I was offered an opportunity I couldn't refuse to join my good friend and fellow bikepacking enthusiast to ITT the AZT 300. Jason Thorman proposed a plan early in the year to ride the trail in March and it was possible for me to join. Jason and another friend Scott Cleaver were going to drive down to Arizona and offered to haul my bike and gear down and meet me at the Phoenix airport, rockstar status! We planned for a start date of March 25th around the full moon and I booked the tickets mid February to help make the commitment.
Jason called a week or two after my commitment and emphasized what I already suspected. He wanted to do this ITT and not ride together. If it works out and we ride together so be it, great, but no waiting. It's Ride On and a game I know, as we have bikepacked and/or raced together for more than a decade. I call it chasing and racing with Jason!
Tuesday March 23 I was picked up at the Phoenix Airport and we drove south to Tucson. An hour and a half later we were there and found the first open Mexican restaurant
Restaurante y Cenaduría El Quino
and pulled over. We didn't realize that the menu was almost exclusively Mexican seafood. Jason pointed at the menu, to avoid having to pronounce his order and got this awesome mixture of cold raw seafood salad,,,, he looks at it in amazement! It was worth the stop.
We had made reservations at Cactus Country Campground on the south end of town. We didn't know what to expect but we were the only tents in the RV park. The hot shower the next morning was worth it.
It was my first cold night sleeping in Arizona...
(I slept outside the two nights prior to the start and 3 nights on the trail and all but the last night were cold! I use a 10 year old 35 degree Western Mountaineering down bag but find I'm chilly at 35. Temps were hovering in lower 30's most nights, frosty and damp.)
Mid Morning we got started on the 2 hour drive to Parker Canyon Lake Campground. On our way to Sonoita we stopped and checked out the trail where it crossed the highway. I was stoked to see my first AZT trail cache box. It was full of thru hiker water, a couple gallons of Public Water, bottle of whine some miscellaneous food and other garbage. (I checked it again on my way thru during my ride and it was all cleaned up and organized, very nice!)
You can see behind the guys a dry spot where a tent had been pitched a few hours earlier. It had been drizzling rain and later on the drive there was snow falling and on the ground!
We heard from our friends Jay and Tracey Petervary as they were in the area. We rendezvoused in Sonoita and caught up over lunch. We had a lively conversation over lunch beers and got some pro tips from these legendary riders. Some of the tips more obvious than others. Stay out of the Cactus and watch for Gila Monsters! LOL,,, Hmmm. OK.
We arrived at Parker Canyon Lake Campground and began assembling, loading the bikes for the next days 7am start.
We took an evening ride to find the Parker Canyon Trailhead/AZT 300 start and we were treated with an amazing sunset and fun ride.
After a chilly night of tossing and turning we crawled out of our tents before our 5am alarms to find the ground and our gear covered in frost. All the water was slightly frozen and slushy. Brrrrr.
We ate our breakfast, drank coffee, warmed shoes and bodies in the car and gave our devices the last charge before heading to the trailhead. We rode the 2 miles or so to the start and arrived a few minutes before 7am with just enough time to strip off my long underwear and puffy jacket. It was a beautiful morning and I was stoked to ride.
Scott Cleaver was there to get us pumped and took a few pics. I appreciated him tearing down our camp and meeting us on the other end of the 300 mile ride.
My first pic of the day was about 20 minutes into the ride, I caught Jason crossing this small creek with water in it, one of maybe 3 tiny stream crossing on the whole ride. The trail was rock and roll from the start with little water.
The most unique and unusual cactus of the trip was this one early in day one. I've seen several other riders post pics since, that captured this amazing cactus. It was definitely an eye catcher.
Canelo Hills Trailhead, amazing riding and new trail in this area was a highlight of day one.
Looked back to see JT hiking another section early in day one. Lots of desert behind him.
I topped out and Hey look a gate and here comes JT!
Another Gate! There were several beautiful metal bike/hiker rollovers as well but those are hard to stop for,,, you just keep flowing and rolling when you come to them Thank you very much!
I must say most of the gates are a pleasure to stop for as they are works of art and function smoothly.
Fresh new gate!
This was a nice break spot and shortly after I saw my first wild Javelina Hog in a wash before the Red Bank Well. It was an awesome first!
After some more amazing riding, nearly 50 miles in, I rolled into the Kentucky Camp and the first water spigot of the day. I wasn't there too long and look who shows up!
It was an amazing old structure open to the public. It looked fun to hang at for awhile but after stocking up on water, eating snacks and prepping for riding into the night we were out at the same time again.
On and ON into the moon lit night!
I rode until 12am for 17 hours and nearly 100 miles the first day. I stopped and camped at the La Selvilla Picnic Grounds. It had water, picnic tables and a pit toilet. Around 7pm and mile 70 I made it a goal to make it here because of the water. It took longer than expected and took a toll. There were a few other tent campers here scattered about, so I tried to silently set up camp away from the others. I slept ok but was cold and damp, and had some leg cramping on and off through the night. The next morning I was up, loaded and moving by 4:45am. After 15+ miles of mostly excellent morning riding I reached the Rocking K Market Store at 7am, an hour before the 8am opening. I took this opportunity to charge my phone and dry out my damp sleeping kit in the warm morning sun.
As I packed up all my now dry gear, Jason came riding up just as the doors to the store opened. Great timing on his part!
He rode until 10pm and got up around 2am and made some time up.
We enjoyed our time at the Rocking K store. They have an amazing menu and a good selection of trail necessities, snacks and real food to go. This was one of two resupply stops on the course, without going off course, and I wanted to leave fully loaded. I took my time and gathered what I needed, spending $55. Jason was off before me but he was in sight as I rolled my bike onto the street. We rode our own pace which was closely matched with each other.
Awesome section, look how big the stem of that Yucca Plant is!
Ate one point in the day, Jason caught up to me and excitedly told me to take a selfie with my tongue out. The photo revealed a Beet Juice stained tongue from my go to, get up and go drink, Endurelite's Perform Elite. Good thing since there was a hug hike-a-bike(HAB) section ahead!
Entering the area below the first big HAB up and over into Malino Basin Campground.
The riding out of Malino Basin was good climbing and mostly ridable singletrack to Prison Camp where we dumped out onto the pavement and climbed into the night. We rode mostly together on and off into the night. There was a moon poking through early but then it clouded up and the temp dropped.
We started to see snow flurries falling around 7,000' and piles of old snow here and there. It was nearly 10pm and only getting colder and another 1000' of climbing to Summerhaven. We unfortunately would miss the only other on course resupply by several hours, 10a-6p for the general store.
We camped near each other and both were on our bikes at 2:30 and racing. There was nearly an hour of paved climbing and another hour on the dark treacherous trail before Summerhaven. There was sheets of ice and snow on the rocks demanding attention while hiking with a bike. There was a stream crossing at the bottom and I filled a liter to go, as I was not sure there would be water in Summerhaven and I was bummed knowing we were several hours before any stores opened. A little more paved uphill into Summerhaven. It was 4:30 and nothing stirred in the small mountain town. The community bathroom was packed with thru hikers sleeping on the floor, one on the porch of the post office and keys were needed for the water spigots I checked. I sat on a bench, ate my Cinnabon and drank some cold coffee out of my bottle.
It was only a good warm up for what lie ahead for our sunrise ride and hike a bike!
ORACLE RIDGE to the TRAVERSE-O-DEATH
The coffee kicked in with the sunrise and we scampered across up and over some of the most dramatic landscape and HAB I've ever done. Past the Traverse-O-Death and it was on and off the bike for another hour.
Up high on the ridge I rode upon 6 or more big tents. I thought, wow thru hikers, but then I saw a couple cases of ramen, a crate of eggs, an open fire and an older gentleman tending the fire. He greeted me with a smile and nod, I stopped to say Hi. They were fence builders working ravaged fence from fire and wind. There is several miles of steep and ROCKY ridgeline fence building going on. They were prepared to stay up there for several weeks and had a couple different camps along the ridge. I continued on and the riding was steep and rocky down, demanding my full attention.
Nearing the bottom of the ridge was a tank of clear water a few miles before the High Jinx Ranch, but I was content and pushed on not knowing. There was some beautiful trail and descending over old school eroded wood water bars with good drop offs that were mostly rollable with care. The sun was getting high and I stopped because I thought I saw a mirage, a sign read High Jinx Ranch: Water, Lodging, Snacks?... 500 feet? ... Dropped my bike and followed the trail. It was hard to believe but it was real. I wasn't sure it was really open but there was a water spigot and that's what was needed. I had my bottles filled and along came the caretaker Chris and said he was open for business and put out a sign. Jason shows up just in time to get his order in before mine. He orders two of each snack, a coke and gatorade! I do the same! There's only Pringles, Snickers, Oreo's. We pay him $30 for snacks and a tip and he was appreciative. He also shared some of the interesting history of the ranch and area.
This was a game changer as I now had enough snacks to make the finish. Knowing I wouldn't have to go off course to Oracle was a big relief. I don't ever like the idea of going off course if not necessary.
With the STOKE METER Pegged I was back on the Best Ride ever!
Giant Yucca Cactus!
Four Peaks Brewery must have left this case of Drinking Water and a can for recycling the cans! Post ride we visited the Brewery partly because of this trail experience.
Trying to keep covered up to prevent sun exposure!
At Beehive Tank, there was a long stick with a bottle taped to the end to spoon water out. We each filtered a liter of water here.
Near the Freeman Rd. Trailhead we met a trail angel called Sequoia. He had a cooler of Coors and a water cooler on top of the Freeman Cache. There were 3 or 4 thru hikers helping themselves and parked on top of the cache. That was ok we never needed to look inside the cache and they were good company. Right after offering us Coors, Sequoia barks off "I suppose you guys are out here on the John Schilling Challenge?" LOL, Yes we are!
He was a true giant trail angel, full of character and had lots of Arizona MTB knowledge from past and present. We enjoyed his company and our Coors Original!
The moon had risen and the sun was setting, I threw a Coke that I had carried since the High Jinx Ranch into his cooler and took another Coors. Good Trade,,, Thanks Sequoia!
The next section of trail was some of the best ripping of the trip?! The Boulders to Ripsey is slightly downhill and amazing desert riding especially on a full moon lit night. Several areas I was able to ride with no lights but didn't for long as the trail is fast and sometimes narrow, cactus lurk....
Jason and I continued to ride a nearly matched pace into the night. We rolled toward the dark edge of the drop into the wash below Ripsey and stopped for the night.
My bag was slightly damp from a cold night prior on Mount Lemmon and quickly dried on a bush while I prepped for the next day's ride.
We were both moving before our alarms and JT says "when does the race start?" I quickly said I thought it already did. He rolled off as I threw a leg over my bike. It was 3:08am and I was going to finish sometime today! I was feeling good, and both grateful and a little disappointed that this would be my last day on the trail.
The riding started with a good downhill into the wash below Ripsey Climb. I rolled past JT and thru some sandy wash and the climbing began. There were several switchbacks and full moon lit climbing. Up on the Ridge above the Gila there were several tents and I could tell there was a big drop and view. As the trail got into steep switchbacks I decided I better replace the burnt batts in my headlamp. Jason caught me here....
It didn't take long to get to the bottom and more ripping to the Kelvin Cache. I pulled in just ahead of JT and opened the cache to find it well stocked! A case of Apples and Public water! I topped off my bottles and had an Apple. JT was eating oatmeal out of a zip lock bag and hustling but I was out. I took the apple to go and ate a few bites as I rode. I was stoked on the apple and knowing I would have plenty of water to finish, so I thought. LOL
I was on cloud nine as the sun started to light the horizon and the moon was still up. The Gila River was a welcome sight, seeing the oasis and water was amazing. Some of the best riding of the trip was descending back into the Gila River bottoms.
More Gates and Cactus!
And then the climbing kicked in, progressively increasing in grade and feet gained! It became the most challenging climb of the route.
Up, UP and UPPPPP!
Switchbacks, Switchbacks and Switchback
GILA MONSTER!!! A few miles before the summit, just 10' in front of me, was an Orange and Black 2' long, big around as your forearm Gila Monster. I couldn't believe it! I shot a couple lame pics from a distance not sure if they were aggressive and or fast. Mr Gila started climbing off the trail and up the embankment so I got a decent video. Pretty impressive lizard!
Mr Gila is just up the trail on the right.
The trail continued and continued to climb. I had started rationing water earlier, and was about out at this point. A few more false summits and I was going to lose it... but I finally gained the ridge and the saddle that drops off the other side. Before this point I thought I would be at the trailhead by 10am and had drank the last of my water....
It was beautiful the whole way but this side there was no mood for picture taking. Besides it was a much longer ride down and down and Up and Around with no water for the last two hours. Even my eyes were getting dried out! Sure was wishing I still had that Coke I left at Freeman Cache....
I finally finished about 1:30pm in the heat of the day. There was no one at the finish that I knew, so I happily drank some warm public water and found the only shade behind the Privy House.
I finished my bottle of water and couldn't believe Scott our buddy wasn't there? Then I notice there's a Rocket Box across the parking lot, so I strolled that way and found Scott working on his bike. I surprised him as he thought we would be in hours later and planned to ride up and greet us.
Scott had Beer and I was Done!
What an Amazing Desert Classic...
3 days 6 hrs. 44 minutes
Jason came in less than two hours later to a small crew of new Trailhead Friends.
Love Your Show JT, Nice Riding!!
Back of the Privy House Post Ride Celebration!