Downieville Blackout: The night we spent in the Sierra unprepared

Spending a scary night on the trail

Travel
Sierra Overlook

Sierra overlook. Photo by Justin Wages

Editor’s note: This is a story by Katrin Deetz republished from her blog here.

Introduction by Justin Wages

When most of us envision a really bad day on the trail we conjure up wild visions of ourselves flying off 100 foot cliffs as the trail collapses beneath us, being bitten by a venomous snake, a giant bear mauling us then burying us alive, saber-toothed mountain lions pouncing on us from above, or even rabid squirrels dropping out of the trees. Ok, maybe I’m the only one who worries about rabid squirrels but the reality is most of us will never come face to face with any of these beasts or fall off huge freaking cliffs.

What we should really worry about is ourselves and our lack of preparation for a long day on the trail. Often times we are so caught up in the excitement of a ride on a new trail that we fail to do our due diligence with regards to preparing our gear and packing our bags with enough food, water, and gear needed to get us through more than one or two minor mechanical failures or more than a few hours on the trail. We’ve all seen it before. You happen upon someone walking their bike down the trail because they didn’t bring extra tubes, patches or whatever they need to get rolling again, or maybe a person who is starting to look a little wild in the eyes yet tired and shaky because they have run out of food and/or water. In most cases we help these folks out with an extra tube, fill up their water bottle or hand them an energy bar/gu pack and off we go. That’s usually how these situations end and we ride off hoping the poor guy/gal has learned something about being prepared.

I first met Katrin Deetz at one of the California Enduro Series race events in 2017. This being her first season racing she raced the beginner class and was always in a top spot on the podium with my girlfriend, Jeni. She is fast, tough and always prepared for each event. So it was a surprise when I read about her ill-fated Downieville trip with her husband Ron in 2016 when they, well, I’ll let her tell it the tale.

Katrin and Ron

Katrin and her husband share a life of adventure. Photo courtesy of Katrin Deetz

Downieville Blackout: The night we spent in the Sierra unprepared

“Thursday, June 30, 2016: 3:15 a.m.

“Baby seriously, try to breathe through your nose and keep your mouth closed,” I urge.

“I can’t! I can’t swallow, I have no saliva; I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin!” Ron retorts. His dehydration is real, and we are nowhere near water until the sun comes up.

“Just hold on a little bit longer.”

About fifteen hours earlier that day…

We are heading out on a mountain bike trip to Downieville, California, Mountain Biking Paradise of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This place is a Mecca: miles of well-maintained, perfectly flowy trails, some of which are Gold-Rush era; the gorgeous, wild and roaring Yuba River with its abundant, Eden-like swimming holes; and westward, sweeping views for miles. Woo-Hoo! It’s about a four and a half hour drive from our house in Ben Lomond, and we’re scheduled for the 5 p.m. shuttle.

Shuttle? That’s the best part about Downieville! You pay $20, load up your bike, and get a ride up to Packer Saddle, the top of the trail, about 7,000’. From there, it’s virtually all downhill back to Downieville (elevation 2,966’) – about 17 miles, close to 5,000’ of it if you take the route we are planning to. Ron hasn’t been yet, and I’m beyond excited to take him. It took me about two and a half hours the last time I went, so I figure we’ll descend in about the same time. We’ll have a nice sundown ride, followed by reservations for the night at Sierraville Hot Springs Resort in Sierraville.

Downieville Trail Map

Downieville trail map.

About 12:45 p.m. we are finally on the road. I make a phone call to Downieville Outfitters, the mountain bike shuttle company we are scheduled with.

“Hi, this is Katrin calling to confirm that Ron and I are still on the 5 o’clock shuttle for today, but are running a few minutes late. Is that okay?”

“You two are the only ones signed up for the 5 o’clock. I’ll be waiting for ‘ya, no worries and no hurries,” he assures me.

A few hours of driving pass, and with each hour, the temperature keeps rising. There’s no AC in our car, either. It feels like an industrial-strength hair-dryer when you roll the window down. My temperature gauge reads 104℉ by the time we reach Marysville, a junction point on our trip. Driving as fast as we can, we power through the oppressive heat, eye on the prize of wind in our hair at sunset. We arrive in Downieville, finally, at about 5:15 p.m., and hurry to get our bikes and gear together. About 5:25 we are off, in that van driving up Highway 49 to Packer Saddle. The wind through the van windows feels like heaven driving up the shaded Yuba River canyon; finally some relief from the heat!

“Nice little Sunset ride, eh?” the driver asks. His long hair, mellow attitude, and reggae music fit the bill of a seasoned veteran of Stoke. What a neat job he has.

“Yep, his first time!” I reply.

At about 6:00 we arrive at the top of the trail and start unloading our bikes and gear. The driver looks at us quizzically, as if we are moving a bit too slowly, and suggests, “You guys should hit it, yeah?” with a look of mild concern on his face. “Solstice was about a week ago, but it’ll be dark by about 9:30 tonight”.

Packer_Saddle

“Yeah, we’re good, thanks. Just taking a minute to make sure everything’s tight”, I reply. We don’t actually have that much gear: Ron is wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a long-sleeve wrapped around his waist; a water-bottle, watch with a weak light, bike-pump, lighter, toolkit and patch kit with three patches are securely attached to his bike-frame. I have my riding pants, tank-top, and convertible wind-breaker jacket, with my EcoLips Mint Lip Balm I go everywhere with, 1-quart water-bottle attached to my bike frame, and one Nutz Over Chocolate Luna Bar.

And off goes that van. “Have fun!” he shouts as he drives away.

We start off on the trail called Sunrise. We are only about three turns in when Ron exclaims, “I got a flat!”

I sigh in surprise, followed by mild irritation, but knowing how quickly he can patch a tire, I am not worried. He takes about ten minutes to patch it and let the glue dry, and pumps it up, but not too full; perhaps a bit lower pressure than normal. He drinks some water and spills some on the ground accidentally.

“Hope I won’t need that later,” he jokes, as we get back on our saddles.

We find our Flow and hit the next fork in the trail, Butcher Ranch Trail. We are happily flying down perfect curves. This is what we came for! We take a short break at a trail intersection to take in the gorgeous scenery before continuing on.

About twenty minutes or so later, we cross a particularly rocky section of the trail. Sharp slate rock outcroppings stick up like dull razor blades; still sharp enough to cut. That’s when I hear the distinctive “Pop!” of a punctured tire.

Patch-6-Spread-Glue

“Ah crap, another flat!” I know that sound: it’s a pinch-flat, likely from his air pressure is too low. The rock basically pinches the loose tire and punctures it like a snake-bite in two places. He still has two more patches in his patch kit, but in this steep mountain valley, under these looming, giant evergreen trees, the sun has already set behind the mountain. Time is not on our side. He gets a patch on one of the holes and starts on the other.

“You’re doing awesome, Honey,” I encourage. After the patch-glue dries, he starts to pump up his tire again. The tiny bike-pump makes it extra difficult to pump up the tire quickly, but he keeps pumping away at it as the tire is coming back to life. Then – another POP!

“God!” Ron bemoans. He takes the tire off the rim, again, and takes the tube out to examine the patches. One has stuck, but the other has busted – torn in two. Here we are, no patches left, just what’s on the tire. He is using his toolkit knife to gingerly cut the patch off, hoping to reaffix it.

It’s about 7:30 p.m. now, light fading by the minute. He reapplies the make-shift patch, and we wait a few more minutes for the glue to dry.

“It’s hard without the direct sunlight; it’s not drying as fast,” he says. About ten minutes pass, and he starts pumping up the tire again. It seems to be holding. My faith is choosing that we will be on our way in no time.

It’s about 8:00 p.m. We’ll make it down by dark if we leave right now.

Then: yet another POP! We can hear the air hissing out of the tire and look at each other with a bit of concern.

“Shit!” Ron exclaims. “That’s it for the patches,” he sighs. But my husband, ever the resourceful one, moves to plan B: advice he’d read from mountain bike forums about fixing a flat in dire need. He starts gathering pine needles, cones, small sticks, grass, any non-poky vegetation he can gather, and begins stuffing it into his bike tire.

“I read about it online,” he assures me, as I look at him with a mild skepticism in my eyes.

It actually works, for about three minutes. Until it completely flats out, and his rim wobbles from the speed, causing him to nearly crash.

“Ugh!” he sighs defeatedly.

It is definitely getting darker. It’s about 8:30 p.m. now. I look at my trail-map, and see that we still have about eleven miles left to go. We haven’t even reached the Pauley Creek crossing.

“Baby, why don’t you ride my bike, and I’ll run alongside your bike?” I offer. Since I’m a runner, I know I can do it. “We still have eleven miles to go, and we’re not going to make it out by dark at this pace”. I am getting just a little bit worried.

“It’s okay; I’m just going to take off the tire and ride the bare rim at this point. It’s pretty much our only option”. He takes his tire out of his back rim, and we start nursing our way down that trail, his metal rim making so much noise over the rocks and roots of the trail. We are actually moving, though.

Worked Over Wheel

Ron’s worked over rear wheel. Photo courtesy of Katrin Deetz

Luckily, Ron spots a half-full water bottle on the trail. Seeing as how we are both almost out of water, I feel some sense of relief. He drinks a bit and saves the rest. We may not be getting out of here in the daylight, but we should be able to keep going in the dark, right?

About 9:30 p.m., we finally hit the Pauley Creek footbridge. An uphill section lies ahead. We have switched to walking our bikes about fifteen minutes ago when it just became too dark to safely maneuver. I can see a few stars peeking out between the trees above us, and the alpenglow is fading quickly. It’s a New Moon, so there will be no moon tonight. I remember that and feel a pang of panic in my stomach. I am despondently starting to realize that we might not be getting out of here tonight.

We cross the footbridge and start walking our bikes uphill, about one mile from the next trail junction: Third Divide and Big Boulder Trail.

“It is really dark,” Ron says, stating the obvious.

“I know, Honey, but we have to keep moving. We have no choice,” I reply. I am leading the way, trying to keep a clear picture of how this section of the trail looks in daylight the last time I rode it. And then it hits me: it is certainly darker than I’ve ever experienced outside in nature, short of being in a cave. Like someone poured a bucket of black paint over the landscape and buried us in it. It is nearly paralyzing.

I am putting my arms out in front of me, feeling for clear space. I know that trees surround either side of this single-track trail, so if there’s a clearing in front of me, we must still be on the trail. It’s hard to tell, though. I stomp my feet and shuffle the ground, hearing no debris in my footfall. This must still be the trail. I drop to the ground, take off my gloves, and feel the firm, well-traveled trail beneath the palms of my hands.

“Yes! We are still on the trail. Just keep right behind me,” I console. He is right on my tail, trusting my every move to guide him.

“I feel like I’m blind,” he says. He tries, in vain, to use his watch light for illumination, but it’s completely useless beyond displaying the time.

Blind is an understatement. Vertigo is almost more like it. This complete, enveloping darkness is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life. It is hard to articulate, but it’s completely overpowering. I cannot tell which way is left, right, barely up or down. It is dizzying. I feel completely vulnerable and trapped in it. The mountains of Downieville are dramatically steep, blanketed in mixed-growth conifers, some of the old-growth variety. They shroud any ambient light like blackout curtains. So much for that hiking out in the dark idea I had earlier.

‘Why the heck didn’t I think to grab that mini-flashlight from the car earlier?!’ I internally scold myself. After all, I’ve done this ride before, and should know that it’s not just some out-and-back ride. This is a true Wilderness ride, bordering the Pacific Crest Trail that straddles the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You are on your own out here at this time of night.

We take about thirty minutes to lumber up to the top of the hill with a resting spot, complete with rope-swing and emergency backboard for trail rescues. We use the lighter to illuminate the trail sign, indicating we are at the next junction: Third Divide and Big Boulder Trail.

Continue to page 2 for more of this story »


About the author: Justin Wages

As a stage 4 colon cancer survivor, Justin Wages got into the cycling world in an effort to increase his endurance after losing his left lung. As a California native and growing up with a skateboard and snowboard beneath his feet it wasn’t long before the thrill of mountain biking gripped him. Justin’s day job as a Land & Recreation Manager helps him understand the balance between conservation and trail use. He also works with his fiancé, Jeni, to bring more women into the mountain bike world with certified skills clinics and education. “My goal is to get more people on trails for health and enjoyment,” he says. “I want to help them overcome their mental or physical limitations and be the best person they can be, while expanding their appreciation for our natural world.”


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  • Bruce Lee says:

    Brings back a memory of a similar impromptu overnight with Rod and Ray from IRD back in the mid ’80s. This was in the Cascades near the Illinois River. We had drastically underestimated the time to ride the trail end to end. Luckily it was Summer time so a night in the forest with no camp gear or food was uncomfortable but not life threatening. But it was very dark until dawn just started to glow. Live and learn.

    • Katrin Deetz says:

      Thanks for sharing, Bruce. I think most outdoorsy people find themselves in some sort of imperfect situation like this at some point in their lives. I think you summed it up well when you said “uncomfortable, but not life threatening”. That’s a good way to put it! We had a lot going for us with good weather and the fire, and it could’ve been a lot worse. As you said, live and learn!

  • Evan says:

    Crazy how something like a flat tire and a few innocent bad decisions can so easily leave you stranded overnight. Reminds me of a few things I need to put back in my own pack. Hopefully it makes other riders think before heading out, too…

  • Mickey says:

    Tubes? Downieville?
    I think I need to put a bic mini lighter in my head tube storage. Or a bunch of water proof matches.
    Fork Cork baby!
    https://miles-wide.com/product/fork-cork/

  • Eric says:

    I got turned around on a trail once in the woods around dusk after riding a few hours. It’s crazy how quick it gets dark and how dark it actually is. I was able to walk out a few hours later by feeling the trail with my feet but it wasn’t a great experience. I carry a light with me at all times now haha… Glad to hear you guys made it out alright!

  • Julie Kanagy says:

    When my husband first told me this story I was furious at the shuttle driver for not being a bit more attentive. But sounds like even he had some warnings/misgivings. It was just a snowball effect of multiple things gone wrong. I thought it was brilliant how your husband thought to use the glue from the patch kit as a fire starter! Thanks for writing about this to help spread awareness. I’m in Felton, and we should ride, lol!

  • Alex Mendoza says:

    “Experience is what you get with things don’t go as planned.” Not sure where I read this but it says it all.
    I understand the feelings of frustration when reading about how unprepared you were going into this…I was scared for you! Mostly because I have been there. My first experience at 17 with being extremely dehydrated and dreaming of Root beer floats at 3am! And then melting snow the next day to fill our water bottles. And getting caught in a blizzard while cross country skiing to Glacier Point in February of 1998. Made a snow shelter and spent the night shivering uncontrollably at times. This is what your body does to stay alive! I have ridden Dville for the last 20 years and sometimes I forget that there are lessons to learn. Thanks for reminding us that things don’t always go as planned! Glad to read you were aware of your fitness and resourceful enough to minimize your mistakes. And welcome to the club!
    Alex in Santa Cruz.

  • James B says:

    Hi Katrin, they say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” Although I don’t typically agree with that sentiment, in your case I think it’s true ;) I’ve had a handful of near “accidental overnight wilderness experiences” but fortunately have always somehow managed to get back to warmth & safety. Twice in 2017 I used my cell phone to light my way as I pedaled near-blindly back to the parking lot for over an hour in total darkness. Shit happens, be it from our own lack of preparedness, stupidity, and/or just plain bad luck! You sound like you handled your adventure with strength, courage & grace. Thanks for sharing your story, I am so glad it ended well for the two of you. Maybe I’ll see you guys at one of the CA Enduro’s this year.

  • Scotch Hennesy says:

    Your one hell of a wife!

  • Don Paul says:

    We ALWAYS carry our SPOT GPS Locator whenever we MTB so we can get EMS if we need it… and let our 30-something kids know “We’re OK” (there’s a button on our SPOT for that) as well as track us. Our SPOT only cost $50 on sale… or you can rent them. Absolutely no reason not to have one since they cost about as much as a MTB tire.

  • Steven W. says:

    Had something similar happen to me a few years back, I usually ride alone, but prepared for most things. Probably the worst thing that has happened to me was crashing and nearly splitting my helmet in half as I wrecked into some lava rock down a very steep section. Luckily I was able to walk that one off. I always carry a camel back with 2-3 liters of water, extra tubes, tools, food and a first aid kit, along with a pump, zip ties and a small knife. Glad you both got out of that relatively unscathed.

  • Francis Cebedo says:

    >> “Experience is what you get with things don’t go as planned.”

    Awesome comment Alex!

  • Philo says:

    This was a good read, and a good reminder of things I should add to my pack.

    That trail is notorious for flats. I remember when Kenda Nevegals were spec’d on new Santa Cruz bikes. All were replaced prior to going on the rental bikes up in that area, or so the story goes, due to their sidewalls having a tendency to getting ripped.

    A friend once taco’d his wheel almost near the top of Downieville and had to wait for us to ride down, get the car and drive up to Packer to get him. This was summer time but he froze his ass off waiting for us at 7000 feet.

  • Pat Day says:

    Katrin Deetz,

    Don’t let the trolls bother you. We all learn from our experiences. I now always carry a light on all afternoon rides, because of being caught out after dark without one, more than once. We don’t all write about our mishaps, but thanks for putting it out there to everyone as a good reminder to go prepared and have the right mindset.

  • Dave says:

    Wow, very dramatic. I mean, like way overboard dramatic for the situation. Weather was nearly 70 degrees all night and a few days from the solstice meant it was about 6 hours between last and first light.

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