The Rockies started seriously! The first few miles of the route led to an uphill boulder field which was a feeder to the Rainbow Trail. We stopped at an impossibly small track leading into the woods wondering where the trail began. A mile further up the boulder strewn track we were given the happy information that we had stopped next to it 1 mile earlier!
The trail turned out to be difficult, dangerous, and a lot of hard work. The temperature was still fairly low, but at the cost of altitude and thin air. The trail was often no wider than 18 inches and wound through a mixture of forest and open mountainside. Numerous river crossings, 1 in 3 boulder slopes, and hideously tight switch backs cut into our days ride time considerably. Caution was definitely the word of the day as 2 and 3 thousand feet drops pulled our wheels into the mountain side and drew our gazes from the job in hand. Two hours and 15 miles later we emerged battered and exhilarated onto on open flat track. We had all had our moments but Stef had used all our luck for the day when he came off and dropped his bike off the trail and down the mountain. He threw himself off the bike and onto the small track fully expecting not to see his bike again. He was lucky when it caught and stopped!!! Although the language he used to describe his efforts to get the bike back on to the route was non too sweet, we were to glad to see him alive!
The bike really didn't go that far off the trail, a matter of a few feet, but I definitely turned purple trying to breath whilst dragging the damn thing back up again. This was my second drop of the day, the first being earlier on the rocky section leading to the trail. Being slightly over enthiastic with the throttle at one point, I bounced off a rock into the side of the track, which was a three foot high bank filled with yet more large rocks. The fruitier versions of 'ouch' and 'dash it' were heard to issue from my lips as I picked the bike up and attempted to push the handguards back into place... I eventually reached the end of the Rainbow Trail to find Jon and Dave wondering about nonchalantly without a care in the world. Good job the bike hadn't gone further down the hill, it could have been ages before they came for me!
Noon saw us filling up with fuel. We had covered a non too impressive 38 miles and were all mentally tired. We were now half a day behind schedule and had today's 180 miles to cover in a single afternoon. Initial speeds gave us misleading hopes for success as we sped down the valley out of a small town happy to have one of our three days of mountain crossings behind us. Our route soon became ringed by high mountains and our GPS told us that ground level was at nearly 8000ft. It became evident that we were going to pass over a second set of mountains fairly soon and that this time they were going to be high.
A left turn off the main highway directed us toward a side valley and wound steadily upwards following old mine workings and pine forests. To our right a huge gorge dropped away, carved by the melting snow waters and clearly still rather too full for comfort.
We had been forced to ride the trail this time of year and endure the desert and plains heat for one reason. We had to have the high mountain passes of the Rockies open and snow free. The amount of melt water suggested that melting was still very much in progress and gave us some cause for concern.
As we rode higher the directions on our road book became ever more vague and the landscape ever more wild. As we crested a rise we came out of the forest and a high alpine plain stood before us surrounded by huge scree slopes and snow covered peaks. The bikes were all down to less than 50% power, and the XR400's were suffering misfires particularly badly. It was 2pm.
It took us nearly 1 hour of searching to locate the small track switching back off the 'main' (3ft of rocky river bed) trail. The riding had been fairly technical and bikes riders were getting badly shaken around. By 3:20pm we were past our point of no return for the day and knew that reversing our route would not be possible before dark. Altimeters and bad headaches told us we were well over 12000ft and we hoped that we were nearly over the first pass. We crested 'Hancock' ten minutes later, stopped briefly for a photo and dropped into a remote valley. We could see no signs of life except for trees below us, and the odd bird of prey circling miles overhead. The trail wound downward and was as tight and twisty as the Rainbow Trail in places. Sitting back over the bikes luggage racks was essential to prevent toppling over, and in this position 'lock to lock' turns over steep drops were not popular. We soon hit the bottom of the track and began the climb up to our next pass. The Tomichi.
Within a few hundred meters we met our first snow patch crossing the track. It was clear that vehicles had been up to this point but the track looked unkept and was partially missing further up the mountain. Jon initially tried the direct approach, but soon discovered that riding over snow on bald knobbly tyres isn't really possible. He did crash quite spectacularly trying though! It took three of us to haul his bike over the 10 meter section before we stopped and formulated a plan. Jon would ride ahead to see what other problems there may be whilst Stef and I would try to rebuild and clear the track for more heavily loaded bikes and vehicles. At nearly 13000ft it was exhausting work just walking, especially as we were not acclimatised. After 15 minutes Jon returned with bad news. There were two more fields of snow that he could see, the first possibly crossable, the second possibly not.
We could see the top of the pass only half a mile ahead and knew that any snow would be on our side of the pass as it was north facing. We had a choice, try to ride 30 miles back to the last road, over rough terrain, potentially in the dark, or push onward hoping to break through the snowfields and cross the pass knowing that a road lay only 12 miles over the mountain. We gave ourselves a two hour deadline of 5:30 pm and moved the bikes over the first of the snow fields and onwards towards the second.
The second field was crossed fairly easily by jumping off the bikes with the engines running and pushing. This would have been hard at sea level, but at this altitude, uphill, over 50 meters the effect was devastating. We all crossed but collapse was pretty inevitable. As we each took our turn there was usually someone on their knees rasping for breath, eyes bulging. The stupidity of the situation caused many attempts at laughing, usually cut short by a lack of oxygen!
initial investigation showed the final north side snow field was an altogether more serious affair. It lasted 'forever', and pushing the bikes across was NOT going to be an option. The snow was soft, and sinking knee deep I crossed looking for harder patches of snow. I wished we had crossed earlier in the morning when there may have been a crust of harder snow known as neve. It would certainly have made life a lot easier.
Stefs bike was first across, it took three of us 30 minutes of lung wrenching effort and we were exhausted by the time we had crossed. I took the bike while Stef and Jon rested, keen to see the summit and check for further problems. The top was a welcome site, the snow field on the other side was not! It was short though', and mostly downhill (albeit at an angle of around 70 degrees!). I decided upon a strategy of one problem at a time and returned to find unloaded bikes ready to cross. Jons KTM was the second bike to cross, but it was no lightweight XR400. 200kgs of bike with a 7 gallon tank nearly killed us all. It took over 45 minutes to heave across the snow and at any given time there were at least two of us gasping and rolling around like exhausted fools. Our heads pulsed with furiously pumped blood as slipping, cursing, and gasping, we dragged the bike one foot at a time across a seemingly endless expanse of white mashed potato. This was undoubtedly the high point of the trip!
Speak for yourself mate! Being the one pushing from behind I proceeded to get rather impressively wet and not a little chilled, most especially in the 'delicate' regions. It's an odd feeling sweating buckets and being cold at the same time. Still, once we were going, it only took fifteen minutes to dry and the whole episode was quite farcically funny.
When we finally crested the last rise and the bike hit rock we would have cheered, if we could. The only good point about hauling the KTM was the development of a limited form of technique which we then used to drag the final Honda across rather more rapidly than the first. It was 5pm, we had one snow field to go and 12 miles of technical riding...
The Tomichi summit called for a Photo. Powder blue sky was dotted with high spots of cloud and the thin air was cold and crisp. in the distance were numerous nameless peaks and a uniformity of wilderness which is surely unattainable in Europe. The camera was balanced precariously on a rock and the three of us stood before it (I suspect) quietly proud of our achievements. We paused only briefly before pioneering a new riding technique. We called it, 'droppingyourbikesdownabigsnowslopewhilstsittingonthembeccauseyourtooexhaustedtodoanythingelse'. Possibly the name will not catch on, but the technique certainly works!!
Some rather unusual photos later we blasted down a track which earlier in the day would have had us decidedly worried. At this point we really didn't care!! 6:30 pm and were eating snickers bars and drinking gallons of cold liquid at a bizarre mountain store at 'only' 7000ft.
We began to discuss the merits of pushing onward toward our final destination against finding a hotel locally for the night. Jon was all for continuing along the trail and completing our last 80 miles there and then, but I wasn't so sure. I knew that I didn't want to ride at night. The potential for accidents was magnified enormously and we were all tired. After a heated discussion I refused to continue and forced the issue to a close. I have ridden many miles on bikes through a number of different environments. My idea of a successful trip is returning home in one piece, I know from hard won experience that there is no glory in hurting yourself except to those who know little about adventure travel. I figured that if the road was as quick and easy as Jon predicted then we would ride it far more quickly in the morning leaving us to complete the days riding from 10am to 7pm. If the track turned out to be difficult riding it at night would benefit no one.
At 8pm and Jon and I sat in a Jacuzzi, he had made no mention of the incident and seemed content to discuss how much easier it is travelling in America than the deserts of Africa. I was grateful for the simplicity of the discussion, heated although it may have been we had both travelled long and far enough to know that once over it meant nothing. Sadly we couldn't stay long to discuss the matter further, we had a restaurant booking for 8:30...