September 16, 2014

Death Valley Road

With a name like Death Valley Road, you might expect today's ride would be exceptionally grueling. This would be my final ride with the group, and after the past week's riding it would take more than a name to intimidate me.

In the first edition of the Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bike) in California, John Summerson ranked this as merely the 64th most difficult climb in California. In his top 100, he also ranks some crazy-steep Bay Area climbs as easier than this one. Climbs that I lack the guts (and the gearing) to attempt. [Go figure.]

The day would only get hotter. Ready ahead of most of the group, I got an earlier start; they would catch me before long, anyway. The sun had no mercy. My self-generated breeze wasn't enough to compensate for my self-generated heat as I pedaled upward through the desert. I was certain that the air was perfectly still, but whenever I paused a weak breeze would tease me.

I haven't spent much time in the desert. Maybe, like me, you imagine a landscape of drifting sands and cactus—not rocky brown acres dotted with low brush. Cactus plants were less common than flowering plants. I only caught a glimpse of the mysterious little critters that set off cascades of dirt and rocks as they scampered away as I made my way up the hill.

At the higher elevations, my wish for a breeze was granted, in the form of a headwind. [Sigh.] From the first turn onto this road, it had been evident that there would be no shade. None, whatsoever, save for a brief respite where the road cut through a massive rock formation ... and a single roadside tree at the summit. Having reached that point alone, I continued a short distance to be sure the road climbed no higher. The terrain on the east side changed immediately, with trees suggesting a seasonal creek might flow nearby.

I turned back before long. Descending into Death Valley was never part of the plan. The Owens River Valley was a welcome sight.

For the day, about 3.681 feet of climbing over 34 miles. The rest of the group will travel farther south to continue their cycling adventure and I will travel west, just as the Bay Area's heat wave breaks. I paid my dues here.

September 15, 2014


Two cyclists climbing through the desert landscape along California State Route 168 near Big Pine, California
Electrolytes. You need them.

You also need water, which is probably your first thought when you look at the two cyclists (tiny specks) in the unforgiving landscape in the photo. Water is necessary, but not sufficient, when you're stressing your body on a hot day.

Leg cramps afflicted one of those cyclists before we were eight miles into our 49-mile ride. I rooted through my saddlebag for some capsules I thought I carried for just this situation; I had none. She was able to score some electrolyte-fortified drinks and snacks from other riders along the way [but it wasn't enough].

In the heat, she kept drinking water to stay hydrated. But there is more to hydration than H2O. Water is a transport mechanism for some of the waste your body sheds, and it is key for the evaporative process that cools you when your body sweats. In both cases, you are losing more than plain water—you're losing minerals, as well. Primarily sodium, but also potassium, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.

Ever wonder why cyclists are so enamored of bananas? Potassium. In thousands of miles of cycling, I was afflicted with muscle cramps just once—on a poorly-managed charity ride, where the organizers provided only bananas at a rest stop. [Personally, I find bananas revolting.] No oranges, cantaloupe, or any other type of fruit. No potassium. A few miles down the road, my leg muscles seized up and taught me always to bring my own stash of electrolyte-laden snacks. Always. Don't count on anyone else to take care of your needs.

The biggest mineral loss in sweat is sodium, which explains that other favorite of cyclists: salty snacks. Pretzels, salted nuts, roasted salted potatoes. After a ride on a hot day, I can feel the gritty salt deposited on my skin. I have a friend who loses so much salt during a ride on a hot day that he looks like he's been dusted with white powder from head to toe.

Back to our cyclist with the leg cramps, who kept riding. Under the circumstances—in which she was ill-prepared for a strenuous ride in the heat—she should have turned back. Let me say that again: she should have turned back. We did not appreciate this, and had we insisted on it, I doubt she would have heeded our advice.

Instead she kept riding, and evidently drinking more water, further diluting the level of electrolytes in her system. When we made the final turn into the park where we began our ride, she waved us off and continued riding straight ahead. Maybe she wanted to ride around the block, or to the park's restroom, we thought. As more time passed without her return, it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong.

What we didn't know was that she had become hyponatremic. Her brain was swelling from the excess water in her system, leading to confusion. She rode another 15 miles south, where somehow she crossed paths with a kind soul who recognized that she was in trouble. He found our ride leader's phone number on her route sheet and called.

At that point, she needed emergency care; she was admitted into the local hospital. She might have died. [Yes, it was that serious.]

Electrolytes. You need them. Know your body. Find something that works for you: supplements, sports drinks, foods with salt and potassium.

And if a fellow athlete seems confused, get help.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Over the years, some riders have found today's route to be the most difficult in our Eastern Sierras series. Not Onion Valley. Not Horseshoe Meadows. White Mountain Road, all the way to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

White Mountain, near the Schulman Grove Visitor Center, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Eastern Sierras, California
In his Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bike) books, John Summerson ranked this as the third most difficult climb in California, and 11th in the United States. He cautions: “This is a long and tough climb so make sure you are prepared.” Heed those words.

Our ride leaders told us we'd find water a little past mile eight at Sweetwater Springs; they also kindly left some gallons for us around the halfway point. Nonetheless, it seemed prudent to carry a third bottle; I stashed a frozen one in a cinch sack for the occasion. A little extra water, a little extra cooling.

View of the Eastern Sierras from White Mountain Road, California
As I climbed higher and higher, I thought of the folks who rode the White Mountain Double on Saturday. We were tracing part of their route; this was the first climb of their 200-mile day—and the only climb of our 48-mile day.

Blooming rabbitbrush along CA 168 near Westgard Pass, Eastern Sierras, California
Before turning onto White Mountain Road, we continued along California State Route 168 to the summit at Westgard Pass. Unlike the White Mountain Double riders, we made a u-turn there instead of descending into Nevada.

As my two riding companions lingered at our water stop, I began my solo ascent along White Mountain Road. How would I fare on this hot, challenging, high-elevation climb?

Steep grade along White Mountain Road, Eastern Sierras, California
Consistent with the theme for this trip: I kept expecting it to get horrible—and it didn't. Sure, it was hot. Sure, it was a long climb. I paused at the 10,000-foot marker for a photo; evidently there is enough oxygen up there to keep me going. By the end of the day, I would climb 6,400 feet over 49 miles.

Bicycle at the 10,000-foot elevation marker, White Mountain Road, Eastern Sierras, California
I marveled at the ancient trees, thousands of years old. The key to their survival is the low level of nutrients available in the soil— which is high in calcium magnesium carbonate, White Mountain's dolomite. This seems paradoxical, but perhaps it's analogous to animal research suggesting that caloric restriction is beneficial for longevity? A ranger pointed out one tree that went crazy producing cones this year; they are most curious about what's ahead, now that it has expended so much energy on those cones. To provide some perspective on their growth rate, he drew my attention to a small, bushy specimen, no more than 10 inches high. “That one is 20 years old,” he explained.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree near Schulman Visitor Center, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Eastern Sierras, California
Wishing I had more time to explore the Methuselah Grove, I was the last rider to depart. Despite a few photo stops along the way, I caught up to three members of our group a few miles from the bottom. Taking the lead, I heard a trailing rider shout left turn—the rider on my wheel was inclined to turn right. She followed me on the next turn, approaching the park where we started, but then continued straight. And disappeared.

Therein lies a tale.

September 14, 2014

Tyee Lakes

Our group has continued to shrink, with some people returning to the Bay Area already. We expect some reinforcements, though.

Today was another rest day, which most cyclists took literally. [Imagine that?] To some of us, this meant: Let's go for a hike! In fact, let's hike to a lake that's 10,000 feet above sea level!

View to the north, Tyee Lakes Trail, Inyo National Forest, California
I tagged along with two of the guys. One would go too far, the other would be too fast. Me? I was Goldilocks, seeking a pace and a distance that was ... just right.

We returned to South Lake Road, this time by motorized vehicle, to explore another fragment of the vast John Muir Wilderness. The posted Wilderness Use Restrictions prohibited, among other activities:
Entering or using the wilderness with more than 25 head of stock.
So noted.

View to the south, Tyee Lakes Trail, Inyo National Forest, California
I ambled along in comfortable solitude, savoring the views below Table Mountain. Granite boulders the size of whales. Lodgepole pines rooted in rock. Trembling aspens with golden leaves. Bare, craggy peaks and distant ridges.

First lake near Table Mountain, Tyee Lakes Trail, Inyo National Forest, California
I hiked only to the first lake in the chain; despite the promise of greater beauty at the upper lakes, I needed to conserve energy for tomorrow's challenging ride. Perched on a rock along the shore, I enjoyed my own private picnic. This lake was beautiful enough.

Aspens turning red near first lake, Tyee Lakes Trail, Inyo National Forest, California
Mother Nature had her own plan. Huge clouds rolled over the peaks and darkened the sky. What is this unfamiliar wet substance falling from above? Raindrops dotted the dirt and stained the rocks. Before the cloudburst passed, I sheltered under some large branches to avoid a thorough drenching. It was a rare treat, this rainfall.

Yellow aspens in the rain near base of Tyee Lakes Trail, Inyo National Forest, California
I timed my return well, arriving back at the trailhead five minutes ahead of our trio's agreed rendezvous.

4.4 miles and more than 1,000 feet of climbing: Just right.

September 13, 2014

Glacier Lodge

There is no lodge at the end of Glacier Lodge Road; sadly, it burned some time ago. There isn't much glacier left, either—or at least, not much that's visible.

Big Pine Creek, Glacier Lodge Road, Big Pine, California
Some riders chose to skip this climb; not one of their favorites, they said. Scary descent, they said. In his Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bike) books, John Summerson ranked this as the 15th most difficult climb in California, and 38th in the United States. He notes that it is “almost identical in length and average grade to the mighty Tour de France climb of the Tourmalet,” and cautions that “it is an extremely fast descent in places so watch the drop off into the creek.”

Cyclists on a tandem bicycle climbing Glacier Lodge Road near Big Pine, California
What was I getting myself into?

Glacier Lodge was a long, exposed, and challenging climb. Some clouds had rolled in, and I was grateful for the looming shadows they cast. The breeze picked up, but morphed into crosswinds on the descent.

Looking back on Glacier Lodge Road near Big Pine, California
My ride partner and I met a few others at the top, where we enjoyed an impromptu picnic next to a small pond stocked with trout for fishing.

Trout pond near site of Glacier Lodge near Big Pine, California
Mindful of the wind and the warnings, I descended with abundant caution. One gust was strong enough to move me and force me to adjust my balance.

On a descent like this—especially on a descent like this—don't hug the rightmost edge of the pavement. Whenever there were no vehicles in sight (which was most of the time), I took the lane. That is, I rode smack in the middle of the right lane—often edging close to the center line. A lane wide enough for a truck is plenty wide enough for a skinny little bicycle.

Bicycle rests against an enormous pine tree along Glacier Lodge Road near Big Pine, California
It was a short-ride day (22 miles, with a stout 3,655 feet of climbing) and a not-so-scary descent after all.

September 12, 2014

Lakes, South and Sabrina

Decisions, decisions. The full route for today's ride sounded pretty daunting, with the first climb a slow uphill grind through the desert on a state highway with little or no shoulder (and some blind curves). We would visit two lakes today, South Lake and Lake Sabrina, and the group was buzzing about the steep approach to South Lake.

Moon setting over jagged peaks near Aspendell, California
Hot day. Steep finish. High altitude.

Riding straight from the hotel had a certain appeal, but I fretted about completing the ride. This group of riders is a class above; if they think this is a difficult ride, for me it might be a climb too far. In his Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bike) books, John Summerson listed South Lake as the 8th most difficult climb in California, and 21st in the United States (13th and 32nd for Lake Sabrina). The cover of the first edition to his Complete Guide to Climbing (by bike) in California features a photo taken on the climb to Lake Sabrina.

Pines and golden aspens on rocky slopes near South Lake, Eastern Sierras, California
Maybe I should ride from the hotel to Lake Sabrina, skipping South Lake. After poring over the map online [thank you, Google Streetview], I embraced the wisdom of the crowd. Most people planned to drive to an intermediate point, skipping the long climb through the desert in favor of the upper climbs.

When I stepped out of the car at Aspendell (elevation 8,400 feet), I felt a little woozy. [Uh oh.] I decided to start the ride and turn back if I felt unsteady. I often start to feel the effects of altitude at an elevation of 8,000 feet, so this was no surprise.

My regular ride buddy, having done these rides before, had moved on to tackle some mountains farther south. I was delighted to pair up with another rider who was content to match my pace—and who shared my weakness for photo ops.

We paced ourselves up the long climb to South Lake, dreading the long steep pitch we expected at the end. It was so quiet that I was startled by a loud whoosh whoosh when a pair of ravens swooped alongside us, checking us out.

Low water level at South Lake, Eastern Sierras, California
The road pitched up a bit ... and then, there we were! A recurring theme of this trip is “I kept expecting it to get horrible, and it didn't.” [Not that I'm complaining.] I felt triumphant as I circled the parking lot at the top; another rider commented that I looked fresh. [Pacing. It's all about the pacing.]

Lake Sabrina, Eastern Sierras, California
We headed back down and turned onto the (easier) climb up to Lake Sabrina, which rewarded us with a clear view of the old Cardinal Gold Mine along the way; today, the only gold we saw was in the changing colors of the aspen leaves.

Cardinal Mine near Aspendell, California
Mountain berry pie à la mode was my reward for 3,110 feet of climbing over 23 miles.

Bicycle, orange aspens, and rocky peaks with sign Begin Scenic Route near Lake Sabrina, Eastern Sierras, California
Back at the hotel, I found a cyclist pulling a beautiful bicycle out of his somewhat rare 12-cylinder BMW. He was not part of our group; he was in town for the weekend's big event, the White Mountain Double. And because he was using this as a training ride for the Everest Challenge, he was hoping to make it a double double: Ride the 200-mile course twice (Saturday and Sunday).

Crazy. I will never attempt a double century, much less back-to-back double centuries; not tomorrow, and definitely not when I'm ... 72 years old. Crazy.

Nonetheless, we are sampling our way through the Everest Challenge. One climb at a time.

September 11, 2014

Ruby Lake

What do cyclists do on a rest day?

View of Mack Lake from the Mono Pass trail, John Muir Wilderness, Eastern Sierras, California

We piled into a couple of SUVs to carpool to the end of Rock Creek Road to explore what we missed yesterday. And, of course, to climb even higher.

Our visit to this corner of the John Muir Wilderness began at the Little Lakes Valley trailhead, reportedly the highest trailhead in the Sierra. Along the way, we passed a local woman who has been hiking up there for 90 years (beginning when she was four years old). Yes, you read that right: We met a 94-year old woman hiking, alone, at an elevation above 10,000 feet. [I hope that's me, someday.]

I was lagging behind (as usual) when another local hiker approached. His eyes grew wide when I described our previous two days of biking. “You're a cardiovascular animal!” he exclaimed.

Wide, shallow creek below Ruby Lake, John Muir Wilderness, Eastern Sierras, California
There were two options for today's hike: Most of us chose the shorter route to Ruby Lake, but a few indomitable souls more than doubled the distance to reach Mono Pass. From the lake shore, they were soon bright specks on the rocky slope towering above us. We counted down to hoot and holler in unison to draw their attention, and impressed ourselves with the echoing clamor we unleashed.

An unexpected pleasure of this trip is getting to know my fellow cyclists. One of my regular ride buddies is here, but most of the other riders are new friends. My club rides are limited to weekends, and many of the folks on this trip are retired and ride on weekdays. Conversation is easier when hiking than biking, although the altitude (over 11,000 feet) and elevation gain (more than 800 feet) had me huffing and puffing a bit.

Ruby Lake with glacial peaks in the background, John Muir Wilderness, Eastern Sierras, California
I have been admiring the deep blue sky on this trip, and picked up a new fact from one of our fellow hikers who has visited much higher altitudes: The higher you go, the darker it gets. [Of course.] Learn something new—every day.

Creek below Ruby Lake, John Muir Wilderness, Eastern Sierras, California
Hiking back down, I was especially grateful for my Leki hiking pole. The flat-top handle is like having your own personal handrail, wherever you want one. Being something of a klutz, it has saved my bacon more than once over the years.

Our last stop was another spot we were denied yesterday: Pie in the Sky. I earned that, right? Yesterday, if not today. Boysenberry ... mmm.