Words and photos by Erin Carroll (@erin_carroll805)
Years ago, before I started mountain biking, a fun Friday night would consist of a concert, a nightclub, or a music festival out in the desert. These days, my definition of a fun Friday night is hike-a-biking over a 10,000-foot peak at midnight in freezing rain. What’s wrong with me?
It’s Friday night, our second day on the Big Horn Trail Race in northeast Wyoming. It’s starting to rain, but that’s the least of worries. Shit is starting to get real. My gears aren’t shifting, my rear derailleur is sagging, and my chain keeps falling off, but I can’t figure out why. The nearest bike shop is at least 120 miles away. It’s getting dark, and the unknown wildlife in the creek below us are starting to make prehistoric mating noises.
After an hour of messing with my bike, Gregg notices that my inner chain ring is cracked. Shit!That chunky trail we just went down must be the culprit! At least I have two chainrings and my harder eleven gears still work. Let’s keep pedaling, we need to break mile 100 tonight! The stress of my mechanical issues and the long day in the saddle are starting to take their toll. I can’t seem to read the topo lines on my GPS properly. I thought we were descending to a creek, but it now appears there’s nothing but uphill from here. Two false summits later, we finally top out on a plateau on the south shoulder of Elk Mountain. There’s an unknown animal near the top with glistening eyes looking straight at me. Perhaps a mountain lion, but in my state of mind, it could just as well be a small cow. The next descent is so cold we have to stop to put our hands down our pants just to warm up. Around midnight we finally find a suitable place to camp at mile 78 in an old cabin with no roof and barely any walls left. Yes, that’s right. We’re 36 hours into this ride and we are at mile 78!
Day four. After a much needed resupply in the tiny town of Shell, we ride relatively easy dirt roads along the western shoulders of the Bighorns, admiring the contrasting hues of yellow, red, and black soils. The Yellowstone Caldera last erupted about 640,000 years ago, and that eruption was 2,500 times larger than Mount St. Helens. Some of that pumice flew east and landed where we are now riding. It was sunny earlier today but clouds are now forming in the west. It starts to sprinkle, then rain a little harder. We put our rain clothes on and keep pedaling. We finally reach a high point and it’s really pouring now. There’s a creek at the bottom that sounds like a logical goal for hunkering down to camp. The only problem is the fine pumice from that ancient eruption is now turning into peanut butter of various flavors: smooth unsalted, chocolate, and red chili. The next four miles (all downhill) takes us no less than two hours. We finally reach the creek and spend an hour washing our bikes and ourselves off. We don’t say it, but we both know our race is over.
I have an affinity for smaller, lesser-known bikepacking events that are rugged and singletrack heavy. The type of events that you can count on one hand how many people show up. This is what bikepacking is to me. Call me crazy, but I would rather be the first person to climb some unknown 900-foot cliff than be the 4,149th person to climb Mount Everest. I usually find that the fewer people who show up, the more scenic and beautiful the route is. The Big Horn Trail Race is amazingly scenic and was no exception to this rule. It was a new loop route for 2019, and we were the second and third people to ever attempt it. As of today, no one has finished this course. Nobody likes the dreaded DNF. You’re not good enough, you’re not fit enough, or you don’t have the mental toughness. Most of the time one or all of the above apply, but sometimes the mountains make the decision for you.
Here’s some logistical / practical information on the Bighorn Trail Race:
- Creator: Aaron Denberg
- Distance: 325 miles
- Climbing: 46,000 feet
- Days to complete: Unless you’re a speed animal, allow at least six days. At least eight days for touring pace.
- Air Travel: The most economical location to fly into is Casper, Wyoming. Sheridan has more expensive flights from Denver.
- Ground Travel: The most economical way to get from Casper to Buffalo would be to hitchhike. But if that doesn’t work, a rental car was only about $200 total for six days. It is a pretty easy drive from Casper to Buffalo.
- Wildlife: Apparently, there are only black bears in the Bighorn Mountains. Bear spray would be overkill. We saw deer, moose, and pronghorn elk (my favorite). We used Locksack bags for our food and had no issues. Our least favorite animal along the way were cattle. There are more cows than humans in Wyoming. The cattle herds can get in your way, kick up dust, poop on you, and slow you down.
- Resupply: Resupply points are on the website. Stores and lodges are minimal, but adequate. If you are a vegetarian, be prepared to eat a lot of bread, cheese, and ice cream. If you are a vegan, you might die on this route. By far, our favorite stop was High Country Lodge at mile 190. They have free WiFi (all the other lodges would not give a WiFi password), and they even have a veggie burger on their menu!
- Bike Shop: We shipped our bikes to and from Gear up and Get out There in Casper. They were very friendly and are close to the airport. There are no bike shops on route. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a really well thought out repair kit. We broke three derailleurs between two of us. Bringing an extra rear derailleur might not be a bad idea.
Stay tuned for details on the 2020 Big Horn Trail Race. We’ll be sure to update the events calendar when info comes available. For now, head over to the Big Horn Trail Race website for more info on the event.
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