By Amy Silverman
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Once Long Tall finally had his ride, the group drove in a caravan in both cars to the park gate on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was locked shut. The members pulled Dave's Monte Carlo off the road and out of sight, then piled in the 4Runner and drove 211 miles around the canyon to the North Rim (which closes each year in mid-October), where they stashed the truck, scaled the gate, lifted their bikes over, and quietly started riding the ten miles to the North Kaibab trailhead. Their plan was to bike down North Kaibab, cross the Colorado River on a footbridge, ride up the Bright Angel Trail (one of the park's most popular routes), bike out to the south gate, cram everything into the Monte Carlo, drive all the way back to the north gate, retrieve the 4Runner, and be home in time for a late-night celebratory feast in Sedona.
But things did not go according to plan.
Mountain biking the North Kaibab Trail is, in a word, gnarly. The path is steep and often narrow, with sheer drop-offs. There are dozens of tight-cornered switchbacks, and antierosion "water bars" that stand too high off the ground for a front bike tire to safely clear (a rider must either jump or "wheelie" over the metal rods). For the relatively slow-paced hikers and mule trains that normally travel North Kaibab, such obstacles pose little threat. But going balls-out on a mountain bike, the trail offers several opportunities to make a mistake and die.
Here's Forest: "One time I remember we had just finished this really intense switchback downhill, and after I got through all these hairy turns, I stopped and looked up and all I could see was this steep wall. It was so vertical I couldn't even make out the trail. When I was going down, I had no idea how steep it was, but looking back up, I realized that if I had skidded off the trail at any point in the last six or seven minutes, I would have taken a screamer."
And now Wheeze: "There were several sections where we had a vertical face going up on one side and a vertical face going down on the other. At one spot I stopped my bike, leaned a hand against the up wall for balance, and the trail was narrow enough that I could sort of lean and look over the opposite edge. It looked like if you went off, you would fall for about 800 feet, bounce, and then go for about another 1,200."
The ride in from the north gate had been stressful and cold--Forest and Dave were both wearing "camelback" water bags, and their drinking tubes kept clogging with ice. About half an hour down the Kaibab, however, the mushrooms started to kick in, the sun rose high enough to shine into the canyon, and all became right with the world. "There were so many colors," says Forest. "The sun just kept revealing more and more of them in the rocks. It was so quiet you could hear bird calls from far away, and it was warm enough that we could get out of our jackets and really feel free."
That feeling was short-lived.
Grand Canyon wilderness subdistrict ranger Nick Herring says that a maintenance worker at the Roaring Springs pump house heard noises on the trail, went to investigate, and spotted fresh mountain-bike tracks. The worker radioed a report to ranger Sandie Hand at the Phantom Ranch ranger station in the bottom of the canyon. Ranger Hand started hiking up North Kaibab. About a half-mile from the canyon floor, she intercepted the first biker.
It was Wheeze.
"I was out ahead quite a bit, riding point, and I saw her from about 30 yards away. I immediately recognized the color scheme of her clothes as rangeresque, and as I came riding up to her, she said, 'Stop.' But I kept riding. I decided that unless she identified herself as a law enforcement person, there was no reason I had to follow orders. But as I blew past, she looked at me and I looked at her and that thought flashed from my head to hers and she yelled, 'Stop, U.S. park ranger!' And then I hit the brakes."
Rama and Long Tall came down the trail next, followed a few minutes later by Dangerous Dave and Forest. Forest had recently suffered his third flat tire of the day, and Dave had stayed behind to help him patch the tear. As the pair came down the trail, Dave was popping a wheelie, and Forest was playfully "bunny-hopping" his bike. The two were showing off for their friends, whom they thought were simply taking a rest break.
"After that last flat tire, I got to cruisin' and I saw them pulled off on the side of the trail and I rode up and I was like, 'Yeah! Is this awesome, or what?'" recalls Forest. "And then I saw this lady with her mouth to a walkie-talkie and she was like, 'Two more.'"