Snow bikepacking in the Cascades

Napping on the bench atop of Sugarloaf Peak last year, it wasn’t hard to imagine camping there. Some serious insulation would be required, as would some means to transport those items on my bike. With a couple winter-backpacking trips under my belt now, I felt ready to tackle such an adventure.

As many plans of man often go awry, so did this one – at least in the specifics. The canadian epic that I had been dreaming off would not be happening, as a last minute job interview brought that idea to a screeching halt. After being bummed out about that, the suggestion was made to do a shorter, more local, bikepacking trip. You mean a sub-24 hour overnighter? Yep. I suddenly remembered that Sugarloaf Peak had started this chain of thoughts last year, and so pointed my car towards the eastern Cascades the next day.

It was about 3 pm on Saturday when I finally started to ride from the Eagle Creek Rd. parking area. There were a few ‘bilers coming down, but as this was superbowl weekend, I was hoping that on Sunday I’d have the entire mountain to myself.

After a pedaling for a while, the first view point was reached. Lots of climbing was to be done, about 4000’ worth in total.

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My new Motobecane Nighttrain Bullet looks pretty smart with all its gear and extra big wheels.

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The handlebar bag contained a couple freeze dried meals, sleeping bag, down pants + jacket and mittens. The drysack was securely attached via 5 straps in total. Easy.

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The snow was ok to ride on at 35 F. Traction was outstanding, even with relatively high tire pressure (6-8 psi?), and I rode the entire section up to the first outhouse. There, a large group of ‘bilers were hanging out and all were looking straight at me as I turned the corner and headed towards them. “Don’t slip at the corner, now!”, I was telling myself. They were surprised to see my bike, and one guy commented “Dude, they ride these things in Anchorage!”. Offers of beer and Whiskey were made – and declined. I was warned about the unruly weather atop Sugarloaf Peak: clouds, wind and cold had force them to turn around early. An older gent was quite concerned for my welfare; I suppose my skimpy clothing did not inspire confidence in my winter survival skills. It was about 30 F at this point and the temperature was starting to drop as the sun was setting.

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Onwards, upwards, and no dang slip-ups as the ‘bilers watch me ride the first hundred yards, please! I cleaned the initial climb, and most of the rest. The sun was setting and it was beginning to sink in that I was doing a winter-bikepacking trip. The thing I had planned for so long – I was out here doing it. The evening light faded very slowly as the snow reflected every last bit of light. 20160206_17030820160206_171105

Through the dimming light, I did not fail to notice that clouds were blocking the view of Sugarloaf Peak. Had the ‘bilers been correct about the abysmal conditions on top?

And sure enough, nearing the top of Sugarloaf Peak, it became windier and colder. Frosty fog formed on the handlebar bag. I stopped to put my baclava and windjacket on, and continued to push my bike up the hard snow; mostly rideable snow, if it hadn’t been for the wind. I was looking for a sheltered spot to pitch my tent, but nothing seemed adequate by the time I reached the summit. Freezing fog was blown by the ~20 mph wind. A nice little storm. Time to head down and find a more sheltered place.

From last year, I recalled seeing trees west of the summit along the main road, so I headed down. The fog made it difficult to see very far with the beam of my light. I kept on pushing through the snow until the wind lessened. Was this the sheltered place I had been looking for? I couldn’t tell as it was so dark, but it felt nice here. Time to put the carefully orchestrated evening ritual to the test:

  1. Put on down pants and jacket.
  2. Stomp down snow for tent site while connecting tent poles.
  3. Crawl in tent and insert poles.
  4. Inflate mattress (what a piece of $%^& the NeoAir XTerm inflation method is!)
  5. Down a couple hot meals and go to bed.

After setting up camp, I noticed that the wind had ceased. Should I break camp and head back up to the summit? It sure would be nice to wake up atop the mountain and see the sun rise from the comfort of my sleeping bag. But, laziness won out and instead I promised myself to get up before sunrise and head to the summit.

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Day 2

A clear and cold night followed the storm. Stars were out all over. Too pretty to go to sleep! But, my eyes did fall shut after a while. I zipped up the tent door a bit to keep the ice cold air from my eyes, but I still needed to throw a sweater over my face. The new NeoAir XTerm mattress was very warm: I had moved all the down in my bag to the top and was basically insulated only by the mattress. It was a bit difficult to stay on top though and not slide off sideways.

After almost 10 hours of sleeping, I was blinking to see red sky all around me. Get up! – I was telling myself and barely made it out of the tent to snap a couple pictures of the quickly fading red sunrise show.

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Now it became obvious that I had not found a sheltered spot at all!

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I hopped on my bike to ride up Sugarloaf Peak (a bit downhill east from here and then back up).

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What a view from the top!

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The views to the east were not as stellar, but interesting to see where a couple roads go:

After spending an hour snapping pictures, I headed back to my tent with cold feet.

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A storm quickly approached and left.

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Being up early in the middle of nowhere meant that some exploring had to be done. The easiest seemed to do the lollipop-route to Miner’s Ridge. It’s the far-right ridge in the picture below:

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I hid my gear behind trees and set out with a light fatbike to ride what could be ridden. And the riding was wonderful. The snow had setup nicely overnight; not quite hardpack, but good enough and the sun was heating my back. Not long and I was removing my layers to stay ahead of sweating.

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Which way shall I ride the loop? Start off on the path less traveled and see how it goes…

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Yup, rideable! Not sure how I kept getting away with riding the big 32T ring in front on this section.

Soon, I heard the shrill sound of snowmobilers gassing it. Here they come! Turns out they were escaping the pre-superbowl madness for a bit. The three guys were a most chatty and friendly group.

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Soon, they took off and I was left to enjoy the fairytale snowscape on my own. There’s Sugarloaf Peak in the distance! (a bit left of center).

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To test just how perfect the snow conditions were, I pointed my bike on a single snowmobile track – and stayed afloat! Riding cross-country on the narrow path, a big grin may have been plastered to my face.

Somehow, I either missed the main part of Miner’s Ridge, or it just hadn’t been traversed by snowmobiles, yet, but I ended up coming down to the road quickly.

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I tried to ride the Miner’s Ridge trail clockwise, now, but I never found the turn off. Instead, I ended up at a nice viewpoint of Fish Lake.

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The ride back was quite a slog, but not too bad. The snow was still good, even as it was  around 40 F by now.

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Made it back down to my car just around 4 pm. An excellent overnight trip this had been.

 

 

 

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Cle Elum snowbike ride #2

It was snowing heavily this morning in central Washington, and the starting point for my planned route along Highway 97 was snowed in. Oops. Turned around and rode the Cle Elum ridge instead, again. Two things were noteworthy:

1. On the Coal Mines trail, a couple skiers came along with their dogs, wearing bike helmets. Curious. Upon closer inspection, the guys were wearing harnesses, and their dogs had shoes on. It’s called Skijoring, and they were out doing it.

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2. With fresh new snow, it was deep, slick, and soft in places, and a lot of pushing was had. In between hiking, I got to stash food, gloves and jackets in my new frame bag from Rogue Panda Designs out of Flagstaff, AZ. I had exchanged a few emails with the owner, Nick, about how I wanted it designed. It turned out beautifully: having only sent him a picture of my bike+ruler+cooking pot, he pieced the frame bag together. Special requests for wide-tapering at the bottom and zipper locations were implemented. I completely forgot the bag while riding. The water-proof zippers in their closed position are at the seat-tube, and there are no nasty zipper covers sticking out anywhere. With 3 zippers in total (1 left, 2 right), and a velcro’ed in horizontal divider, it’s easy to keep things organized.

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Reference picture sent for frame bag dimensioning.

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By the time I came back to Cle Elum, the fresh snow had been compacted by vehicles. Looked pretty.

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Finding snow trails around Roslyn

Sometime ago, I noticed that there’s a fatbike rental place in Roslyn, WA, Northwest Bicycle Improvement Co. The shop owner, Glenn, met us promptly at 9 am on Sunday morning, and rented nice Salsa Mukluks to Tony and Shawn.

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Both guys being new to snowbiking, we were setting out to explore the trails around Roslyn, and not go on a monster ride as I would typically do. Following Glenn’s recommendation, we started with a little used trail south of Roslyn, just before the Nelson Dairy Rd.

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Click for GPX map, courtesy of Shawn.

The snow had frozen pretty nicely, so we were able to ride a trail where only 1 or 2 snowshoers had blazed a trail. Bumpy it was, and oh so techy and fun, too. It was the most technical snowshoe trail I’ve ridden. Maybe not the best introduction to snowbiking, but Tony was killing it up front as if he’d been riding fatbikes in snow all his life. Shawn and myself stayed in the back and made sure to explore all the postholes and bumps to the utmost. Letting some air out of the rental bikes helped improve the bounciness somewhat.

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The trail then disappeared and we had to push downhill through soft snow for a hundred yards.

20160110_101555.jpg Once back on the road and through the metropolis that is Ronald, we headed up a nice steep forest service road. It was beautiful – all rideable on the fairly hard snow. We were beginning to wonder if the cross-country trails left behind by rogue snowmobilers would be rideable – and they were! There was a bit of pushing involved in getting up to the Cle Elum Ridge, but with some football game on on Sunday, we were almost the only ones out there to enjoy the serene and steep road.

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The thought of riding this stuff down seemed to be the main motivation. Once the ridge was reached, we looked at the map and pulled out some snacks. We made the decision to go back east along the ridge and then make our way down the Number 6 canyon. The undulating ridge road was in great shape if you like lots of bumps and moguls. The weather was pleasant: 25 F and drizzling light snow, but no wind.

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Video by Shawn: I was riding the track left behind by a single snowmobile. The snow conditions were just outstanding that day.

The ride down the No. 6 canyon was fast and fun, including a short cross-country trail left behind by a snowmobile.

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Finding snowshoe trails

After a failed attempt at riding 40 miles on a snowmobile trail in the Entiat, I decided to do swing by Squilchuck State Park and see about the little bit of trails that a few people have been working on. This was my first time riding snow singletrack, as it were. While there were about 4″ of fresh powder on the ground, there was a firm-enough base to ride. It was so beautiful that I did two laps on the upper loop.

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And this stretch was also rideable:

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The area is small, though, and I didn’t find the lower loop, so afterwards I went up the Beehive Rd. to get some exercise.

Having taken a liking to snowy singletrack, I was curious where else I could go. Hansen Ridge came to my mind. With temperatures and snow level pretty low on the west side of the Cascades, I headed out there to test my bike on the trails. However, around 1/4 of the way up the forest service road, the compressed-snow ended and a faint snowshoe trail started.

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Everything is rideable on a fatbike… almost.

Unfortunately, that trail had not been compressed enough to ride on, so I turned around and headed farther up NF-55 to the Annette Lake trailhead. It’s open to bikes up to the Iron Horse trail. The trail was packed well, and it was about 50% rideable uphill, so beautiful.

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Snow-packed bridge.

On the Iron Horse trail, I rode west to the avalanche sign, where the snowshoe trail ended unfortunately. It’d be great if the Iron Horse trail got some basic grooming/packing by a snowmobile once a week! What an asset that could be as a multi-user winter trail in the I-90 corridor!

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It was beginning to get late and dark, and so I rode east about mile almost to the tunnel when the snowshoe trail ended again.

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View over I-90 at night.

On the way back, I ran into a couple snowshoers and we chatted for a minute. Then, I got to enjoy the downhill on Annette Lake trail – probably the most fun snowbike ride I’ve done, yet! (The Diamond Head trail to Elfin Lakes would be a close second – but it’s much longer.)

 

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