I’ve Never Suffered So Much: Stuck on the Kokopelli

10.27.2011 | 7:33 am

A Note from Fatty: I’ve been quietly and secretly working on a big project recently. Monday I’ll announce it.

Another Note from Fatty: Today’s story, by Chris C, strikes kinda close to home, since I’ve been stuck in essentially the same place. It’s a great story of suffering. Enjoy!

Mid-March might be too early to ride Kokopelli’s Trail, but that’s exactly what my friends John and Kathleen and I set out to do. We are not novice riders: we’ve done distance, we’ve done mountains, and we’re all LT100 vets. Supporting us was our friend Doug (and his dad and son). He’s quick-thinking, even-tempered, and is himself an experienced enduro rider.

koko group pic.jpg
The whole group, left to right: Kathleen Porter, John Adamson, Doug Keiser, Chris Congdon, John Keiser, Brian Keiser

The third day was to be our toughest. 42 miles is not a long distance, but the terrain would be challenging. (Cowskin to Rock Castle) We’d start with a climb up a mesa, then down into and up out of two canyons … and then after lunch, a steady 18 mile climb to a point called Bull Draw, on top of a mesa at 8500 ft. At Bull Draw, our dirt road was to become paved for a nice six mile descent to camp.

The day began beautifully. The scenery was sensational as we dropped into slot canyons, riding rock trails and ledges. We made our lunch stop in the Fisher Valley. On this day, there was only one possible spot to bail out of the Kokopelli Trail, and this was it. It was 2:15 in the afternoon. It didn’t dawn on us that we had only covered half of our distance, but had already used more than half of our daylight. We had 18 miles of climbing ahead, but 18 miles is about the distance of one of my typical lunch-hour gravel road rides so why worry?

The road out of Fisher Valley was soft so it was hard to maintain momentum. Kathleen was feeling sluggish. Kat’s a strong rider, we all have our off days – unfortunately, this was one of hers. We were making only three miles an hour.

After setting up our campsite, Doug drove up to Bull Draw at the top of the mesa, and looked out in the direction from which we would come. As far as he could see, our route was covered in snow. We were heading into a mountain pass that hadn’t been traversed on anything other than a snowmobile since sometime last autumn. Doug drove the 30 or 40 miles back down the mesa, and then up the Fisher Valley to our bail-out spot, as he considered the snowfield impassible. Throughout the afternoon he’d occasionally try his cell phone, but there was no service in the valley.

On the trail, we continued climbing. I would ride a mile and then we’d stop to regroup. Kathleen was struggling. Sometimes John would ride with me and sometimes with Kat. Mostly he hung between us – keeping Kat in sight, but not piling on any more pressure. It was getting cooler as we climbed. We each had a light jacket in our packs, but that was it for extra clothing.

With about six miles to go in our climb we hit the first snowbank. It was small and we missed its monumental significance … that we were approaching the snowline, we still had six miles of climbing, and daylight was getting away from us.

The road became a sticky gumbo that collected on our tires and drivetrains and then our wheels wouldn’t go around anymore. We walked, slipping and sliding, pushing our bikes which had to weigh about 40lb with all the collected mud. After about an hour, we held a little council. Should we turn around? Ahead was 4 more miles of climbing – probably walking – and by this point turning around and going downhill in the mud also meant walking. We realized too late that we were in too deep.

We talked of splitting up, with me going ahead to tell Doug what was happening, but decided to stay together. I had a survival blanket in my pack, and if we had to spend the night on out on this mesa, we’d be warmer together. Also, we’d been seeing big kitty tracks. I didn’t want to be alone in the wilderness after dark. We’d occasionally try a cell phone call to Doug, but here in canyon country, we couldn’t connect. Kat fired off a text, thinking that Doug would receive it whenever he got back into coverage. John & I didn’t know what the text said. We pushed on. At nearly the last moment with enough daylight to read the map, we fixed our position with about 2.5 more miles of climbing to Bull Draw. We also had reached the snowfield.

During this time, Doug had made the round trip again from valley to mesa to valley to see if there was any sign of us. He was more than concerned. He didn’t consider the snowfield to be passable and yet we were not down in the valley, either. He concluded that we were in trouble, and that he was not going to be able to help us on his own.

We were struggling in the snowfield. I don’t want to over-dramatize our situation: we knew where we were, we had food, water and my survival blanket for shelter. But, you don’t have to read too many issues of Backpacker magazine to find a similar story with a grim ending. Our cause was not lost, but we had used up our allotment of bad decisions. We had to be hyper-alert for hypothermia and that precise moment when NOW is the time to stop and shelter-up for the night.

We had two miles to walk, in the dark, in the snow, in our spandex clothes and plastic shoes. Our mud-caked bikes were now accumulating ice as well. Every few steps they’d break through the crusty surface and sink to the hubs, and we’d have to heft them up again. It was totally exhausting.

Carrying the bike was too much for Kat, and she simply abandoned hers. She was stumbling a little and her teeth were chattering and I was scared for her, but it didn’t seem time to stop just yet. I walked ahead a little bit, trying to focus on the distant point that I hoped was Bull Draw. John kept encouraging both of us, and tried breaking a track for Kat to walk in. We walked single file, stopping often to rest, and in time, we tried Kat’s phone again.

Doug had decided to drive out of Fisher Valley until he had cell service, and then call for help. He had gone a few miles when his phone chimed. He stopped, read the text from Kat. “HELP” As he moved to dial 911 the phone rang in his hand. It was us.

We were able to tell Doug that we were in the snowfield with maybe a mile and a half to Bull Draw and he was able to tell us that the paved road down the other side was open and he would meet us there. At that point John and I also abandoned our bikes and we put our efforts into moving forward together.

John took the point and we walked like blind people, single file with our hands on the shoulders of the one in front. We could hear the wind roaring over our head, coming up from the other side of the mesa. We’d do about thirty steps, rest, thirty steps, rest. Our feet were freezing and the icy crust bloodied our shins.

And then … eventually … the snow wasn’t quite as deep. Snow became slush became mud and finally we were on blacktop. The icy wind made us have to shout at each other, but we were on pavement, walking downhill, holding hands: obviously the first cyclists to crest Bull Draw from Fisher Valley in the 2011 season. Ten minutes later we were in the truck.

Doug calls our cell connection a God thing, and I’m with him on that — what else could it be on a day that had offered no other communication? It would take a while for us to really warm up, and as tired as I was, I didn’t sleep very well that night. You can imagine that this has left us with a lot to talk about: bad decisions, fear, exhaustion. But we do these things for the experience — to have a story to tell.

And, I think it was at breakfast the next morning when John kind of smiled and said, “It was the best!”

ccong mug shot.jpgAbout the Author: Chris Congdon is Media Coordinator at First United Methodist in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He loves road TTs and MTB XC racing. He says he’s not good at either, but has a ton of fun.


  1. Comment by GenghisKhan | 10.27.2011 | 7:55 am

    Whoa! Great story and glad it had a happy ending!

  2. Comment by evil3 | 10.27.2011 | 8:06 am

    Just from reading this I got chills.

    But I am still left with the question, when did you go back to get the bikes?

  3. Comment by Gabi | 10.27.2011 | 8:36 am

    Wow great story! I hope you went back to get your bikes!

  4. Comment by The Incredible Woody | 10.27.2011 | 8:38 am

    I am a long time reader and member of Team Fatty. I would like to ask a favor of other Friends of Fatty.

    My cousin, Joe B., is a hand-cyclist. While serving in Iraq, he lost his legs when his unit ran across an IED. After the recovering from the initial wounds, he floundered. Our family wondered if he would ever truly recover.

    And then he discovered cycling. Cycling turned his life around. He now rides and races competitively with Achilles International on their Freedom Team of Wounded Warriors.

    Joe is now a finalist in the Sports Illustrated/Gillette Greatness In Sports contest. He could use some support. And I know just how supportive the Friends of Fatty are! So please take just a second of your day to click the link below and vote for Joe B. You can vote daily thru Nov. 14. You don’t even have to give your email address to vote.

    So please take a second to vote for fellow cyclist, Joe B.


    Thanks so much!!

  5. Comment by Gumby | 10.27.2011 | 9:24 am

    What about the abandoned bikes? Did the big kitty get them?

  6. Comment by roan | 10.27.2011 | 9:24 am

    Chris, take a lesson from Fatty methods…when is Part II, the recovery of the bikes ?
    Part II could include additional details of errors, fears, and a kitty encounter just for suspense.

  7. Comment by davidh-marin, ca | 10.27.2011 | 9:26 am

    Who amongst us has not done something similar? Maybe not mud, snow, and ice, (and a bike) but some similar foolish ‘exercise’. That’s why were ‘Fatties’ !!!!

    Great Story! I hope when I get to ride the Kokopelli the weather Gods look favorably on us…. or I’ll have my own suffering story to tell.

  8. Comment by The Flyin' Ute | 10.27.2011 | 11:06 am

    Great story. I’ve ridden that same road. It goes on forever! Glad you made it out ok.

  9. Comment by Liz | 10.27.2011 | 11:29 am

    Glad you all got out of there okay. Am also curious about the bikes. Thanks for your account of the adventure.

  10. Comment by Dave T | 10.27.2011 | 11:42 am

    Great story there is nothing worse than mud that keeps building up on your bike except then having to walk miles through snow. Glad it had a happy ending.

  11. Comment by AK Chick | 10.27.2011 | 12:32 pm

    Wow. That story left me with chills and a lump in my throat. I’m so happy that everyone made it out okay. I’d love to hear the story about retrieving the bikes. In this case, calm heads and logic prevailed and everyone was able to make it out. It was most definitely a “God thing” that the cell worked when it did. Thank God that everyone survived to ride another day and have a really great story to tell. It’s also an object lesson for the rest of us for sure! Up here in Alaska, people ride all throughout the year, but up here, we are usually prepared (well, I don’t ride very far in the winter so I don’t count). We have special fat tire bikes and folks usually have big packs or sleds that have all their survival gear. I work with an amazing athlete that does these crazy cross country ski races where the only support you have is you and your partner and he also does the Iditarod bike races. Amazing! Loving the guest posts more and more! :)

    Also, does anyone else hate it when Fatty does the hey I’m working on this project but you have to wait FOUR FREAKING DAYS to find out what it is? Maybe it’s just me? I’m not the most patient person in the world…

  12. Comment by AK Chick | 10.27.2011 | 12:32 pm

    Oh yes, Incredible Woody, I voted for cousin! :) Good luck to him!

  13. Comment by Sara | 10.27.2011 | 2:20 pm

    It’s like one of those “I Survived…” TV shows. I love those stories! :)

  14. Comment by davidh-marin, ca | 10.27.2011 | 6:00 pm

    @AK Chick If you are “..not the most patient person in the world” might I suggest another place than Alaska! By December the sun goes down at 3:30 in the afternoon and comes up around 10 in the morning. Patience is an Alaskan staple!

    Our trouble with a Fatty Project is that it means we’ll be opening the wallet, and Wife#1 already has “THE SOCKS” (thank you Sasha),

  15. Comment by davidh-marin, ca | 10.27.2011 | 6:04 pm

    Oh, and another thing AK Chick. I hope “the incredible woody” is just a car.


  16. Comment by Mark in Ottawa | 10.27.2011 | 7:48 pm

    Great story! I’m so happy it turned out well for your group considering how easily it could have gone incredibly wrong!

    Like others, I’d love to hear the bike recovery story! Please tell me you guys went there the next day at the crack of dawn to get your bikes!

    Thanks for sharing your great adventure.

    Mark (in Ottawa, Canada)

  17. Comment by AK_Chick | 10.27.2011 | 9:39 pm

    Hey DavidH – well, I guess you kinda adapt to the darkness (headlamps) so that even though it’s annoying, you just deal with it. Plus our summers are AWESOME with ALL the daylight so it totally makes up for dark winter days. :)

    I’m so happy I could get Wife#1 the signed socks! So worth it!

    Oh and woody is the commenter whose cousin is trying to win a contest. I don’t think he’s a car unless cars can talk. ;)

  18. Comment by Hautacam | 10.27.2011 | 9:46 pm

    Very. Close. Call.

    Glad it had a happy ending.

    Lots don’t.

  19. Comment by john adamson | 10.27.2011 | 10:10 pm

    Got the bikes the next day. With the warmth of the sun and the light of the day it wasn’t too bad. We were surprisingly close to the end of the trail and the beginning of the road. Couple of pictures HERE of the following day twisted-spokes.blogspot.com

  20. Comment by cece | 10.28.2011 | 5:49 am

    Wow! What a great story! I am so glad it ended well! You never know what can happen out there….when it’s just you, your bike and the road….

  21. Comment by evil3 | 10.28.2011 | 9:51 am

    Just checked out the pic’s, and that is some “deep” snow that you would not want to get stuck in. (note I know it isn’t that deep, but it is deeper then you would want to be stuck in with only cycling cloths and 1 survival blanket)

  22. Comment by The Incredible Woody | 10.28.2011 | 12:46 pm

    @AK Chick – Thanks so much for your vote! Amazing the difference cycling can make in/for someone’s life.

    And yes, I’m very much a person. And not a person that is extremely proud of the land ‘down south’. In fact, I’m a girl:) My nickname was given to me by my then 2-year-old niece – she couldn’t say my name and it came out Woody. The name stuck. I added ‘Incredible’ because I thought it was funny!

  23. Comment by GJ Jackie | 10.31.2011 | 10:16 am

    Brrrr! Snow sucks. It’s amazing how the temps can change within a few thousand feet of elevation. Easy to forget when it’s nice and warm down in the canyon bottom.


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