Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Drenched! (Riding and Climbing At Sonora Pass)

In the hindsight, I probably should have stayed home for the weekend. Our friend Brad needed Erik’s help both days for his Sonora Pass Climbing Guide Book effort and I know that they would be hiking around crags and pointing at climbs — not my cup of tea. If I had stayed home, I could have slept in both days cuddling with the cats and picked up my much-missed mountain bike from the shop. However, I found myself not able to shake off the idea of riding Sonora Pass, which was planted in my head by an MTBR thread . Looking at our summer Calendar, I knew it would be either now or in a long time. Carpe Diem!

We stayed in Confidence at Brad’s place on Friday night. I had to mention it because of the unique name of the little town. Plus, Brad has a very cool family — wife, two beautiful girls, and two dogs — that I absolutely adore. After a relaxed breakfast on Saturday, I drove up to Dardanelle where there is a store, a restaurant, a restroom, and a fee shower, a perfect place for the start and the end of a long ride. Yes, the ride would be long — for me at least — Dardanelle to Bridgeport to Dardanelle, going over Sonora Pass twice. I started riding at 9:29am.

Dardanelle Resort, the start and the end of my ride Dardanelle Resort has everything you need!

After about four miles of mellow climbing, suddenly the grade kicks up. There, you see the warning sign for the steep grade ahead.

Did it say 26% grade? Does it say 26% grade? It’s not downhill that’s for sure.

The steep pitches always look intimidating. I suspect that it presents that look just so you, the rider, will crack, planting all the negative thoughts in your own head such as “Oh, F’k me, I can’t ride up this thing; it is impossible!” But if you just keep your head down and pedal one stroke at a time, before you know it, you’ve crested over the top of the little steep pitch thinking “Oh, that was not too bad after all!” Well, there were quite a few steep pitches on this ride and those were the thoughts that went through my head except that I didn’t swear.

The steepness of those sections would definitely leave an impression on anyone who has ridden either side of the Sonora Pass, but most of the time, it is, thank God, mellow and sometimes rolling. And there is breathtaking scenery to marvel about along the way. Much of the 14 miles from Dardanelle to the Sonora Pass follows along the Stanislaus River, in which many people fish. There are many granite cliffs on both sides that occasionally see a few rock climbers. Closer to the pass, the view opens up more with high peaks looming ahead enclosing a meadow with the river running through it.

Hwy 108 West of Sonora Pass

Hwy 108, West side of Sonora Pass

Hwy 108, West Side of Sonora Pass

Totally absorbed in the view, you will be surprised when the summit suddenly appears in front of you, marked by a big sign that could not be missed. 9624′ … the air is thinner up here.

Sonora Pass

A few rolling sections lead to steep descend. This is where another 25% grade section is. Just take it slow, and on a bike, you can usually drop the cars and the motorcycles easily at these steep and winding downhill sections. At one point, after a gradual right hand bend, suddenly, a big valley opens up in front of and below you. I remember gawking at it while descending only to find myself shooting straight to the apex of a sharp right turn. I had just enough time to correct myself, but I couldn’t help but notice the distinct skid marks that did shoot into the opposite lane — more than one set of skid marks.  I continued to gawk, but with caution now.

Hwy 108 East side of Sonora Pass

Hwy 108 East side of Sonora Pass

East side of Sonora Pass

Hwy 395 near Bridgeport

Hwy 395 near Bridgeport

The downhill always goes by fast, so now you are in the valley. It’s almost flat and straight. There, I had the urge to pedal, but suddenly I felt thirsty. Bridgeport was still 20+ miles away. There was an enormous complex, Marine Corp Training Center, on the side of the road. They probably had water there, but I didn’t try — I didn’t have my immigration documents with me. Nor did I find water at the 395 & 108 Junction — there was nothing there that I could see! There was still a little — little by comparison — hump, Devil’s Gate Summit, to climb over on 395. By the time I arrived at Bridgeport, my two bottles had been dry for quite some time.

My mission now was to find a place for lunch, which turned out a very easy one because my bike came to a screeching halt in front of Sportsmen’s Bar and Grill. I stepped in and found the last TT stage of Tour de France nearing the end. How fitting! I inhaled the Sportsman Burger and a potato salad as well as three full glasses of icy coke while witnessing Alberto Contador win his third Tour by 39 seconds, no more and no less, which I found ironic. I was not sure whom, Contador or Schleck, that God was teasing. (Note: Erik thought “ironic” was a wrong word to use in this scenario and he said it was “apropos.”)

Sportsmen Bar and Grill in Bridgeport My lunch menu reflection

When I stepped back into the sun, I felt re-energized… except for one little problem — I ate and drank too fast and maybe too much too (I was hungry and thirsty!). Oh boy, the icy coke must have shocked my system, and then all that carbonated air… I just could not get comfortable. I now have a new appreciation for the discomfort babies have to go through before they are burped. I will not get into details here, but it took me the entire ride from Bridgeport to one mile before reaching the Sonora Pass the second time — that’s about 31 miles — for the internal storm to finally subside.

Compare to that belly storm, the thunderstorm I rode through and got drenched in was just a minor annoyance. I first saw the dark clouds ahead of me and then was in the pouring rain for a good half hour or so just after the west side of Sonora Pass started getting steep.

Hwy 108, East side of Sonora Pass Riding into the rain

The thunder and lightning was around me, but I pedaled on remembering how one person died and several got injured in a lightening storm last week at Grand Teton. I didn’t really have a choice — what good it would do me if I stopped? Not sure what the people in the cars — not many during the storm — were thinking when they passed me, but I didn’t want to get in anybody’s car when I was fully soaked. One car drove right next to me at my pace on a fairly steep section. I sensed that the driver was probably looking in my direction waiting for me to raise the SOS. However, I had to focus on riding on or close to the white line, so I didn’t turn my head. I simply nodded a few times, so the car drove on. After it passed me, I saw a couple of bikes hanging on the rack in the back. They probably felt bad for me. But really, I didn’t mind climbing in the rain too much. I wasn’t too cold and the rain did not make riding any more dangerous at that slow speed. When I was finally out of the rain and still had a few miles to go before the top, I felt lucky that I would not be descending in the rain. Down lower just when I rode into the storm, I had to stop to rain-proof my GPS device and my camera. Now, even though I was still on a climb in its general trend, I had to stop, not because I needed a break, but because I had to take a picture of the storm I just rode through.

The storm behind me

Well, I celebrated too soon. One mile before the summit, just when I happily observed the tummy storm had gone away and I had gained some warmth by pedaling uphill out of the rain for a few miles, the clouds above me opened up. When I reached the top, I was again drenched. Knowing that I would face a chilling descend, I stopped and took a photo of the summit and gave myself a little time to get mentally prepared.

Sonora Pass again

It turned out that the descend back to the car was a wild ride.

First, I was riding in the rain on wet pavement, so I took it easy, reminded by the weird sound from the wet brake from time to time. A mile or two later, I was out of the pouring rain, but still the big rain drops kept coming down in a more scattered fashion. The road was no longer soaking wet and I could tell my tires were dry, so I opened up a bit. Then suddenly dry hales came down. They fell on the ground and bounced like many white ceramic beads, but they seemed to crush under the tires and did not pose any serious threat. Then it was big rain drops again, but the sun was out too. The air got warmer and I could feel that my flapping wind breaker started to dry up.

Just then, a car in the opposite direction tapped its horn. Oh, it was Erik. Later I learned that they had finished their mission for the day, and since they were not too far from Dardanelle, Brad dropped him off so he drove up to look for me — that was after he had treated himself some ice cream at the Dardanelle store… We can’t say he had his priorities messed up, can we? However, when I saw him on the road, I, was on my own mission — I had realized that there was a chance that I could make it back to Dardanelle before 5:29pm — 8 hours from my start time. Don’t ask me why, but at that moment, 8:00 would sound so much better than 8:01. I nodded at him and continued my descend/sprint. At 5:28, I pulled into the parking lot of Dardanelle, with a big grin on my face — I made it!

I cannot count how many times I had done back country climbing and riding in the remote area (e.g. last year and this year’s Death Rides) and had always been blessed with excellent weather. I had expected at one point, the good luck had to be balanced out one way or another. On Sunday, my friend Rob and I went up to Chipmunk Flat area for some rock climbing. Two climbs in, we were just commenting on how nice it was that the sun was behind the clouds and the temperature was perfect. Suddenly, lightening stuck above us and a dark patch of clouds peeked over the cliff like a monster and spit on us. We left some gear on the wall and threw everything in our pack and ran down to the car. I didn’t ask myself what the rush was, but really, we were fully drenched by the time we reached the car anyway even though it was not too far away; we could have just walked slowly and the result would have been the same. Well, that was my story of being drenched on Sonora Pass highway twice, or three times if you count the second time I got rained on riding over the pass on my way back. I think my luck will be good for another while.

My GPS tracks: Garmin Connect, MTBGuru, Plus3Network (Note: why all 3 sites?)

Climbing Profiles:

Dardanelle to Sonora Pass Profile

108 & 395 Junction to Sonora Pass Profile


9 Responses

  1. Patrick Herlihyon 27 Jul 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Jealous, jealous, jealous!

  2. Richard Contrerason 29 Jul 2010 at 10:53 pm

    I’m also jealous; not sure I could make it.
    By the way there is water in the campsites along 108 (at least 2 before the marine base on the east side of the pass).

  3. mudwormon 30 Jul 2010 at 9:48 am

    Are you guys jealous of being hit by a thunderstorm? 😉 Richard, thanks so much on the water beta. I was wondering about it. For anyone headed to Bridgeport, it would be a good idea to refill along Hwy 108 after descending from Sonora Pass. The ride on Hwy 395 is 17 miles long and it’s sun exposed with some more climbing. Also I found that usually there is wind/gust on these flat sections, so you never know how much effort is truly required until you get there.

  4. Dirk dBon 04 Aug 2010 at 11:51 am


    Love how you caught a bit of Tour de France coverage in some sportsbar in a remote stretch of the Sierras and then considered the thunderstorm you were in the middle of a minor annoyance. You sure make every ride an adventure! Great shots, I’ve only done Sonora on a bike with a motor, looks like I should go back to pedal it some time.

    Btw, below a comment I left on your comment wrt the Santa Cruz challenge ride (as you know, the email comment notification thing on MTBGuru needs fixing, so I’m just pasting it here)

    “Funny that you bring up Whitney Portal. We did indeed briefly talk about it (and your adventures on the Sonora pass).
    I think I have the perfect ride for you (point-to-point): Badwater to Whitney Portal, aka the “longest climb…”, see

    I should do this one again too, since as you can tell from the report, I have unfinished business with it!”

  5. Dirk dBon 04 Aug 2010 at 11:59 am

    Just noticed you already found that Whitney trip report… we really need to fix this comment notification thing 😆

  6. Patrick Herlihyon 04 Aug 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Dirk, that’s an amazing ride/hike. I think I’ll have a chance to do Sonora Pass next week if all goes well..

  7. mudwormon 04 Aug 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Yeah, I tried hard not to nag you about it. 😉

  8. mudwormon 04 Aug 2010 at 5:00 pm

    I hope all goes well. Hmmm… should I wish thunderstorm upon you? Hm… 😉

  9. mudwormon 04 Aug 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Dirk, “the perfect ride”? For you, yeah; for me, probably not if it involves riding through the night (like your longest climb trip) or even a start at some insanely early hour (like your Alta Alpina). I’m a wimp.