The honey badger (Mellivora capensis), also known as ratel, are notoriously fearless and tough animals, known to savagely attack their enemies when escape is impossible. Bee stings, porcupine quills, and animal bites rarely penetrate their skin. They are tireless in combat and can wear out much larger animals in physical confrontations.
After the internet video of the Honey Badger went viral it seemed a fitting name for our planned mountain bike traverse of the Wasatch Mountains. Although the name was jokingly thrown around as the trip planning began to unfold, deep down those that had committed to ride knew they would need to embrace their inner Honey Badger to conquer what would lie ahead.
The muse for this epic journey stemmed from a 2008 article in Bike Magazine in which a similar group of young adventurers conquered 160 miles of single track from Ben Lomond Peak to Sundance Ski Resort. After studying over maps, performing many hours of research and riding some of the route we set a date to do this over Pioneer Day weekend, being blessed in the summer of 2011 that Pioneer Day fell on a Sunday thus giving the State of Utah a 3 day weekend as Monday would be recognized as the holiday. We decided to begin our journey on a Friday giving our team of four, 4 days to complete the ride.
Day 1: Ben Lomond to Snowbasin
After dropping our support vehicle in the Snowbasin parking lot, we applied heavy amounts of chamois butter and sunscreen and left for the starting point near Eden, Utah. As the rest of the group started to strap on helmets, shoes, and hydration packs, Ben frantically searched his pack and the truck for his bike gloves. Normally, forgetting your gloves for a quick after work ride would not be something to worry about. However, when spending a full day in the saddle, forgetting your gloves can be a costly mistake. In sticking with the spirit of the ride, Ben shrugged his shoulders and hit the trail, gloveless.
The ride from Eden along the backside of Ben Lomond peak began with a gradual grade of mostly gentle buff single-track. The start of ride was full of excitement and anticipation as we all knew we were embarking on a journey that epitomized the spirit of adventure one can only find from giving yourself fully to the mountains and surrounding wilderness. The first casualty of the day occurred when Sully’s front wheel got stuck and he ended up in a thicket 10 feet off the trail. Sully got back up, brushed himself off and with just a few scratches sauntered back onto the trail. The mood of the group remained high as we all laughed at his expense.
We took a breather at the start of the Northern Skyline trail and took a pass on hiking to the summit of Ben Lomond which seemed only a stone’s throw away. From here the single track flowed graciously down the Northern Skyline trail as the exposed view of the Great Salt Lake fell behind us. As we approached the end of the ridgeline we came across a meadow, where astoundingly thousands of dragon flies danced in the afternoon sky and nearly blocked out the sun. The dragon flies seemed to gravitate towards us as they were likely attracted to the male musk and energy that can only be extruded by the enormous amount of testosterone that was emanating from four men embarking on such a journey.
We began to quickly descend towards the North Ogden Divide. As we took a brief rest in the parking lot, Ben was feeling the agony of hours on the trail with his hands riding bareback. We spotted a fellow biker in the parking lot and Ben decided to approach him in the hope he had an extra pair of gloves. After propositioning the startled man in the parking lot with promises of good karma the fellow biker happily obliged and went on his way.
From this point we hiked up the trail to the crest of the Southern Skyline trail. The hike-a-bike aspect of this trip would become a repeating theme. We crossed the ridge of the Southern Skyline trail via flowing single track and descended to the Pineview reservoir. There we filled our Camelbaks and soaked our heads under a faucet of ice cold water. We had just one more section to ride along the Wheeler Creek Trail before arriving at our final destination of the day at Snowbasin. Fatigue and heat were beginning to wear on the group and the thought of beer and food was the motivator to keep pushing forward. We finally arrived at Snowbasin after 30 miles of single track and 8,000 vertical feet of climbing. At the end of our first day of epic riding, Ben seemed the most haggard of the group. He had not consumed enough electrolytes in this portion of the journey, and experienced severe cramps which would prove to be detrimental in the following day.
We decided to cap our day off at the oldest bar in Utah, the Shooting Star Saloon. The uniqueness of the establishment immediately jumped out as the décor consists of many stuffed animals heads including the head of a St. Bernard. There are two beers on tap, Bud and Bud Light and the cheeseburgers can be adorned with a hotdog if you choose. The bartender was a small in stature big in girth lady with a raspy voice that can only come from many years of Marlboro Reds. As Rob requested to have our burgers cooked medium she replied, “They only come one way honey, and that is delicious.” She was right. Sully who is a devote vegetarian happily slurped down the slab of red meat and agreed it was a good burger and was even thinking of converting back to being a carnivore. We departed with some greasy food in our bellies and a slight 3.2 beer buzz to find a camp site to take refuge.
As this was the busiest camping weekend in Utah, there were not many options for a legal camping spot. We therefore chose to camp in the backyard of Snowbasin, the logic being that Snowbasin would be cool with us plopping down in their backyard made perfect sense to these haggard warriors of the single track looking to bed down. This proved wrong as at 1AM a prepubescent security guard kicked us out even after we attempted to reason with him. After threats of having the Sheriff called we decided to break camp in the pre-dawn hours and drive to Bountiful Peak. Traveling up the 12 % grade dirt road at 40 miles per hour with Pagan bonfires flashing by the windows was not the relaxing evening we had foreseen. Regardless, we ended up finding a nice campsite at the start of the trailhead for the next day. Given our long night we chose to sleep in until about 9AM. Little did we know that sleeping in would be a decision we would later regret.
Day 2: City Creek to East Canyon
As we rose from our tents and enjoyed our morning coffee the peaceful surroundings were abruptly disrupted by a train of large semi-trucks carrying sections of pipe for the Kern River Natural Gas Pipeline. After cursing the noise of the trucks passing by we began to pack up camp and gear up for the ride ahead. A park ranger following the procession of trucks shot us a brief but glaring glance as he passed by. Not thinking much of this we hopped on our bikes and began to ride. A few hundred yards on the road we approached a gate that would allow us access to the section of trail that we planned to ride. The ranger was steadfastly stationed at the gate and was in no mood for negotiation to allow us passage. This was unfortunate, as Rob had ridden this section of trail only the week prior with no such issue. Rob shared this information and being the nice civil servant that he was, the ranger threatened to throw Rob in jail if he continued to hassle him.
Feeling a little shaken after our encounter with the ranger, we reconvened at the campsite and pored over the maps to plan an alternative route. Multiple routes were considered, but we decided to ascend City Creek Canyon to access the Great Western Trail. After being dropped off at City Creek Canyon by our support crew we began our ride along the smooth pavement that begins the entrance into City Creek. We soon found ourselves on subsequent single track and entered into the point of no return. What followed is similar to the gunny boat in Apocalypse Now traveling through the jungles of Cambodia. Our journey deteriorated into a Burmese jungle of thickets and briars. The more we went up the canyon the more it became apparent that there was little hope that the trail would improve.
Our morale was suddenly lifted when we came upon two Lycra clad gentleman descending from the Great Western in the opposite direction. We had a brief discussion with the duo on their planned route and the condition of the trail. Their description of the trail was that it continued to deteriorate and the brush only got thicker. We brushed off their warnings to turn around and continued to progress into the high alpine jungle. With the heat of the hot July day bearing down upon us, our hydration bladders soon ran low. Luckily, we ran into a flowing stream and utilized the UV rays of a SteriPen to purify the water. The cool mountain water only briefly rekindled our spirits as we proceeded on through the relentless jungle.
At one point, 500 feet below the intersection with the Great Western Trail we were scattered around the hillside in disoriented chaos. The lack of electrolytes from the previous day put Ben into a full body cramp that temporarily paralyzed him. Rob was rocking back in forth in fit of exhaustion unable to move from a position perched on the side of the hill and half-jokingly exclaimed, “I feel content to die here.” Sully, who had probably the least amount of time in the saddle that summer, instructed everyone that it was “time to dig deep boys.” With this battle cry we continued on and finally located the Great Western Trail that had eluded us all day.
We were relieved to reach a familiar trail, but the damage had been done and the group was beginning to split. Knowing that there were still plenty of miles ahead of us to reach or destination we gritted our teeth and continued on. We negotiated the ridgeline to Big Mountain Pass and descended the Mormon Pioneer trail to the awaiting truck which contained bags of salty chips and PBR. Would this be enough to infuse our souls to continue the next day? The answer was no. Ben would, sadly, have to drop out of the journey the following day due to saddle sores, dehydration, and exhaustion. This was a man who had just completed a marathon the previous week. We were all surprised that he had succumbed to the rage of the Honey Badger. Rob would also follow his lead and decided to drop out. John and Sully would stay the course and continue to push on.
Day 3 Pinebrook to Guardsman Pass
With the loss of two group members we had to shuffle most of the gear out of Rob’s truck. We soon discovered the porta-potty bag that Sully stated was “bomb proof” had leaked all over the back of Rob’s truck bed. The sticky goo of excrement had tainted Rob’s truck and would lead him to trading it in on a new Tacoma only a few weeks later.
As the Honey Badger crew parted ways Sully and John headed toward Pinebrook to begin the third leg. We found the trailhead that would allow us to ride through Pinebrook to access the Mid-Mountain Trail and felt lucky to have received a shuttle ride for the day as it is required to be a member of the Pinebrook Society to park at any of their trailheads. We began to pedal slowly up the trail with our legs burning from the buildup of lactic acid from the previous two days and steadily climbed through the manicured trails that Park City is known for.
The excitement of the day began to mount as we knew that some of the top single track in the nation, including the Mid-mountain Trail and the Wasatch Crest Trail was in our future. We linked onto the Mid-Mountain trail and began to run into the entourage of fellow riders out enjoying the beautiful weather. This felt strange after the solitude we had experienced on the earlier segments of our ride. The miles quickly began to tick by and soon we found ourselves on the Wasatch Crest Trail.
After record amounts of snowfall during the epic winter of 2011, the local trails took much longer to melt out than is typical in most years. Many of the high mountain trails did not open until well into July with the Pioneer weekend being one of the first in which the Crest Trail was void of snow. Being that the Crest was finally good to go; the masses had come out to descend the flowing single track. This did not bode well for our plans as we had to climb up the trail in the counter direction of other bikers that came screaming by one after another. One such biker whispered under his breath that we were on a “suicide mission.” After narrowly avoiding multiple head on collisions we rolled into the parking area at the top of Guardsman Pass and enjoyed another cold tasty beverage. Our confidence was returning after a day that had finally gone as planned.
To further highlight the day, we would later find out that Rob had garnered up the strength and energy to complete the third leg. He departed solo from Pinebrook in the late afternoon and ascended the Crest trail as the sun was setting over the Wasatch. At this point it was evident that we would not be deterred from our goal.
Day 4: Brighton Resort to Sundance Resort
With most of the crew back intact we added Sully’s wife Ana to the roster for the final day. Ana had ridden this section of trail in previous years and would add valuable insight to keeping us on course as our minds were beginning to fade and hallucinations from fatigue were becoming a common occurrence. We climbed out of Brighton’s parking lot and were greeted by a disgruntled moose as we passed by Lake Catherine. Typically a Honey Badger would pick a fight with such an imposing animal, but being that we were on a mission we didn’t pay the moose much attention and continued on.
After a brief climb up and over Catherine’s Pass we entered into American Fork Canyon. Views of Alta Ski Resort greeted us as we crested the pass with black holes peppering the remaining snow pack; remnants of avalanche bombs from the Alta Ski patrol. We began the steep descent into American Fork Canyon in search of the iconic Ridge trail #157, which would allow us to traverses the entire length of the canyon. Skating our bikes through numerous patches of snow, our tires providing just enough traction to keep upright, we again found ourselves at the bottom of a canyon. With another long steep hike-a-bike section in front of us we tried to block our minds of the suffering by assessing the terrain as a potential backcountry skiing zone. Ana, having fresher legs than the rest of the group would lead the charge as we would try to keep on her pace.
Although we were in dire need of rest, there was not an option to stop for an afternoon snack as the horse flies would soon envelope your face and any exposed skin. Sully was the only one that seemed immune to the flies. We jokingly attributed this to the fact he was an old salty bastard hardened by his Peace Corp stint in Africa.
As we joined up with the Ridge trail #157 the tranquility of the day began to take shape. Waterfalls, flowing single track and an occasional mountain troll greeted us along our route. The vistas of Snowbird and the Lone Peak Wilderness motivated us to continue despite the feelings of numbness that was impeding our bodies. The monotonous uphill nightmares we had encountered soon faded into the alpine glow of the surrounding mountains.
We pushed forward supplemented by various high-octane sports snacks and finally made it to the crest of the final descent into Sundance. The tight single track rolled through aspen groves as the mighty Mt. Timpanogos loomed above, leading us to Robert Redford’s Sundance. We had completed our journey.
The bittersweet feeling of reaching our destination began to take hold as the realization that we would now be entering back into reality after such a dreamlike adventure. As we clinked Epic beers and toasted to our success, we all reflected upon the soul-cleansing experiences of the past four days. We all knew that the natural highs we experienced by feeding off of our surroundings, each other, and finding the ability to go deep within ourselves to overcome and conquer any obstacle would soon give way to the daily grind of life. Much like the emptiness the honey badger must feel during the down times between epic battles, we too were left with that same hollow emotion. Our only coping mechanism being the knowledge that many more adventures are just around the corner.