As I sat and drained the last of my second bottle at the Mosquito Flat trailhead, the headache washed over me, reminding me of my lack of acclimation and need to drop, post-haste. Mosquito Flat is the highest elevation I’ve gained by bicycle without prior altitude acclimation. It’s as high as I’m willing to consider, which is why I never really engage friends’ invitations to do the Triple Bypass or Mt. Evans.
The descents of these mountain roads were generally something other than what I had hoped for. With few switchbacks, cars could overtake me, even when I was doing 50 mph. That was less than fun. And due to the often steep grades, it was easy to spend miles at or near 50 mph. Because I didn’t know the roads and because rock fall was common, I eased up on the speed in many places.
The most enjoyable descent of the bunch came in a surprising location. I had expected Onion Valley, with its many switchbacks, to offer the most Alpine-like descending, rock fall made the descent a greater challenge than expected. It was Lower Rock Creek where the road was clean, the turns frequent and the grade steep but not crazy steep where I most enjoyed the drop. I could do that five-mile descent on a daily basis and not get tired of it.
I keep asking myself what my takeaway from the trip has been. I went to recharge my battery. Between work for clients, editorial for peloton magazine and posts for RKP, I had composed some 50,000 words—about half a novel—in less than three months. For the first time in my professional life, I had exceeded my bandwidth and was paying for it. The time alone (my family was in New Mexico visiting friends) gave me a chance to read, stare at maps and go to bed early, all salves for my fatigued brain. But I keep returning to the thought that I should have uncovered some larger truth, larger than knowing that next time I shouldn’t pack the car until I have a compact crank installed on my bike.
Answers rarely appear like sodas at the bottom of a coin-operated machine, though questions arrive even more easily. There was a moment that haunts me, though. As I descended from South Lake there is a mile-long stretch where the gradient is nearly 9 percent. My speed, already in the 40s, climbed to a max of 52.7. That’s not the fastest I’ve gone, but something unusual happened as my bike accelerated. Somewhere in the high 40s, while I could still feel gravity pull the bike to greater speed, chills washed over me as if I’d had some intense emotional experience. I looked down at my arms and legs and could see goose bumps standing on my sweaty skin.
Research has shown that flow states and the chills are cousins, that those who are prone to experiencing chills tend to be more open to flow states. None of that explains what happened. My sense, at the time, was that I’d passed some sort of threshold, that it was some internal analog to passing the sound barrier. How or why I’ve no idea. It was a one-off experience, at least, so far.
All I’m left with is confirmation of a truth I hold to be self-evident: The mountains are a place of discovery and mystery and what comes from those encounters can never be guessed, which is why I keep returning.
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.