Monday, January 12, 2009

Excursion Article Series 07-20-08: Black Canyon: Biking and Bails

Caption: My friend Howard spins his wheels through the still-spring meadows near the top of Teton Pass.

Excursion: Black Canyon Mountain Biking
Length: About 3 hours parking lot to parking lot
Difficulty: Moderate/Expert
Directions: Leave shuttle car at base of pass at the end of Trail Creek Road. Continue to top of pass and park at top. Bike up service road at southwest edge of parking area to reach trailhead at end of road.

My upper lip was the first thing to touch down. I remember that all too well. I guess you could say I was kissing the dirt – really hard, really fast and really involuntary.

Following the lip service I paid the single track in Black Canyon, my left hip, my camera bag and my left hand all touched down at roughly the same moment. They didn’t enjoy the newfound intimacy with the trail either.

Here’s the problem I had in Black Canyon: as the photographer for this article, I found myself racing ahead of my brother and two friends so I could have time to whip out my camera and get shots of them coming down the trail. The other problems I had worked even more against me: I had loose shocks and a two-and-a-half-hour time constraint. So when I was trying to put a little distance between me and the invitees to find some good places to shoot without slowing them down, I found myself in the above predicament.

It happened in the portion of the trail I’ll refer to as “the root staircase.” It’s basically a stair step of four to six inch drops off roots coming across the trail. It makes for some great riding. I got overconfident with the first lot of steps; I was having a blast. The last one was spaced a little farther apart than the others. I decided I could pick up a little speed and get a little drop off it.

Good idea?


When my front tire touched down, my front loosey-goosey shock compressed hard enough to bottom out. Then the tire decided it didn’t feel like spinning anymore. It had a midlife crisis and temporarily abandoned its lifelong career as a wheel to become a nice fulcrum for the catapult that the rest of the bike became for my body.
So I joined the career-change party and began my brief tenure as a rag doll/crash test dummy. I’m not sure if my helmet ever touched down. I think it was up on my head thanking my lip for cushioning the blow while it laughed at me. At any rate I was glad I was wearing it, though it didn’t do anything for my bruised hip and lip, my damaged camera lens, the various scrapes and the Mickey-Mouse-shaped hole in my left hand.

At least I wasn’t alone in the bonking department. At one point I rounded a bend behind my brother to see a cloud of dust and my friend Howard’s airborne feet disappearing into the brush a ways off the trail. I immediately thought of those novelty t-shirts printed upside down that say, “If you can read this, please put me back on my bike.”

My brother also endoed once, but he had better luck. He collided with a tree before the ground could claim his face.

Despite the minor troubles, I wouldn’t trade our morning ride. It was magical. At the top of the pass, the balsamroot glowed in the soft morning light. This was made slightly less magical by the fact we were on the only uphill portion of the trail. We were glad for the cool air as we rode – er, walked by our bikes, up the steepest portions of the trail.

The forest service road at the top of the pass transitions into a trail right past the tower. There’s only about 1.6 miles of uphill before it goes down, down, down. That’s the beauty of starting from 8,500 feet. The trail tops out at about 9,300 feet, where you take what seems to be an illogical turn to the west to head down the east-facing canyon. A trail marker stands at the intersection to indicate the start of Black Canyon.

The upper switchbacks are sketchy, with some gravel and loose dirt on the corners in particular. Watch yourself as you start heading down. After the initial switchbacks you come across some smooth, sweet single track for a while. There are still switchbacks with some loose dirt. Watch for them and take things easy. The brush also has a tendency to grab at you and try pulling you off course, resulting in feet-in-the-air scenarios.

These are best avoided. Trust me on that one. Ride slowly.

The trail gets rough again near the bottom, home of the root staircase, logs across the trail and several creek crossings. The scenery is beautiful all the way down: panoramas at the top and intimate forest scenes lower down. But you’ll probably be too intent on the dirt right in front of you to notice.

Caption: Farther down the trail, Howard enters an aspen grove just before exiting it at high speed.

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