Hi Lo Cali

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Badwater Basin and White Mountain are California’s lowest and highest bikeable places. Brian Vernor and two other riders connected them via 192.6 miles and 24,613 feet of elevation gain. Along the way they made this unique film to document the 30 hour ride. Watch it here and read a Q&A with the filmmaker…

Film, photos and quotes by Brian Vernor

Badwater Basin in Death Valley sits at 282 feet below Sea Level (-86 meters). White Mountain peak tops out at 14,252 feet (4344 meters). These are the lowest and highest bikeable places in California. Brian Vernor, Eric Brunt, and Jonathan K. Neve set out to connect these two dots in single pedal, which according to Brian, nearly killed him. Along the way they ascended over 24,000 vertical feet, and experienced a 70°F temperature shift. Before embarking, the riders planned their ride carefully cached food and water along the route in old ammunition canisters. Unsupported from beginning to end, they carried small cameras and filmed themselves during the ride, capturing serendipitous moments like a dusk flyby of a group of owls and a desperate dive into a grungy bathroom to escape from the cold. Watch the film and then read a Q&A with Brian below…

Directed by Brian Vernor
Executive Produced by James Lalonde
Supported by Cannondale Bicycles
Shot on super 16mm/super 8mm + various digital cameras
Cinematography by Kenny Sule, Izzy Cohan & Brian Vernor
Score by Analogpeople.tv
  • Hi Lo Cali Film, Brian Vernor
  • Hi Lo Cali Film, Brian Vernor

Hi Lo Cali Film, Brian Vernor

I prefer to be a dreamer among the humblest, with visions to be realized, than lord among those without dreams and desires. – Khalil Gibran

  • Hi Lo Cali Film, Brian Vernor
  • Hi Lo Cali Film, Brian Vernor
  • Hi Lo Cali Film, Brian Vernor

Directed by Brian Vernor, Hi Lo Cali certainly has a different feel than most bike/adventure films. For starters much of it is actually shot on film. We had a few questions about the making of Hi Lo Cali and the ride itself, so we caught up with Brian and posed a few questions:

Hi Lo Cali looks and feels vastly different from most bike/adventure films. Tell us a little bit about the approach.

One thing that I think hurts authenticity in bike films is when there’s a film crew following riders. Firstly, the shooting looks entirely different, much more ‘perfect’, even if that’s less real. Secondly, for the riders the lifeline of a production vehicle changes the psychology of a tough ride. In some ways it’s harder when you know there’s a bailout, and in some ways it’s easier because there’s some support, maybe food, water, a warm jacket, etc. Also, I think it’s important to distinguish between advertising and personal, especially today with brands taking on the responsibility of telling stories more than ever. With all this in mind, and with Hi Lo Cali being a personal project, I chose to shoot it from the bike. It’s by no means the only film done this way.

With regards to the riders, I wanted to do this with people who were capable of finishing the ride, but who weren’t obvious crushers with a pro cycling background. Eric Brunt and Jonathan Neve know each other from living in Omaha, and I met both of them at the same time during the Gravel Worlds gathering in Lincoln back in 2012 or 2013. I wanted us riders to serve as fairly anonymous stand-ins for anyone watching the film. I didn’t want to explain the ride or the feeling of the ride through narration. I am tired of hearing filmmakers use voiceover to explain their film. If you’re Warren Miller or Bruce Brown and have a truly unique way of projecting your personality though the VO that’s fine, but generally, it’s a tedious and lazy approach to filmmaking (of which i’m certainly guilty), and inexplicably a convention in outdoorsy films.

The film also feels fluid and effortless? What was the process like behind the scenes?

I did a lot of shooting outside the ride itself, over five separate trips to the White Mountains and Death Valley. During the ride we shot everything ourselves from the bike, with the exception of a crew that was present at the start in Badwater Basin, and the finish at the summit of White Mountain (as well as a couple days prior to the ride, during reconnoitering and cacheing). That crew was made up of Kenny Sule, Izzy Cohan, and James Lalonde.

Much of the film, was in fact shot on film. Can you speak to that a little?

I have always wanted to shoot analog as much as possible because I think it effects everything about how you make a film, and because I prefer they way it looks. In Hi Lo Cali, much of the shooting was done with 16mm and super 8mm. On the ride itself, volume and weight considerations called for small digital cameras with limited lens options. All of the shooting we did while riding is fairly wide angle, and handheld, and that added intimacy to those parts of the film, and maintained the rider-shot feeling. I think that last part helps make the ride more approachable for people watching it unfold. I think making purely aspirational stories isn’t enough, and it feels a little exclusive. I’m not into that. The Hi Lo Cali ride is damn hard but the film is as much about the sense of place and experience as it is about the arduousness of the ride. I want people to see it and go do their own version of a big ride, which can be relative to their level of riding.

  • Hi Lo Cali Film, Brian Vernor
  • Hi Lo Cali Film, Brian Vernor

Hi Lo Cali Film, Brian Vernor

How did you come up with this route?

Eric Brunt had done a summit ride of White Mountain a couple times before. The highest rideable point in California sounded cool, but Eric and I were having beers one night and I sort of challenged him to start at the lowest point, not thinking I would do it. Except, then of course I had to do it. Careful what you say over a beer with your much stronger riding buddy.

What was the most important part of planning the ride?

I wanted to make the route to be the most remote possible on stock road/gravel bikes. The less cars the better on any ride, but especially one where you’ll be out there all night. Making the route remote meant we’d be without a water source after mile 65, so figuring out water supply was the most important factor. I decided caches were the best solution and so the day before the ride we stashed food an water at select points on the route. This let us be lighter and faster, but also, I don’t know what our bikes would have looked like if we carried enough to sustain us for the full ride. I don’t think we should leave our crap out there in the desert so after the ride we collected the caches. There were four total, but only two appear in the film.

By the numbers, this looks like a hard trip. How was it?

Being out on the bike for thirty hours was mystical. We weren’t sure how our bodies would deal with the conditions (temps ranging from 29-99) and timeline. I am no racer, nor do I enjoy sleep deprivation. I saw a lot of things out there, some imagined, some real. I think Jonathan, Eric, and myself, all had our own hallucinatory experiences through the night. Most of the night was spent on Death Valley Rd., a remote part of the ride with no cars passing, or human contact. It was beautiful, lonely, simple, but I had to dig way deep to finish it. Stubbornness and pride got me through it. It was ugly.

Hi Lo Cali Film, Brian Vernor

Find more of Brian’s work at his website. Also, make sure to follow him on Instagram @vernor.

  • PaulClive

    Dang. Cool video!

  • HansMaulwurfXIV

    nice vid, but is it really self supported if you have food stashes on the way?

  • Garrett Berkey

    The video was really well made! Where are the women tho?

  • Minute 7:59, “Why am I doing this…?” I think that I (and you) have felt that exact feeling many times. The answer to the question is always at your destintation.

  • Little Deezy

    Stubbornness and pride have led to my most memorable adventures

  • Natalie Dixon

    What if you left them yourself?

  • John Freeman

    A simple story well told.

    Best bike film I have see for years.

  • I agree… an excellent film.

  • Doug Nielsen

    I find the term “self supported” has come to mean “no one you know helped you”. I mean, I’m seeing “self supported” trips by everyone now and they are posting mid trip shots at the local Chili’s, mountain top scenes with cold beers and pizza.

  • Doug Nielsen

    Can guys no longer go on guy trips?

  • Doug Nielsen

    I loved this! Three buddies pushing themselves to the limit! Thanks for sharing.

  • Garrett Berkey

    This ride seems like it was sponsored by Cannondale, which probably means the riders got paid. There are tons of women and men that enjoy this sport. Women are professional cyclists too. All I was wondering was if there are videos they are sponsoring in the bike packing realm with women representation. This can be said about many different people! The more people riding bikes the better and if someone that looks like you is in a cool video you will be more likely to go!

  • Doug Nielsen

    I agree with what you are saying. I just don’t see anything wrong with a guys trip, which this was. Just wish we didn’t have to be so sensitive is all.

  • Dan Ransom

    In the article, Brian explains how he conceived of the trip and why he picked the friends he did. He specifically says they are not professional riders. Pretty straightforward.

  • Randal GoingHAM

    Definitely. Innovative and compelling. Awesome work!

  • Barelydoug

    Really great video!!! I also appreciated the parts where you can see the guys walking their bikes. It adds some humaneness to Bikepacking. I feel like the struggle is one of the key factors to the adventure of the trip and often time we don’t portray how hard it actually is. Which leads people to not want to do these types of rides bc most videos show only the good parts. Anyways my rant is over and thank you for making this. It was really well done.

    – a big guy who often hikes his bike; a little less each day.

  • James Miller

    Looked barren out there. I once cached my stuff and did a ride like this. I was so glad to have found mustache.

  • nat

    Always fun to watch something new, and especially of a locale that normally isn’t seen. Just a big thank you to the guys for taking the time to film it. For anyone who wants a day ride, dirt Death Valley experience, Titus Canyon Road is the best in the park for that. It’s a 27 mile jeep trail that goes up to Red Pass at about 4700 feet, crosses, and goes out the other side (one way). It connects beautifully to the paved roads you see in this film. It is remote, silent, with stunning views. You might see 3 or 4 off-road jeeps the whole day. 100% rideable. One can park, ride to the pass and back (almost exactly half way) or make a giant loop using roads on both ends (which would be a very big day). To give you a sense of scale…(my bike in center of shot on red dirt road, way in the distance). You can see the miles of dirt road in both directions among the mountains. http://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f71704ef2a409dbd31999a0b4f11033a34d8bb273a1e40e56141783f1bd80358.jpg

  • Schlamm

    self-stash-supported maybe?

  • Doug Nielsen

    Oh I agree with that lol. I really don’t care as long as the riders (me) are having fun. Self supported with as many Chick Fila stops as possible works best for me.

  • Doug Nielsen

    Thanks for the tip! I will have to try this one out for sure.

  • nat

    YW…You’ll probably be the only mountain biker in the park. Don’t tell anyone! lol
    It’s really not far off the road/route that these guys took from Badwater Basin. Camping is not far away if one wanted to make it an overnighter and continue to White Mt the next day. (I’ll just read about that)

  • Kevin Sellers

    What a gay question in response to a cool excursion and film project. Youre an ethical bitch to worry about such a thing. Go out and be pure or something.

  • HansMaulwurfXIV

    that’s a legitimate question. without the food stashes they would have needed to carry more gear and probably wouldn’t have finished in the same time…

  • Kevin Sellers

    Whatever! The real point is, who cares? Self supported, cache supported, sponsored? Who cares? Big deal! You throw it out there as if it flaws the legitimacy of the project and thats bogus. Okay? Bogus

  • HansMaulwurfXIV

    who s**t in your muesli this morning?

  • Mark Atwell

    Ya know, hiking up a road to 14.2K’ is tough. Hiking with a bike, tougher. Hiking with a bike on minimal rest and food, toughest. Hiking with a bike, minimal rest and food, after riding a C is unbelievable. Kudos fellas. Makes me feel old!
    (what’s with the dude with the bag on his head?)

  • Bill Poindexter

    Excellent and Love the early 70s late 60s feel of the film