WE STARE AT THE BIG, wooden sign in silence. “Attention!” it reads. “Next two miles very steep. Use extreme caution!”
My friend and all-around cycling badass Jeff Handlin and I had just descended a few miles of the steepest, loosest trail that either of us had ever seen. We basically surfed our mountain bikes down an avalanche of sluff. My forearms are so pumped up from riding the brakes, that I’m not sure I can make a fist. If that wasn’t steep, what the hell is coming?
No matter how close I get to the edge, I can’t see the bottom—just the first switch-back and the near-vertical wall on the far side of the canyon.
Blood and dirt crust our clothes. Sweat pours down my back as I look up the trail that we just rode down. The miles of traversing one of the most rugged pieces of backcountry in the continental US schooled me in a way that no other trail could. Standing at the bottom of a too-steep-to-climb mountain appears to be the final lesson of the day:
Lesson 6: Going back may not be an option.
I take a pull from my hydration pack and get nothing but air. An angry sun beats down on us as we stand on the edge of the canyon. How the hell can it be so hot now when it was so cold just a few hours and a few thousand feet earlier?
That morning, a frigid alpine breeze cut through the “breathable” fabric of my bike jersey and threatened to induce hypothermia before we even hit the trail. All we knew about the Morrison Jeep Trail was that it was a primitive road wandering twenty-some miles across the Beartooth Plateau, one of the most remote places in a state filled with remote places. It would then plummet 5,000 vertical feet into Wyoming’s northern desert. This was the first time I’d ever done anything this epic, and, as we pedaled away from the trailhead, nervous excitement churned my stomach.
12,000-foot peaks surrounded us as the trail meandered between high mountain lakes, and dove into short stretches of trees. It could almost be considered mellow, were it not for the boulders. This was the rockiest trail I’d ever ridden. As I shimmied down the face of a massive slab of granite, it became apparent that I would never consider driving a Jeep, or any other four-wheeled vehicle, on.
Jeff nailed a pedal in a boulder-field mangling the fingers that grip the cleat on the bottom of his shoe. Unable to clip in, he turned to the tried and true tool of trailside repairs, a fist-sized rock. As the banging of granite-on-metal rang out across the alpine landscape, the reality sank in that this wasn’t some series of loops at the local trailhead near civilization. Jeff’s wife was on her way to pick us up at the bottom. If Jeff couldn’t fix his pedal, we had a two-day walk out.
Lesson 1: Rocks made great implements for cavemen, but homospaiens have a wider selection. If you’re WAY out in the backcountry, don’t skimp on the tools.
The rock did the trick, sparing us a night of wilderness spooning in our lycra to keep warm.
Soon, we began a long, granny-gear climb made harder by the altitude. Tree-line dropped away below us, and we the unhindered visibility of tundra surrounded us. Jagged peaks cut the sky. Nothing seemed to move for miles except the tufts of indian paintbrush along the trail as we passed.
About half-way up the climb, my ankle began burning. I glanced down but couldn’t see anything wrong. I kept cranking, and with each pedal stroke the pain grew.
At the high point, we let our bikes fall to the ground and gasped for air.
“That shit was a lot harder than it looked,” Jeff said, sweat pouring down his face, even in the chill air.
I couldn’t reply, just just nodded and sucked thin air in heaving gulps. We were clearly crossing a divide. The landscape sloped downward both in front and behind us. The top of massive Beartooth Butte, which normally looms over the Beartooth Highway, now appeared to be at eye level. Ahead, the land dropped toward forested valleys and more mountains.
I sat at the edge of the trail and examined my ankle. Blood slicked my frayed sock where the course fabric of my shoe had begun sawing through my skin. Pain tempered the stoke of the coming descent. Somehow, bringing bikes into the backcountry had caused us to forget we were heading into the wilderness, neglecting to bring even the basic staples of hiking like mole-skin or duct tape. Shit, we didn’t even have a map.
Lesson 2: The wilderness doesn’t give a shit if you’re mountain biking or hiking. To the backcountry, you’re nothing more than a statistic looking for a place to happen. Also, unless you hate yourself, never leave home without duct tape.
We mounted our bikes and dropped in. Tree-line came at us quickly, and with it, the sense that the terrain was about to change. We had no idea how much.
Dirt rushed beneath my wheels with what felt like negative effort. The harder I pushed, the more energized I felt. The trail flowed along ATV-made berms, and over jumpable rocks. Technical, but so rideable that we could just let go of the brakes.
Miles disappeared in a blur of spruce, granite, and packed dirt. We splashed through a stream-crossing and flew through a wide-open meadow, launching off little contours in the trail.
Before dropping back into the trees, my tires washed out on a high-speed turn. Somewhere in the last mile of descent, the trail surface had turned from hard-packed dirt to fine, dusty gravel. The thick cover of moisture-loving tundra plants had also been replaced by lodgepole pines, patches of wildflowers and tufts of dry grass. Rocks that had been reassuringly embedded were now loose, scattered by ATVs in the dry conditions.
Lesson 3: It’s not the backcountry’s job to tell you when things are about to change. Things will change. Watch for it.
I caught my breath and pedaled on. The trail dove into a steep drainage, and I was suddenly riding a landslide of loose gravel. My tires slid into ATV-booted ruts regardless of my steering inputs. I focused on feathering the brakes when all I wanted to do was clamp down with all of my remaining strength. Every few feet, an unseen rock hiding in the sluff would grab my front tire and threaten to fling me over the bars. Only the weakness of my fingers on the brakes saved me from face-planting.
Jeff crashed in front of me. Looking back on it, I imagine it as a slow-motion dive. In reality, his rear wheel went up, and he disappeared in a cloud of fine dust.
By the time I skidded to a stop, Jeff was hiking back up to his bike. He untangled his handlebars and dropped the bike on the side of the trail in a way that could be best described as a throw.
“This trail is dangerous,” he said, using the tube on his hydration pack to wash the dirt out of a cut on his shin.
The gravity of his statement sunk in. Jeff was the guy who repeated the phrase “go fast and take chances” like a mantra when things got rugged. He cleaned sections of trail that I always walked. The idea that this trail was dangerous wasn’t a surprise. I felt that way about a lot of trails that we rode together. But the fact that he thought it was dangerous took it to a whole new level.
Jeff spent a few minutes doctoring his leg and bending his brake lever back to where he could reach it. Through a gap in the trees, I saw that we were still high above the valley floor.
For the first time in my riding life, walking wasn’t an option. It would be dark long before we could reach the car. I had to trust that if I made it this far, I could survive the rest of this trail. How much worse could it get?
Lesson 4: never ask how much worse it can get.
Back on the bikes, we slipped and skidded down the trail. The trees thinned and disappeared, replaced by sagebrush and scrubby desert junipers. The change in landscape gave us a false sense that we were nearing the end. That hope was dashed when we saw the trail drop into a deep chasm cut by the Clarks Fork river, next to a sign sporting the words “use extreme caution”.
Looking down at where the trail disappears around the first corner, I put my helmet on and crank the straps a little tighter than normal. Jeff wants to get this over with. He clips in and picks his way down the first switch-back. His wheels sketch out over the loose baby-heads, but he keeps it together and rounds the corner. Now, it’s my turn.
The switchbacks are even steeper than they look. I relax my arms and legs, letting the bike bounce around on the rocks under me. Almost immediately, I’m in the first corner, and I lean toward the inside line. My front tire skips across the rocks toward the cliff. For a moment, I’m on the edge looking down on the Clarks Fork threading the valley floor. I swing my hips out over the canyon and pull the back of my bike around the corner.
My legs shake, and my forearms burn from the exertion of pulling the brakes. Sharp pieces of granite tear at my tires. If one of them goes down, the crash will be catastrophic. The tires survive and I make it around the next corner. And the next and the next.
I roll down onto the sandy bank of the Clarks Fork and drop my bike next to Jeff’s. He glares up at the vertical wall we just rode and shakes his head.
Lesson 6 (revised): When you’re in the backcountry, you have to commit. Committing will change your life.
Jeff takes off along the sandy river-bottom trail that leads to the pick-up. I follow, but not before giving the Morrison one last look. From now on, I’m going to explore more routes off the beaten path. And, even though I’m still a little terrified, I know I’ll be back to ride the Morrison again. The backcountry has more lessons to teach, and I’m ready to learn.
Note: This story comes from my first time on the Morrison. I have ridden it twice since then. There are two important things to mention: 1. These rules still apply. 2. Whether it’s because the extra-dry conditions made it way sketchier, or because of equipment like disc brakes, moto-inspired suspension, and tires bigger than 26×2.1, the later rides seemed a lot less scary.
For a good look at the Morrison through the eyes of an overland expedition crew running the gnarliest 4x4s out there, check this video out.