That’s right, we have a new mode of transportation! I’ve been a closet mountain biker for a few months, mostly because so far it’s similar to backcountry skiing in that I’m pretty good at going up (thank you cardio) and do a lot of walking on the way down (thank you abject lack of skills). But after some laps on Tiger, Ollalie, Rattlesnake, and some random cross country parks here and there, I figured between friends who know way more than me and my own stubbornness I’d survive an 18mi day.
- Distance: 18mi
- Elevation: I have no idea
- Weather: 50’s and sunny?
- Commute from Seattle: 3:30 ugh and I did it twice that week solo wah
- Did I Trip: In this case, a slow motion tip-over, so… yes
We met at the trailhead around 11ish and went off on our way. We probably started at 11:30 which is actually pretty prompt for this crew. I packed a puffy, a midlayer, two pairs of gloves, enough food for a family of four, and a single liter of water because that’s low priority in a sunny desert. I had no idea what to expect. I’ve never done a long bike ride, certainly not one that brings you miles away from the car. I was banking on my own stubbornness and pride making me physically capable, and smart, much more experienced friends keeping my bike physically capable. Fortunately I know some cool people.
Jay and Matt were in the lead, kicking up dust for the rest of us to eat/dodge/follow. You either have to be RIGHT BEHIND the person in front of you or way behind them, otherwise you’ll be getting a faceful for most of the trip. We did a small loop around one of the ancient lakes basins before continuing south along the Columbia River towards the Gorge (yes, the concert site). We started on what was more or less a road (Potholes Boulevard) and finally jumped with some cross country hike-a-bike to a green trail (Dusty) for a quick lap around Dusty basin and then made our way down Gorge Bound. I quickly removed my puffy and laughed wondering what the heck I was thinking when we left the parking lot, you can’t fit two puffies in a tiny trail running pack.
I cannot emphasize how little I know about biking (and even the bike itself). Someone asked the other day what I wear for biking and the answer was whatever I wear for running? At one point in the beginning of this ride, someone said “make sure you don’t break the derailer on your bike clipping sagebrush or a rock” to which I responded ” what is that does my bike have one” followed by a panicked “IS IT POSSIBLE I ALREADY BROKE IT?!” only to hear Anita laughing behind me “no you did not you would KNOW if you broke it believe me.”
Dust gave way to sand and rocks as we rode next to the river, and I quickly noticed my bike felt like paddling through mud. Or sand. Or running through 2ft deep water. Sluggish. I took off my third layer and miraculously found space for it in my pack, it was really warming up. Or I was. Oh boy. And we were only like 5 miles into what we figured would be a 15-20 mile day. And it seemed like the brakes wouldn’t release. I’d squeeze them to slow down, release my hands, and they’d still be engaged, still slowing me down even if we were on a flat or an uphill. Or maybe that’s just how biking in sand feels, who knows? I wouldn’t know.
At our first stop I flipped the bike upside down and spun the wheels only to realize the brakes were seizing. The wheels wouldn’t just spin, they’d stop after a few spins. It seemed to get better the less I used the brakes, which would be a viable solution for a less scared biker, but as a total chicken with a deep-seeded (seated?) adult fear of going fast and falling, I probably abuse my brakes. Matt bled some brake fluid and worked some magic (I tried to follow, I at least know what some of the allen wrenches can do now but I couldn’t tell you when to do what he did). Whatever he did made the problem better at first, the brakes still seized a few times at first but I didn’t even notice them on the remaining ~13 miles!! That might have also had something to do with the amount of hike a bike I did but um.. I swear I rode at least… half? But at least now I knew the problem was myself and my own legs, not my brakes.
We followed Gorge Bound just a little bit further to Roundabout, where I was snapping pictures while riding one handed when we hit a rocky patch. You probably know where this is going. I stopped to put my phone away. But it was already too late. I did the awkward hop you do when you can’t land comfortably on one foot, couldn’t save it fast enough, aaaand down I went, landing smack on a rock with my tailbone. Anita I think came over first and asked if I was okay. I’m honestly not sure. I haven’t had the wind knocked out of me in like decades. Let me take inventory. I stood up and groped my own ass making sure bones were intact. No crepitus, no sharp pain. That’s good. Something feels terrible but must just be a deep bruise. What happened?! Well, I was taking pictures… while riding… we don’t have to talk about it. Everyone get back on your bikes let’s gooo. We rode around this super steep canyon, didn’t successfully find the waterfall trail (or maybe we did but it was hilariously beyond our skill set except probably Matt’s), and decided to sit on a small outcropping to have lunch and enjoy the views before heading up.
We climbed up to the top of the mesa next (lots of hike a bike, fueled by cheese and crackers and Anita’s cursing in the distance which will never not be hilarious) and followed Upper Mesa which was SPECTACULARLY smooth and flowy. Biking on top of the world on one side, some rancher’s fence on the other but you barely notice with how sleek you feel. This took us to Rim Job which… how can you not ride that trail? I think as soon as we saw the name it was decided we’d get there. And it totally lived up to expectations. We were giggling the whole way, it finally felt fast and flowy and we (the less talented biking crew) could get into a rhythm and feel good about ourselves after hours of ride/stop/ride/hike/ride/hike. But it wasn’t going to last forever. Thanks to Rim Job.
The end of Rim Job took us through some really cool pothole lakes and tarns, through some brushy sections, and through some TOUGH short climbs. Yeah we did a lot of hiking and bike pushing. And it sounds like hike-a-bike is pretty tough when you have flat soled bike shoes and zero traction on a steep sandy trail. I was thankful for trail runners (they stick nicely to my bike pedals, which I had recently learned were children’s pedals and not at all suited to adult mountain biking. Anyway, really cool to get so much varied terrain on one trail. This whole adventure was feeling like a first legit ski tour after only doing “backcountry” laps at hyak. I had mostly ridden places like Duthie and Tiger and Ollalie and while they’re fun, you don’t have the same sense of adventure as you do somewhere like this.
From Rim Job we popped out onto a gravel road that quickly took us to a black diamond rated trail called Ancient Lakes Descent. I think we overshot the trail at first, forgetting how quickly gravel roads go. There’s SO MUCH TERRAIN at Ancient Lakes, regardless of whether you’re hiking, backpacking, car camping, anything you want to do. We passed an incredible car camp spot that looked like the car was perched next to a cliff overlooking the gorge, you bet I’ll get my car there someday. At the time I was just eager to get back on trails so I didn’t even get a photo 😦 In any event, I was excited to be back on trail. The gravel road was both a relief (no more hike a bike) and a disappointment (felt like cheating after the prior few hours). But it certainly saved us some time compared to navigating back the way we came.
The downhill black trail started out… suspiciously. “Where’s the black section?” “This is totally rollable” “Yeah that was fine” “Wow this is beautiful” “I’m skeptical…” “I’m objectively not a good bike rider, this either isn’t a black diamond or we haven’t hit the crux yet.” Don’t worry, it suddenly turned into “oh you meant THIS part yeah no that’s not rollable” “oh… oh no” “hahahaha…. not happening” “oh if he’s walking I’m definitely walking.” Matt sped ahead of us enjoying himself as we walked our bikes down steep piles of shale, tight switchbacks, and drops I won’t even do in my dreams. I feel like when I tell people I mountain bike they immediately assume like Red Bull style epics when in reality it’s like no, I just… bike on pretty smooth, well maintained trails sometimes. Again, it’s like backcountry skiing. I’m not ripping some jump turn couloir here I’m just moving slightly faster than if I was hiking at the cost of occasionally shredded nerves.
Back down in the basin, we knew it would be smooth easy trails back to the car. Which was a relief for me, because I was completely out of water and SO thirsty. I took some swigs from friends’ bottles but I knew there was a gallon of water waiting for me at the car calling my name. We sped off kicking up dust once again, through what felt like mini-moab (more tan and less red). Lindsay rode some circles back at the parking lot to make sure Strava hit 18 miles while I chugged water. We shared some beers because I couldn’t handle a full beer after a day like that, relaxed for a while enjoying the satisfaction of sunshine and good company and a great ride, and finally headed to Whipsaw Brewing in Ellensburg for dinner! They had a root beer for me but I hear the actual beer was quite good from the others, and we ordered WAY too much food from the food truck.
This was easily in my top 5 days of 2022 so far and it’s going to be damn hard to top it. I finally felt like even if I was shitty I was able to do a serious bike ride, hugely grateful to friends who I would have been (and did) relying on 100% if something went wrong bikewise, and I think I laughed for 60% of the time (the other 40% was sucking wind pushing a bike uphill). Really hoping we can get out on more trips like this.