It was 4:30pm on Friday before the 3-day July 4th weekend. Following phone conversation took place between Erik and me:
— M: I'm getting off work around 6pm. After that, should I go to the Female Friday Fandango? (Note: This is a monthly female MTB ride/gathering organized by Passion Trails Bike shop 5 minutes away from my work.)
— E: Sure. Go!
— M: But… if we are going somewhere this weekend, I probably should go home and pack.
— E: Right… (Brief pause) Yeah, go home and pack.
— M: Are we going somewhere? Where?
— E: We'll go to the East side and do a few road climbs. What's that toughest climb in California…. Onion Valley Road, I think?
Hmmm… I remembered now he had proposed this trip for my birthday this year, but I was more into mountain biking than into road riding and chose to stay local to do a couple of long MTB rides (Tour de Peninsula and pre-Solstic Coe 10k). However, I didn't have any MTB plans for this long weekend. My rear brake had been acting up. For the past three long rides, my rear tire went flat every time. I needed to figure out if there was anything wrong with my rim. And Erik's bike was in a worse shape — it was in pieces and the suspension bearings needed to be replaced. Road riding sounded like a good idea. Still having work to do, I only had time to do a quick Google search on Onion Valley Road, and found this post from George's Epic Adventures blog: The 10 Toughest Climbs in California. I printed it on paper to read on the road. In that blog post, he quoted John Summerson, the author of the book The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in California:
Most Difficult Climbs:
I got home at around 7pm and Erik at 7:30pm with two Burritos he picked up. At 8:30pm, Erik cranked the engine with me in the passenger seat and our two bikes and camping gear in the back. We got on our way. While packing, I thought about calling a couple of friends who could have been interested (Patrick and Alison, are you reading?), but an invitation so last minute would have sounded ridiculous and irritating. It has always been hard for us to plan activities with friends because we are not the planning type!
With a good audible book, The Help, playing from iTune Erik drove all the way to the East side. It was past 3:30am when we finally pitched our tent off Hwy 395 and we went to sleep just before 4am. It was too soon before I woke up feeling the warmth of the sun. 7:30am. I could have slept more, but it was getting too bright and too warm. The landscape revealed the two mountain ranges on both the east and the west sides of us, remote, vast, and majestic. I got excited. We packed up quickly.
Good coffee and a big breakfast were what we needed, and we got them at Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery in Lone Pine. It was also the starting point of our ride.We would climb Horseshoe Meadows Road and Whitney Portal.
The rides in this area almost all start with a long stretch of gentle uphill on a straight road. We took it easy and played with the cameras we carried.
3.5 miles of riding finally led us to the start of Horseshoe Meadows Road, supposedly the 2nd toughest climb in California and 4th in the US. At the start, you can already see the switchbacks in a distance that snake up the mountain.
I pressed the lap button on my GPS and the climb officially started. There seems to be an unspoken rule that many of us subscribe to about hill climbs — you do not put a foot down unless you are about to keel over. That means you eat, drink, stretch, rest, and take photos while pedaling. That's how the below photos were taken. (Hover the cursor over each photo to get the description and click for the larger version.) I settled in my own pace and gradually pulled away from Erik. While going up the switchbacks, I looked down whenever I could to look for him and whooped at him when I could see him.
Even though I read the print out from George's post, I somewhat got the wrong impression that the climb was no more than 13 miles long (probably got it mixed up with Onion Valley road). So, when I saw that the lap distance went to 14, 15, and still kept going, I wondered if the God was playing a trick with me — what if the climb never ended? The gradient was quite friendly. However, there were a few hot spots in my feet that were hurting and the saddle was feeling too hard already (I hadn't been riding my road bike for quite a while). Finally, when I reached a summit at about 16.4 miles, I almost called it victory (and almost put my foot down), but then I saw the next uphill section after a brief dip. It was not until 3+ mile later that road finally came to an end. That was a loooooooong climb! And now it was over. Whew!
After a while, Erik rolled in. We took a break, ate, refilled our water bottles, and took a few cheesy summit shots.
On our way back to the car, we stopped at a few places to snatch a few more shots.
It was hot when we got back to the car. The sun was at its full blast. The air conditioned stores and shops were very inviting. But the thought of not riding up Whitney Portal when we were right at the bottom of it did not come across my mind. We refilled our water bottles again (two each). At around 3:15pm, we were on our way again. This time, neither of us felt chipper. I took this photo (self portrait) while passing Erik on the way up Whitney Portal. We were hot and tired.
I took this photo on the straight section. You can vaguely see the road zigzagged in the mountains.
As it turned out, it was a climb much harder than I expected. It was supposed to be rated ONLY the 5th toughest climb in California, 3 places behind Horseshoe Meadows Road, which we just completed. The heat definitely played a role. The climb only came into shade near the very top (last two miles) and even then, it was not continuous; otherwise, it was fully exposed in the sun and the breezes were rare to come by. The grade felt progressively harder. I remember looking down at GPS and kept seeing 11-13% gradient in the last five miles, and even though the grade eased off a tiny little bit near the top, the road surface got rougher, so it felt hard all the way. Two sentences were ringing in my ear constantly, "Inch by inch, I will get there." (my own motto) and "Here is to sweat in your eye." (Erik's motto)
On this climb, I was happy to have my granny gear. All the effort was in pedaling that I did not take more photos until I got to the very top. I then took a break before riding down little ways to greet Erik who was really hurting on the climb. The heat really got to him. But he persevered.
At the summit, he dipped into the snow melt pool to wash away the sweat crust on his face. That must have felt good. Then a few summit shots were in order.
And guess what, a road that took me 2 hours to climb only took me 21 minutes to descend. That was a helluva fun descent! We so earned it. Another thing we earned would be a hearty meal. We asked the guy at the front desk of Whitney Portal Hostel, where we took a much needed shower ($5 each), where the Whitney Portal Store was since I read that their BBQ was supposed to be really good. I thought it should be next to the Hostel (same business owner). The guy pointed outside and said, "It's about 15 miles up that road (Whitney Portal Road), and the store is right there." Erik and I looked at each other knowing that we would not be having that BBQ today. But we did have a very satisfying dinner at Mt. Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine.
Oh, earlier I mentioned that the heat got to Erik. It sure did! The new sports drink we brought (swag at Napa Valley Dirt Classic) did not work well for him and it upset his stomach. Plus, he had not been riding that much (mountain or road). When we got down, he dry heaved a bit, which scared me because I had never seen him like that before. With the shower and the dinner, he felt a little better. I was thankful that the heat exhaustion did not materialize into something worse. I was also exhausted when I went to sleep after 10pm. But I was too exhausted to fall asleep (this was nothing new) and it took me a long time to actually doze off. But then I was woken up frequently by the gusty wind flapping on our tent. I had hand washed our riding clothes (the other clothes we brought would be too warm for the weather) and had them hanged on the tent poles. When we finally got up around 7am, I did not feel rested at all. However, I was very surprised that my legs were feeling fine. Actually, I ran (literally) back and forth multiple times between the restaurant and our car to fetch stuff and did not feel any soreness at all. Wow, last night's dinner must have worked wonder.
We had our breakfast again at Mt Whitney Restaurant before we headed over to Independence, where the start of Onion Valley Road was. A little July 4th parade was happening, so we took a little tour of it. We were tourists after all.
The cattle guard, the official start of the climb, came shortly after we started. I pressed my lap button again. I told myself to take it easy since this is the "toughest" climb in California. While taking it easy, I took quite a few photos on the ride.
Having expected this climb to be tough, I made sure to settle in a pace that would neither tax my lungs nor tax my legs. I also wanted to leave plenty in my reserve in case we could fit White Mountain in our agenda later in the day. As it turned out, the entire climb was at a moderate grade. The road was designed such that it was not easy to tell where the road went when you look up from below, so it was a little easier psychologically. Before I knew it, I was close to the top, so I raised my pace a bit as you can see from this GPS profile.
As soon as I reached the top, I turned around to go meet Erik a short distance behind me. Here he is coming up only with about 1/4 miles to go.
It's a habit now — summit shots:
Having done it, I probably would not call it the toughest climb I'd done (Whitney Portal felt harder), but it sure was one of the best climbs I had done. The view was spectacular on this climb. On the way down, we stopped to snatch a few more shots.
When we got back to the car, I asked Erik about White Mountain (it starts from Big Pine). He suggested we should end the day on a good note. Knowing that we needed to get back before Monday, I was not too heartbroken that we called it a day. Guess I would have been happy either way. So, we again showered and ate in Lone Pine. Feeling good, we walked around town and got ourselves some good coffee before we started our long drive back home. Lone Pine claims to be the home of Golden Eagles. I think we saw them.
It was really hot when we walked around in Lone Pine (mid-nighties at least). I guess I was happy that we were not riding then. Erik had to take a dive whenever he walked into the sun.
My GPS tracks:
- Horseshoe Meadows and Whitney Portal: Garmin Connect,
- Onion Valley Road: Garmin Connect,
(Note: why all 3 sites?)
- Our photo album for this trip (a lot more photos)
- Most Difficult Cycling Hill Climbs In The U.S. (from Ride-strong.com)
- George's The 10 Toughest Climbs in California
- The five toughest stretches of road in the United States By John Summerson
Horseshoe Meadows and Whitney Portal: (71.1 mi/11367')
Onion Valley Road: (27.3mi/5432')
P.S. I had a discovery on these climbs — the ascent data on the GPS is rubbish! Think about it, on a climb, the total ascent should be equal to or greater than the altitude change, right? On these climbs, I kept glancing down at my GPS and found that the altitude change was much faster than the increase in the total ascent. No wonder Garmin connect and MTBguru both show greater total ascent numbers than that's shown on the GPS. Rightly so!
When my friend Alison and I talked about the perception of difficulties of these hill climbs (she said that she's not convinced Mt Washington "is really harder than our tougher local climbs"), it got me curious. I put together below table for comparisons. The stats all came from my own GPS (Garmin Edge 305). As you can see, the total ascent (in feet) numbers are lower that those officially reported out there, but at least these numbers came from the same device, so the comparisons should be consistent.
. I suppose Onion Valley Road was the steepest (over all) of all three. It sure did not feel that way.
P.P.P.S. Oh, in case it was not obvious from my post, there is a water spicket at the top of each of these three climbs, although there was a hand written note taped to the one on the top of Onion Valley Road saying "Please boil the water before drinking." There is at least one outhouse at the top as well.