Paul Andrews

Ride Classics: Sun Valley’s Mars Ridge the long, sheepish way

In Mountain Bike Trail Reviews, Multi-Day Trips on December 15, 2009 at 2:38 am

Over the holidays the incredible news machine that is Bike Intelligencer inevitably slackens as cyclists of all bent don funny little pointed sticks or funny fat flat sticks and head for trails covered by snow.

We of course ride in snow. But we of course are nuts.

In any case, the holidays seem like a good time to run Bike Intelligencer “Classics” — that is, stories from our archives enabling readers to dream the big dreams about next spring, summer and fall. At the end of the day, all we have are our stories. If they involve bikes, they have to be good.

We’ll start with hands down the most memorable mountain bike adventure we’ve ever had, our 5-day stint in the Sun Valley-Stanley region of Idaho the summer of 2003. Because there isn’t much for the big-hit crowd in Sun Valley, it typically gets overlooked in a compendium of great MTB rides. Yet for everything BUT big hit, it’s the best place to ride phat. I took along the camcorder and helmet cam, and YouTube links are provided, but please forgive the lousy resolution. This is ancient equipment by today’s standards — the helmet cam alone took 8 AA batteries and didn’t even give TV resolution. Still, our humble package gives you an idea of the gut-sucking sweep of Idaho’s XC joys.

Roadies are from Venus, MTB’ers are from Mars

In which the Lyon King finally delivers on his promise of mountain biking Nirvana, the only problem being it was almost in the literal sense.

It was our third day in Sun Valley and I was beginning to feel restless. We hadn’t really tested our limits – the first day out had been a warmup, and the next day I’d had an annoying mechanical. And I still wasn’t feeling fully acclimated. Sun Valley starts at the 6k level, and you can get higher than 9k on a ride. That’s asking a lot of sea-level lungs the first day or two out.

We headed out Greenhorn Gulch past Imperial Gulch towards Lodgepole Gulch, with me wondering if there was a place around here called Gulches Gulch, and parked at a well-populated trailhead. Although the Mouse was fixed, I decided to go back to the Burner. For one thing, the previous day’s downhill had persuaded me that, buff or no, the trails held enough tastiness to merit full suss.

We climbed a winding switchback trail up to a bluff and caught some nice sloping singletrack up toward Mahoney Creek and the Lodgepole Gulch trail. Along the way we had our first Animal Planet encounter. Sheep! Scores of them, blocking the trail and cluttering the hillside. A Latino shepherd signaled to us to just keep pressing on, and Jim plowed through the pack while I snapped photos. It was at once hilarious and annoying. The sheep really tore up the trail. But presumably they had a grazing permit, and sheep don’t know a bike trail from the Continental Divide.

At the Mahoney/Lodgepole intersection we decided to Go Big. That meant taking Lodgepole up to Mars Ridge, then down Red Warrior to North Fork and back. We’d have our first epic, and then some.

Lodgepole was a gentle, then serious, climb that left me pretty wiped, but Jim was waiting patiently at the top, having connected with a Silicon Valley lad who was waiting for another group coming the opposite way. We chatted for a bit and then headed toward the appropriately named, red-rocked Mars Ridge. There was some hike-a-bike up to the top, but the full, untrammeled 360 views of surrounding ranges were stunning. Along the way, outcroppings of basalt and granite attested to an intriguing geological past. Jim knew of a dynamite lunch spot across the ridge, so we motored on while our Cali counterparts labored up the trail behind us. At lunch, around 8,500 feet, we watched their ant-like forms descend the ridge and head toward us. There were five in the party and the last, a woman, asked worriedly as she puffed up to our spot, “Are there any bears up here?”

“Nah!” one of the Silicon Valleyites said. “It’s too high.”

Jim said he had to bite his tongue at that one.

We headed down the backside of the ridge on a moto’d dust trail with deep stutters that at one point tossed me off the Burner. I skidded a couple dozen feet but wound up with only claw-like flesh wounds on my left calf. After my return home people kept asking what had happened, and it’s always difficult to explain that you got sliced up like a tomato while having the absolute time of your life.

We were fortunate that the weather wasn’t too hot – for the entire time we were in Sun Valley, actually. Mornings were a little coolish but not, Jim said, as chilly as the previous year. Most of the time I slept outside the sleeping bag, it was that warm.

The ride down passed through an Alice-in-Wonderland-like aspen grove, where striplings grew so close it was like plowing through a crowded Pike Place Market. We did a little singletrack, switchbacked climb up again, then dropped down a rollicking North Fork Trail to a fire road. Here’s where things got a little warm for the first time. The road was fairly steep, we were getting tired, and I wound up walking part of the way. I hate walking a fire road – how humiliating! – but even after stripping off my shirt and going helmetless I was pretty cooked.

At the end of the fire road was a creek with cold enough water to refresh us. Then we climbed back up some singletrack and I got a second set of legs. By the time we crested I was feeling pretty good, so when Jim asked about taking the ridge trail – which would mean more climbing – or going down Greenhorn, I had to think about it.

In MTB, I’ve found, the head will often say one thing while the heart says another. In this case, my head was telling me to take the shorter downhill route. But my heart was saying that the ridge trail offered more adventure, challenge, views and insanity. Plus I knew Jim, having done the other, wanted to take the ridge.

My one problem was a shortage of water. I was pretty much out at that point, and the ridge held no prospects of a refill. I’d have to chance dehydration, but like I said, I was feeling pretty good. I’d just peed, and it was clear (not yellow). So I knew I had some reserve.

As it turned out, the climbing wasn’t that bad. But it was a little too long. We did the ridge-spine rollers up and down, at one point riding a snaky piece of bermed, baby-smooth singletrack that had me spinning out in my highest gear and just hanging on for the duration. It was about as fast as I’ve ever ridden off-road. Wow. I was really starting to like this place.

We rode up to the final summit, around 7500 feet, and the trail split. One was signed, simply, “Trail,” while the other just headed straight down the ridge. After much cogitation we decided to do the direct route, a steep, loose, rocky section that had us off the bikes part of the way. By the bottom we knew we’d again taken the wrong turn, but both spurs hooked up to the main trail.

We did a few more ups and downs, and I was starting to feel the effects of water depletion. “I hope this is the last riser,” I told Jim at one point. Prayer answered: We topped out and raced down a slick descent to the parking lot. Again, the speed you can get on Sun Valley singletrack is a marvel to behold.

At the parking lot we high-fived and shook our heads in pure joy. We’d just had our first Idah “O.” Compared to the ensuing day’s ride, though, it would prove to be mere foreplay.

Mars Ridge elevation: 5,220. Elapsed time: 7:48.

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