Back to: Day 1 – Onion Valley
Day 2 – Horseshoe Meadow and Mt. Whitney Portal
The wind howled all night long. In the morning, it was still going and I was nervous at breakfast. Today was a big day – we’d climb two beasts for over 11,000 feet of elevation gain in just 65 miles. There was talk of 10% grades for miles on the way to Mt. Whitney portal. I wolfed down a huge bowl of oatmeal, two rubbery hardboiled eggs, and a bunch of juice. The plan was to ride from the motel so we could get a tour of the Alabama Hills as a warm up approach to Horseshoe Meadow Road. The Alabama hills remind me a lot of Joshua Tree – I’m not sure the geology, but it must be very similar composition. I could almost hear the sound of carabiners snapping and rock climbers calling, “On belay!” as we wheedled up a twisty road between the huge boulders.
The best part of the warm up was that the wind was on our backs. We rode easy, pushed up the gentle inclines by the breeze to the base of Horseshoe Meadow Road. The photo below shows the climb in all it’s glory, although it’s important to note that after the last switchback there still remains 3 more miles of steady climbing.
Now why in hell did someone build a road up the side of this cliff? Who looked at that mountain and said to themselves, “Now that’s a great place to build a road!”. The scale of the image is a little deceiving, the first switchback at the bottom is over 2 miles long! Apparently this road was built in three stages over several years – they wanted the road up there that badly! All I can say is, “Thank you! thank you! thank you for all your hard work!”
Once on the meat of the climb, I found Voris and we paced each other to the top. The wind had died down somewhere on the first switchback so we avoided the headwinds like on Onion Valley. As usual, Rick and Drew went off the front and arrived at the faux-summit first. I say ‘faux-summit’ because there is a high point 3 miles short of the actual summit where we re-grouped. You can see it on the elevation profile below. Rob did a super job staying with Drew and Rick for awhile and he ended up arriving third, but you can’t really count Drew and Rick so Rob was first of the ‘B’ squad. Voris and I measured ourselves to the first peak and had a really enjoyable climb. We weren’t pushing so hard that we couldn’t talk and it was really nice to have someone to share the scenery and adventure with.
Here’s a view looking south from the second northbound switchback. Just incredible. It had turned into a really spectacular day now that the winds had calmed. Perfect climbing weather.
Voris and I finally got to the faux-summit where Rick, Drew and Rob were waiting. We left Rob behind to sunbathe a little and we sped down the short 1-mile descent for the last two miles of climbing. It was uneventful and soon we were at Horseshoe Meadow.
It was great being in the mountains again, especially the eastern Sierra. The weather on top was perfect – sunny with still, crisp air and about 75F. I was really feeling a lot of love for the mountains as we made our way back to Rob and the rest of the team.
After a bit of a rest we headed down the mountain. Without the winds it was a pretty fun descent. I don’t have the experience descending that many of the other guys do so I hung back and took my time. After awhile I started to get a feel for the cornering and was able to get my speed up above 40 mph in some stretches.
We re-grouped a little when we hit the flats with the idea that we’d work together against the wind over to the support car. We’d parked a car between Horseshoe and Whitney Portal Rd so we could take a break between climbs and re-supply our bottles and gels. But there was no wind to fight. It felt really good to be on flatter ground again and I hammered it, trying to get a little sporty group going. Jim was up for it and Voris stayed with us, but wasn’t super keen on expending energy at this point – we still had another 3,750 feet of elevation to gain. I was feeling great – you know how some days you just can’t help but go fast? I was having one of those.
We stopped for lunch and Jim pulls out this jar of ice-cold dill pickles, maybe it was the heat in the valley or our salt depleted states, but that pickle was the best pickle I ever had. I’ll bet that jar was empty in less than 30 seconds. A new Descender tradition was born. Pickles!
Some of you may know me as a bit of a competitive guy. You’re probably not surprised to learn that I had been thinking a little bit about where the perfect place would be for me to attack. I was looking to distinguish myself on a significant climb, call it a ‘stage win’ if you will. The key thing to understand is that I wanted to prove something to myself, not anyone else. I wanted to know if I had it in me to accomplish something special. Am I really good enough, strong enough to ride away from the group and go all the way to the top of something nasty? There were four Monsters to climb this weekend. Attacking on the first or the second would be dumb cause you still have to climb the last two. And attacking on the last climb of the trip was dangerous cause I couldn’t predict what my form would be like on the last day, or anyone else’s for that matter. I would attack on the third climb, to Mt. Whitney Portal.
The road to Whitney Portal is only about 9 miles long, but it rises 3,700+ feet to around 8,300 with consistently steep grades the whole way. It’s something like 9-10% for the entire climb, which really is ridiculous. We’d already done Horseshoe so this would be a real achievement. It would also mirror almost exactly what I will do in France – on the first day I’ll do Alpe d’Huez, on the second I’ll do a little bit of the Galibier, the Col de la Croix de Fer and finally Alpe d’Huez again. And I want to do well on Huez the second time.
So after lunch, the Descenders got back on the road headed towards the portal. I rode to the front where Voris and Jim were, plugged in my iPod and selected the live Dave Matthews album I’ve been listening to for months. I put in both earbuds, cranked the volume and increased my tempo until my heart rate monitor said 90%. I knew from experience that I could hold 90% for at least an hour and a half – just enough time to get to the top.
I looked down and Voris was following me. Then he was off and chasing. Then I didn’t see him anymore. I didn’t see anyone anymore. I was alone, off the front and blasting away at 90% HR. You know, it kinda hurts to go that hard.
“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”
- Lance Armstrong
I was heading up 10% grades, the Owens Valley opening up off the side of the switchback and Whitney Portal getting ever so slowly closer at about 6 mph. I wanted to quit. That little “voice” in my head did at least. We had an ongoing conversation that went like this:
The Voice: Sit up and wait for Voris, you can work together.
My Heart: I’m not stopping. I can do this.
The Voice: They are going to catch you anyways.
My Heart: Nope, I won’t let them.
The Voice: This hurts, slow down.
My Heart: You can’t make me. You’re not me.
Up and up I went. I’ve never been to Whitney Portal before so all I had to measure my progress was the mileage. I looked back down the switchbacks at one point and didn’t see anyone behind me. I was really going to do this. Where was Rick and Drew? Them being supermen and all, I had already decided that it didn’t count against my goal if they passed me, but I didn’t see anyone. I sucked down gels and drink without abandon and pedaled hard. All that mattered was getting to the top first.
Up ahead, there was a sign. It was the entrance sign to Whitney Portal. “Holy crap, I did it! I’m here first. There’s no one anywhere! Just me and my bike. I did it! I won.” I stopped by the sign and got off my bike, intending to take a picture and just laid my head down on my saddle. All of a sudden it really hit me what I did and I closed my eyes and had a little “moment”. A hiker nearby was giving me strange looks, but I didn’t much care. Finally, I got myself together, took the photo and realized it’s still another mile and 500 feet up to the end of the road
It was a hard final mile, but I was elated. I pulled up to the snack bar at the top, found a chair in the sunshine and waited for the rest of the team. Drew and Rick were just 3-5 minutes behind me, but had stopped to fix a flat. Then the rest of the team came in, one at a time and I’m not exactly sure of the order. Voris, Boyle, Rob and Guido. Seven of the ten Descenders had made it to the portal, climbing over 11,000 feet in a single day. It was a huge team accomplishment and we all knew it. We sat together, soaking up the sun, enjoying it and not really wanting to go down. Whitney Portal sits in a pine forest with a little lake, surrounded by shining white granite that reminded me of Yosemite Valley. It was really cool sitting there, the seven of us all decked out in Descenders jerseys while tourists eyeballed us and asked, “Did you really ride your bikes up here?”
Finally we decided it was time to go. We saddled up and sped down the mountain, this time I even enjoyed the speed and the sharp turns (I was careful, Mom). We hammered back to town and soon I was laying by the pool with a cold beer in hand. Here’s my elevation profile for the day.
Went out to dinner and had a humongous double cheeseburger with pretty much everything on it. Back to the rooms to watch Lance hammer the 2002 Tour de France again and then early to bed. I was tired, really tired.
Keep reading: Day 3 – Bristlecone Forest