(Note: This dispatch was originally written in April 2012, during a trip to Grand Junction.)
It wasn’t easy, but I’d conquered my fear—mostly—of Zippety-Do-Da, one of the more exposed trails in Grand Junction/Fruita area. I’d ridden all of the spine of Zippety—a very narrow singletrack that runs along the Bookcliffs, undaunted by the long drop-offs on either side. (This vid gives you a good idea what Zippety’s like.)

Geologic note: the Bookcliffs are capped with a hard layer of Mesa Verde Sandstone and the side slopes are comprised of Mancos shale. I am no expert, but I believe that the sandstone is very tough and resilient, and the shale is less so, which is why the Book Cliffs—which is part of the Grand Mesa formation—has the look it does. The top layer protects the rest from erosion, but when things do erode, they erode from underneath, causing the sandstone to break off in pieces, creating cliffsides. From far away, they look like open books, standing with their spines in the air, which looks cool—like a series of rooftops—though that’s very bad for the long-term health of the book itself.

Last time I was there, a few years ago, I’d walked most of the exposed sections. This time, I rode them Slowly. But I made it, and didn’t let my fear of heights overcome me.

All except for what’s known as “The Turn” which is narrow, rocky, loose, and curves around a cliff itself. As you get close, you can’t see where you’re going. It looks as if the turn will take you off into nothing but air. I walked that part.

But not too far—maybe twenty feet—so I was feeling pretty cocky and sure of myself. “I am a badass!” I shouted into the empty air. (No one heard me. It was 3:00 PM on a weekday and I’d seen only a handful of other riders all day.)

I kept saying “I am a badass!” to myself all the rest of the night. For dinner, I rewarded myself to a medium pizza from a local shop (salami, pesto and red sauce, mozzarella, and pepperoncini—absolutely delicious), and I ate the whole damn thing. Like a superior mountain biking dude would.

Totally rad, I was.

The next day I was still feeling frisky so I decided to try one of the “More Difficult” trails off Exit 15, along the mighty Colorado River. Heck, I’d done pretty well on Mary’s Loop earlier in the week, so I was ready to kick some burly, manly singletrack.

I hopped on a jeep road and headed toward Colorado River, turning onto the Mack Ridge trail, which would lead me on to Lion’s Loop—both of which  I’d never ridden before.

Have I mentioned that I don’t like heights? That I’m mildly acrophobic? If I have something to hold on to, or if there’s an easy out—splaying out on the floor, flat on my chest, arms and legs spread-eagle—I’m pretty much okay. Or if I’m skiing, I’m not so afraid because I can actually take the leap and carve my way down the slope. (That silly glass “skywalk” over the Grand Canyon is the stupidest thing ever made.)

I’d read somewhere this about a fear of heights: it’s not the height that you’re scared of, it’s the overwhelming feeling that you will actually make the leap.  Not that I’m suicidal or anything, but that’s kind of right: when I’m up high, I feel like my body is somehow magnetically attracted to the edge, and wants to get closer, closer, closer. (Just typing this makes my heart quicken.)

Mack’s Ridge starts out hard—narrow, rock-strewn, technical. I went slow, balanced well, and made it over most stuff, though I got hung up once and pitched over because I didn’t clip out in time, bashing my left forearm and giving up some skin to the Colorado River gods. (Cursing and spitting, I loosened the grasp of my clipless pedal so that wouldn’t happen again, freaking A.)

I continued. Going up, and up, and edging gradually closer and closer to the ridge overlooking the Colorado River.

Then, the trail eased up and opened up for a bit. And then: it turned toward the ledge. And stayed there.

I’m all for riding up high, but does the trail need to be inches from a 300-foot drop?

On Mack’s Ridge the answer is: Yes. Yes it does.

And you can’t ride off trail because the soil upslope is a rare and special cryptobiotic soil, which is supposedly incredibly sensitive to trauma, and takes 5,000 years to set up. Ride over it and you kill it. Kill it, and the soil that’s stable and well-formed can turn to sand in a few years, ruining the trail, the mesa, the entire landform.

Plus, it’s like riding in loose sand, because, in fact, it is a kind of loose, flaky crust. And that’s no fun.

Ride on the trail, and if you tip over cliffside?

Simple. You die.

The alternative: ride scared on the trail, leaning upslope as much as possible, your tires as far away from the ledge as possible. This works. However, you risk:

  1. Smashing a pedal against a rock or root, which will promptly pitch you toward that which you’ve been shying away from.
  2. Peeing in your bike shorts. (Often 1. and 2. occur in quick succession; the order is not important.)

I almost did both 1. and 2. Several times. Before I clipped out and began walking  the really exposed sections.

After a while, it clouded up and the wind started whipping against me and my bike. When the trail curled away to safe riding, I rode. When it curved back toward the edge, I walked.

Gradually I was walking more and more until I was so freaked out I couldn’t imagine riding at all. At which point walking then became difficult.

So there I was, all alone on this cliff–I can’t even call it a ridge at this point–three feet from eternity. Frozen and scared witless.

I’ve never had a full-on panic attack, but I got pretty close right then. Yet I knew fainting would very bad up there, so I made sure I kept breathing. Deep long draws. And that helped a lot.

And then I told myself that this was stupid, and no fun, and I should never do this kind of trail again. That I was fucking stupid idiot, and not a very good rider, either.

I turned around and carefully lifted my front tire and spun my bike around on its back tire—becoming disoriented and totally losing all sense of balance for a moment, almost dropping my bike into oblivion—and began a slow walk back to a safer part of the trail.

This is what I must have looked like: a very old man. Tiny steps, more like shuffling. In black socks. Hunched over, totally focused on those baby steps, trying not to see anything peripherally. (Cliff, cliff, cliff! River way down below.)

It was all very humbling. I must say, I am a pretty humble guy in general. Well, except for the day before when I was blustering to myself—bragging in my own head about how well I rode Zippety, and how, really, there’s not much left out there to challenge my immense and impressive bike skills.

Yeah, as if.

At that point, crawling back to the trail junction with Lion’s Loop, a crow should have flown into my mouth.

Just beyond the bike, the rock ledge ends and there’s nothing but air.

Mood shot. The distance down to the river isn’t clear in this pic–let’s just say that it’s way the frick down.

One thought on “Acrophopbia

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