In the classic novel Moby-Dick
, writer Herman Melville painted the main character Captain Ahab
an obsessed, monomaniacal man in pursuit of one and only one goal. His mind burned with an ungodly desire to complete his fanatical mission. In the mountain bike world, that sounds a lot like a trail builder.
If you’ve read Melville’s masterpiece, you’ll recall that Ahab had his leg chomped off by a massive white whale, Moby Dick. After the accident, Captain Ahab hobbled around the earth using a carved whalebone prosthesis and his sole purpose was to exact revenge on the giant cetacean. When Ahab finally met Moby Dick face to face again he lost his cool, charged the beast and was dragged by the whale to a watery grave.
Trail builder, Tyson Swasey is about as chilled out as they come, but get him talking about the Captain Ahab trail in the Amasa Back zone in Moab and the fire in his eyes comes alive. As he describes the arduous building process of moving mountains of rocks with grip hoists, hydraulic lifts and his own bare hands, it becomes evident that the trail is his white whale.
Tyson grew up in Moab and has been trail riding since the ripe old age of 12. He knows every hot line in Grand County and his recent viral video ‘Beat Down
’ broke the Internet before Kim Kardashian’s badonkadonk did. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out here.
How did you get involved with trail building?
I had a chance to shred with Tyson on Captain Ahab during a recent trip to Moab. We were both on well-appointed Ibis Ripleys and in between laps of lower Ahab, we had a chance to chat on the mellow climbs of another trail Tyson had a hand in, Hymasa.
The trail stewardship group in Grand County is called Trail Mix. They work with the local Bureau of Land Management on the building of all non-motorized trails including those used for hiking, equestrian and mountain biking. I began volunteering with Trail Mix in 2007 on the building of the trail Pipedream. I had just started working at Poison Spider Bicycles and they have an awesome program that reimburses shop employees for doing trail work.
I really enjoy working with rocks, so Scott Escott, the trail's coordinator for Trail Mix, called me every time they were doing a big rock-building day. During the construction of Pipedream, I was pretty amazed by what could be moved with a grip hoist. The hands on experience I gained working on Pipedream gave me the confidence to take on a project like Ahab.Where did the idea for Captain Ahab come from?
I was at the local breakfast spot, the Love Muffin, with my buddy Nick Badovinac. He told me that there was a shelf on Amasa Back that he thought might go all the way through to the top and had the potential to be a great trail. I said, ‘Let’s go right now!
’ We went out and did some scouting and we found the shelf that is now lower Ahab did in fact go through and could be connected to the top of Amasa Back. We hiked the whole trail and pointed out rocks that needed to be moved or sweet potential lines.
We immediately went to Trail Mix and asked them if the area would be possible to develop into a trail and they were on-board with our plan. We took about a dozen trips out to the zone and looked around the entire mesa to figure out how the trail would work. It quickly became apparent that it would be a one-way trail because the bottom section was so narrow and steep. The proposal we put together with Trail Mix for Captain Ahab was for an advanced expert level trail with the bottom being one-way. No one had ever proposed a trail like that to the BLM, but because of the great relationship Trail Mix has with them, they agreed. Why was it important for the bottom to be one-way?
For the safety of everyone, it is best for the bottom to be a one-way trail. It’s very narrow and steep as you near the bottom. You can really gain a lot of speed and the blind corners make it dangerous if someone was riding up while you were pinning it down. It’s nice to have an alternative downhill on Amasa Back that is for non-motorized vehicles only. It is a very popular Jeep area and sometimes a Jeep will be stalled in the middle of the road on a blind corner. The BLM has a resource management plan that calls for hundreds of miles of non-motorized singletrack to be developed in Moab. How was the building process?
We started at the bottom and worked to the top because the bottom of the shelf had the most debris and would be the most work intensive. As we began construction, we realized how unique it was being on a narrow shelf below the Jeep road. Folks riding by on Amasa Back would say how crazy it was to put a trail there! It took two and a half months to build the trail. We scouted Ahab first without a plan for the climb. As we were building the trail we were hiking and riding there constantly, usually three to four days a week. I began mentally cataloguing all the areas that mountain bikes went around Jeep tracks to reach less technical lines.
After Ahab opened and we saw how successful it was, I knew we had to create a great singletrack climbing trail. The idea behind the Hymasa Trail was to take all of the areas impacted by folks going off-line and somehow connect them. Hymasa achieved the goal of a non-motorized climbing trail to get people off the Jeep road all together.How has the response been to Captain Ahab?
It has been overwhelmingly positive. When we finished the trail, we posted a time-lapse video of the construction of Ahab on-line. Folks began stopping by Poison Spider while I was working to say how rad the video was and to get information about the trail.
If you hang out at the bottom of Ahab on any busy day, you will see what a cool scene it has become. People just lounge around and the vibe is great. Seeing how happy and stoked everyone is about the trail is the most rewarding part of the project for me. I had high hopes for the trail, but I definitely didn’t expect the kind of success it has had.What was the biggest challenge?
If you watch the time-lapse video there is one huge rock that the grip hoist wouldn’t move. We ended up using a hydraulic jack to lift it just enough so that it was wide enough to ride through. That rock had to weigh six tons! What is special about building trails in Moab?
It’s a unique place for trail building because of the various terrain. The aspect of trail building that appeals to me the most is the rock building and alignment. If you build rock features right, they hold up really well. Perhaps the best part of building in Moab is the support from the trail steward organization Trail Mix and the Bureau of Land Management. Trail Mix does an amazing job of turning great ideas for trails into reality. We had a kernel of an idea for a trail and Trail Mix brought it to fruition.
Ahab took a lot of work by a lot of different people, including Sandy Freethey and Scott Escott of Trail Mix. They hiked the trail many times and wrote the proposal to the BLM. I'm grateful to them as well as the BLM for doing countless hours of environmental assessment on the area. Moab locals came out in droves to help build the trail as well. Some of the lines you hit on Ahab are pretty amazing. In general do you see them before or after you build the trail?
When we are designing the trail I’m seeing most of the lines. If we scout a cool natural feature, we make sure to link it into the trail. As we built the trail, we saw that if you put a rock in a certain spot it's possible to jump an entire section.
One cool thing that happened while building Ahab was that because we spent so much time building it, we knew every line perfectly the first time we rode it. We hit everything flat out on the maiden voyage because we knew every inch of the trail. Any tips for folks looking to build their own trail?
The first thing you should do once you find an area is to go to the local land agency or to a mountain bike organization that has a good relationship with land management. They can let you know what limitations are on the land that you are looking at. People will spend a lot of time scouting an area then get shut down because it is a protected area due to an endangered plant or animal species.
It’s important to know if the land you are interested in building on is managed by a county, state or federal organization. Illegally building on land can get you shut down immediately. Folks with their own agenda can cause a lot of harm to the relationship of established mountain bike groups and land managers. Cooperation is key, because it takes everyone to make a trail come to fruition. There is a lot more to building trails than just putting it on the ground. I would encourage anyone interested in trail building to volunteer with their local trail building organization and put some work into their local trails. Trails never get built by one person and without volunteers trails don't get built. Even if you don't volunteer, consider giving a donation to support the trails you ride. It costs upwards of $2 per foot to build new trail and that adds up very quickly. What’s the latest project that you’ve been working on?
I’ve been working on an expert level trail in the Gemini Bridges area of Moab called the Gold Bar Rim Singletrack. We have it signed and it is ready to go. We didn’t change too much of the original trail and worked hard to keep the spirit intact. The Gold Bar Rim Singletrack is the most technical stretch of singletrack in Moab. It has mandatory drops along with some very tight spots next to big cliff exposures. In one spot, the original trail was 20 inches wide with a cliff on the left and massive rocks on the right. We were able to move some of the rocks around to make it a bit different. What’s cool about this section of trail is that it gives folks riding Magnificent 7 an option other than riding the Gemini Bridges' Jeep road back to the highway. Gold Bar allows you to do an epic ride connecting the Gemini Bridges area to the Portal Trail. It’s really special to contribute to the next epic ride in Moab. The response we’ve been getting is great!Conclusion:
After spending time riding with Tyson on Captain Ahab, it was easy to see his passion for trail building. His enthusiasm beamed through as he described the construction of the massive rock moves that make the trail so special. Tyson was stoked to talk to every group that we saw on the trail. He couldn't hide his excitement when rider after rider told him how much fun they were having on the trail that he and so many others put a ton of blood, sweat and tears into.
Thanks to Tyson and trail builders everywhere for putting in the hard work for our enjoyment. Big thanks to Trail Mix for supporting such an awesome project. Thanks to Billy Snyder and T.J. Cowern for helping to get our bikes dialled on this trip.
Unfortunately, the day after this ride I broke my left clavicle riding in Park City, Utah. Thanks to Dan Hennessey and Ryan Skowron for helping me out when I was down.
I’d also like to thank all of the folks that keep me rolling, season after season; Hans Heim, Scot Nichol and Jeff Kendall-Weed at Ibis, Scott Boyd at the Hayes Group, Mark Jordan at Fox, David Parrett at Thomson, Joel Richardson at FSA, Elayna Caldwell at SRAM, Jeff Wilbur at Cateye, Ronan at Moove Components, Noah Sears at MRP, Josh Parris at Specialized, Shane Edel and Jeremiah Stich at Bert’s Bikes and Fitness in Tonawanda, NY.
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