Doug and I had been riding our mountain bikes so much that we started getting cocky. We decided to ride the White Rim Trail in one dayâ€”something we had done beforeâ€”but this time we wanted to turn it into more of an adventure. We decided to ride it on the summer solstice, with temperatures between 115 F and 120 F.
White Rim Trail is a 100-mile loop above the confluence of the Colorado River and Green River in Southeastern Utah. Most guide books list the White Rim Trail as a 3- to 5-day mountain bike ride that requires a support vehicle. After you turn off I-70 and go south on Highway 191 towards Moab, you turn right towards Dead Horse Point, drive all the way up onto the plateau, and park your car. You can ride the loop in either direction: turning right and dropping down Horsethief Trail, or turning left and dropping down Shafer Trail. Either way, you dropped about 1,000 feet onto the rim.
Doug and I drove separate cars so that we could run a shuttle and cut out the boring paved road. We dropped off Doug’s car at the top of Horsethief Trail and camped a few miles away from the Shafer trail head. The sun had just set; it was light and calm outside. The La Sal mountains glowed in the twilight air, creating a pleasant backdrop against the brown sand and red bluffs of the Colorado Plateau. Edward Abbey country.
Shafer Trail to Vertigo Void
The alarm rang at 5:20 am. Doug slapped himself on the side of the head a few times to clear the cobwebs. Half awake, we ate granola bars and bananas in the pre-dawn gloaming, and drank as much water as our stomachs could hold. We loaded our bikes with as much water as we could carry. I had a special Camelbak that holds two bladders, two bottles on my bike, and another bottle in a fanny pack.
The ride began as the sun crested above the horizon. During the first 15 minutes, we descended more than 1,000 feet to the floor of White Rim, rattling down Shafer Trail. We were feeling good.
Riding swiftly along the undulating jeep trail, we averaged over 12 miles an hour for the first four hours. The trail is a bumpy, non-technical jeep road that gradually descends. We should have been riding more slowly, saving our energy, but I didn’t want Doug to think I was lagging, and I’m sure he felt the same way. We had one rule: if one of us bonked and couldn’t keep going, the other guy gets his water. We liked this ruleâ€”it made us feel like cold-hearted Darwinian bastards.
Four hours into the rideâ€”around 10 o’clockâ€”we reached Vertigo Void, which is a little further than the halfway point. I walked to the edge, lay down, and hung my head over the precipice.
My whole body became paralyzed. The ledge is actually an overhang that cuts back about 30 feet from the edge, like a big diving board. When you hang your head over the edge, which is about 12 inches thick, you feel like you’re suspended in the middle of the air 200 feet above the earth. It isn’t quite that high, but the dizzying view clouds your perspective. I was so stunned by the experience that I vowed my final act on this earth would be to ride my bike off the ledge and crash to my deathâ€”later.
We hung around Vertigo Void for an hour or so, feeling confident and tireless. If we continued at our current pace, we would finish the ride at around 3:00 in the afternoon. Not a bad little workout. “Hell, we might even have time to do another ride today,” I told Doug.
“Maybe two or three more rides,” he said, tossing a banana over the edge and watching it explode on a juniper bush below. “Let’s see how we feel.”
We were idiots.
There were no clouds and no wind and no peopleâ€”only a few canyon wrens and ravens flitting noisily above us. I wondered why we hadn’t seen anyone else on such a pleasant day.
“It’s going to be a hot one,” Doug said. “We better get going.”
Vertigo Void to Green River
It was about the time we left Vertigo Void when things started to fall apart for us. While descending a hill, I crashed headlong into a boulder, flipped over my bike and landed on my helmet. I patted my body to make sure nothing was broken, and then I noticed an empty water bottle next to my upturned bike. I was already thirsty, and now more than half of my water was gone. I was already tired of this ill-planned adventureâ€”I wanted to turn back.
Just before noon, when we first felt the heat, we reached Murphy Hogback. Murphy Hogback is a series of steep switchbacks that takes you away from the Colorado River side of White Rim, over a plateau, and down toward the Green River. We shifted into granny gear and started the climb.
It was getting hotter. Our legs felt weak and thick with blood. Sweat soaked our clothes and streaked across our sunglasses. The intense heat forced us to portage our bikes up pitches that under cooler conditions would have posed little difficulty. After a half hour or so of hard riding and hiking, we found some shade under an overhanging rock at the top of Murphy Hogback. The little water I had left tasted warm and nasty. Energy bars and trail food stuck in my throat like sawdust. Doug took his thermometer keychain out of his pack. It was 96 F in the shade, and it wasn’t even noon yet.
“We’d better get going.”
We rode hard for another 10 miles or so. The fine red sand stuck to our chains and cogs, causing our bikes to grind with each stroke. Every once in a while, I passed through a pocket of heat, which felt like opening an oven door to check the brownies. I was hot and sweaty and tired. The thought of traversing the remaining 25 miles of difficult terrain made me feel sick and feeble. My thoughts turned to sipping cold water beneath a shady palm tree.
Riding slowly and fearing that we had done a very stupid thing, we rode around a bend in the trail, where we saw the Green River in full view some 60 feet below us. That’s it! Our panacea! All we had to do was climb down the bluffs and take a quick dip in the river and we would be like new! Born again! We got off our bikes and scrambled down the cliffs, pointing and saying stupid things like “River” and “Water.” We took off our dirty, sweaty clothes and jumped in the river, splashing and swirling around in a river eddy. Sitting there in the cool water of the Green River, I thought it was silly to have ever doubted our ability.
The confidence didn’t last long.
Green River to Horsethief Trail
The simple act of climbing back up the cliff made us hot and sweaty and fatigued. We started to ride again. It was already 3 o’clock, and we still had about 15 miles to go, including the last mileâ€”a steep, thousand-foot climbâ€”to the top of Horsethief Trail. What little water I had left was warm and repulsive. I looked for any excuse to get off my bike and rest. While relieving myself, I noticed that my urine had turned a strange color. I tipped up my sunglasses to see if my eyes weren’t playing tricks. A crazy color of orange and florescent yellow splashed onto the sandstone. Doug told me he was seeing little white flecks. I told him not to worry because I saw the same white flecks. He said it was 117 F. I told him he must be reading his thermometer wrong.
Soon, we spent more time resting than riding. Each time I got up after a rest, I swooned and fought off dizziness, staring intently at the distant sandstone wobbling in the heat. Clipping into the sand-filled pedals with over-heated shoes, I regretted each mashing pedal stroke that inched me painfully along. My only hope was that once we got to the bottom of Horsethief Trail, we could ride to the top of the mesa on sheer determination and adrenaline.
We had ridden only 6 miles in two hours. Doug was about 100 yards ahead of me, but I didn’t care about keeping up anymore. I just wanted to keep moving.
At about 6 o’clock we reached the bottom of Horsethief Trail, where we faced over a mile of steep switchbacks. I chugged half a bottle of the tepid water and suddenly felt so nauseous I could no longer stand. My head pounded. We could see the general area where our car was parked at the top of the trail, but it seemed impossible to get there. We rested for an hour, mumbling and cursing. Mustering all our courage and strength for the final assault, we walked our bikes up the hill with our heads on our handlebars. I was dizzy. My only goal in life was to lie down and stop moving.
What took us about 15 minutes to climb in a rested condition took us three hours to climb in our exhausted state. We were both dangerously sick. We told each other that we thought were going to die, and we believed each other. Doug’s face was pale green and his lips were a blueish sort of grey. He didn’t say anything about my face, and I didn’t ask.
When we were halfway to the top of Horsethief Trail, I told Doug that I didn’t think I was up for doing a second ride that day.
“Yeah,” Doug said with a sarcastic, hoarse voice. “It’s getting too dark.”
We forced ourselves to plod along at a pathetically slow pace. After an hour or so of intense pain somewhat dulled by an overheated brain, I noticed that the trail no longer rose. We reached the top just as the sun set behind us. It took us another hour to get our bikes mounted and drive to our camp site. When we got there, I fell out of the car and lay in the dirt for another half hour. I don’t know if I had suffered from heat stroke or just heat exhaustion, but I was in a bad way. I finally managed to crawl into the tent, where Doug was hunched over a cooler naked , vomiting this white stuff that looked like stomach lining. I wanted to help him, but I couldn’t even unroll my sleeping bag. We knew we needed to get to a hospital, but we didn’t have the energy to crawl to the car.
After about an hour or so, I managed to get to my cooler in the corner of the tent and pull out some apple juice. I drank as much as I could and then convinced my poor, wretched friend to drink. He immediately threw up the apple juice, of course, but at least he had some fluid to vomit. Things were starting to look up.
Somehow, we made it through the long night without dyingâ€”I even slept some. When the sun rose, we had both recovered enough to throw the equipment in the back of the truck, pick up the other car, and drive into Moab, where we ate steak and eggs and hash browns and drank tomato juice and water and Gatorade and orange juice and more water and more Gatorade.
When we got home, there were a lot of I-told-you-so’s and that’s-what-you-gets and one-of-these-days….
I asked Doug whether, knowing what he knows now, he would do it all over again.