The limits of fatbiking in the snow

With a bunch of fresh snow last week accumulating at the passes according to WA-DOT and Snotel, I went to the Blewett Pass SnoPark on Saturday. The plan was to make a big loop connecting roads that become snowmobile trails in the winter. First of all: I made it safely to the parking lot – always a bit more exciting driving to winter recreation sites than in the summer months when roads are clear.

The fresh snow was about 5″ deep in the parking lot, compacted here and there by pick-up trucks. Time to let some air out of my bike tires. Past the parking lot, the road turns upwards at a 6% grade and snowmobiles had churned the snow pretty good. I didn’t make it quite a 100 yards before I spun out. Would I be able to ride here at all? After the 2 hour drive here, I was not ready to give up so quickly. Time for hike-a-fatbike, but that was not easy either as there was a solid layer of ice underneath the snow. I let some more air of the tires and I was riding again. Wheew: push, push, push – the bike kept going forwards so I was in business. And so, I was riding more or less, 4 miles in 1.5 hours and gaining 1000 ft. elevation. Fatbiking in soft snow is tough work. The rear tire was at the limit in these snow conditions and dug in deep with every push on the crank.

Climbing a snowy road leaves deep tire marks with every turn of the crank.

Climbing a snowy road leaves deep tire marks with every turn of the crank.

The weather was great: a light snow fall, around 32F probably, no wind, and I was quite warm wearing just a baselayer on top. The road then gets a little steep for the last mile at 9% grade, and there was no way that I could ride that. The front tire, Dillinger 5, was plowing against the snow, while the rear slipped on the churned-snow which was on top of ice. 45 minutes of pushing got me to the top. My wool shirt was frozen stiff on the outside and soaked wet from the inside. I quickly changed into a dry shirt and jacket, and put my gloves and hat on.

It’s pretty up here:

At the intersection of NF 9712 and NF 35.

At the intersection of NF 9712 and NF 35.

One thing about winter is that you can’t just sit down and eat. So, I stood around for 20 minutes, looking at the winter wonderland and eating cookies.

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On the way down, I met a group of snowmobiliers coming up. They had never seen a bike out here before and we chatted for a minute. I had never seen snowmobilies before: some snowmobiles are huge 2 seaters. The way that snowmobiles churn the snow leaves a soft mashed-potato-like path which is alright to ride on, but still tough going. But, without snowmoliers, I wouldn’t have been riding out here at all. Thank you, guys for blazing the trail for me!

Riding downhill on the snow was an experience. I slid and fell off a few times, but with time the road became flatter, and I got better at riding on the weird snow over ice. Whoot!

This ride made me realize that my fatbike in fresh snow is no match to any old cross-country skies. It would have been a lot quicker and more stable on skies. But, was it fun? Yes! Was it a good workout? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes.

But, I am also thinking about what difference bigger rims/tires would have made. The Clownshoe rim with Bud/Lou tires won’t fit on my current bike, but the amount of tracking in the front was barely enough on the downhill, and the float in the rear was barely enough to make it as far as I did. Hmm, time to go look at 5″ fatbikes for next season.

For now, I’ll keep learning about winter riding, staying warm and dry, and riding in different snow conditions.

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