A Source of Inspiration
Fatbiking The Desert Canyons Of Utah
It is funny how the little things in life can stir moments of clarity in us. How ideas can arise from these moments which inspire us to see things from an entirely different angle – and realise that what at first seemed impossible might in fact be possible. Ever since I learned about the advent of the fat bike in Alaska, and threw a leg over my very own, I have been finding inspiration from within to explore the bounds of my abilities: to do desert tours up sandy washes, to ride up a snow-packed canyon road with ski gear in order to access bottomless powder, or to ride previously untouched sections of my local trails. My fat-tire machine has carried me to many places where no other bike could. But when I see videos of others riding these bikes through expansive, seemingly unnavigable landscapes, it stirs in me something deeper – a desire to find terrain in my own backyard which seems impossible to ride, yet a fat bike, creativity and imagination just may redefine what is possible. At the very least a good ole’ fashioned adventure may develop.
‘Hey! Once I pull this, there is no going back… at least not out this way. We are committed. You good with that?’ I said. ‘Pull it,’ Keven replied. With a tug, the canyon rope slid easily through the recently built anchor and fell 100ft to land in a pile at my feet. Kevin and I had just completed the first of two rappels. With fat-tire bikes and camping equipment strapped to our backs, we had just lowered ourselves into the unknown, hoping our decision would not be a fool’s errand.
What lay ahead? Would big pour offs force us to downclimb or rappel? Was there a slot section that would be impassable with bikes? How much water was down here? Could we do this? These questions were going through my mind as I began assembling my gear on my bike.
For the majority of my everyday life, I live in a comfort zone of balance, with steady routines and a daily norm. Each day when I wake I have a pretty good idea how my day is going to go and what I will accomplish. Although I am grateful for this consistency, without an occasional push it can hinder my ability to expand my intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical limits. Sometimes you have to get out of balance to learn what you are capable of.
With my gear weight evenly distributed, I settled upon my bike, every pedal stroke a push onward into the unknown. The questioning abated as my mind filled with the wonder of nature’s sculptures. The character of the desert canyon was one of steep overhanging walls boxing in a pathway of sand, gravel, mud, slick rock, and bowling-ball-sized boulders. The riding was engrossing and always changing. Short sections of slick rock bordered by pools of water would leave me amazed at where I was and what I was actually doing. As we rounded a bend, our slick rock would end in a clutter of rubble and sand. I approached these obstacles preparing to unclip from my pedals and begin a hike-a-bike; there was no way to ride across a field of boulders. Or was there?
Kevin and I had just completed the first of two rappels. With fat-tire bikes and camping equipment strapped to our backs, we had just lowered ourselves into the unknown, hoping our decision would not be a fool’s errand.
A fat bike is an amazing machine, capable of taking one’s riding to a whole new level and into new terrain. Fat tires provide increased floatation for riding across sand and snow, but I was learning that with a little skill, and the creativity to see a passable line, these same oversized tires could make quick work of the mayhem that the canyon bottom presented. Feeling myself clench in anticipation as I pedalled into each rocky section, I asked my body to relax and let the bike do the work. As the passenger, I focused on spinning the cranks and pointing my front tire towards the path of least resistance. Once on the other side of the technical feature, I found myself fist-pumping the air and sighing in disbelief at what I had just ridden. This machine was building my confidence and redefining my notion of what was possible.
Feeling this remote from man’s all-conquering influence was exhilarating. We would have to rely on each other as teammates and trust that the skills we each brought to this adventure would be enough to see us through to its completion.
As the day moved into early evening, we slowly made our way down the canyon, taking in the beauty that we had all to ourselves. The absence of any human presence was both unnerving and comforting. If one of us sustained an injury, or our bikes succumbed to the punishing terrain, we would be on our own. Help could not be found from the deer or lone black bear which left only their prints throughout the canyon. But feeling this remote from man’s all-conquering influence was exhilarating. We would have to rely on each other as teammates and trust that the skills we each brought to this adventure would be enough to see us through to its completion. My balance was tipping.
We came across a crevice. ‘Hey, Kevin. Is there a way through there?’ A pause. ‘Yeah, but we’re going to have to lift the bikes up onto this boulder, then turn them upside down to get them through.’ Making our way down canyon became a game of teamwork. Despite our success in riding across boulder fields, the canyon was not all rideable, with car-sized boulders providing plenty of problems to solve. Each time the towering canyon walls began to narrow and close in, feelings of trepidation would rise from the pit of my stomach. My heart rate would elevate ever so slightly as I got off of my bike to scout the horizon ahead. Would this be the end of the trail for us? Was our canyon transforming itself into one of the tight, chest-squeezing drop offs that end in deep potholes filled with stagnant ruddy-coloured water, so common in the desert south-west? I looked up at the intimidating canyon walls for some sign of weakness, some sliver of space for a possible escape route. But the canyon stared back, impregnable.
Just before making camp we came upon our first portage of the adventure. We were squeezed in by the sandstone and claustrophobia disrupted my mood. With only 15ft between canyon walls, the way ahead was filled with murky water of an unknown depth. We searched for a way up and around, but to no avail. There was no choice but to wade in and test the waters. Resigned that I would be swimming, I slowly eased into the pool. The bottom and sloping sides of the cauldron were coated in a thin veneer of mud making purchase with my cycling shoes tenuous. Upon reaching the large rock shelf at the end of the pool, I let out a loud ‘whoop’ that echoed throughout the canyon. The pool was only waist deep at most. With the depth test complete, we made our way back to our bikes and stripped them of their bags for the first carry across the pool.
Our camp for the evening was in a secluded spot under an overhanging canyon wall amongst huge boulders. Pools dotted the sandy canyon bottom and made for easy access to drinking water and rinsing out our muddy socks and cycling shoes. We basked in the last light of the day and watched bats make their way from the many fissures of the canyon walls to feed. In a day of many firsts we had managed to cover nearly ten miles, including two initial rappels and a 50ft downclimb to arrive at the canyon floor. Listening to a chorus of frogs singing a lullaby, I drifted off to sleep wondering what the canyon had in store for us the next day.
We were up at daybreak and eager for the obstacles that we knew were ahead. I felt sore from the previous day – rappelling with a fully loaded bike and then manhandling it up and over boulders is a full-body workout. Our topo map showed many extended narrow sections of canyon just a few bends from our camp. Would we find passage for our bikes through these sections or would we come to our first insurmountable problem?
Not knowing what lurked beyond every bend in the canyon, I learned to embrace the unknown and live in the moment. The narrow sections were all passable with only a few carries and numerous stretches of beautiful riding on slick rock and wet sand. It was stunning. Late in the morning we came upon what would be our final portage of the trip. The canyon was completely blocked by cottage-sized boulders. Upon investigation, we resigned ourselves to the inevitable and began de-rigging our bikes of their gear and crawling our way up a steep, loose and sandy hillside to get on top of one of the obstructing boulders. The climb up the sand dune was an effort in perseverance. With every step up, the sand crumbled under the combined weight of both my bike and me. I slid further from my goal. Breathing hard, I exhaled my frustration but the rush of air seemed to echo along the canyon walls with strength and purpose. The canyon’s voice reminded me that the unknown is temporary, that goals can be achieved. I pushed harder. Once on the boulder, we climbed down its desert-varnished backside using our bikes as handrails for fear of falling to the canyon floor.
Once our bikes and all of our gear were on the other side, we took a much-needed lunch break and pondered what could possibly still be ahead. To our delight, the canyon began to open up and the sections we could ride became more consistent and longer. We cruised the last couple of canyon miles and by early afternoon we were at an exit point that was well travelled due to road access. Wahoo! We did it! For the first time since clipping in to the rope for the initial descent into this beautiful and wild canyon, I felt truly relaxed. My awareness was no longer heightened. What began as a potentially foolish idea, to try and navigate a desert canyon by bike, had become a reality. In the process, I redefined what I thought was possible to bike. But more importantly, I ventured out of my comfort zone and recalibrated my tipping point.
Brett Davis calls Durango, CO home, where the high peaks and deserts of the south-western United States are his playground. As a proponent of human-powered endeavours, he has ventured around the planet exploring both the wilds and his capabilities while sharing his experiences with those at home via word and imagery.