Pedaling a Volcano

Just when I thought this summer was going to come and go without me riding any new trails, Erik posted a weekend campout at Mount St. Helens on the BBTC calendar. There were already 30 people signed up by the time I was ready to commit to spending a weekend away from work -- and I usually don't care for such large groups -- but I really wanted to ride at St. Helens and my friend Ellen was looking to carpool together. So I was in.

Most of the people made the 3.5 hour drive from Seattle Friday night so as to get on the trail by 9:20am, but traffic concerns and wanting to "sleep in" had us arriving late. I met Ellen at a Park & Ride at 6am and after a couple of pit stops, we arrived at the trailhead just as the group was hitting the trail. We gathered up our gear at a relaxed pace and hit the trail around 10am.

Ape Canyon, Plains of Abraham, Windy Ridge
20.5 miles, 3430ft cumulative elevation gain

I had a new 100mm Fox RL fork installed the previous day, as well as a new drivetrain, but that didn't keep my bike from skipping gears erratically at the start of the ride. Within a 1/4 mile I had massive chainsuck and a busted chain. Twenty minutes later, the chain was fixed, the deraileur adjusted, and I was good to go. The first several miles climbed roughly 900 feet through a shady coniferous forest, but there was little warmup and I was certainly feeling the climb. I was winded very early in the ride and getting slight dizzy spells. And the heat of the day was already getting to me. Fortunately, after two miles or so, we had a brief downhill and I was able to finally get my first wind.

Before long, we emerged from the trees onto the vegetation-free Ape Canyon area. Here, we were greeted with extreme close-up views of Mount St. Helens as well as a stunning view of Mt. Rainier in the distance. Ellen was riding really strong on Saturday and kept climbing and climbing without needing a break, but I was more than happy to pause and snap some photos as I was feeling like crap. Also, the extra 3/4 inch of travel my new fork afforded me threw off the geometry of my bike just enough to make my back ache. Nevertheless, the spectacular scnery kept pulling me forward. We soon caught up to half a dozen riders who left before us and together surfed the pumice slopes of the Plains of Abraham.

Ellen striking a pose at Ape Canyon.

The summit of Mount St. Helens looms large over the trail.

Derrek cruising along Ape Canyon with Mt. Rainier in the background.

Unidentified riders near Ape Canyon.

Traction on the Plains of Abe was difficult to come by in the descents and on the corners as the entire region is composed of sand and crushed pumice stone. After a while, we reached the main contingent of the BBTC group near the first turnaround point by Windy Ridge. They were turning back early rather than descend the log-steps and ride the forest road to the Spirit Lake viewpoint, but we wanted the whole trail. So after spending a good amount of time eating lunch and talking atop the Windy Ridge trail, we made the sketchy descent down to the forest road. Most in our group of 6 walked the stairs, but Ellen and I were able to succesffully surf about 90% of the steep pumice slope -- get your butt way behind the seat and over the rear wheel and pepper the brakes just enough to keep from locking up and sliding, but never going too fast. After some time at the viewpoint, we returned the way we came and suffered our way back up the stairs, with the bikes on our shoulders. Now I know why only 6 of us in a group of 30 riders bothered to go all the way to the viewpoint!

Ellen leading the group into the Plains of Abraham.

Yours truly at the foot of Mount St. Helens.

Obligatory self-portrait in front of St. Helens.

Descending Windy Ridge towards the log staircase.

When we arrived on the trail the still-active Mount St. Helens was quiet, with just the slightest wisp of steam rising from the crater. A couple of the streams we crossed early in the day were also nothing but a trickle. But by mid-day, the volcano woken up and let out a pretty good burst of steam. A vent further down the flanks also let loose with a secondary steam blast we well. All very cool, from our up-close-and-personal vantage point. Whether due to the rising temperatures and melting snow or perhaps from some new source of bubbling geothermal activity, I don't know, but the trickling streams we crossed on the way out were flowing much heavier and were of a dark chocolate color on the way back. They looked so differently that many of us would later remark that we thought we may have went the wrong way.

You're not biking, if you ain't hiking.

I got pretty far ahead of our group on the descent across the ridge at Ape Canyon and through the trees and suffered a nonstop barrage of mosquitoes while waiting for the group in the woods. Normally I wouldn't wait too long, but when a couple of guys said they had not seen any woman bikers on the trail, I began to get a little concerned. After all, there were a couple of spots were a biker could go off trail and nobody would find them. As it would turn out, I was the only one who would end up going down on Saturday. The tight twisty downhill proved to be too sandy in some of the corners and I washed out at about 22 mph in one of the turns. Too much brake, too much steering, and too much sand will do that.

After the ride, we made our way to the Eagle Cliff campground where everyone was camped and there were no sites left. After, oh, about 10 seconds of deliberation the decision was made to park my Element at one of the larger sites being occupied by BBTC folk and just sleep in the truck. We each joked around about my wife and her boyfriend having requested that we not share a tent... but they didn't say anything about not sleeping in the truck together. Which was totally harmless by the way, other than it only helped further the rumors that Ellen and I were married (oddly enough, even people who met Kristin on previous camping trips thought Ellen and I were together--good thing Ellen has a boyfriend or this may have killed her chances with some of the other guys in the club). After a brief dip in the chilly river to clean up, I cooked us up some steaks and John and Julie gave us some of their delicious spinach salad. The group of 30 riders were pretty evenly split between two areas and good times and good beer were had into the night.

Falls Creek, Point-to-Point
17 miles, 1030ft cumulative elevation gain, 2630ft cumulative descent.
(no photos... too busy riding at mach speed to stop)

Whenever you try to shuttle a ride with a group of people who don't all fully understand the game-plan, it's going to be tough. Arranging a shuttle for more than 25 people was a headache that I didn't want. But Erik and Chris took the lead and it, for the most part, worked well.

I was happy to not have to do much climbing after Saturday's ride, and this ride proved to be exactly what was needed to ensure everyone left with a smile on their face. The first 2 miles were swoopy downhill fun, followed by approximately 4 miles of climbing starting with a gradual climb on a forest road that was perfect for letting the legs warmup. We then hit the singletrack for about 600 feet of climbing on smooth but occasionally technical singletrack. I was feeling great and was riding up front with the two Davids. After regrouping and a quick lunch at the horse camp where the trail begins, I leapt at the opportunity to take the lead and avoid being in the dust-trail.

Tim Banning and I were totally bombing down the first few miles of trail which were smooth, fast, twisty, swoopy, and even had the occasional rock drop and berm. We soon came to a collapsed lava tube and waited to regroup, but before then I once again washed out in a turn at around 23mph and between the blind corner and the dust, I was lucky that Tim was able to swerve and not run over my front wheel... or my head.

I let a couple people go ahead after the lava canyon but the trail soon got a little hilly and I found myself back at the front of the pack. Not a bad place to be due to the dust we kicked up. The pressure of leading this large group down the trail (i.e. wanting to stay far enough ahead so as to not ruin the visibility or pace of those on my tail) led me to one of my fastest rides to date. I was riding as well as I've ridden in a long time. I was bombing down the trail, taking the turns and the rocks and roots with ease and was almost Jedi-like with my reflexes. I felt great and that new plusher front fork was indeed making me happy I upgraded. After four miles of nonstop cruising at mach speed, I was happy to come across the trail's namesake falls. After all, I was drenched in sweat and my fingers were starting to go numb.

After dipping my headwrap in the river and waiting for the group to gather up, we were back off for the final threee miles. More downhill, this time with some exposure on a benched-portion of trail. This latter segment was very much like the Gold Creek near Sequim, which is one of my favorites so I was in heaven. The only problem with this section was that there were several blind turns and quite a few hikers so we had to sacrifice our buzz from time to time for the sake of not killing any hikers. The things we mountain bikers have to do...

Everyone finished the ride with a huge smile and I think it's good to say that Falls Creek now has a spot in everyone's personal "Top 5 Rides in Washington" lists.

After completing the shuttle and downing an icy-cold Pacifico (thanks for the beer, Ellen) we jumped into the cars for the 4 hour ride home. Traffic was pretty bad on I-5 and were practically in Oregon so we had quite a ways to get home, but good conversation and decent coffee helped it go faster. What a great weekend.


Maarten said...

Daaaaaiiiimmmmmnnnnnn. Fantastic photos!

Must! Get! My Butt! Out! There!

CK said...

Great write up and pics Doug. It was a blast.