Bighorn National Park
"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can". Arnold Monk
I left Worland at least an hour and a half behind the group. The previous night I had discovered that I had lost an important part of the charger for my Voltaic Battery, and without the use of my Voltaic system I would have no way of charging my laptop. As much as working on the trip has been the last thing I’ve wanted to do, somehow I’ve managed to keep my head above water this far and so I wasn’t going to let that change now.
I went to Radioshack right as it opened and was able to find something that would do the trick as a fix until I could possibly order what I needed from Voltaic. So I got back to camp, got some work done then hopped on my bike for a nice little 26 mile ride to catch the boys in Ten Sleep.
I found Erik and Ryan outside a little grocery store with a café in the back right at the beginning of town. It sounded like they had pretty much been to every eating establishment Ten Sleep had at this point and were still going strong. I went in and got some canned pineapple, a smoothie from the café counter, and some other munchies. I still had a fair amount of peanut butter, jelly, honey and bread in my food panier so I made a few sandwiches also. Rory also showed up after having eaten elsewhere in town, chatted for a little bit then headed out ahead of us to start the climb through the Bighorns. We established that we would meet at Bull Creek campground and assess how we were doing from there.
This is a good time to dive into a trend we had begun to notice as we’ve made our way through small town after small town. When it comes to inquiring about the surrounding area with a person local to the area you are in, assume the information you get is going to be wrong, or minimally, not from a bicyclist perspective.
We knew that heading into the Bighorns we would have to tackle Powder Pass, whose elevation topped out at 9,666 feet. We also knew that currently we were around 4,200 feet in Ten Sleep. That’s over a 5,400 foot climb, by far our largest and highest we would do all trip. Erik, Ryan and I weren't necessarily planning to go this way originally, but after Rory had told us about Devil's Tower we had said "screw it, why not".
What we gathered from those local to Ten Sleep was that we would head out of town and climb for a while and then come back down to about the same elevation as town, only to climb again to the top of the pass. No one seemed to be able to tell us for how long or high we would climb before losing our elevation and starting all over again, but we figured the camp ground we picked out, about 5 miles before the top of the pass, would probably put us somewhere up the “second” climb and in good position to finish in the morning. So we, naturally, took our shirts off, and headed out.
The road looked level for a while, but our pace of 10-11mph and a feeling of riding on sandpaper suggested otherwise. As we looked back towards town we could see that we were trending uphill. We also had a small, but noticeable headwind so we got in a group to help pull each other along. The road out of Ten Sleep takes you through Ten Sleep Canyon before heading into the Bighorn Mountains and it’s a lovely ride. As a well renowned place to rock climb, we were entertained by the scenery and engaged in talking about climbing, that while a difficult ride, it was a fun and fulfilling one.
Eventually we found our way out of the canyon and into the start of the Bighorn’s and our true climb for the day. This was evident by the road’s decision to go from one or two percent grade of climb to at least 6. The rock formation’s also changed from 100 foot pitches to…well much larger. I don’t know if I can do it justice with words, but I can definitely show you a picture.
I know I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love climbing on my bike. Not the get to the top of this hill climb, but truly climbing, two, three, four hours or more. For me, there is no greater since of accomplishment, no greater emotional release than tackling a pass. I’ve had some big millage days at this point, but they still fail in comparison to starting a climb through a pass and getting to the top without stopping. I believe it has to do with having this concrete goal that seems so ridiculous at the beginning, but knowing that one pedal, one minute, one hour at a time, if you just keep going you can succeed. Ryan might suggest, and I would agree, that the awesome downhills afterwards are a contributing factor for my enthusiasm for climbing. I can tell you though I would honestly take four hours of climbing over an hour of riding on the flats into the wind. You just can’t compete with the emotional reward that comes from tackling a mountain.
Maybe 30 minutes into the climb, Erik and I caught up to Rory. Erik had just asked me the name of the campground we were staying at again and I couldn’t remember, so he asked Rory, who promptly responded Bull Creek. So Erik and I Kept chugging, passing Rory at what was probably a blistering pace of 5 to 6 mph, and continued to head up through these giant canyons.
I can’t tell you what the other guys were thinking their whole climb, but the fact that we were told we would be going down again to our starting elevation before heading back up towards the top of the pass started creeping into my head with each additional pedal, minute, hour.
So I climbed, climbed and climbed some more and about four hours in passed a lodging area that had a small convenience store down a dirt side road. At this point I was a head of the group by a decent amount, but knowing Erik, figured he was at least only a few minutes or so behind be. So I headed down the road hoping they carried Gatorade.
The woman at the store wasn’t very friendly, but they did have Gatorade and I was able to ask her if she knew how far I had to go to Bull Creek campground. She continued to look at me like I was the plague and after a seemingly long pause said “you’re not that far, maybe a few more miles”. That seemed to line up relatively with what Ryan and Rory had thought the distance would be, but a few miles at 6 percent grade could mean at least 45 more minutes.
As I headed out up the dirt road back to the main road, I saw Erik coming up, great timing. I shared some Gatorade with him and told him that the Lady in the store had said we were close. We were both wondering the same thing though as at this point, we had climbed for over four hours, when the hell where we going to go back down. At this point that thought of having to lose all the elevation we had gained, only to do it all over again, was demoralizing. You only have one option at that point then and it’s to ignore any thoughts of how difficult or painful that might be and just keep going. So keep going Erik and I did and one mile turned into two, turned into at least five to six more and no Bull Creek campground. We passed a lake, a few other camping spots and even a ski resort, but not the campground we had agreed upon. Eventually we came to the realization that we had gone too far, and as much as it pained up to turn around, we headed back to find Ryan and Rory and figure out a plan from there.
Three miles later, at about an average speed of 40, we caught Ryan and Rory right after the restaurant near the lake and were informed that both google and Rory’s map had been wrong, there was no Bull Creek campground. So we headed in for a bite to eat, and hopefully get some better intelligence about where we were, how far from the pass and where the best place to camp would be.
The good news, we were only about 4 to 5 miles from the top of the pass, so Erik and I had gotten within a mile or two of it. This meant though that there was no downhill the way the locals in Ten Sleep had told us. The bad news, after the top of the pass we would have 5 descents and climbs at 7 percent of significant length, but at this point we didn’t care, we just wanted to eat, drink and go to sleep.
So we camped at Meadowlark Lake, which was gorgeous and ended up hanging with another camper, Ayran and her awesome dog Whiskey. Rory and I went for a swim and the water was awesome. Then later that night, the skies opened up and the lightning lit up our tents. Exhausted from the long day though, it only kept me up for a moment.
Miss you Muppet