A Ski Tour with a Mountain Bike Approach
A Ski Tour with a Mountain Bike Approach
I have always been one to try and bring it all in a single trip. Ever willing to struggle at half the speed with an armload of groceries destined for the kitchen from the car, eager to hang things from my handlebars to get them home or straining every digit to grasp more than than the hand was meant to transport. Loading my bike with everything needed for an overnight in the backcountry was a challenge I was born to accept.
In order to be truly self sufficient I’d need to carry my snowboard in an efficient manner, bring my sleeping bag, hydration and food, my avy tools and some personal items all on the bike. I would need to choose my layers wisely, wearing everything I could and carrying no duplicate layers. Truthfully I didn’t even bring a second set of socks which in hindsight was a bit extreme, mostly for my touring partners.
The approach was pretty straightforward. The adventure was to start at Smiley Creek Lodge, ride approximately 1 mile north on the highway to the turn unmaintained road, then ride another 6 miles to Wintertux. Truthfully, Wintertux is not just some shabby lean-to out in the woods, it’s a finely crafted cabin with most of luxuries of home but completely off grid. If you’re picturing me hunting down winter foul with a pocket knife and sleeping in a tent… It’s not that kind of adventure. I knew I was going to a place with facilities.
From Wintertux the real adventure would begin for me, the bike leg of this trip was just the approach into paradise. For me the grand prize was the Cirque I’d spied a couple years back when it hadn’t enough snow to really get involved with. I had been to the Tux previously and used a snowmachine to get in. It was actually on the prior trip that my bike approach plan was hatched. I had looked at the amount of snowmobile traffic on the road in and the resulting “grooming” the road received and theorized I didn’t need to buy a snowmobile to get back to the Tux if only I had a fat bike.
1 Emergency Beer in Cozie
1 ROS 9 Plus bicycle (stock)
1 Defiant Zipperless Framebag
1 Defiant McClure Front Harness and Bag
1 Defiant Ski Carry
1 Chimera Unicorn Chaser Splitboard with Spark R&D binders
1 Set of Dogwood Designs Poagies
1 Set of Scott X’Plore Collapsible Poles
1 Set G3 Splitboard Climbing Skins
1 Set of Mr Chomps Cramp Ons
1 Pair Burton SL10 Boots
1 pair ski socks
1 First Lite Base Layer Pant
1 First Lite Base Layer Shirt
1 Stoic Dry Bag
1 Mountain Hardware Crazy Legs Sleeping bag
1 ThermaRest Pillow
1 OR Underwear
1 Pearl Izumi Bibshort
1 Burton Glove Liner
1 Stoic Leather Ski Glove
1 Pair of Fucking Crocs!! (Explained later)
1 Go Pro Hero4
1 iPhone 6
1 Cannon EOS camera
1 Contour Roam3
4 Noka Organics squeezy food
2 Clif Bars
1 Gore-Tex Bib Pant
1 Toothbrush & Toothpaste
1 iPhone tripod (didn’t use)
1 Pieps Avalanche Beacon
1 Camelbak Phantom 20 Hydration Pack
1 Black Diamond 3-part shovel
1 Black Diamond Collapsible Probe
1 Lezyne Pump
1 29” Innertube
2 Voile Straps
1 Pair Oakley Sunglasses
1 Pair Goggles
1 Ski Helmet
1 Oakley Gore-Tex Shell
1 Oakley Fleece Mid Layer
1 Snap Back
Man, listing it all out makes it seem unbelievable you’d need to carry all that shit on a bike you intend to ride on snow. I tried to bring as little as possible but given the nature of ski-touring and how equipment intensive that activity is alone, plus being self-sufficient with my overnight needs, it was never going to be a light haul. The bike weighed almost 60 lbs fully loaded. Surprisingly, the set-up rode well which I attribute to the 29+ wheels/tires on a compliant steel chassis.
The choice to ride a plus bike over a traditional 26” fat bike is something I feel needs explanation. Having spent considerable time on both I found in most situations the extra floatation you get from those 4.5” tires is counteracted by the additional weight you have to spin. Momentum is key and the ROS 9 Plus accelerates faster and takes less energy to keep rolling than a 26” which in nearly all cases has radically heavier rotational weight. I tested myself in the same conditions aboard both types of bikes and was always faster and the experience was more pleasurable on the Plus. During the weeks leading up to this trip I began ski-touring off the bike on routes close to Ketchum accessible by bike path and Nordic trails, even bringing my sleeping bag to experience what it would be like to pilot the bike fully loaded.
To The Cabin
It was midday when I set out towards the cabin from Smiley Creek Lodge. Temps were in the high 30’s and I was concerned about the road condition. The thought of slogging through 6+ miles of soft mush was not appealing and the few tests I’d done on warm afternoons with the loaded bike were somewhat lame. If there was one take-away from this whole bikepacking approach idea I could offer anyone it would be to travel early in the day when the surface is frozen. As soon as I pulled up to the unmaintained road, with the identifying sign almost invisible from the snowpack, I saw that a Snowcat of some kind had laid tracks on the road in recent days and found myself in luck. Those wide tracks were a savior, each time a veered off them into a snowmobile track I found myself dumping speed and sinking in. My average speed was a little over 5 mph, I stopped to take pictures so the entire approach to the cabin was under 2 hours on a mostly flat road.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about mountain biking is how much you can look around and how many animals you sneak up on. The slower pace and quiet nature of human powered transport rewards you with spectacular views since you have the ability to look around. You can hear the wind blowing through the trees and the trickle of water moving through the frozen creek. There’s no comparison to the experience on a motorized vehicle, I feel like the attention you have to pay to what you’re doing, along with all the noise, makes you somewhat detached from the natural wonders happening all around.
We settled into the cabin with lots of daylight to spare, I unpacked my splitboard and touring gear and prepared for the morning while pounding the emergency beer (I’d put a tall-boy on the top tube just in case things got really stupid, like a flat tire or persistent mush, then at least I could numb the pain of my poor decision). I decided to look for a creek crossing that led to the zone I’d hoped to ski the next day and came back to the cabin without an ounce of light to spare with some beta for our group. The snow conditions I’d seen on the aspects we would be skiing were very promising. As we sat down for dinner it began to snow.
We woke up to a fresh 3-4 inches of new precip overnight, not a bad refresh. We headed out from the cabin and set out towards what some call ‘The Cirque’ which was not visible from the cabin but I’d seen it a few years back and knew the aspect was right for primo snow conditions. The plan was to get about ¾ of the way up, then assess snow conditions and proceed from there based on what we learned.
The group was on a good pace, only 45 mins up and we could see our prize. Stability was good so we opted to push forward. What followed was 6 hours of banging 1000ft laps in some of the best terrain I’d ridden since being in Alaska many years ago. Steep, blower pow and natural rock features that were surreal to carve through.
I had my eyes on a steep, narrow couloir most of the day, at one point we’d all claimed lines we wanted to hit and that was my first choice. When we’d finally pushed out that far, having ridden everything in between, fatigue was starting to set in.
I stood atop this little snow filled crevice and made about 2 turns in it before I felt the snowpack beneath me break loose. I immediately pulled up and let the slough pass me by, It was a safe choice I will probably wrestle with until the next time I can go back. In hindsight I wished I’d have pointed it and kept ahead of the slough, but I hadn’t had to manage my slough in a quite a while so I was rusty and a little rattled. It wasn’t the prettiest snowboarding of my life, but I did check the couloir off my bucket list and I know I’ll be back.
We settled into the cabin with about an hour of sunlight left. I began the process of packing my bike again while there was still some daylight with the smell of a steak dinner arousing my senses. There’s something about a meal in the backcountry that makes it taste outstanding. We all replayed the day around the dinner table, everyone was satisfied. I’d decided to leave at first light the next day, hoping for a more frozen exit.
When I awoke just before the sunrise, everything was already staged for departure. I threw my pack on, grabbed my scooter and threw a leg over. The temperature was in the teens, making the snowpack on the road much firmer than my afternoon approach into the hut. I watched the sun come up from a different perspective that morning and found the pace invigorating. I'd averaged 5mph faster on the way out than the way in, saving about a half hour in commute time.
Before long I was back at the road and found myself at the Smiley Creek Lodge just as the cook was showing up for work. I grabbed a breakfast burrito and some coffee and reflected on the adventure. A couple from South Africa asked me to pose with my bike when they pulled into the lodge, I suppose they don't get a lot of my type of crazy back where they come from. I obliged and told little snippets of my story to the few patrons of the lodge, but how could I ever tell it all in a passing conversation.