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November 2013: S24O, Jerusalem Mountains

S24O in the Jerusalem Mountains

As of this writing (Nov. 7, 2013) I've been really lazy about uploading my many photos from my outdoor escapades in the Middle East. So here's to breaking that trend: an album from a two-day "city escape" ride from Jerusalem out into the mountains west of it and ending near Beit Shemesh.

"S24O" is an abbreviation that's become hip among bike campers lately - it stands for "sub-24-hour outing." I don't know who invented the term or why it's really necessary ("overnighter" served the purpose just as well). This trip was not supposed to be as short - I'd planned it for three days, until mechanical issue cut it down to two.

The most recent bikepacking setup. For the fellow gear nerds, more commentary at the bottom

The Judean Mountains are the range that divides the Mediterranean Sea's watershed from that of the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea. They run north-south through the West Bank, making up the "hill country" of biblical times and the central ridge of Palestine. The "corridor" leading up to Jerusalem from the west is part of Israel and, for being immediately adjacent to a large city, is surprisingly rural - I suppose the steep and crooked topography doesn't play well with large towns or extensive agriculture.

The region is all forested as well as mountainous, and is home to lots of the marked trails that the Israel Trails Committee does such a great job maintaining. They publish great 1:50,000 topo maps which include all these trails - the only thing I wish is that they'd indicate which singletrack routes are rideable by mountain bike and which aren't, since a lot of them tend to have extremely steep sections, rock scrambles, or just really thick brush all around.

Anyway, it's not too far from central Jerusalem to the edge of town via Gilo (a few km further if you want to stay in Israel proper the whole way and go straight west out of town), and once you reach the edge of the city, you're out there in the hills, flying down rocky dirt roads all day long among the sweet-smelling pine woods.

My route began in Jerusalem and headed south, then west, through the settlement/suburb of 
Gilo, from which I got this view of Bethlehem. The conical mountain at left is the Herodion; 
its caldera (if it's a proper caldera) contains a fortress built by Herod

Planetree in Gilo; I believe this species is one of the two hybridized to create Platanus x acerifolia
the London planetree which is found on seemingly every street in Philadelphia

City escape enacted. Dropping down from a residential street, I soon found myself on this dirt road -
 lots of loose rocks and gullying made line choice an invigorating challenge

I was heading west down the central mountain range that runs north-south through the West Bank, 
upon which Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron all sit. The Bethlehem side is under a rainshadow 
and much browner than this side

My memories of the horrifically hot summer of 2010, the only summer I've spent in the region, were 
forgotten on a mild, clear November day

Nahal Gilo in Hebrew; I don't have a corresponding topo map to tell me its name in Arabic

My first major drop in elevation brought me into Nahal Refaim, where the railroad from Tel Aviv 
runs up to Jerusalem. Here's where Jerusalem's western sprawl gives way to a mini-wilderness of 
forested mountains, interspersed with little towns

Turns out there's already a marked mountain bike route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem! I met a 
pair of mountain bikers further down the canyon. Tough guys - sea level to the top of the 
mountain range is quite a bit of climbing

Just a little fall color - nothing like home, though

Riding into the sun, overlooking Nahal Refaim and the railroad

The pine-dominated forests of the Jerusalem corridor. Cypresses also feature heavily, and oaks, 
almonds, pistachios, carobs and the other constituents of the "Mediterranean woodland" are 
found too

The route was hugging the Green Line at this point - here, I'm looking over the boundary into the 
village of Battir

Sun getting lower...

My plan was initially to get down to the Beit Shemesh area and camp at a picnic area with water, indicated by my map. My usual late start, though, saw the day creeping on a bit too fast for that. I revised my plan and decided to stop for water at the town of Bar Giora, right along the Israel National Trail, then look for camping opportunities around there.

The riding was excellent. The surfaces were a little rocky but not too technical, and sections of loose rock or gravel were few and far between. I was having a blast ripping along, mostly downhill but with climbs that didn't hit me too hard, and basking in the scenery. These woods are green year-round thanks to all the Aleppo pines, but are still at their best in the cool season, like everything else around here.

My efforts to beat the end of daylight were hampered by my constant photo stops

Swooping along above the Refaim Valley and enjoying the last of the sunlight

Shortly after the above picture was taken, disaster struck: My rear rack just up and fell half off the bike! Two bolts had come loose; one must have fallen off some time ago, while the failure happened when a second one joined it. I'd heard of rack bolts working their way loose from mountain bikes, but I hadn't given it much thought, particularly since my rack was only carrying about 6-8 pounds at the time! 

To make matters worse, a third bolt was coming loose as well, and it was operated by a T20 Torx key - an obscure wrench which isn't on my multitool, and which I'd forgotten to throw into my frame pack before leaving.

I was able to fix everything back in place using the spare bolts I keep around the bike for just such an occasion, but I was rattled, and given the still-loose bolt, I was reluctant to risk a further failure (and the loss of more parts, replacements for which I wasn't sure if I had on hand) and decided the trip would have to be cut short. This was around 4:30, though, and I simultaneously realized I was almost out of daylight, and that I was in a beautiful spot to camp - a level ledge on the side of Mt. Refaim, overlooking deep valleys to both sides and surrounded by mountain ridges. It didn't take much scouting to find a good tent spot and begin settling in for the night.

I can really do without the early nightfalls this time of year...a clock on the highway outside 
Jerusalem indicates the time of the beginning of the next Shabbat, and this week it's 4:08 pm! 
That's with almost two months yet of days getting shorter...

But I was able to enjoy a bit of sunset light. The sliver moon indicates that lunar calendars 
(like the Hebrew and Islamic ones) have begun a new month in the last few days

Dusk at my camp. Once again I didn't expect rain, but I should have put up the rainfly - 
condensation hit the inside of the tent pretty hard as the air cooled!

The site came equipped with a convenient flat rock for a kitchen

Camp in the morning - further condensation left everything in need of hanging out to dry

My better judgment told me that given the precarious situation of the rear rack at this point, I'd be safest just sticking to the nearby paved highway, which led down to Beit Shemesh. From there I could catch one of the frequent buses to Jerusalem. But every time I looked at my map, my eye was caught by the winding bed of Nahal Sorek, and a 4x4 track above it that was sure to have enticing views. Naturally, I left the highway for that track as soon as possible...

Wild boar and hyenas make this place sound like the Lion King, but I've only ever seen one boar. 
I have heard scary stories of them getting aggressive, though. As for the hyenas, I typically hear a 
spine-chilling howling, which may be them, or may be the jackals...either way, short of rabies,
 either of those beasts attacking humans is unheard of

Looking east, Jerusalem is still in sight...

...and looking west down to the coastal plain

The Sorek Valley is associated with Samson, who used to wander down this way toward the 
Philistines by the sea, and get himself into trouble by repeatedly falling for their women

Obligatory shot of the bike posing

For the last few miles, I alternated from dirt to pavement to dirt...

I ended with a wind-whistling descent down toward Beit Shemesh, 
in the broad valley ahead here

Not pictured is the final dirt road detour around an unexpected national park, which then led me into a huge quarry, full operational. Dodging trucks with wheels taller than me, and carelessly-driven backhoes, I worked my way through the limestone-dust-filled air to a junction with highway 38, where a bus to Jerusalem pulled up just as I did.

All in all the trip may have been a bit over 24 hours door to door, but I'll go ahead and use the trendy S24O label for it. I was disappointed in most of my photos from the second day, as the overcast conditions were downright miserable for photography, but I enjoyed the heck out of the ride and am already getting eager for the next one.

Now for the gear talk, and some reviews/comments...

The cockpit

There should be another water bottle front and center there, but I just lost mine on a bus and haven't been able to find one that doesn't cost 20 bucks. Oh, Israeli import taxes...

The Ergon GR2 grips are still doing me proud, although I think the smaller size (I have the large) would be better suited to off-road riding, as I'd be able to grip them better. Still, they work just fine; that's an issue that can wait until they need to be replaced, hopefully not for years. The Two Fish cages hose-clamped to the forks are still rock-solid as well and the bottles have never so much as slipped a centimeter from their places.

The new handlebar roll

This was my first time using the Thermarest Gear View dry bag, and it turned out to be perfect for this use. It fits my tent, sleeping pad, spare clothes, inflatable pillow, and still has room to spare. I don't like to put too much weight up high in the front, but in a pinch it could absolutely contain a few more small items or a big one, like my cooking pot. This dry bag seems to be just the right size and shape for a handlebar roll, although as with any stuff sack, you want to make sure items are fairly evenly distributed in it.

The little black bag is a custom framebag made by Greg Wheelwright; it's supposed to go at a different 
angle in the space between the seatpost and seat stays, but it sits well enough on top of the Tubus 
Vega's stays as well

The rack is probably only holding around 8 pounds of stuff here, at most; it falling off was a case of user error. In this instance, the error was in not tightening the bolts adequately, or possibly in failing to do a period check and re-tightening. For lashing things on top, I do wish there was something to prevent the stuff sack from sliding backwards off the rack; just some little nubbins underneath might do. I also found that tying the first strap under the stays rather than the rack proper helped with this.

All the items I have in there are shaped awkwardly; otherwise it might have made the most sense to strap something else on top instead of making the load longer.

All in all, the rack is a workable bikepacking substitute for the usual saddlebag; at 18oz, it's over twice as heavy as most, but it's also more versatile as it can be used for pannier-laden riding as well. If you'd rather not spend extra money for two different setups, racks would have to be the way to go.

Otherwise, the Bolder-made framepacks are still serving me well. Their zippers are probably due 
for a cleaning though...