Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sometimes there are mountains

We're blessed with a fair number of mountains in western Montana, but it really doesn't matter. Even if there are 100 peaks in sight, the human mind will find the one to focus on. Whether it's the lowest, highest, craggiest, or the one no one else has noticed, it becomes the white whale of whoever's gaze it fixes. Mine happens to be called Blue Mountain.

Blue Mountain rises from a river just 8 miles west of my door. From there, a rocky dirt fire road climbs about a dozen miles and 3300 feet to the top. It is not particularly high, or majestic, or snowy--at least, compared to those peaks it shares the horizon with. For me, though, Blue Mountain is perplexingly, wonderfully, indomitable.

I first wanted to ride the mountain 3 summers ago. It caught fire. I returned the next spring. The road was closed for salvage logging. I was back the next fall. My rear axle bent. And, the next fall? Halfway to the top, I reached for my second water bottle. Empty.

I'm a stronger rider now. My bike's in excellent repair. I triple checked my water, food, and tools this morning. I've been biding my time this spring, waiting for the last traces of snow to disappear from view. Today I rode again toward my mountain.

It was 50 degrees and sunny as I left the apartment. A gentle headwind nudged against me as I rode west. I hit the dirt road and begin the climb, struggling at first but slowly finding a rhythm that will take me toward the top. Up through 4,000 feet, spring is evident. The forest floor is green, birds are abundant, and now and then some little woodland creature scurries across the road well ahead. About 3 miles up I hear a diesel roar behind me. Looking back to see the logging truck, I'm surprised to see instead a yellow school bus--a geology field trip, I later find out.

One hairpin turn after another, now in the cool forest, now exposed on a ridge I climb. Not that I'm usually fast, but even for me this is a slow climb. The loose dirt and rock kills my feeble attempts to nudge past 6-7 mph. We mortal cyclers can't rush a climb like this, but we can relax and enjoy it. In the forest, I focus on the moist, cool smells that drift over to the dusty road. On the ridges, I try to spot landmarks in miniature down in the valley. I wish I could identify more of the birds and flowers I see--something to work on. The beauty of climbs to me is the freedom of a wandering mind. Once I settle in to my pace, there isn't a whole lot to do on the bike besides keep my legs turning. At 6 mph, there are few pressing concerns on a bike, and there is time for every smell, and sound, and sight to linger.

Every few miles, my train of thought is broken by an urge to eat or drink, and I stop to snack and hydrate. On the road, I usually eat and drink on the move, but in the woods I've settled on stopping. It doesn't seem to slow me down in the end, and I love rolling to a stop and having all human sound stop with me. Today, my 40 miles will be powered by a toasted bagel, fig bars, and a Clif Bar. Human-powered bicycles may be the ultimate flexible fuel vehicles.

This is my longest sustained climb with drop bars, and my hands quickly show their preferences. The tops by default; ramps for bumpy sections; hoods for the steeps. I'm using downtube shifters, which suit me well. On a climb, they encourage picking a gear and sticking with it. The result is that I have to vary my effort if I want to stay upright as the terrain changes. This style works better for me than shifting to maintain a constant effort. I rode primarily single speed bikes for the last couple of years, and this is one of the things I learned from them.

I pass a Forest Service truck and its owner, who appears to be collecting vegetation samples. We agree that it's a nice day not to be inside. Around the next bend lay the halfway point beyond which I'd never been. So far, the day was without incident, and it seemed likely that I would just ride to the top, enjoy the view, and ride home. Although, there was something on the wind whispering that the mountain might be up to something. I quickly brushed it aside and went back to turning the pedals and enjoying the climb.

After a sharp right-hand turn and a sweeping view of the valley, the road steepened to start what my map showed as the last 3 miles. The road was now on the north slope of the mountain, and patches of snow lurked ominously in the shadows. The warmth of the day made them quickly forgotten, however. The road suddenly emerged into a clearing with about 2 miles left to the top, and I stopped to check my map and eat and drink.

The last spur road climbed steeply along the northern face with heavy (unburned) timber to the south. After about half a mile, I hit light snowpack. Progress slowed, but I could still ride. The snowpack deepened but stayed firm. One foot. Two feet. CRUNCH. My front tire broke through, augering a foot or more into the snow. I yanked the bike free and started hiking gingerly--every once in a while post-holing into the snow up to my knees.

I had one and a half steep miles to go to the top. I figured I could hike half of it this way but any more than that would do me in. My hope was that one of these bends ahead would open up to a sun exposure and allow me to ride again. Of course, even if this worked out, I still had to get back down. My plan had been to take the mountain bike trails down the south slope to the highway, but now I wondered what sort of shape the steep, wooded trails would be in. Meanwhile, my mileage counter slowly ticked over.

After a half mile of hiking, I got back into the sun, but the snowpack persisted. Now, the conditions were even worse, and I made an easy decision to abandon the climb. I pushed and carried back down to clear road and returned to the junction a mile behind me. From there, I climbed the quarter-mile to the saddle and was treated to an incredible 360 degree view as I finished my food and dried my socks and shoes in the sun.

The fact that this mountain had stopped me short of the summit again hadn't sunk in yet. Part of the reason was that I was still a little nervous about the descent on the road bike. It isn't a horrible road, but there are enough rocks and loose corners to make it challenging for me on 700x32 road tires. After a mile or two, I began to adjust to the bikes handling and relax into the descent. By the time I passed 3 mountain bikers about halfway down, I was probably grinning maniacally.

About 1 mile from the end of the dirt, I was congratulating myself on the descent, and I think the mountain may have heard me. In the next moment, a dog came lolling onto the road from a side trail. I dodged easily and said hello to the owners. Then, all of a sudden I heard horrible noises from the rear and had to wrestle the bike to a stop. For some reason, my instinct was that I had picked up a stick with the rear wheel. Things seemed fine now, and I started back down the road--oh, wait. I had flatted the rear tire. Inspection showed an inch long gash perpendicular to the tread. In my moment of inattention, I must have found the sharpest rock in the road.

I booted the torn tire with the world's only fully refundable tire boot--a dollar bill--and after a couple of false starts, got it to stay in place as I carefully inflated the tire to a rideable pressure. I limped home after another great day of losing to the mountain.

I suppose we all have challenges in life that we make into mountains. Perhaps it's just human nature. For some of us, though, the mountains are real. And, for all of us, would we really want to conquer them all? What would we tell stories about then?



Blogger Todd G. said...

Very nice post. You probably already know, but you are very lucky to have places like that to ride out your back door.

Todd Guess
Columbia, Missouri

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Alberto said...

Excellent post. Thanks for sharing it. You are right in so many ways: we all have our mountains to climb, our little victories and defeats. Loved the way you presented it. Quite inspirational for the rest of us mortal cyclists.


7:38 AM  
Anonymous Me said...

Killing post!

It's ALL good on a bike... flats and the like!

Keep pulling [and writing too]!


7:37 PM  
Blogger Keasty said...

Excellent Joe.
At the end of July, Fay and I intend riding our Bike Friday tandem up and down Going to the Sun Road in Glacier Nat Pk. Last time we tried to do that with our Burley Duet (1998) we found the road hadn't been cleared! It was May 22 from memory. Should be cleared by end of July!

9:31 AM  
Blogger Chico Gino said...

Hey man - awesome ride report. Makes me want to blow off work and head into the Sierras!

I have SOMA tires on my ruff stuff bike, and haven't had any problems. You might consider them: http://www.somafab.com/tires.html

What kind of bike are you riding? Looks nice.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Beast1624 said...

Thanks for taking the time to tell us this story. I would love to be able to ride in your part of the country some day. Thanks again.

9:44 PM  

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