Failed Attempt at the San Rafael Loop

Not every trip can go according to plan, and I was reminded of that on my recent attempt to complete a 67 mile bikepacking loop through the San Rafael Swell, starting at Temple Mountain.

 My attitude at the start of the trip was drastically different than at the end!

My attitude at the start of the trip was drastically different than at the end!

The loop traverses a beautiful segment of Utah’s rugged desert landscape, and is fairly approachable (when the weather’s right!). If you are interested in trying this one out for yourself, check out Bikepacking.com’s write up: http://www.bikepacking.com/routes/swell-night-out/ and take me with you so I can give it another shot!

There are so many articles on how to prep equipment and planning routes, so I’ll just cut straight to what went wrong for me.

  1. WEATHER

    The forecast called for constant rain and cooler temperatures. I knew riding through the rain would kind of suck, but I’ve seen plenty of pictures of other gritty bikers doing it, and I wanted to be tough like them! However, I highly underestimated how much of a pain in the ass the rain would be. It was raining pretty hard for canyon country, which made some segments of the road so thick with mud that I had to get off my bike and push through the goopy, sticky mess. Once I gained momentum on the descents, the mud with get flung everywhere- over me, my bags, and definitely in my drivetrain and brakes. After awhile my brakes were constantly squealing due to debris stuck in between the pad and rotors, and I could hear the crunch of the grit in between my chain, cassette, and derailleur sprockets. After 10 miles I decided to turn back, because I was afraid the wear on my drivetrain would get worse and cause damage or just break completely, leaving me to walk back to the car. Even after I rinsed it off every now and then, it would just get muddy soon after. I definitely should have been more mechanically prepared to deal with debris in the drivetrain, or just careful to keep it clean. Learning opportunity!

 It got worse…

It got worse…

2. WEATHER, AGAIN

Most of my problems stemmed from the great deal of water on the landscape, affecting either my bike or myself. In addition to causing havoc to my drivetrain, I was nearly immediately soaked to the bone despite wearing a raincoat and rain pants. My raincoat is the minimalist kind; a very thin Mountain Hardwear. It does okay for awhile, but wets out eventually. I was also working pretty hard on the ascents, so it could have just been perspiration that caused it to wet out from the inside. This is a very difficult challenge I face quite often- how to stay dry on the outside and inside? If you have a 100% waterproof coat, you’re bound to get sweaty underneath it. If it claims to be ‘breathable’, chances are it’s probably just going to wet-out after awhile anyway. Should you just embrace the wet from the start and wear a neoprene wetsuit? I’ll let you know if I find the answer to that one. Also, my fairly trustworthy basic Columbia rain pants also couldn’t hold up to the downpours. My leather approach should stood no chance, however my feet stayed fairly warm with merino wool socks. On the fast descents with the cold breeze blowing through my rain gear, I actually started to worry about hypothermia. There was no chance I was staying dry, and if I stopped to set up camp and warm up I wouldn’t make the miles I needed to complete the loop. That’s another reason why I turned around, and I hope someday I can be experienced enough to stay dry in a desert downpour whilst pedaling up steep and rocky terrain with a fully loaded bike.

 Water everywhere! The river crossings were no more than ankle deep, but it was cool to see water in terrain that would normally be dry.

Water everywhere! The river crossings were no more than ankle deep, but it was cool to see water in terrain that would normally be dry.

So, those were the main things that went wrong for me and made me bail on my route. I was super excited about completing this loop, but just got to the point where I didn’t feel safe and wasn’t really having much fun, so I made the call to turn around. However, I learned a lot and still got to see some amazing scenery. S’more things I took note of:

  • Revelate Designs bags: definitely awesome but definitely not waterproof. Putting my stuff in separate plastic baggies next time.

  • My 1X11 gearset: I need a real granny gear for climbing! Looking into a 2X setup.

  • Testing out a Garmin InReach mini: worked pretty well for tracking and messaging! Made me feel a tad safer on a solo trip in the middle of nowhere.

  • The San Rafael Swell area is super cool and has miles of roads and trails to explore. Can’t wait to go back.

Here are some more photos!