Sierra Song, Part I

It’s impossible for me to say just where or even how my love of mountains developed. It’s been a part of my life, as much as my personality, for as long as I can recall. Though I grew up in a place that was essentially flat—Memphis—I was drawn to elevation even as a boy. My first trip to Vermont marked me for it was the first time I’d ever seen real mountains. On hikes, I didn’t want to turn back until we’d scaled to the very top of the mount; ascending to within site of the top simply wasn’t good enough for me.

Later, my sense of what it meant to spend time in the mountains was shaped by Jack Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums. Late in the book Gary Snyder’s character, Japhy Ryder, says something about how you can’t fall off a mountain. It became a kind of Zen koan for me, an idea I needed to continually prove or disprove as circumstances warranted.

When I left the South for New England, the first thing I did on my bike was begin riding up the nearby mountains. Whether on my road or my mountain bike, I’d ascend as high as roads or trails would take me. I never tired of looking down on my town and picking out landmarks, examining the contours of the real-life diorama.

One of the symptoms that comes with this obsession is a love of maps. I collect maps the way some people collect autographs. I study their contours, the curls of roads, the shades that imply terrain and imagine rolling over those roads, of course at speeds even the pros would admire.

Ten years ago I had the misfortune of arriving in the Eastern Sierra for an event with my fitness compromised by the flu.  Near the end of what would otherwise go down as the best climbing form I ever gained, I quit the event I had planned to do battle. In the years that followed, as I explored the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Santa Monica Mountains, my mind would return to the Easter Sierra and linger on its interminable ascents.

Something in those mountains frightened me.

A few weeks ago I began doing some research on the Sierra in earnest. What I found intrigued me. Between Nine-Mile Canyon at the southern end of the mountains and Monitor Pass near the Nevada Border, there are a baker’s dozen climbs. Most dead-end below passes that can only bike hiked over during the summer.

Most of the climbs are hors categorie, that is, they ascend more than 1500m or 5000 vertical feet. Worse—or better, depending on your view—they often average grades of more than six percent. Pitches of 11 to 15 percent are not uncommon.

I was able to plan a four-day escape. Unfortunately, a California heatwave that was supposed to break didn’t. So while I planned to do two climbs per day most days, by the time I returned to the floor of the Owens Valley following my first ascent of the day temperatures had soared into the upper 90s (and on one occasion was 107). A second climb in that heat, alone, seemed foolhardy.

Ultimately, I selected four climbs that were among the hardest I’ve ever encountered anywhere in the world. To position them properly, they must be compared to the greatest climbs of both the Alps and the Pyrenees.

The Col du Galibier is 21 miles (34km) long and rises to a height of 8677 feet (2645m). Total elevation gain is a massive 6955 feet (2120m).  Now, imagine that crossbred with the Col du Tourmalet’s 7.4 percent average gradient.

The four climbs I did easily make the top 10 of the most difficult climbs I’ve ever undertaken. The shortest of the bunch, Onion Valley, ascended 5200 vertical feet to a height of 9172 feet. Its 7.8 percent average gradient conceals the fact that there are long stretches at 9 and 10 percent, as well as how the final 5 miles of the climb average almost 9 percent.

If the climb to Onion Valley seemed difficult, then the road to Horseshoe Meadows was calculus for the bicycle. Its maximum elevation of 9751 feet may not be as high as the top of Mount Evans, but the fact that it gains 6854 feet over 23 miles means it is both steeper and gains more elevation. Take that, Colorado!

The climb to Mosquito Flat was my longest single day on the bike while there. I rode from Bishop, climbing Lower Rock Creek before making a brief descent and then beginning the climb up to the Crowley Lake turnoff, which leads to the climb of Upper Rock Creek.

The terrain was tight and the road cut a long, lazy slash up the mountain. This was not the Alps, where roads are asphalt love letters to the terrain that shaped much of Europe’s evolution. No, these roads are business, and are expressions of a desire to reach a destination rather than explore the contours floating out of this valley. In that regard, the climb up Upper Rock Creek reminded me of some of the Pyreneean roads that led from France into Spain. Those north/south corridors, unlike the famous climbs used in the Tour, followed cradles between peaks, winding only enough to avoid the inevitable rivers that flow due to melting snow.

By the time I reached Mosquito Flat, I’d climbed 6729 feet, and attained an elevation of 10,172 feet. It’s the highest paved road in California and one of fewer than 30 roads that reach such a height in the continental United States. Though the average grade was only 5.1 percent, there were pitches as steep as 11 percent. I was amazed to note how following a long pitch of 9 percent that 3 percent feels flat. I’ve experienced it before, but it never fails to surprise me.

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  1. Bob Gade

    Thanks for the inspiration Padraig. I am heading down to that neck of the woods for a 4 day tour in mid-october. We will be climbing Horseshoe Meadows, 9 mile canyon, Whitney Portal, and Wildrose Summit in Death Valley. I have been looking forward to challenging these climbs ever since I descended from Sherman Pass to 9 mile canyon on another tour a few years ago, and especially since a buddy gave me “The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike)” by John Smmerson.
    He does a good job of cataloging and comparing what he feels to be the hardest road climbs in America.
    So Padraig, what gearing did you use? I am thinking about getting a 12-28 rear cluster instead of my current 12-27 with a 39 up front.

  2. Chris

    Sounds fantiastic. I always consider myself lucky to live in Vancouver where there are two local ski hills where I can leave my house, climb from sea level to ablove 1000m, and return home in about two hours. There are also more roads than I could ever ride that shoot up from Burrard inlet to 300 or 400m with grades for every taste, from gentle rises to extended stretches above 15%.

    One thing BC lacks though is really high alpine passes. As far as I know, there are no paved roads above 2000m this side of the Alberta border. I did climb to BCs second highest pass this summer at 1728m (about 5700′) with about 1350 of climbing – each a personal record.

    Keep writing and keep climbing!

    1. Author

      Regarding gearing: I went with a 39×27 low gear. For me, it was simply too tall a gear. I’m riding well on the flats currently, but my climbing form isn’t there. My cadence often dropped into the 50s and 60s. Way low. For wheels, I was on the Roval SL45 Rapides. They are reasonably light and while they don’t handle as well as the Zipp 404 Firecrest, they handle better than many deep-section wheels. The fact that they have an aluminum brake track was attractive to me for all the descending I was doing. Tires were the S-Works Turbos which are really nice.

      If I’d been able to lay my hands on the BB30 adapter for the Tarmac SL3 I’m reviewing, I’d have installed a compact. A 34×27 low gear would have been much better. I should add that my plan was simply to ride these climbs at an endurance pace. I wasn’t out to kill it. I don’t currently have the form to climb for two (or three) hours at 85%.

    1. Author

      They all climb out of the Owens Valley in California near the Nevada border. Find Hwy 395 on a map and the climbs begin just north of tiny Pearsonville. Many can be ridden from a base in Bishop. All of the roads are to the west of 395 in the Sierra Nevada. There are other, murderous climbs to the east in the White and Inyokern Mountains.

  3. Chris Hobbs

    My LBS, Studio Velo, has been running 4 day tours in that area. I never seem to get the hall pass, which is a pity because from the pics the terrain is stunning– Whitney Portal, Onion Valley and a couple more that I can’t remember. They are going again in a few weeks, and again, no hall pass for me. Being in awesome climbing form does not exempt me from daddy duty, apparently. Sigh.

    There is also the Everest Challenge later this month, which climbs 29k feet over two days of riding, based around Bishop.

  4. LD

    I simply love those climbs. I remember looking up at the Onion Valley and thinking where the hell the road went. When I got to the top I was home……… As a former ski racer and climber I have always found the mountains to be my church. I ride now to go up. If it ends in the Alpine so much the better.

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