At the Precipice – Riding Sonora Pass

by Arlyn on October 21, 2009

The air is chilly at 9,628 feet atop Sonora Pass in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. I’d spent the last hour and a half climbing ever so slowly to the pass and now I was considering the unthinkable – descending the other side.

“This has got to be the craziest thing I’ve ever done on a bike.”

Author’s Note: The events of this story occurred last July 4th. With my Leadville preparations, I didn’t write as much as I’d have liked and honestly, I can’t get this moment out of head, so here it is.

“Whatever goes down must come back up” I chuckled nervously to myself. My iPhone still had no signal, even way up here. If I needed to call the “Team Van” for help, I was going to have to find a payphone and there’s not very many payphones in the middle of the National Forest.

Sonora Pass Road is steep

With 26% grades, as narrow as a european mountain road and twisty as a pretzel, Sonora Pass Road ain’t just any road.

Sonora Pass Road is not your average road. It’s so steep I wonder if my bike can make it – up to 26% gradient in places and while it technically allows two-lane traffic, the road is so narrow SUV’s slow down to pass each other going in opposite directions. The road turns so sharply in places that you’ll see cars almost stop going around corners. It’s a true mountain road and it’s beautiful.

It looked like the road dropped off a cliff going over the far side of the pass. I had already climbed the Eastern side with 3,000 of elevation gain. The Western side was 4,000 feet of gain. My legs were tired from a week of hard riding in the Sierras, yet I was resolute.

Quickly and without thinking much about it, I got back on my bike and rolled down the Western side of Sonora Pass. My bike zipped down the steep road and soon I was carving asphalt corners at 40mph. To my left, the road dropped into oblivion. A narrow gorge had been cut over the past several thousand years by a rushing creek far below. I could hear the water crashing downhill, cutting its way through granite channels in dense, green forests. This was now the Western Sierra, much greener and lush than the Eastern side because of the rain shadow the high-altitude ridgeline cast.

With 2,000 feet to go and legs tired of climbing, I decided it was time for a movie-stop.

Looking down the valley I would need to climb back up.The farther I went down, the more anxious I got about the return climb. I saw every corner and steep section as an obstacle for my return. I eyeballed my odometer wondering when I could turn around. The road finally flattened out and if I wasn’t mostly out of water I would have turned around instantly. Out here in the middle of nowhere, the next services were 6 miles ahead so on I pedaled, all the while getting more and more nervous about how far I was getting from home.

Going down the way back up

Heading down the road I would inevitable need to climb on the way home.

I finally made it to a general store at some kind of fishing camp which was crowded with all kinds of tourists. I wobbled my lycra-clad way in on cleats and purchased some water. I received plenty of odd looks, I don’t think many cyclists make it out this far. The only thing I could think about was that monstrous 4,000 foot climb ahead of me. Would I be able to handle it after 50 miles? I was quietly freaking out…

Trusty Red Bike

It’s rides like this that help you develop an unhealthy relationship to your bike.

Outside, while filling up my food and water bottles some fat guy slurping a big soft-serve cone observed that I didn’t really have to purchase bottled water, there was a perfectly good tap out back. And wasn’t it all these environmentalists who forced us to spend money on essentially a free resource. I smiled, shrugged and kept filling my bottles. He kept at it and after another minute or so I was ready to unleash all my internal anxiety, fear and stress on him by beating him resoundingly with my bicycle. But then how would I get home? I corralled my emotions and rolled back to the highway.

Finally, I was heading home. Six miles back to the base of the climb, then I stare fixedly at the altimeter knowing I need to top out at 9,628. That seems like a long way when you’re only in the 6,000’s. I make every hundred feet of climbing into a victory and audibly cheer myself on with corny exclamations like, “Good job, one hundred feet!” and “Hooray, you passed the 7,000 mark!” It was a major victory getting to the “1,000 feet to go” point. With each pedal stroke I knew I was closer to the top.

This video was shot while climbing the Eastern slope. Some of the country’s best fly fishing is down there.

I rounded the last corner and was back at the pass. I stopped to refill my food bottle and a very grungy looking backpacker shot out of the woods, crossed the road to me and asked wildly if I’d seen a group of other guys hitch a ride. I said I’d only just gotten here and he dashed off, running down the trail. About five minutes later, a very grungy looking young woman came running out of the forest and crossed the road with her backpack flapping as she ran – had I seen a group of guys catch a ride? I told her about the first guy and she started yelling names in all directions, calling for her friends. I pointed which way the other guy ran and she dropped her pack and took off at full speed down the trail yelling at the top of her lungs. I still have no idea what their deal was.

An older woman approached me as I readied to roll back down the Eastern side. Her husband stood off at a distance looking embarrassed, but she had a thousand questions. Had I really ridden up the road? Was I some sort of professional like Lance? Did I have special gears? She said her husband thought I was a “strong man” for riding my bike up here. He pretended to examine a tree off in the distance while she got her answers. I wasn’t strong, I told her, just stubborn. I thanked her and set off down the road home. They followed me for a couple miles down the descent and then passed only when they could give me wide enough berth. The husband goggled me and the wife waved excitedly. Wow, cool.

Going 4,000 feet up

It doesn’t look very steep in this photo, does it?

I rocketed off Sonora Pass quietly confident. All my stress, fear and anxiety were gone. At the end of the day, I had ridden 92 miles and climbed 9,700 feet in 7 hours and 42 minutes. I was solidly on track for Leadville the following month.

The Road Home

With the climbing over for the day, I can appreciate the serene meadow. Our cabin is in the hills in the distance.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

jeff October 22, 2009 at 4:35 am

Wow! It looks like a great ride, though I can relate to your apprehension. That is a ton of climbing for one day. And 27 percent grade? I’ve flown down some Colorado climbs in the 10-12 percent range, and I can’t imagine. Thanks for re-visiting this ride. Great job!

Weiland October 22, 2009 at 4:55 am

I’ve add this to my list of must do rides, it looks beautiful and fun! The stiffest climb we have in Austin, TX is 24%, the other big ones are 18-22%, but they are all short. We have to ride 100 miles to get to 10,000+ feet of climbing.

Arlyn October 22, 2009 at 8:56 am

Thanks guys, it’s easy to write about epic days.

Kurt Geiger July 11, 2010 at 11:19 am

I’ve ridden Sonora Pass a number of times. I’m 55 just rode it, June 2010. I intend doing it many more times. To be perfectly honest it’s not that tough of a climb if you pace yourself within your range. I Start from Pinecrest, (have also started from Dardanelles). I prefer starting from Pinecrest for the miles.(If you don’t keep a log of all your rides you are shorting yourself). It takes me about 4 hours to the top and 2 hours back to Pinecrest, 6 hour round trip. I use a 26/34 it’s fine for the steep parts. I may switch to a 28 on the rear as I age. The decent–Surreal. Even as you are doing upwards of 50 mph down through Blue Canyon toward Kennedy Meadows you can’t help but swallow eye fulls of scenery. Let’s praise God for His beautiful creation and for giving it to us to care for.

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