I’ve always loved how bikes can take you to places you may not go otherwise. Backcountry skiing is much the same and it’s a close second in my genetic makeup. Combining the two is something I’ve dabbled in before (spring peak skiing around Brainard Lake, Colorado) but never in winter. Fatbiking has exploded the possibilities of where you can go self-powered in winter; it’s changed how I look a the landscape and what routes and areas I want to explore. It will help having a fatbike to cruise up those flat approaches that are horrible to skin up and back on skis.
The idea for this ‘ski-pannier’ rack came into my mind when we were about to move from Colorado and there were still many peaks I’d never skied or even seen in winter. The one stuck in my head was Elk Tooth near Buchanan Pass in the northern reaches of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The approach starts as a common snowmobile route taking off from Camp Dick (yes, that’s its real name). It’s relatively flat for around 8 miles before getting to the base of the St. Vrain glaciers and Elk Tooth Mountain. Much of that approach is not in Wilderness so you can legally ride it with a fatbike. Very few skiers go up there in winter since it’s such a long flat ski in AND out. I made it 5 miles up on a tour one time but it’s just as slow coming back as going in, it’s a tour best done as an overnight. Anyways, this is a “fat sherpa tour” that I’d like to come back to someday. That’s why the custom ski-rack for the fatbike. I love riding the fatbike for riding’s sake, but it gives it more meaning if it’s also for something else whether that’s bike commuting, courier, or just transporting your crap to do something fun.
This weekend’s tour started with a simple Google search, “long flat backcountry ski approach Tahoe.” It’s that easy these days to find stuff. Luckily for the newly transported (like me), people share on blogs and forums where they like to ski and where frankly it sucks to ski. I typically like those places that suck to ski because (1) there’s usually nobody there, (2) they’re usually more of an adventure, and (3) it’s rare that backcountry skiing ever really sucks and if it does you didn’t look hard enough.
The weather has been very odd this winter. If it’s any indication of climate change, skiers will be an endangered species. We’re entering our 2nd year of drought in California and one of the worst snowpacks in history. Only in February did we get some significant snow (up to 9 feet a few weeks ago, and 3 feet this weekend). But it’s been so warm that there’s been a lot of rain mixed in with the snow. After that first February storm Lake Tahoe was noted to have risen 6″…that’s a lot of moisture!
When I started out riding up Blackwood Canyon at lake level in the rain and slushy snow I had low expectations and didn’t expect it to get much better. But the road climbs 7.5 miles to Barker Pass (the internet said only 5 mi. BTW…) and it had to be better 1,500ft in elevation higher.
Once at the top i was fully drenched from the inside and out. My friends know I carry a big pack with “too much stuff.” Today is one of the days when it panned out. The Sherpa carried a second set of baselayers, a puff jacket, and two extra pairs of gloves. Before the ski I swapped into dry and warm clothes. I didn’t have any plans but to find some powder turns. Visibility was poor so I skied by braille using the topo to find some northwest glades that had good snow. A nice 800ft vertical later I skinned back up to the bike and headed down the pass before dark. (I had started late or else i’d have wanted to do a few more laps!)
Notes on the bike’s geometry: Having that much weight (and those are pretty light skis and boots!) on the rear tire really accentuated the short chainstay, long front center geometry. I had trouble keeping the front wheel weighted on the downhill and washed out a bit more than expected. I didn’t notice it much on the uphill except for when i’d have to dismount and the bike wanted to do a wheelie and slam me to the ground as i stepped off. For future Fat Sherpa bikes i’ll make them with longer chainstays to better distribute the rider’s weight between the two wheels and also for the stuff i carry. For now i’ll just stuff a couple of bricks in my handlbar bag when riding with skis 😉
My other weekend day I didn’t bring the bike and just toured around Castle Peak off Donner Pass. The approach was under 2 miles so the Fat Sherpa really wasn’t needed. The main trail led into the clouds where visibility was pretty poor, but i could see it’s a very cool area with lots to come back and explore. There is a bike-able snowmobile trail here too that would be worth checking out.