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 Anatomy of a Death March
Anatomy of a Death March

1) Wake up before dawn
2) Eat donuts for breakfast on the 3-hr drive to the trailhead
3) Assume that guidebook and Forest Service hand-out have enough data to facilitate navigation
4) Ignore large patches of snow at the trailhead
5) Ignore funky developing weather
6) Use faulty elevation profile to rationalize continued push uphill
7) Decide to push on at every opportunity for retreat
8) Allow the wish-o-thalmus (your brain's optimism organ) to take over all thought processes

The Bull Run Falls loop - looks so pleasant in black-n-white.

1) Wake up before dawn

I was up before dawn, brewed some beans, and waited. CFIT was a bit behind schedule, but by 7:00 we were heading out. Destination: Greenhorn Mountains, a sub-chain in the southwest Sierra Nevada. I had been perusing a guidebook - Southern Sierra Mountain Bike Trails, Jon Frank - and thought I'd chosen a neat loop that contained just enough singletrack to keep things interesting, but would mostly be a simple cruise. Of course, this Mr. Frank is a sadistic sandbagger. He gives a few clues to his masochistic style in the book, like telling his tale of doing the Cannell Plunge as an overnight loop starting and ending in Kernville.

2) Eat donuts for breakfast on the 3-hr drive to the trailhead

Not the best fuel for a super-epic, but then again, we didn't expect a super-epic today. "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"

3) Assume that guidebook and Forest Service hand-out have enough data to facilitate navigation

The ride we chose was the Bull Run Falls loop. The guidebook had a very optimistic elevation profile, making the downhill appear much steeper than it really is. The guidebook had a good map, but did not cover alternate routes or bail-out points. Also, when we arrived at the trailhead the Forest Service had posted a trail system map that was either wrong or lacking in some critical details. Neither of these maps jibed with what I was seeing on TopoZone, but the USGS topos posted there sometimes have not been field-checked for 30+ years.

4) Ignore large patches of snow at the trailhead

There were some ominous pathces of snow at the trailhead. Greenhorn Summit sits at 6000 ft, with the high point of the ride at (allegedly) 7200 ft. The singletrack starts after descending back to 6000 ft, dipping to nearly 5000 ft before a fire road climb back to 6000 ft. Since we hadn't seen any snow below Greenhorn, we figured there would be no snow on the singletrack. We were probably right, but would never find out for sure.

5) Ignore funky developing weather

The weather looked funky. It was definitely a developing storm, but we had mostly sunny conditions for a while. The ride up Rancheria Road went smoothly for the first mile, then the snow began to be a problem. It wouldn't have been so bad, but the weather was just warm enough to turn the snow to slush. If it had been cold enough, we'd be laying down tracks in 2 inches of packed powder.

After about 5 miles of mixed riding and hiking, we began to push. And push...and push. A few extra pounds of water glommed onto my bike, making the push even more grueling.

6) Use faulty elevation profile to rationalize continued push uphill

Though the hiking was annoying, we remained optimistic. The elevation profile gave the impression that when (if?) we finished the uphill and crossed Portugese Pass we'd have some fun downhill through all this Sierra Cement. Within a mile of the pass I felt like I'd been stretched on the rack. My hips felt like they were being torn from their sockets! I ignored this and dreamed of swervy, crazy, fun downhill through a cooperative snowpack. Gawd, I'm a sucker!

7) Decide to push on at every opportunity for retreat

There were a couple times where we might have just turned around and abandonned the ride. That dang elevation profile kept our hopes inflated. There even appeared to be shortcuts to the top of the Bull Run Trail. Hindsight (careful examination of the correct maps) showed that any potential shortcuts or bail-outs were only dead-ends. This would play a large factor later on.

8) Allow the wish-o-thalmus (your brain's optimism organ) to take over all thought processes

Portugese Pass

When we finally reached Portugese Pass (2:00 PM and 7400 ft), the only motivator we had left was wishful thinking. Our feet felt like frozen clubs. Energy reserves were waning. We pushed on, now traversing the top of the ridge, expecting that sweet downhill to materialize at any moment.

View northeast towards Kern Plateau and the High Sierra

View southeast towards Lake Isabella

Instead, what we got was a brief rest break in the posh comfort of a yurt. No wind, comfy lawn furniture, a skylight. There was even a wood-burning stove and a huge stock of firewood, but we declined to crank it up because we knew we'd be leaving in minutes. Shucks...there was even a cache of food with a lot of hot cocoa mix!

CFIT preparing to leave the yurt

We left the paradisical half-tent at 3:30 PM and began the 'downhill' - more pushing down a gentle grade covered in wretched slush. Pushing the bike downhill really, really sucks! I repeatedly tried to ride down that hill, but the slush smacked me down every time.

Our temporary heaven

After taking a shortcut to avoid a rediculous 45-minute detour around a meadow, we were returning to semi-rideable terrain. We continued on, now racing the sunset, and went up and down a few more unpleasant grades. Then we reached the Bull Run Trail.

Stormy weather at the meadow crossing

Most OHV trails I've encountered in the southern Sierra are marked "MORE DIFFICULT" with the friendly blue square. This trail was marked "MOST DIFFICULT" (black diamond!!!) and had that evil, rutted, rock-strewn look that says "I dare you..." We had maybe an hour til dark, trail looks really bad, the faulty Forest Service map seems to show a bail-out if we just continue on the road.

More up and down. We wavered between 6000 and 6400 ft for a few more miles, all the time 'seeing' the main road just ahead, just around the next corner, just over the rise. Then the unthinkable happened. About a half hour after dark, with only one LED headlamp between us, we reached a dead end. No more road, period. Fortunately, CFIT had been recording on his GPS all day. UNfortunately, it was a 'rechargable' (special battery) and was running down. The race was really on now.

We committed to the bushwhack. This bushwhack had everything...manzanita, buckthorn, scrub oak, mountain mahogany, deadfalls of mammoth fir trees, half-melted snowpack, boulders the size of railroad cars. But, according to the GPS, the main road was within half a mile. We kept up hope and continued to climb through the darkness, cursing and commisirating. And the temparature was dropping. Snow beginning to fall lightly.


"We have to keep going. My battery's almost dead!"

We kept counting down the estimated distance: two tenths of a mile, one tenth of a mile, 500 feet, 300 feet. SHIT! The GPS showed that we had crossed the point where the road should be.


"Don't worry...it's just a little inaccuracy. We're almost there."

My feet were nearly useless, frozen like rocks. My shoes kept slipping off in the steep, rough terrain. I could tell that when (if?) I regained feeling down there, I'd finally be able to feel those awful blisters that surely must be there. We had stopped caring about the condition of our bikes, tossing them over obstacles with abandon. How long before we decided to ditch them altogether? Before we reached that point, we found the road! Covered in snow, just like we left it. Our ascent tracks were there, so we knew we'd at least found the way out.

It was now about 7:30 PM, and we both knew we were in for a few miles of unpleasant hiking.

At last we returned to lower elevations, where the road was actually rideable. However, we were too wasted to do so. We returned to Greenhorn Summit at 10:30 PM, some 12 hours and nearly 30 miles behind us. Sleet and rain and heavy fog plagued the whole drive back, and we finally hit home at 2:00 AM.

The most important lesson I learned from this grovel is this:

If you own a guidebook written my Mr. Jon Frank, take it with a grain of salt, or just thow it in the garbage! It will only cause you misery.

Forest Service propaganda

Posted by Dr Wellington Yueh on 02/25/07

Responses: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)  

  •  Re: Anatomy of a Death March
    A true epic!
    man you guys gotta let me know when you are going out there again.
    paz afuera
    Posted by Papisimo riding a Bike on 02/26/07

  •  Re: Anatomy of a Death March
    You're a Doctor, fer chrissakes....you shoulda known better!

    ........looks easy.

    Posted by GhostRider a 31 year old Downhiller on 02/26/07

  •  Re: Anatomy of a Death March
    "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"

    I think being put on a rack would have been more enjoyable!

    Crazy way to spend a day!
    Posted by Howeler on 02/27/07

  •  Re: Anatomy of a Death March
    Hey Doc...you should have let me know you were coming up, I'd have loved to go on that ride and could have given you some ideas as to what you were in for. Here's a ride I'm planning on doing once Rancheria Road gets a little more user friendly...1.Shirley Meadows to Unal Loop and back to Shirley (50% FR/50%ST about 8miles) 2. Shirley Meadows to first part of Just Outstanding to Rancheria Road to Oak Flat Lookout (20 miles mostly fire road, maybe a mile or 2 of ST) 3. Oak Flat Lookout to Delonegha Bridge (Oak Flat Trail/Badger Gap Trail/Kern Canyon Trail 18 miles 100% ST) 4. Delonegha Bridge to Cow Flat Rd (2-3 miles on Hwy 178) 5. Cow Flat to Dougherty Creek Trail (11 miles dirt road and dead cows + 3miles of sweet S/T down to Richbar campground)...so, approximately 63 miles of riding. I've been wanting to do this for quite some time, as well as other epics in this area...are you in? Anybody else? If you're ever in the area during the week I have Wednesday's off and I usually go up to do the Canyon Trail then. Either way, let me know if you're local...sounds like a major flog you did, glad you made it out intact!
    Posted by ScarryFast a 41 year old Die-hard Enthusiast riding a 2001 Stumpy Pro/2003 Titus Switchblade from Bakersfield on 03/01/07

  •  Re: Anatomy of a Death March
    Papo and Howeler... Thanks. However, this is not a journey I wish to repeat any time soon. My feet are still painfully calloused from walking in bike shoes for mas miles. Add to that the fact that the cold weather has farked up my 6-yr-old Fox Float shock!!!

    Scarry... I'd be interested in at least part of that massacre. Weekdays are generally not good, but if you have a specific date, I can try to play hookey. Also, are you planning anything for the Keyesville Classic weekend? I won't be racing, but would like to head up there and cheer on the 661 Contingent, and do a ride or two.
    Posted by Dr Wellington Yueh on 03/05/07

  •  Re: Anatomy of a Death March
    Hey there Doc...I'm racing at Keyesville that weekend, not sure if I'm doing the stage race or not...but for sure I'm doing the short track on Sat. and the XC on Sun. That Wednesday I plan on doing a short-ish canyon ride if I don't actually ride the XC course, if you're interested. This coming weekend would be good too, if you're in the area. After Keyesville weekend, I'm good to go, just let me know when you're around or planning to come up...ciao!
    Posted by ScarryFast a 40 year old Die-hard Enthusiast riding a 2001 Stumpy Pro/2003 Titus Switchblade from Bakersfield on 03/06/07

  •  Re: Anatomy of a Death March
    Doc, maybe you should have used your backcountry skiis instead of your mountain bike.
    Posted by Ramjet a 60 year old Cross-Country Rider riding a Scott Spark from Albuquerque, NM on 05/09/07

  •  Re: Anatomy of a Death March
    Er...yeah. And it wasn't the first time I've had that same thought while slogging through half-set Sierra Cement! :)
    Posted by Dr Wellington Yueh on 05/10/07

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