Bikepacking and packrafting in Utah's rugged and unforgiving backcountry.
A different kind of outfitter is mapping a different kind of backcountry adventure that tests limits, with unknown outcomes. Three friends accept the challenge to combine bikepacking and packrafting and chart a freewheeling path across the rugged Southwest.
“I BET SHE GOES,” Doom says, peering down the dusty trail we’re currently riding, a trail which, technically, doesn’t exist. It’s not on the National Geographic map, and registers only as a faint line on his GPS, like a ghost, disappearing abruptly in the middle of a canyon.
This situation is nothing new; Doom uses plenty of trails that were originally scratched into the desert by motorcycles or cowboys but have never been made official. But this trail is supposed to be our exit strategy after four days of hard biking, and if it doesn’t go, we’re going to have to make some painful adjustments.
“I don’t know. I hope she goes,” Doom says with an uneasy laugh as we cross an active creek and push our bikes up the sandy bank. We hop over a downed tree and…the trail vanishes in a wall of thick sage.
She doesn’t go.
We’re in Bears Ears National Monument, in southeastern Utah, trying to climb out of a dusty gorge choked with head-high brush. The mystery trail was great for 6 miles or so, a wide path that dropped elevation fast and narrowed as it crossed the creek a half-dozen times before it unceremoniously died.
It’s a good news/bad news deal. The good news is that the creek is the most reliable water source we’ve seen in days, so we won’t die of thirst.
The bad news? We’re cooked. Four days of big miles has turned our legs into noodles and our asses raw. The idea of backtracking when we’re so close, just a few miles from Doom’s truck, is disheartening. There’s cold beer in that truck. If we turn back now, who knows how dark it will be before we crack those beers?
Here’s the weird thing, though: This is exactly what we signed up for. We’re on a bikepacking and packrafting trip with a man named Doom (real name: Steven Fassbinder), who is known for creating multi-day routes all over the world that require mountain bikes, packrafts and the occasional llama. His exploits are legendary and borderline nuts: a fat- bike journey across towering glaciers in Northern Pakistan, a 1,000-mile bike and rafting trek across Tajikistan. Sierra Nevada featured him in a beer commercial. The guy has fans.
Doom and his partner, Lizzy Scully, started a new guide service last spring, Four Corners Guides, to introduce those fans to his unique style of adventure inside the dusty, canyon-rich backdrop of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The signature tour is “The Full Doom,” where clients spend several hard days riding and paddling in the desert. It’s a serious affair, and prospective clients are subject to a shakedown in which Doom and Lizzy assess their physical prowess and mental fortitude. I was told I could join an outing only if I guaranteed I wouldn’t “be late, shitty or not up for the trip in any way.”
Not that you have to be a total jock to enjoy a Doom adventure. Doom himself is notorious for his less-than-hardcore training regimen. “I love it when people just go for it,” he says. “What’s the worst thing that could happen? You get tired. Or hungry.”
I’m tagging along with Dave Martinez and Chad Eagle, two longtime friends from Southern California. They signed up for a customized Full Doom that combines a big, four-day bikepacking ride through Bears Ears with a two-day riding and packrafting adventure through a corner of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s an ambitious itinerary that combines 200 miles of pedaling with 10 miles of flatwater paddling, and has us strapping all of our gear, food and water to our bikes and back. My tent and inflatable
boat are attached to my handlebars and everything else is distributed through frame bags and my backpack. It’s a heavy kit, but it’s oddly satisfying to know that everything I need for the foreseeable future is contained on my carbon-fiber, stormtrooper-white-painted fat bike.
Doom tucks his GPS away and contemplates the wall of sage in front of us. He understands that backtracking would kill morale. “I bet the creek goes,” he says and takes off down the center of the stream, his pedals churning the water with each downstroke. We chase after him, hoping that the scrub-brush walls rising on both banks will give way to a clear route to cold beer.
THE TRIP began four days earlier at a high-alpine pass on a gravel backroad surrounded by tall aspens. Someone had carved a cartoon cock and balls into one of the trees at the top of the pass, the artwork turning black with age against the white bark.
Doom laughs. “That’s how you know you’re on a Doom trip. Those are my blazes.”
He’s thin in a way that most would describe as scrappy, with a deep tan, a scruffy beard and a giant tattoo of a caboose across his back, which he finds funny because it’s the last car of a train, not the first. Initially, he made a name for himself in the 24-hour mountain bike race scene, winning three solo world championships during his heyday. But this new style of adventure, multi-day romps into unforgiving landscapes, seems to suit his nature better than racing.
The first day is full of big descents and big climbs as we yo- yo between 6,000 and 10,000 feet, ticking off miles on dusty OHV trails with loose, chunky rocks. The climbing is steep and long. The downhills are fast and dangerous, with hard corners and techy rock drops. But every grunt of a climb is rewarded with big scenery, the views into the heart of Bears Ears sweeping the eponymous rock formations and the Navajo Nation.
Bears Ears has gotten a lot of attention ever since Obama granted it national monument status in 2016, and then Trump promptly reduced the protected area by 85 percent. Rock climbers love Bears Ears, but tend to stick to the wellknown cliffs around the paved State Route 211. The backcountry is empty of Sprinter vans but full of little-explored canyons and ancient Native American ruins. Cattle roam the valleys between cliffs freely. Once we drop out of the alpine zone, the landscape is classic desert chic: tan, sandy roads, scratchy sage, juniper trees and massive, red sandstone cliffs. As we encounter networks of forgotten moto trails, Doom pencils them onto his personal map.
The riding is hard, maybe harder than Dave and Chad expected, but they’re gamers. These are the kind of guys who wake at 3:45 a.m. to work out before putting in a 12-hour workday. They both clock in for a power company in Southern California, where they spent years earning overtime as pole climbers. Chasing Doom around the desert might seem like an odd way to spend leisure time, but Chad wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is about seeing what I can do,” he says, adding that the trip is marked on his family calendar as Dave and Chad’s Death March. “Can I ride 40 miles a day in the desert over and over? I don’t know.”
Doom gets it. “The unknown is a big
part of it,” he says. “Getting out here where nobody else goes and seeing what there is to see, and how you can handle it—that’s the draw.”
The first night, we set up camp off a dusty road, spreading our bedrolls in a bowl surrounded by pink and black cliffs.
“Hey Doom, where’s the Chardonnay?” cracks Dave, lighting his stove to boil water for dinner. Nope, this isn’t your standard Western Spirits tour where a guide sets up a nice cheese plate and chilled wine for you at the end of the day. Instead, we have freeze-dried ramen and chili, and some beef jerky if we’re lucky.
It’s primitive, but that’s part of the appeal. We’re a small group exploring remote terrain, and for that to work, everyone has to be self-sufficient. Doom isn’t cooking our food or holding our hands in any way. There are no support vans or post-ride massages. But there are beers. Doom insisted that each of us stash a few cans in our frame bags. So now we crack warm pale ales and drink them slowly, to make them last as the sunset turns surrounding cliffs into fire-like shades of red.
THERE ARE not a lot of mindless miles in our itinerary, but over the next few days, I occasionally find myself daydreamily looking for animal faces in the rock features, like a kid searching the clouds for dragons. Dramatic cliffs dominate the horizon with layered red and tan sandstone reminiscent of Tatooine, from a Star Wars galaxy far, far away.
The best way to pass the time is to get Doom telling stories. Like the one about how he got his nickname, which involves him winning a 24-hour solo race on his way to Burning Man and accepting the large check in full costume as Marvel supervillain Doctor Doom.
Riding oscillates between mellow dirtroad climbs littered with sand traps, and steep descents on chunky, abandoned OHV trails. There are also fleeting moments of pure bliss when you hit a long patch of sand on a fast downhill. Doom teaches us to hover our butts over the rear wheel and keep a light touch on the handlebars, lifting the front tire slightly as we hit the sand. Do it properly and the bike floats like you’ve temporarily escaped the rules of gravity.
We follow a slickrock wash into the bottom of Lavender Canyon, a dynamic ditch full of smooth, tan rock that drops in rounded layers to the canyon floor. It’s a fun descent, but the only way out is a mandatory hike-a-bike up the other side of the canyon.
“We’ve got 30 minutes of suck ahead of us,” Doom says, pausing to reassess the daunting slope before correcting himself. “Make that 45.”
It’s full-on bushwhacking as we lug our bikes over boulders and push through scrub. It’s a steep, full-body effort, and we pause often to catch our ragged breath. Gravity is back. And it’s angry. During our breaks, conversation turns to food. We’re all obsessed with the first meal upon returning to civilization. Dave is determined to drive hours out of his
THE POINT IS TO EXIT OUR COMFORT ZONE AND ENTER A WORLD WHERE SURVIVAL HINGES ON A BIKE AND A BOAT.
way for a heaping plate of Cracker Barrel biscuits and sawmill gravy.
Doom is a different story. He wants nothing and seems to exist on gummy bears and tallboy cans of Eddyline Brewery’s Crank Yanker IPA. Atop the punishing climb, we find a pocket of shade where Doom smiles before swallowing another handful of gummy bears. “That’s the customary entry fee for a Doom trip,” he says. “It’s gotta have some suck.”
If this Doom has a superpower, it’s his ability to withstand suffering. Whether it’s out-grinding the competitor field in a race, or humping his bike across faraway glaciers, Doom seems to revel in situations that make the rest of us miserable. And when nothing—even the next freshwater spring—is guaranteed, uncertainty is what separates the Doom way from most guided trips. All you know is that it will be hard, and that you’ll see some cool shit. Everything else is fuzzy.
Some of that cool shit we see includes Newspaper Rock, a touristy-but-impressive slab of petroglyphs that date back 2,000 years; numerous 1,000-year-old ruins built with thin, stacked stone into cliffs and caves; biological soil crust resembling black mold that constitutes one of the oldest-known life-forms on the planet; and a legit oasis with a running creek winding through tall green grass and two small waterfalls.
But there’s a catch. That oasis sits at the bottom of a steep canyon, so we have to scramble down the wall of said canyon, down-climbing short cliffs and shimmying across narrow ledges. It’s sketchy, but doable, and when we reach the stream, we submerge four beers to let them chill while we filter water and refill our bags. It’s been 48 hours since I’ve seen another person outside of our group, which is both anxiety-inducing and peaceful at the same time.
Doom wants these trips to be transformative. Almost like therapy. The perpetual motion, the alien-like landscapes, the lack of communication with the outside world…it all turns adventure into a reset button. All we have to do each day is pedal our bikes and find water. That liberation feels as if we’re not just riding bikes, but traveling through time, exploring a world before cellphones and out-of-office alerts and weekends spent traveling for an 8-year-old’s club soccer tournament. And that’s the whole point: to exit our comfort zone and enter another world where survival hinges on a bike and a rubber boat, and bare necessities become the priority.
Our last day in Bears Ears ends with the speculative pedal down the center of the creek as we desperately search for our truck. After a half-mile more of water-logged pedaling, we’re miraculously back on the map and heading toward reward beer. We make it before dark, spend the night in a cave and, mildly refreshed the next morning, launch the second leg of our trip into Lake Powell and Glenwood Canyon Recreation Area.
The boats are glorified inner tubes loaded with heavy gear—bags stashed in the hull, bike strapped to the nose. The paddling is peaceful, as the boats can’t move faster than a peaceful pace. You can increase paddle exertion, but you won’t move much faster than cruising speed. It’s best to adopt Zen-like patience. Paddle steady and slow, spend the time absorbing the red cliff walls rising from the silt-laden water, thick as chocolate milk. Blue herons eye us from high perches, like tiny pterodactyls trying to figure how to fit us into their beaks.
Six miles in, we hit our destination campsite on a rocky bluff 20 feet above the water. Doom uses the site often and has Crank Yanker tallboys stashed in various crevices, which he offers to me, Dave and Chad—his version of the Chardonnay and cheese plate.
As we savor the last sips, shooting stars fling across the dark, empty sky. There will be more paddling tomorrow, the adventure’s final day, including a hard 20-mile bike ride out of Glen Canyon. There will be times when I’ll just want the pain in my legs to stop. But right now, staring at the Milky Way and drinking a warm IPA, I wish the miles would stretch out endlessly. I don’t want to leave this world where I don’t know what’s around the next bend. Where there are no assurances. Where there’s a chance of severe dehydration but also moments of zero gravity. The crappy freeze-dried dinners, the gummy bears, the alien petroglyphs—i want more. And if this trip can’t last forever, then I’m ready to start planning the next.
Doom understands that pull. “It’s important to do something hard every once in a while, so you know what you have in you,” he says, lying back against a rock and gazing up at the sky. “That’s the thing about these trips. They leave a mark.” ■