Hard To Fathom Tour - Part Three

We continue with Part Three of Salsa sponsored rider Brett Davis' tale of the Hard To Fathom Tour. -Kid

Click here to read Part One.

Click here to read Part Two.

After about six weeks of work and waiting for powder, etc., a start was made to move the wagons down the hole. I had a well-broken team and hitched it on to B. Perkins wagon and drove it down through the hole. Long ropes were provided and about 20 men and boys held on to the wagons to make sure that there would be no accidents, through [brakes] giving way, or horses cutting up after their long lay off, but all went smooth and safe, and by the 28th, most of the wagons were across the river and work had commenced again on the Cottonwood Canyon– another very rough proposition.—Klumen Jones, January 1880

Travis and I thought we had seen it all with our negotiation of the Emigrant Trail across Grey Mesa, but after carrying our first load up and through what is known as the Hole in the Rock, our wonder in the determination of the Mormon pioneers was further elevated. After finding a route through the deep vegetation of Cottonwood Canyon to the turquoise waters of Lake Powell, we inflated our packrafts and prepped for the paddle across the lake. In January of 1880, the Colorado ran free through Glen Canyon. The pioneers had to make it 2000’ down through a notch in the seemingly impenetrable sandstone canyon walls to the Colorado River. Once there, they were carried across the river on a wooden ferry built by Charles Hall. On the other side, ascending Cottonwood Canyon became their next challenge.    

Lake Powell at last. Transition time…

Paddling across the lake was an uneventful affair for us and a welcome respite from the previous days of pedaling. Under a cobalt blue sky, our paddles sliced through the calm waters. With each stroke my mind wandered back in time, imagining what it would be like to see the west’s greatest river flowing through this landscape. How many historical artifacts are buried in silt beneath the surface?! Today, approximately one-third of the Hole in the Rock trail is now under water. 

Paddling above a lost river…

Paddling into the secluded cove, we looked up at the weakness in the steep walls. We would have to go up what the pioneers had descended. From the looks of it, it was going to be like our previous rock scramble but longer. We transferred our Salsa Blackborow bike frames from our packrafts to our backs and began the initial haul up the “trail.” With each step up, I became more and more impressed with the tenacity and ingenuity of the pioneers. They had spent weeks blasting the notch to widen it and create a road to move 83 wagons, 250 people, and 1000 head of livestock to the Colorado River. At times, Travis and I were making 4th class and easy 5th class climbing moves to gain headway up to the top. Amazing!

The famed Hole in the Rock…

Carry number one…

Remnants of a “road”…

Once at the top, we dumped our first load and headed back down for what we hoped would be the final carry. In addition to the rest of our gear, we had to carry a full load of water, given that the lake would be our last known water source. After an afternoon of ferrying loads, we crested the hole for the final time. Before us lay yet another rolling desert of sage and sand. This time, however, it was bisected by a gravel road that was negotiable by two-wheel drive vehicles. Wahoo! Hopefully, we could now make up some lost time.

Finally, a road where we could make up some time.  Photo courtesy of Travis Anderson

Another objective completed.  Photo courtesy of Travis Anderson

Our plan was to continue west on the road following the sign posts of the historic route. After about sixty miles of riding, we would leave the road for another historic wagon trail that would take us across the Waterpocket Fold to the edge of Capital Reef National Park and the western side of the Henry Mountains. It was now our fourth day into the eight-day tour, and we still hadn’t reached the halfway point. As a doctor, Travis doesn’t have the leeway I do in my profession as an outdoor educator to miss an unplanned day of work. He has a full schedule of patients to see, and thus, had to be back to work within the next five days. As we hoisted our legs back over our bikes and began pedaling into the sunset, self-doubt began to creep in as to the viability of finishing our loop on time. What were our options for shortening the trip?

Motoring along Fifty Mile Mountain…

Trying to quiet the panic demons, I used their energy to propel myself along the road. Forward motion was the key. We could finish this without help; we just had to stay committed and keep moving just as those before us had done. Rolling into yet another beautiful spot, we made camp on a slick rock bench overlooking the multi-layered Fifty Mile Mountain. Just a few days ago this mountain was but a thin outline in the distance. Now it dominated our every view. Exhausted we both fell asleep thinking about all that we had accomplished during the day: an early morning start at 5:30 AM; a hike-a-bike down into Cottonwood Canyon with some brief riding stints bookmarked by bushwhacking through a thickly vegetated wash, a paddle across Lake Powell, a four-hour portage, and another 20 miles of riding until we lost our daylight. Whew! What would tomorrow bring?

Another day of the tour completed…

Our starts had been early, but with the lingering feeling of not being able to complete our loop on time, a sense of urgency crept in. Moving our wake-up time to 5 a.m., we prepared for the day as darkness turned to gray on the eastern horizon. With the day’s first rays illuminating our backs, we pedaled onward towards where the pioneers had started their journey. By late morning we had made good time and were now starting to loop back towards our tour’s beginning. Having left the Hole in the Rock Road, we descended towards a wash that we hoped would allow us to cross the Waterpocket Fold with little hardship. 

Time to begin the day

As our road ended, so did our riding. We had left the Emigrant Trail and were now following a wagon route that was developed as an alternative to reaching the Colorado River via the Hole in the Rock. At the entrance to the wash was the word “Wilderness,” which means bicycles or any other mechanized travel are not permitted. In planning our route, it was hard to discern on the map the wilderness boundary in relation to the wagon route. Staring at the signs before us, it was now very clear where the boundary was drawn. What were we to do? 

Our final bit of road…

We had two options: (1) Retrace our tracks and ride an additional 15 miles to a two-lane highway that would take us further west and away from our end point, but would get us around the Waterpocket Fold. This detour would add 70 to 100 miles of riding, nearly all on pavement. (2) Lash everything to our backs including our bikes in one heavy load and hike through the wilderness. Sitting under a towering cottonwood tree, we refueled with some lunch and began weighing the pros and cons of each choice. Riding an extra 100 miles would put more pressure on whether or not we could finish the tour in our allotted time—which was quickly dwindling. Carrying our bikes overland down a sandy wash would be hard and frankly, would suck. With each bite of my pepperoni and cheese wrap, my energy for the hike grew. Let the challenges continue, we would stay the course and endure.

Loaded and ready for a hike.  Photo courtesy of Travis Anderson

Hiking down the wash was like dropping into a funnel. The walls and the canyon vegetation began to close in. After a couple of miles, we arrived at the wilderness boundary. Wahoo! Back on our bikes, we began riding through the flowing water that provided the path of least resistance through the thicket around us. We had once again found some prime fatbike terrain. Staring up at the ever growing canyon walls, we marveled at our fortune of where we were and what we were doing.

The riding was primo…

It doesn’t get much better than this.  Photo courtesy of Travis Anderson

Continuing downstream, our riding episodes became less frequent as the sand below our tires became softer and softer. This was a recipe for quick sand. Just as this thought was easing into my mind, my front tire sunk and all momentum came to a stop pitching me to my left. Before I knew it, I was hip deep in quick sand with the Blackborow on top of me. Remaining still, Travis dragged the bike off of me and onto firmer ground. He then extended me a long stick in order to give me a helping hand. There was no getting pulled out of this predicament. My foot felt like it was encased in a block of cement. I could wiggle my toes, but that was it. Forcing my leg out would most likely result in a broken ankle. 

Just like that, my left hip was buried in quick sand.  Photo courtesy of Travis Anderson

I had to go out the same way I went in, which would mean I needed to be able to flex my ankle. As fast as I dug to my knee, the water and sand mixture would fill back in engulfing my thigh once again. I needed to be quicker. After twenty minutes of continual scooping, I got to the lower half of my calf and gained some flexion in my foot. Belly flopping onto the surface, I extracted my left leg and crawled to safety. We now had a new challenge to overcome.

It wasn’t graceful, but I made it out.  Photo courtesy of Travis Anderson

With the quick sand and impassable vegetation, our pace slowed to a crawl. Stopping a mile short of our original goal for the day, we made camp under a monstrous overhang watching bats dive to and fro in a feeding frenzy. Mentally and physically exhausted, we drifted into dreamland wondering if we would have been better off choosing the first option.

The massive overhang that kept us dry from the threatening skies…



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This post filed under topics: Beargrease Bikepacking Blackborow Brett Davis Explore Fatbike Mountain Biking Mukluk Sponsored Riders

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Brett Davis

Brett Davis

I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.


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Mike | July 6th, 2016

Good grief! Quick sand? I didn’t see that coming. Good thing you weren’t alone.

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Jamie Frazer-mann | May 4th, 2017

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