacular view of the lake:

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The 3 dollar campsite at Walker Lake.

…but also realized we could have camped further away from the main road and closer to the lake’s shore. Too bad!

We spent the whole next day driving across relentless Nevada, stopping to buy beaf jerky from a talkative guy in Beatty, outside of Death Valley. We pulled through St George, Utah, and stopped just long enough to dig up a mountain bike guide book to the area and some food.

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This is what all of Nevada looks like from a car. I’m not kidding.

We finally reached our destination for the day, Zion National Park, but the park campground was full, so we spent the night at a kitchy B&B in Rockville. The next day would be a rest day from biking, we decided. We would go hiking in the Narrows in Zion. After reading all the information pamphlets that said one must have special canyoneering shoes and a special walking stick to hike in the Narrows, we decided to disregard all of that sage advice and see how far we could get in our Tevas.

Further than most people, it turned out.

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Audun in the Narrows. Note the people correctly outfitted with walking sticks in the background.

The first part of the Narrows was basically a zoo, but if you were willing to hike for longer than 30 minutes you can get past the crowds. Then you can feel the silence of the towering canyon walls that extend hundreds of feet above you. Some people do backpacking trips all the way through the Narrows, but I was happy to just do a day hike. Since you can't see further than the next bend in the river, the whole experience very quickly starts to feel like a trip to nowhere. And if you a person with OK balance and tolerance for semi-cold water, you don’t need fancy canyoneering shoes and a stick.

The next day we decided to get up early to try and beat the heat at Gooseberry Mesa outside of Zion. Of course, this was the day when the alarms we set didn’t go off properly, and I woke up with a start a half an hour after we had planned to get up. We packed up quickly and drove off the Mesa, following the instructions in our handy guidebook. And then the driving became extreme.

The road turned from asphalt to dirt and became deeply rutted and pitted. Still a few miles away from destination, we came to a section of road so steep it took two tries to get up it in our underpowered Ford Compass. This is when we realized why everyone drives pick-ups around here. Our mini-SUV just wasn’t cutting it. But on a hope and a prayer, we made it to the parking lot and were able to indulge in the winding slickrock trails of Gooseberry Mesa (Strava data here).

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Audun enjoys the view of the edge of the Mesa.

The trails were truly disorienting, twisting to and fro until you couldn’t figure out where you had come from or what direction you were looking. Once I got used to the idea that yes, my tires would stick to the slick-in-appearences rock, I had good time.

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Audun rounds another crazy rock formation.

 Although the mesa was a cool place to ride for a day, I decided I like rides where you don’t go round and round in circles, but where you actually get to the top of something.

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Me on the slickrock.

The day heated up quickly, and by 11 o’clock we left the Mesa to drive out to Bryce Canyon. We arrived at the Canyon in time for a nice hike. Again, the goal was to get just a little bit further than most tourists, and if you are willing to hike for more than 30 minutes, you are quickly alone on the trails.

If you’re not familiar with Bryce Canyon, it’s famous for these crazy hoodoos, towering red rock formations that form in alternating frost and thaw cycles:

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Audun and a Hoodoo.

Unfortunately, you’re not allow to ride mountain bikes in National Parks. Luckily for us, our guidebook let us in on an amazing secret. You can bike among the Hoodoos - in Red Canyon just outside the National Park!

If Tahoe was our favorite trails, Red Canyon was the most spectacular (Strava data here). After driving for 20 minutes from the campground at Bryce, we pedalled up a dirt road which quickly became an undulating trail through the forest. The trail swooped in and out of tiny valleys in the landscape, climbing and descending in roller coaster fashion. Finally, the trail climbed a bit more and we could see the hoodoo landscape we had come for. 

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Audun flies past a hoodoo formation.

We saw no one all day, except a group of horse packers. It’s funny how people flock the National Parks, when in this case the National Forest just outside was nearly as spectacular!

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I am a tiny spec on the ridgeline. Check out that landscape!

 After Red Canyon, we made a quick pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon. Next time I go there, I’ll finally get around to doing a Rim-to-Rim. No time on this trip!

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Posing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The next day, we headed back to California, driving through Las Vegas and then into Death Valley. We took one of the back entrances in to Death Valley and drove a long ways through the heat. When we stopped at the Ashford Mill Ruins, it was 114 degrees F, which is basically sauna temperature! 

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I’m so glad we have air conditioning!

We had decided to spend the night in Owens Valley, and settled on Bishop. During the car ride, I was flipping through the guidebook I had bought in Mammoth, and discovered that you could actually bike to the top of Californias third highest mountain, White Mountain Peak (14252 ft or 4344 m). We being the people that we are, we both immediately went: Let’s do THAT!  The only condition was good weather - I didn’t want to be stuck in a thunderstorm at 14000 feet!

Upon gaining internet access at the Hostel California in Bishop (which is, by the way, the BEST place to stay if you are in the area), we discovered that there was virtually no chance of thunderstorms the next day in the forecast. We were at the right place, on the right day - it was on.

We got up early to swing by the grocery store and feasted on the Breakfast of Champions - Egg McMuffins. It was a ways to drive to the trailhead - after all, you can start riding at over 11 000 feet! The road grew increasingly rudimentary as we gained altitude, winding its way up through the ancient bristlecone forest. The ancient bristlecones are some of the oldest trees in the world, and they look like wizened old men. The whole landscape had an enchanted forest feel to it, from the white earth that gives the mountain range its name to the hazy valley far below.

For the last couple of miles, the road grew so narrow and rocky Audun wasn’t sure our poor car could do it. He tried anyway, and everything was going well until the tire pressure light went on. Yes, we had a flat tire at nearly 11 000 feet, 50 miles from the nearest service station. It was not a good moment. We spotted a car a little ways up the road, and decided to go and see if they could help us.

The guy in the car turned out to be this guy - Lloyd, an experienced MTB racer and photographer, out to test some cameras. Used to travelling backroads as he was, he had a patch kit, and we managed to stop the leak in the tire and reinflate it using a bicycle pump. The moment when the tire started holding are again was one of the best moments on the whole trip. We had wasted some time fixing the tire, but still had time to make the top, if the weather held.

Lloyd also decide to join us in biking up White Mountain Peak (something he’s done, from the valley floor, before). Lloyd was an interesting guy, with lots of opinions, especially about National Parks, and a really sweet-looking Moots bike. He regaled us with tales of snow striking on White Mountain Peak in July, and run ins with the Park Service.

The only reason you’re allowed to bike up White Mountain Peak is because it’s exempt from the wilderness zone by virtue of the research station in the area. At the beginning of the climb we rode past the Barcroft research station, which looks like a human settlement on Mars:

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Audun at the Barcroft station

Lloyd was crazy fit. After riding up the first portion with us, he decide to jaunt out ahead so he would have time to test the cameras he was comparing. I had been lagging behind a little, and Audun told me Lloyd thought I couldn’t make it, that the altitude would be too much.

And I was feeling the altitude. I thought I would be acclimatized, it being only a little over a week since I jogged to the top of Mt Whitney. But biking and hiking are two completely different sports, as it turns out, and my quads were consuming enough oxygen to make me seriously dizzy at regular intervals. But I would get to the top, even if I had to push my bike the rest of the stinking way! 

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Headed up White Mountain Peak, the view sprawling tall the way to Nevada.

I did have to push my bike a bunch, but I pedalled everything I possibly could - it was a matter of pride. Audun, damn him, road almost the whole way, only stopping at intervals to catch his breath and wait for me. The ‘road’ grew increasingly rough, steep and technical until it was only slightly flatter than the broken chunks of rock around it. I was hurting, bad, and just wanted to get to the top. All the same, I couldn’t help but enjoy the spectacular day and sweep views of the Owens Valley to the west and Nevada to the east. 

Finally, a little hut appeared above us, the Barcroft Station’s weather station on top, and the final push was upon us. Upon arriving on top, we met a hiker who turned out to be a Norwegian. Small world! 

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On top of White Mountain Peak!

 The top of the descent was rough and difficult, but all rideable. At least there was an excuse to have pushed my bike all of that way - I got a free ride down!

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Enjoying the descent, with White Mountain peak prominent in the background.

White Mountain Peak isn’t a ride I would recommend for the sake of the riding, as the road isn’t the funnest riding, but it was an incredible experience, and (for me) a challenge. Strava data here.

After a relaxing night at the Hostel California, it was time to head back towards San Fran. On the way, we stopped outside of Yosemite and road up to the ghost town of Bennettville and then up to Saddlebag Lake. I was destroyed from White Mountain Peak though, so we cut the ride pretty short. Strava data here.

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Audun tried to ride into the abandoned mine at Bennettville, but unfortunately it was closed.

We got one more day of riding in in Santa Cruz (Strava data here). We road in Demo Forest, which had great, challenging trails, but I missed the sweeping views of our other days riding. So many places, so few days - this trip was an incredible combination of a road trip with a ton of riding, and the perfect way to cap off my Epic Summer Vacation. Then it was back to the real world and starting my PhD, which is a completely different adventure.

- The Wild Bazilchuk