Sierra spring ride

Spring Tour in the Sierra 26-28 May 2008

As last year, snow pack in the Sierra wasn't as deep as on average
years of the past when we rode between tall snow banks. However,
spring weather has been unpredictable, swinging from hot to cold. For
instance, the Celebrated Jumping Frog (Mark Twain) of Calaveras County
Suffered from 100°F weather while just before, it was freezing cold.

Memorial Day weekend came and went under cloudy cold skies, so I and
friends postponed our attempt to ride over the hill to that weekend in
the belief that the weather reports were accurate (partly cloudy).
Monday evening John Woodfill, Jeremy Shaw and I loaded our bicycles
and touring bags into the car headed for Sonora (JCT Hwy 49 & Hwy 108).
Sonora lies at the base of the Sierra at 1826ft elevation on the
intersection of HWY49 and HWY108, convenient for making a loop over
Sonora, Monitor, and Ebbetts. It is 130 miles from Palo Alto to the
Sonora Gold Lodge where we have stayed often for these rides.

Tuesday 27 May 2008

After a nights rest we got on the road at 06:00 as planned and headed
east out of town toward Sonora Pass (Hwy 108) under overcast skies
that didn't promise sunshine any time soon. We could always say it
was good climbing weather but that doesn't require grey skies only
cool air.

The first big climb starts on the divided four lane section that got
us up to Twain Harte (4100ft) named after Mark Twain and Bret Harte.
From here the road climbs through former Saw Mill towns and mountain
resorts to a high point at Cold Springs (5650ft).

The winding road on the map that passes the "C" of Cold Springs is
the former Pickering Lumber RR that went for more than 100 miles
through vast mountains to Soap Creek near Ebbetts Pass. From Cold
Springs a swift descent took us to the Strawberry Store (5000ft) where
we crossed the South fork Stanislaus River. The sun hadn't done us
much good today, so the temperature reached 40°F here. (Strawberry)

Looking up through the clouds we occasionally saw that trees high
above had mid-winter white, with branches coated in fresh snow. This
was not a good omen, considering that we would climb to near 10,000ft
elevation at Sonora pass.

We climbed along the canyon of the Stanislaus to a high point at
Donnells Overlook (6200ft) from which a striking panorama of mountains
to the north along Ebbetts Pass and the central valley down the grand
canyon of the Stanislaus with Donnells lake 2000ft practically
straight down. In spite of reports we had heard, there was plenty of
snow in shady places along the road here looking better than expected
from a coat of new snow. (Donnell's Overlook)

From the overlook the road descends for over a mile losing 500ft to
Clark Fork JCT after which the road becomes less civilized as it
climbs steep whoop-de-doos on its way to Dardanelles Store (5765ft). (Dardanelles)

We got a "hot lunch" of microwaved burritos and some candy bars and
soda pop to bolster sugar and fluids for the beginning of the steep
stuff. A couple of miles up the gradually climbing valley we reached
Kennedy meadows and the warning signs of road sections with 26% grade.
The climb to the "Rock Window" starts at 6268ft and ends with a steep
kicker at the window 6713ft, after the mid zone lets up a bit.

This is the first introduction to what makes Sonora Pass the true test
of bicycle hill climbers, but after that there are a few steep bumps
on the way to the 8000ft sign, before "The "Golden Stairs" that
quickly rise to the 9000ft sign as it climbs along Deadman Creek. The
4th of July is more than four weeks away, but the ski slope for the
traditional slalom race on the opposite the STEEP ess-bend looks
great. To make up for that, it had begun snowing lightly after the
Rock window.

The gradient levels off to ordinary highway grades just after the
9000ft marker, a refreshing feeling after the golden stairs. (Golden Stairs)

Meanwhile the snow hadn't ceased but rather turned from tiny puffballs
to fluffy flakes that occasional passing traffic swept into fog-like
swirls across the pavement.

We took the classic photos at Sonora Pass summit (9643ft) trying with
difficulty to capture the experience. I didn't wait long before
beginning the descent that begins steeply at the summit with hills and
curves that can be dangerous for unsuspecting travelers. (Sonora Pass)

A few hundred yards down the road, a right hand bend and dives down a
20% grade in a dip that crosses Sardine Creek followed by a similar
climb to a curve that comes shortly after crossing the creek. I
reached 55mph in the dip and, as usual, had to brake hard on the 20%
upgrade to safely make the tight curve on crest of the bump.

Farther down there is another surprise that I first discovered years
ago while competing with a good descender between deep snowbanks and a
wet road. Just after a verge that obscures the road, hiding a steep
tight ess turn. Today it was dry, and besides, I know where it is
even with no warning sign.

After the "bottom" of the hill at the pack station in Levitt Meadows,
a few steep ups and downs got us to Pickel Meadows and the Marine
Mountain Warfare center. The extent of large permanent buildings st
the USMC camp and airstrip is a shocking difference from earlier times
when the installation was almost entirely in tents and a PSP landing
strip in the sand. (PSP) (Leavitt Meadows) (USMC MWCenter)

A good impression of the grades on Sonora Pass is shown in the many
contour lines crossed just above the curve at Leavitt Pack station.
At Sonora JCT, Hwy 395 & 108, a strong wind looked like it might aid
us down the canyon of the West Walker River, but alas it turned into a
headwind after we got back down to the river. It was 14 miles down
hill to Walker (5400ft). (JCT 108 & 395)

We dropped in at our usual Toiyabe Motel where Sam Foster, the
proprietor told us that Jeanie Barnett had been there a week before on
a solo ride in better weather. We got Angus Burgers at the Walker
burger bar and settled for a good night in a heated room. It was
still snowy cold but dry by now. (Walker) (Toiyabe Motel)

That was 95 miles that seemed longer.


Wednesday 28 May 2008

At about 07:00 We got rolling down Hwy 395 to Topaz where we got a
good breakfast that would get us up and over the two passes ahead.
What we didn't get was a clear sky that had been predicted. (Hwy 395 & Monitor) (Lower Monitor)

Although sheltered form wind that was picking up on the climb, a
steady trace snow began falling about half way up the grade.

At the county line the grade flattens out and makes big sweeping turns
to the summit hidden in a grove of aspen where a natural stone
monument marks the summit. The view here is striking because to the
west the road descends slightly, perfectly straight across a broad high
prairie having a second lower summit about a mile away. (Monitor Pass) (monitor Meadows)

The descent begins gradually with a large loop around Sagehen Flat and
passing Heenan Lake before diving down Monitor Creek canyon. A stiff
headwind made coasting here was difficult because at speed, wind
turbulence interfered with steering the bicycle. (Sagehen Flat)

Tada! When we reached Hwy 4 and the East Carson River, the sun came
out and warmed my gloves and body... but it didn't last long. As we
crossed the river and headed up Silver Creek toward Ebbetts Pass, the
climb begins at the Silver Mountain historical site, a high brick kiln
surrounded by piles of debris. (Silver Mountain)

As the road zigzags up the canyon wall, it rounds two hairpin turns,
the upper once having been called "Cadillac Turn" from years ago, in
the days of drum brakes, such a car overshot the curve to tumbled to
the shores of Nobel Creek about 300ft below. The first time I rode
here, some unidentifiable rusty auto wreck was visible below. (Kinney Reservoir)

Although the light snowfall increased after Kinney Reservoir (8353ft)
the road climbed at a moderate rate among trees to the (8737ft)
summit, a mile farther is marked by a sign next to a cattle guard. A
long continuous descent reaches the North Fork Mokelumne River
(7069ft) in Hermit valley before we began climbing Pacific Grade, the
"golden stairs" of Ebbetts Pass. It began to snow more heavily,
requiring to lower the bill on my bicycling cap enough that I could
just see the road without the snow getting into my eyes. (Mokelumne Hermit Valley) (Pacific Creek and Climb)

On the way up to Crossing Pacific Creek and on to Pacific Grade Summit
(8087ft) the road crosses many contour lines in a short distance.
Insides of hairpin turns were too steep to ride because sand remained
from highway sanding crews for previous snowfall.

After Mosquito lake a short climb got us out of the Mosquito lake bowl
for the descent to Lake Alpine (7303ft), This can be fast, but to make
up for that, snow changed to near blizzard conditions with a headwind. (Lake Alpine)

Another Climb got us out of Lake Alpine and gave us a swift descent to
Bear Valley after the Mt. Reba I207 ski highway. Bear Valley Lodge
and grocery store, with burger bar was my goal. I explained to John
that as cold as I was, through and through, with icy wet feet I could
not make the last 55 miles to Sonora, so John and Jeremy decided to
get the car and come back to get me. That was a cold four hour ride
that I was not prepared to complete.

We had marginal cell phone communication from which I knew when they
had gotten to the car and when they would return to bear valley. It
was an unfortunate ride with the weather much colder and wetter than
predicted. I still found the part that I completed an exciting
adventure. It was certainly more difficult than another tour in 1967
with in pleasant weather, but before Ebbetts Pass was plowed, after
which riders came home to complain about the Leningrad Death March,
stories that gave rise to today's Markleeville Death Ride.

That was a 54 mile day that was planned as 110 miles.