Impossible. It’s just not possible to ride my bike 140 miles over 4 of the top 10 climbs in the US for a total of 23,000 feet of elevation gain in just three days. That’s over 4 MILES of vertical gain! Impossible.
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.
– cheesy Adidas ad that I absolutely love
When I was invited to join the Descenders on their annual Monster Climbs trip I accepted immediately. This was just the kind of crazy stunt I needed to get me in shape for France. And at some point, climbing 23,000 feet in the eastern Sierra mountains became possible.
Day 1 – Onion Valley
Ten Descenders began the adventure on Friday morning, loading bikes and gear in cars and heading northbound on I-15 and then Hwy 395 to Lone Pine. The 4.5 hour drive seemed over before it began and soon I was kitting up, preparing for the first Monster, Onion Valley. This first climb was designed as a warm up for the group since we’d spent the day driving from sea level up to 4,000 feet. The road to Onion Valley is only 13 miles long and gains 5,000 feet of elevation up a series of switchbacks.
I was a bundle of nerves and doubts as the ten of us started out. There was a very brisk wind driving out of the NW and we we’re all being very cavalier about it, like “It’s just air!”. If this was a typical Saturday ride we might have cut it short or bailed completely, but we had just driven all day to get here – we could not quit.
Heading up the alluvial fan, I quickly found myself in my lowest gear (34×27) and began a ritual that would haunt me all weekend: double-checking that I was really in my lowest gear. I cannot count how many times I pressed those gear levers, hoping that a magical 11th gear would spontaneously generate itself. It never did, but I never stopped checking either.
I put myself in a small group with Voris and decided to pace with him to the top. No funny-business mind you, I was very intimidated by the steepness of the road and the 25+ mph wind only made things much harder. Because of the wind, the switchbacks alternated between being just steep and hard to being fairly ridiculous. Imagine being bent over your bars, in a paceline going a mere 4.5 mph turning 42 rpm on your smallest gear.
It got down to just Voris, Boyle and myself with Rick and Drew way up the road. Both Rick and Drew are supermen. They like riding with us, but when the fancy catches them, they just go up the road in the kind of style you might find at the Tour de France. Voris, Boyle and I summited together and I snapped this photo to prove I actually made it.
It was then that I realized I am a bit of a stubborn jackass. It was only around 60F and getting colder by the minute. I was soaking with sweat and with the wind howling, it was damn shivery. Everyone had said it was cold on top and to bring your jacket and arm/leg warmers. But standing at the bottom of the climb in 98F heat, it’s hard to understand and rather than trust the people who’ve done the climb before, I elected to save the 2.5oz of cold weather gear, leaving them in the van. That was the last time I made that mistake.
As soon as I started shivering on top I knew I had to descend to warmer climate. Go back and look at that photo of the switchbacks again. Imagine you’re freezing cold and absolutely flying down the steep, narrow road which has been pocked with gravel and rocks and split by heat-expansion cracks. When the wind has your back, it’s all you can do to keep your speed under 40 mph. When you come to a turn, the wind whips around and tries as hard as it can to shove you off the road. My hands ached from braking and I worried seriously about getting a flat from overheating my rims. Lower on the mountain, after the switchbacks, I began to warm up again and thought I was good. But the wind was still too random, jumping out at me like a linebacker. I’ve never steered and leaned so hard right and still gone left before. It was truly amazing. There is an unsubstantiated report of an unnamed Descender managing to record a top speed of 62mph on the descent – yikes! (Mom, it wasn’t me, I promise).
Here’s the elevation profile for Onion Valley – it’s an isosceles triangle
Once we all arrived back at the cars safely, the elation for what we had accomplished set in. We sped back to the motel in Lone Pine for beer, pizza and to watch Tour de France DVDs. Watching Lance crush the peloton up Alpe d’Huez is great motivation.
Keep reading: Day 2 – Horseshoe Meadow and Mt. Whitney Portal