Monday, May 7, 2012

Nephi's Twist

Justin Olsen doing what he does best.

SOUTHERN UTAH COMES with no shortage of mountain biking fame. From the undulating XC on Gooseberry Mesa to the white knuckles of the Redbull Rampage venue, there’s a trail for every bike amid the red plateaus that make up one of the most unique landscapes on earth. As a native of Northern Utah, road trips to the South were on regular rotation and over the years our crew has sampled most of what made Southern Utah famous. One trip during the winter of 2007 stands out in memory. As bike trips tend to, ours grew from just a couple friends to a large group of acquaintances and strangers all connected by the love of two wheels. The group had spent the weekend camping and riding at the original Redbull Rampage site. Near the end of a good day of jumps and drops, all coated in a fine layer of ginger colored dust, one of these new friends recommended a quick shuttle on Nephi’s Twist.

“Nephi’s Twist?” I’d never heard of it.  Nephi (pronounced knee-fie), is no stranger to the average Utahn. He’s the first character you meet in the Book of Mormon, the curious book of scripture unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) who settled Utah in the 1840s. The book of Mormon opens with Nephi’s perilous journey into the wilderness from Jerusalem, a journey that sort of melded into a line of singletrack in my mind as I asked what this new trail was all about.

“It’s just a quick, cool shuttle down a ridgeline,” came the brief reply.

Quick? Yes. Cool? Yeah. Down a ridgeline? Right again. But Nephi’s Twist also proved to be some of the longest and scariest few minutes I’ve ever spent atop two wheels.

Travelling South from Virgin, Utah, State Road 9 drops down off the mesa into the little town of LaVerkin. Just off the highway to the north lies a pile of wild ridge lines. Somewhere in that pile of moon-like landscape lay Nephi’s Twist.

Between us, our group had an old van with shag carpet, a shiny, new, lifted Nissan Titan, and my 1992 single-cab, 4-cylinder Toyota pickup. I was just grateful that my little truck had made the voyage across Utah, but the true test of my truck’s manhood was about to begin when it was chosen as one of the shuttle vehicles.

“We’ll leave your truck at the bottom,” they said after a couple minutes on dirt roads led us to the drop-in point. But instead of taking the sure route to the bottom via the highway, Rod, (another new friend and over-zealous driver of the Titan), pointed to a dirt road descending into the nearby canyon and said, “I think that leads to the bottom. It’ll be quicker.” I was instantly nervous, since my view of Rod’s sanity was tainted by the fact that he spent most of the weekend drinking Rockstars, firing an automatic rifle into hillsides, and chanting the mantra, “FIST THE BARS!” in an effort to keep any of us from ever touching our brakes.

“You think it leads to the bottom?” I had concerns, but I didn’t have the guts to say it.
My trusty Toyota in the Southern Utah sunrise.

I HESITANTLY FOLLOWED down the rough canyon road as Rod took off at what must have been 40 miles an hour. I did my best to keep up. Before long we came to a section of road that was ultra steep and totally covered in loose rock.

“If this road doesn’t have an output, there’s no way  this truck is making it back up this hill,” I thought to myself as I started the half-drive, half-slide down the hill. As if that weren’t enough, we soon came upon Dan pulling full-on Moab-rock-crawler action through a dry river bed filled with compact-car sized boulders.

More negative thoughts. “There’s no way my truck is making it through that! Does he have no comprehension of what I’m driving?” But knowing there was no way out the way we came, I said a little prayer and went for it. “Fist the bars!” as Rod would say.

I consider the successful river crossing a full-on miracle. I swear at one point my front bumper and my tow package rested on rocks at the same time.

Before long, the road mellowed and meandered out into the open of the trails end. Hallelujah! My adrenaline was drained and I hadn’t even ridden my bike yet. Little did I know how grateful I would be to reach this spot again in a few minutes. Rod drove back up the rocky road at obscene speeds, bouncing off rocks and sliding around corners while I held on in the back thinking, “Who is this guy?!”

SOON, WE FOUND OURSELVES geared and ready to drop in, complete with the butterflies and the vague need to use the restroom that attends the typical trailhead ritual. We stood amongst the sage brush looking out toward the craggy red and grey ridges creeping like devilish fingers toward town, saddled our bikes, and began our descent.

The slim singletrack began on a wide incline covered in red shale and mint-green sage. As we descended, the plain narrowed, and a quick hike-a-bike had us at the top of a ridge facing a 100-foot, super-steep roll-in off the other side; the first of many tests to come.

Nephi’s twist is not a fast, consistent descent. There are small ridges and saddles along the way, which have you sometimes climbing and sometimes traversing. This allows for the kind of speed you maintain with a comfortable, consistent pedal, along with some slow tech sections and point-and-shoot drop lines. Soon, our large group was spread out across the ridge; some riding, some walking, and some doing a bit of both.

Early on, I realized that Nephi’s Twist is the desert’s evil answer to North Shore skinnies. The ridge is usually only a few feet wide, and for most of the way either side is steep enough that if you go over, you’re not stopping until you reach the bottom.

It gets worse when the trail skirts some of the steep little peaks rather than going over them. As I made my way through these sections, I  continued pedaling because there was literally nowhere to put my feet down even if I wanted to. As I rolled around one ridge, I  stole glances at the 70-foot drop literally inches to my left. “If you fall, fall to the right!” I told myself. Suddenly I rolled a foot-wide gap in the trail where the soil has sluffed away, looking between my legs, straight down, 70 feet. There’s Rod in my head again: “Fist the bars!”

Looking nonchalant

With all this looking around,“What if?” begins to repeat in your mind. I had short visions of me and my bike doing cartwheels down the mountainside. As I used all my will power to maintain momentum and look to the outlet, I had the sobering realization that if I slipped up, if I did something silly, I was guaranteed to get hurt and maybe even die.

It’s different than the fear I’m used to; rather than the usual fear of taking a tumble at high speeds or of slamming after hitting a jump wrong, it’s the kind of fear that rock climbing brings: Too much time to look down and let your mind run wild. Never before had the possibility of death by mountain biking seemed so close.  I knew that if you put Nephi’s Twist three feet off the ground it would be pretty typical. I knew I’d ridden in perfect control along miles of singletrack without ever blowing off the side, and I knew that messing up was unlikely, but the potential  consequences mangled all perspective. Like many times before and since, I found myself thinking,“Why am I doing this?” with a powerful part of me saying, “Don’t be an idiot. Walk to the bottom.”

And yet, I had stronger desire to clean the whole trail. There are the riders, and there are the walkers. Which group was I going to be a part of? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I stopped at a couple different points while this little debate play out in my mind. This, as they say, is where worlds collide; where preservation of life runs headlong into pride. I had to be a rider!

Isn’t it amazing that pathetic pride can outweigh concern for life? We humans are one unique beast!

The mob slowing making their way toward the end of the trail.

HERE AND THERE SECTIONS opened up and mellowed out a bit, like manna from heaven. I basked in them, if only for a moment, until it was time to face potential paralyzation again.

All the way down, I continued to debate the moral rightness of riding the trail.

Cliffsides weren’t the only challenge. Nephi’s Twist also comes with a few drops and technical steeps. Like the rest of the trail, on their own they’re not much to talk about. Four or five feet. It’s the narrow ridge and steep sides that get me. One such rocky steep section extended in front of me, dropping into a saddle running along a cliff on the left side of the ridge. Once again, I found myself questioning my ability to maintain a straight line as I watched my friends disappear over the edge in front of me, each appearing as a speck a little further down. “Fist the bars!” one last time.

Mercifully, the trail soon came to a close (albeit in a violent 50-foot descent) to the level valley below where my little white truck waited patiently. It felt like stepping on land after weeks at sea; like coming back to earth after hurtling through space. I’d never been so happy to see the end of a trail; to feel the sweet relief of gratified pride and preserved life. In a rare coup, they both survived! I could say I rode Nephi’s Twist and I would never have to ride it again.

Phil pondering on the finish line.

IN THE FALL OF 2010 I was wrapping up another mini-tour of southern Utah’s freeride spots. At the end of the day, we were headed out of Virgin toward LaVerkin when I heard myself say to my uninitiated little brother, “Want to hit Nephi’s Twist?”

I will never ride it again. This time I mean it. I think.

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