The Base Camp Alpha trek can be taken as a stand-alone tour, but most participants, including myself, tack it onto the end of RawHyde’s Intro to Adventure training course (read more in the RawHyde Intro to Adventure Training feature). The BCA tour allows students to put those freshly acquired off-road skills to work in the real world – where the training turns into true adventure.
Our BCA riding group, which combines riders from both the Intro class and the more advanced Next Step training, included riders of varying skills and demeanor. A few well-seasoned folk from Next Step were prepared for a cake walk, already having a strong background in dirt riding. The majority of tour participants were, like me, experienced street riders eager to put their new-found dirt skills to the test. Others seemed more tentative about the ride ahead, but still up for the challenge.
A more lighthearted obstacle lay ahead as our group prepared to traverse the most difficult sand wash of the entire RawHyde tour. Arriving with the lead group, our guide, Jeff, counseled us on the two options before us: the more challenging path, straight ahead, and an easier route to the left. I glanced behind me and saw the main tour group approaching. I charged off to the left (no cakewalk in itself!) and reached the other side, scrambling to park and retrieve my camera just in time to witness the first attempt at the hard way through. (Don’t worry, I atoned for my self-serving wussiness a couple months later by charging through the difficult sand on my second ride through the BCA route.)
Heroic efforts to ford the wash proved fun for rider and spectator alike. The treacherous path combined deep sand with tricky elevation drops to make passage difficult for even the instructors. Only a few made it across without dumping the bike at least once, and there were some spectacularly epic fails. Thankfully, no shins got snapped underneath panniers (the bane of many a GS adventurer floundering in sand). Instead injuries were superficial, inflicted primarily on the surrounding desert scrub and cacti. I’d say some prideful egos were bruised as well, but spirits were buoyed by the good-natured laughter and shouts of encouragement from fellow class/tour-mates.
The RawHyde guides earned their money and then some in that sand wash, patiently herding our neophyte ADV outfit across. After catching our collective breath (trust me: picking up an R1200GS in the blistering Mojave sun is easy the first time, but exponentially more difficult each time thereafter), the BCA tour returned to asphalt, riding to Red Rock Canyon State Park for our lunch stop, where the chase truck and trailer awaited with sandwiches and cold drinks.
After lunch, a brief stretch of asphalt brought us to the BCA tour’s afternoon section of dirt – paying a visit to Burro Schmidt’s Tunnel, a quirky, out-of-the-way historical curiosity hidden up in the El Paso Mountains. Schmidt, a solitary miner, started his namesake tunnel in 1900. He reasoned that boring a path straight through the mountain would more efficiently transport his ore to the nearest smelter, rather than packing it down the road-less meandering canyon. For 38 years Schmidt labored alone through 2500 feet of solid granite with a pick-ax, shovel and dynamite. He continued tunneling even after a canyon road was graded in 1920. Schmidt further cemented his crazy desert hermit status by never using the tunnel once completed.
Burro Schmidt’s Tunnel, an historical oddity in the El Paso Mountains. Getting there proved a thrill for our riding group.
Getting to Schmidt’s famed hole in the ground would test the mettle of our greenhorn riders. Well graded gravel soon gave way to the occasional sand wash and rocky creek bed. Everyone set their own pace, with faster students up front with Jeff, while more deliberate riders brought up the rear with Owen. At confusing road junctions, Jeff left a sentry from the lead group to signal the correct way. In this manner we tracked up to Schmidt’s tunnel – conquering some modest hill climbs and whooped out, rutted sections along the way.
Reaching the tunnel our group celebrated. The uninterrupted riding, through variable terrain and frequent obstacles, put the previous days’ drills and training into play – real-time. No more coaching or mulling over technique, only execution. Pick your line, stay loose and get in a steady flow. I was feeling it. And I could tell a lot of my comrades were too.
We all took a gander at the Schmidt Tunnel, some of our troop managing to walk the entire length and back. Nearby shacks on the Schmidt homestead retain a clutter of Depression-era knickknacks and papers, preserved by the dry air. The tunnel is one of several mining relics scattered throughout the El Paso range. Our favorite view, however, was at the summit before the tunnel, where we gazed south across the desert floor, seeing the old Honda Proving Grounds and still mostly barren grid of California City.
After perusing the Schmidt homestead, we retraced our dirt tracks back to the highway, but with a wrinkle. Prior to the final descent through the canyon, Jeff gathered his charges around and challenged us to coast down the entire seven-mile descent with a dead engine and the bike in neutral. One of the most difficult skills learned in the RH training is how to finesse the controls, particularly the front brake. Many a front end had washed out during drills at the ranch, as students learned the hard way the consequence of hamfisted inputs – this dead engine coast would be a fun test.
The next 20 minutes or so proved an exciting exercise in braking control. With the engine off, my keener hearing glossed more input from the tires. I could hear when traction broke, as well as differentiate when crunchy gravel gave way to the slurrying sand. The R1200GS transformed into a 530-pound mountain bike, and I focused ahead to find the best path to maintain momentum. As I reached the end of the road, Jeff and a handful of others were cheering. I joined the chorus as our troop trickled in, many of them silently rolling to a stop after completing the challenge. All agreed that the seven-mile stretch proved the most effective drill yet in the RawHyde curriculum. Having reached the asphalt, our group sped off, racing the sun to set up camp before nightfall.
Base Camp Alpha is located a couple miles north of Trona, California – a rundown mining town and the childhood home of Jim. In fact, BCA rests on the old Hyde family spread, tucked away in a side canyon enclosed by treeless mountains. An old shipping container, housing camping gear and a shower, marks the property entrance. Arriving at camp, the RH staff were busy preparing a delicious meal as riders pitched tents on the numerous campsites.
Gathering around the campfire, our tour group enjoyed a hearty dinner. RawHyde attracts a generally high-end clientele, and our group included a mix of successful professionals: Software sales, commercial real estate, advertising executive and arthroscopic surgeon just to name a few. American riders make up the bulk of RawHyde customers, including lots of local Californians, but its convenient location, an hour from LAX, caters to international riders too. Our tour group included riders from Germany, Mexico and a large group of Canadians. The festivities stretched on well into the evening as our diverse group of riders shared drinks, stories and all the sundry bits of conversation, both philosophical and humorous, that accompany campfires…
I awoke to a chilly desert sunrise, the temperatures not yet blistering in the early dawn. Our morning routine, the fourth for most of us, includes the painful physical realization that riding off-road requires a lot more physical input than the usual desk jockey 9-to-5 monotony. Many riders are nursing battle wounds of varying severity. I discovered a nasty bruise on my calf, the sidestand having gouged it during an ill-timed foot dab during training. I’m in decent shape, but one rider has a badly swollen ankle and another is nursing tender ribs. Even gung-ho participants are moving a little slower than usual, feeling the well-earned aches and pains from three days’ worth of playing in the dirt.
Hot coffee and a warm breakfast snap me out of my morning fatigue. I’m ready to ride, and so is the group. After breaking camp, we bid BCA adieu and head back through town en route to the Trona Pinnacles. A dirt road south of town lead to the Pinnacles, which rest in the middle of a parched desert basin. The remnant rock formations jut up from what was once a prehistoric lake (the mineral deposits from which, most notably Borax, are the source of Trona’s mining activities). If the rocky spires have an oddly familiar look, it’s probably because they have served as a dramatic desolate backdrop for several movies and television shows.
As with yesterday’s route, the first taste of dirt is nice and easy. The road from the two-lane highway to the Pinnacles is well graded and our group gets up to speed at once. Arriving at the Pinnacles, we take in the sights and explore the network of dirt roads that wind through and around the formations. The Pinnacles are beautiful, yet fragile, and we make sure to not further deface the curious landscape by staying on the well-marked routes.
Taking a break at the Pinnacles, Jeff discusses the remaining plan for the day. There are multiple route options, including a sandy stretch of dirt from the Pinnacles to our next stop, the quasi ghost town of Randsburg. But we opt to skip the sand and hit the pavement, making time so that we can get in a longer off-road section later in the day.
The discovery of gold fueled Randsburg in its boom town glory days, way back when old Burro Schmidt was beginning his tunnel. Now tourist dollars are the main source of revenue. Many of the old town structures have been preserved, including the General Store, whose proprietor flipped the sign from Closed to Open after spying a gaggle of motorcycles wandering into town. Riders grab a coffee and nab souvenirs, strolling about town to gawk at weathered stamp mills and other ancient mining equipment. After getting our fill, it’s more pavement again, this time to our lunch stop at Jawbone Canyon.
Enjoying another meal together, our group decides to split in two. Some of the more banged up and fatigued riders opt to head straight back to the RawHyde ranch with the chase truck and trailer. We’ve been riding hard going on four days now, and there’s no shame in opting out of the final stretch of dirt. So we bid farewell and the remnant push ahead with Jeff and Owen.
A popular OHV area in California, Jawbone Canyon is littered with trails for all sorts of off-road vehicles. But our group sticks to the Jawbone Canyon Road, which skirts past the open riding area and heads further into the mountains. With our group winnowed down to the most eager dirt riders, the pace quickens. Well maintained Forest Service/BLM roads, like Jawbone, seems like easy fare now. My riding companions are visibly more confident at the controls, with some riders ahead tossing out playful fishtails here and there.
Jawbone road terminates into Piute Mountain Road, and the terrain transitions from desert to forest as the elevation climbs. The difficulty increases with the altitude, as the road features a long series of steeply angled 180-degree switchbacks. My highfalutin rider confidence is challenged by the sharp uphill corners, which are made even more difficult by accumulations of silt and loose gravel, which hinder traction.
If confidence was challenged by the steep switchbacks, it would soon be shattered by snow and ice. As our group pressed on toward the summit, several miles away as it would turn out, we encountered some mud and water. These patches were followed by patches of snow in the shadows of the hills and towering stands of pines. At first the new terrain is a fun change of pace after two days filled with brown sand, but the snow packs are getting harder – both literally and figuratively.
As we ascend up a longer snow patch, I see a rider go down. Then another one drops, followed by another. The innocent looking snow surface barely conceals a sheet of solid ice. In the sunny sections, we could hear the crunch of the semi-melted ice beneath tires. But with the temps dropping at the higher elevations, the ice is rigid and offers almost no traction at all.
Our progress slows significantly with repeated crashes. Inclines that should take a few seconds to traverse are now taking several minutes, as riders must dismount to aid fallen comrades and trudge back to their own bike. A steady momentum must be maintained, as it is nearly impossible to start from a stop on the solid ice. This means steep runs must be attempted one rider at a time, as a crash makes the only ride-able line impassable.
At one point, the ice was so bad we had to form a staggered line of dismounted riders spaced about 20 feet apart. One by one riders attempted the climb, with helpers pushing the bike forward as its rear tire slipped in search of traction. This bucket brigade of sorts finally got the last bike across, with even our expert-level tour guides needing a helping hand.
Our group celebrated the victory, exhausted and panting from the effort. But the fading light of day brought concerned looks too. We were hours behind schedule now, stuck in the shadow of the mountain with the summit still some distance off. We had to get over the mountain before dark, and returning the way we came would have been even more treacherous. So we pressed on.
With a true sense of urgency spurring us forward, it proved a team effort plodding through those final miles to the summit. There were more icy stretches, but fewer drops. Riders were slipping and sliding alright, but keeping it up on two wheels. With every ascent, more and more riders made it through without assistance – greeted at the end by hearty cheers and thumbs up. Crossing over the summit, only a handful of ice patches barred the way down on the sunnier side. Once the snow was totally gone, Jeff pulled off for a quick stop to get the group together.
Wrasslin’ with big heavy motorcycles on solid ice made for a long day, but our riding group coalesced around the effort.
We had shared a genuine test of both riding skill and physical stamina. It had been a challenging couple of hours on the mountain, with real adversity. All of us were proud of the effort and riding high from a sincere sense of accomplishment. The training had turned into true adventure!
The remainder of the day included the final descent of Piute Mountain Road, a simple run after our icy escapades, followed by a spirited street ride back to civilization. By the time our group returned to I-5, just north of The Grapevine, night had fully descended. We climbed up into the mountains, closing the final miles to the RawHyde compound.
Upon arrival, there were hurried goodbyes. The obstacles on Piute Mountain had delayed our return, and some riders rushed off to catch flights out of LAX while many of the local Californians had office hours looming the next morning. Other participants took advantage of the optional extra night of lodging at the RawHyde Ranch.
The Base Camp Alpha tour was fun, but an authentic challenge as well. It is rewarding to see the Intro training yield tangible results – the improvement in riding skill is undeniable. And while the physical skills learned at RawHyde are critical, to be sure, my biggest transformation occurred between the ears – confidence gained by experience. The RawHyde crew is professional and down-to-earth, ready to offer aid and encouragement. Riders and staff members were shaking hands and sharing stories, trading complements and jabs about the epic highs and hilarious lows of our two-day excursion together. We had shared in a genuine riding experience, which none of us will forget.