By Joel Hansen
Joel and I do a lot of riding together. I like riding with Joel because he loves to seek out the nastiest trails possible and isn’t afraid to get a little lost. Another benefit of riding with Joel is that he is a big guy at six-foot four inches, so he can help me pull my bike out of bad situations. He is also a firefighter and knows how to save lives--a plus when out in the middle of nowhere and far from help. Usually, Joel makes sensible decisions when riding, but as this story unfolds, you’ll realize even the most competent people make poor choices. —Adam Booth
This tale of woe starts with showing Dirt Bike’s Adam Booth my favorite, super-secret local trail. This super-secret trail starts out as most super-secret trails do: incredibly rocky, with overgrown brush and lots of switchbacks on the edge of a cliff. It then opens up into great flowing single-track with a mix of two-track. The 20-mile loop takes about an hour and 45 minutes. Adam and I have been riding this secret trail about two times a week for quite a while. It is awesome for testing all the new off-road bikes and having a great time torturing anyone who wants to ride with us. They usually only go once. Since we had just finished racing the 24 Hours of Glen Helen and had our sweet lights, we took on the super-secret trail under the shadow of night. It was one of the most fun night rides we've done. Jump forward a couple of weeks after our first night outing, and I talked a good buddy, Carlin Dunne, who raced the 24 Hour with us, into riding the super-secret trail with me at night (Adam couldn't make it and was probably glad he didn't).
Carlin and his lady showed up to my house, and we prepped for the ride, looking for some night time adventure. I was aboard the 2010 Husaberg FE390, a bike we've been enjoying on the super-secret trail for a while, and Carlin rode his ‘08 Honda 450X that he had raced in the Baja 1000. We said our goodbyes to the families and girlfriends around 7 p.m. and told them we would be back about 9 p.m.
We unloaded and left the trailhead about 7:30. Just a couple of rocky, nasty miles into the ride, Carlin's lights began to flicker and then fell off. I was a bit ahead of him, waiting at a not-so-steep section of trail wondering if he'd taken a dive off a cliff. About ten minutes later, Carlin came flying up the trail and relayed the light problem story. Great, we were already having problems. But Carlin assured me that we were good to go. Without further technical problems, we made it to the turn-around spot at about 8:30. At the turn-around spot, there was another trail that Adam and I have explored a little but gave up on because it was in bad shape and we didn’t have the urge to get lost or stuck so far from the truck. I filled Carlin in about this unexplored trail, and we decided to go for it. The plan was to ride down and check it out for a bit and then turn around and head back to the warm truck. (Note: This was our first big mistake.)
As we headed down the single-track, I noticed that someone had done some work on it since Adam and I had explored it a few weeks earlier, so we were feeling good about our idea of exploring a new trail at night. The trail was very steep, tight single-track with lots of switchbacks and drop-offs. We made it to the bottom of a spur ridge and ended up in the bottom of a very deep and narrow canyon, where there was a creek with lots of water and big rocks. We looked at each other like a couple of 5-year-olds who had just broken mom's favorite vase playing baseball in the house. We knew we were in trouble and there wasn't much we could do about it.
We came to the conclusion we couldn't make it back up the spur ridge trail we had come down, so we pressed on into the great dark unknown. It was now 9 p.m. The trail got nastier with lots of technical stream crossings, boulder hopping, and many fallen pine and oak trees across the trail, which had the nasty habit of disappearing on the other side of the creek crossings. We spent a lot of time trying to locate the trail, and things were going from bad to worse. It was 9:45 p.m.
We knew our families and friends were starting to get a little worried, but our odometers--which we zeroed out at the start--now read 14 miles, we had no cell service and the closest house was... well, we didn't know, so we pressed onward. The trail finally began to climb out of the nasty canyon bottom and side-sloped its way to what looked like the top of a steep ridge. We thought the worst was behind us and we were on our way to freedom, when we rounded a corner and almost flew off one of the biggest landslides I have ever seen. It was 500 feet to the canyon bottom, and we could hardly make out the treetops below us. We searched for another trail down, but there was nothing to be found.
At this point, we were very seriously considering a suicide mission of "falling" down the slide to try to find an alternate route, but we came to our senses and continued to look for another trail, and what do you know, we found one. We started on the "new" trail, and I began to notice tire tracks. Wow, I thought to myself, someone else has ridden this trail! Not much farther along the "new" trail, we came across a very familiar creek crossing. The darkness played some nasty tricks on our minds. We had ridden the exact same trail we had just been on. It is was around 10:30 p.m., and we were staring at this stupid creek wondering if we could just bash our way through for as long as it would take, realizing there was no way thanks to ten-foot boulders that had waterfalls dropping into chest-high water holes.
At this point, Carlin and I decided to hike out. I was not too excited about this, because I didn't want to leave the new ‘Berg behind, but we had no choice. We stashed the bikes off the trail with our helmets and any other gear we didn't need to carry and began to hoof it down the creek. Our only light sources now were the Baja Designs helmet light I had borrowed from Adam, and it had been on the entire time. We also had a Surefire light my dad gave me when I left for the ride with a couple of extra batteries. It is amazing all of the sights and sounds you miss when you are on a dirt bike, especially at night; in fact, it's kind of scary. I wear a size 14 Alpinestar Tech 10, and that is a big boot, but when compared to a bear track that must have been a size 20, you quickly realize that there is something out there that can eat you very easily, especially when all you have is a U.S. Army survival knife and an arrow that Carlin found earlier. Picture two guys out in the middle of nowhere, very thirsty, hungry, hiking in full moto gear with a only a knife and an arrow at the ready to defend against bears and any other backwoods creatures. Funny to think about, but it wasn't fun to do!
The rest of the hike out was long and hard with wet feet and sore backs; the only excitement came from the way too often fresh-looking pile of bear scat on the trail and the battery fading on the Baja Designs light, which had been on for close to six hours.
The conversation on the long hike focused around wondering if my dad had called the sheriff’s helicopter to come out and search for us. My parents are very familiar with the search and rescue guys in our area because they are police officers. A couple of times, we thought we heard the thumping of helicopter blades, but we were in the bottom of the canyon and we couldn't see the sky through the thick tree cover. When the clock reached midnight, I figured that my dad had called the ‘copter and his friends would be looking for me again (another story in itself from when I was on the fire crew). Somewhere around 1 a.m., we finally made it to a road--salvation at last. We still didn't have cell reception, so we continued hiking on the road and found some houses, some of which still had lights on. It was 1 a.m., and although we were sure no one wanted to be bothered by us, we didn't have a choice. We sheepishly approached a well-lit house and knocked on the door, awaiting a shotgun greeting. To our surprise, a very cute blonde answered the door and greeted us with a smile. We told her our sad story, and she let us use the phone. I called my parents, and my mom told me my dad was out looking for us and had called Frank at the air unit, and the helicopter had been up for over an hour searching the area we were supposed to be in. My mom quickly got a hold of my dad, who radioed the ‘copter and told them we were okay.
Once at home, we began to figure out how to get the bikes. We studied Google Earth and maps of the areas to try and find another way out, but there weren't any. We decided to hike in the same way we rode in and hopefully find a way to ride back up the nasty spur ridge. If that wasn't possible, we brought two gallons of fuel, two machetes, two tree-folding saws, my hand gun (just in case) a bunch of food, a bunch of water and a water filter so we could blaze a new trail out. Two days after the death ride, we had our plan together and packed our bags with all of our gear and equipment. The packs weighed around 45 pounds with our boots strapped to them. We left my house at 4:30 a.m. sharp, parked one truck at the bottom of the trail we had hiked and drove the other to the top of the mountain. Things were starting out just as they had ended two days ago--badly. It was a bad mix of snow, rain and ice. We started hiking around 6 a.m. and immediately we were soaking wet and cold, but on the bright side we had a "fun" nine-mile hike to the bikes, so that kept us a little warmer inside.
The hike to the bikes was an eye-opener. We couldn't believe some of the gnarly sections of the trail that we had ridden through. At night you don't see the whole picture, which can be a good or bad thing. As we got closer to the bikes, I couldn't help but worry that someone had found the bikes while they sat in the remote area.
We were about 100 yards from the bikes when we spotted them, and a surge of relief went through us. As I got closer, I noticed my helmet was in a new spot, sitting in the ice-cold creek, and there was a lot of white stuff scattered all over the ground. My first was thought was someone trashed the bikes. The weird part was that only the ‘Berg was messed with, and Carlin’s bike was untouched. A bear had come along and played with my helmet like a big ball, eating the liner and some of the foam. When Yogi finally got tired of my helmet, he felt like something a little more exotic and moved on to the main course--Husaberg a la mode. He clawed his way into the seat and shredded the foam to pieces. Then, wanting more, he searched out the air filter, ripping off the radiator shroud and seat in the process. I was so bummed, looking at the carnage. I gathered myself and started looking over the ‘Berg to see if anything vital had been ripped, shredded or eaten. Luckily, the ‘Berg was still ridable, and after cleaning out the airbox, she fired up instantly. We jumbled together what was left of the air filter and made a new one out of a red rag. After about 20 minutes, we had the FE390 bolted, zip-tied and duct taped back together. We fueled the bikes, checked the oils and coolant, and we were on our way back to the mudslide.
Once we got to the slide, it was every bit of what we remembered from two nights before: big, steep and ugly. With the help of daylight, we noticed another trail just yards away leading down the mountain. During the night, we were so tired and worn out we missed the tiny single-track that switch-backed down the mountainside. What a couple of dummies.
The rest of the ride was very difficult, magnified by a 30-pound pack. When we finally made it out to the truck, we had made 41 creek crossings, ranging from easy to "are we in Erzberg now?" The final tally for distance traveled on the bikes was 32 miles; on foot, 9 miles, covering three days of planning and recovering the bikes. I guess the lessons learned from this misadventure are: One, don't go exploring a new trail at night; two, don't plan on cell phones working; three, always tell friends and family where you are going and an approximate time of your return; and finally the fourth lesson, go get a SPOT or some kind of GPS transmitter, just in case.