Iron Horse – East

The Iron Horse state park is split in the middle by the Columbia river. While the western portion can be ridden straight through from Seattle to the Columbia, the eastern portion is more of a patch-work with missing sections and unruly land-owners denying public right-of-way. In addition, the start and stop of the eastern section are in the middle of nowhere, making the 210 mile long one-way a bit difficult to get off the ground.

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210 miles, 8000 ft. of elevation gain

When the opportunity to catch a ride with Chip presented itself, I was hooked. I had wanted to explore the Saddle Mountains and the Scablands some more, and the route promised to take in those sections along with a plethora of other new-to-me territory. With an extra day off from work, we planned to complete the ride with two overnights.

We were dropped off at Beverly – behind us is the closed trestle over the Columbia.

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Photo from CA.

I had not met Chip before, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a kindred spirit, and incidentally with a very similar outfit and fitness level.

The initial ride along the Saddle Mountains was interesting in several ways: For one, the ponds had an eerie color, the grasses and reeds contained rattle snakes, the trail was full of goat-heads, and besides the seemingly serene trail where throttle-thumpers gassing it up. We rode past all this unscathed with a good tailwind. Riding was too easy.

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Through the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

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Soon, we left the little basalt formations & ponds, and rode through farmlands.

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Looking west – back from where we came from.

It was fairly warm, warmer than I had experienced in 6 months. Not putting on sunscreen would lead to a pretty good burn by the end of the day, which lead me to wear my long pants all day long.

After a while, the first major detour began. Othello would be straight ahead, but the rails are still being used on this section, so that we headed north to go through another part of the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. The route there went on gravel and pavement through farmlands, orchards, and prairie.

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Looking across the Goose lakes from a view point just off the highway.

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Hayes Creek is also right next to the highway.

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Just a mile in on Morgan Lake Road are the headquarter & visitor center for the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. We stopped in for the shade, and CA discovered running water by the gas pumps. Yay! Filled up and hosed myself down. Dust and sweat were replaced by cold water.

While the gravel road through the refuge sucks (its thick and rolly), the views are pretty nice. Lots of farming is interspersed with the protected areas – the idea behind this eludes me. We went briefly off the main gravel road to get a bit closer to the lakes. Beautiful!

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After another hour of gravel and highway riding, we found ourselves at a little mexican restaurant in Warden. Several sweet and cold beverages were consumed, along with a delicious green-chile chicken burrito. CA was suffering a bit from the heat and only nibbled on a coke, but still rode strong.

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The Iron Horse trail from Warden to Lind goes through sage brush and lifted my spirits significantly. The evening was quiet and we were enjoying the easy riding and tail wind. It was good being away from the highway, again.

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With the last bit of sunlight, we set up camp on the trail. Permits are required for this section, and CA had taken care of everything. Excellent – as I had no idea that that would be something to look into. After all: it’s a state park, i.e. it’s supposed to be public! Odd.

Day 2

After an excellent night’s sleep, we rode onwards towards Lind. The grocery store there opens around 6.30a on Saturday, so we planned to have a good breakfast.

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It took us a bit longer to get to Lind than I had thought, partly because I am just really slow in the mornings. We also needed to detour to the paved road as a small trestle was out and the trail was completely overgrown near Lind. After a good breakfast incl. coffee, we stocked up on a few provisions and were off again.

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The gravel trail was fine for the first few miles, but after a while it became rockier along with a deft headwind – so that I suggested we use the perfectly empty highway next to it, instead. As such, we rode the half of the Lind-Ralston Highway to Ralston. Ralston is a few houses and a park where we met a few kids playing with dogs and were offered water by one of the residents. Since the town park’s water was still off, we greedily handed over our empty bottles and thanked her.

Without even stopping to look at the Iron Horse trail in Ralston, we continued our journey on gravel roads: first to bypass a spectacular collection of the finest goatheads in central Washington (or so we were told), then to get around the Iron Horse State Park section through the Cow Creek, which is guarded by an armed landowner, or so I was told. Nothing that 17 miles of gravel and pavement wouldn’t fix.

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Photo by CA.

Riding on these gravel roads is noisy. Not just a little bit noisy – it’s so loud that conversations are almost immediately squelched. Gravel is also dusty when cars pass. At this point, I must say that my least favorite trail surface to ride on, is just this kind of gravel that we were on. Pavement would be bliss. And single-track unthinkable. On the upside, only a couple cars passed us during the 10 mile gravel detour.

Grain towers provide the only shade in this part of the country, and so we stopped at one just near the tracks where we were about to pick up our Iron Horse trail, again.

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Photo by CA.

Back on the trail, we were immediately immersed in scabland-country. What beauty!

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After crossing a couple closed gates for which we didn’t have the combination lock-code, we crossed under the Columbia Plateau Trail – where I had been 360 days before. I remember that I was looking down from the bridge and being glad that I was riding up high were I had a much better view.

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Right afterwards, we went off the Iron Horse and into the Escure Ranch. This section had been a major motivation for me to do this ride, and it did not disappoint. Even just riding some double-tracks felt very fun and mountain-bikey.

 

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The riding was easy, but the views got better20160409_151014.jpgand even a waterfall presented itself along Rock Creek

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Not many flowers were out yet, but I got one of them. The detour didn’t last long, and soon we were back on the Iron Horse for a few miles, before we took the next detour to avoid another landowner.

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The grain towers of Revere.

The detour went along fairly nice gravel roads and certainly through some first-class scenery.

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Photo by CA.

 

To our delight, a church in the little town of Ewan had a water faucet.

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Photo by CA.

Our next stop was at Rock Lake for an afternoon snack break.

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The next detour was just ahead, as the Iron Horse along Rock Lake also has some landowner who doesn’t believe in right-of-ways of land deeds. Please someone proof me wrong, but this is just too outlandish that the railroad didn’t have right-of-way in its days, which then would have been transferred to the Iron Horse state park some 30 years ago.

This detour was again on gravel roads and through barren fields that were being plowed on a Saturday evening. We were covered in dust by passing pick-up trucks a couple of times, as well as dust from the plowing operation. The gravel was pretty thick in places and it was unreasonably hilly. I was not in a good mood. To proof to myself that this was ridiculous, I took this picture. It sure looks awful.

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Well, maybe I was just in a bad mood, then. Luckily, we did eventually rejoin the Iron Horse and were immediately in a new environment: pine trees everywhere!

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As the evening came, we rode the trail through the backyard towndump of Malden. A bit farther on we got off our bikes and set up camp for the night.

Day 3

The evening was nice, but by morning the dew had turned to frost and ice. It took me a while to gather my things and eat a small breakfast. Once Chip saw that I was up, he was ready to ride in a matter of minutes.

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I may look cold, but I was not.   Photo by CA.

The trail winds around and through farms and ranches, and it was very nice to be out this early in the day as the world is just beginning to wake up on Sunday.

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At times we were riding straight into the sun and it was difficult to see, but behind us lay a golden landscape.

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Our goal for this morning was breakfast in Rosalia, though we didn’t know of any place that should be open. And, nothing was open at the early hour of 8 am on a Sunday.

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After some fiddling with gear and food, we rode towards the next (and last) town on the Iron Horse: Tekoa. This section was quite nice and the fields were green and it was not dusty. A good headwind made us work for our progress.

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At the small town of Lone Pine, the trail was taken over by reeds and grasses and though it is much more level than the gravel road next to it, progress seemed in-ordinarily slow. Only a couple pickup trucks covered us with dust, which seemed like a fair trade.

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Pickup truck passing on my left, I took a serene country photo.

Tekao (pronounced Tee-koh), seemed like quite a charming little town. With advertising for retirement apartments and a first class small-town restaurant, we ate like kings. OJ, coffee, veggie omelets, toast and jam – and running water. Chip arranged for our ride to come pick us up soon at the Idaho border, so we didn’t linger too long and rode the last few miles with stuffed bellies. The trail had changed character once again, as we now rode through hilly terrain to the Idaho border.

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Tekoa Mountain.

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Somewhere down the trail, Chip yelled: “We are in Idaho, now!” and with that, I turned around and had myself a nice nap. 50 hours after we hard started, we had covered the 210 miles.

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The route certainly covered some new terrain for me, and it was nice riding with Chip. But, the amount of gravel road detours was beyond my limit for a wanting a second helping. Chip, who has ridden the Tour Divide twice, seemed fairly unscathed by all the gravel grinding and might just continue on into Idaho soon!

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At the eastern end of the Iron Horse trail. Long pants kept the sun off.  Photo from CA.

Let’s do some mountain biking on the next trip, Chip!

 

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Winter’s end

Snow is getting slushy and thinning out, and I haven’t been riding my fatbike since the Hurley trip. Instead, the season for exploring central Washington begins.

The Whiskey Dick wildlife management area received quite a bit of snow this winter, but by mid-February that had melted out. While it was pouring rain in Seattle, it was windy and dry in Vantage. The sun even passed through the thin vail of clouds – what a treat after living though months of rain in Seattle (apparently, a record-chasing streak of rain).  Colin joined me on this trip to the Washington outback. After the climb up from Vantage, we headed down to the Whiskey Dick Creek. Big views!20160228_12543020160228_125540

It was warm and calm down in the valley. Perfect time for a snack break.20160228_135115

Big horn sheep were grazing near the Columbia. They looked like ancient beasts, with fur hanging off their faces and big horns signaling fear to everyone who cared to observe them closely.20160228_14504920160228_162633

After a second time through the Whiskey Dick creek to take advantage of the training opportunity offered by the fierce headwind, we rode down into Vantage just at sunset. Perfect time to be out on the trail.20160228_172222_1

 

The second ride in central WA was a loop that TentMonster had planned. It was raining again in Seattle, and it was fun coming along on a ride that someone else had planned. The weather forecast was extremely windy, so we started from Ellensburg heading SW into the wind and up the hill – hoping for tailwinds and downhill the rest of the way. Accompanying us was Mr. N. We all planned on a mostly-road ride, with a bit of gravel. Myself and Mr. N were on our commuter (trekking) bikes, and TentMonster on an old, rigid 26er. This worked fairly well, except for differences in inner tubes that would come back to haunt some of us late in the day.

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Umtanum loop: 71 miles, 4200 ft. elevation gain.

After the usual delays in getting there (2nd breakfast at Snoqualmie pass, snacks and gas in Cle Elum, fixing tire), we started right after 1 pm.  The road quickly increased in slope and soon we were above Ellensburg with a nice view of the Table Mountain Plateau.

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The dirt road was pretty nice, until it was washed away near the Umtanum Falls. While some cars turned around, we were on 700c bikes and therefore unstoppable!

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The stream crossings were enough to get our shoes wet. I love the big open views of central WA.

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After only 2 hours, we reached the highest point and were about to enjoy a big strong tailwind. Live was good, again.

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Back on pavement, we were flying along through the wind-swept grass steppe.

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We passed the Stagecoach RV Park with its convenience store – a possible resupply just off the WABDR.20160312_163419.jpg

Riding into Selah, the density of pickup trucks increased, but everyone gave us plenty of space when there wasn’t a wide shoulder. After filling up at the truck stop off I-82, we continued up the Yakima River canyon in the dark. Too bad that we arrived so late, as we were just able to discern the towering ridge-lines to our left and right. Still, the stars above were beautiful, and the Moon was reflecting in the Yakima. This was when our smooth sailing took a few interruptions. After not being able to repair the 3rd flat in 5 miles, Mr. N. gave us the green light to ride into Ellensburg and pick him up with the car. We cranked out the 20 miles in the 32F night, and drove back to rescue a stranded biker.

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I survived the Hurley (in winter, on a fatbike)

The title for this blog entry is shamelessly ripped off from the website dedicated to this mountain road in British Columbia, which is the shortest connection between the Pemberton Meadows and Gold Bridge.

Trip planning: Besides iSurvivedTheHurley, I found this weather forecast (and their weather maps) to be very useful, as well as SledPemberton, SheShreds.caAvalanche.ca, and BridgeRiverValley.ca.

My 3-day route is shown here, covering a grand total of 92 GPS miles with 10,500 ft. of elevation gain.

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On a rainy Friday morning, I set out to drive Pemberton. When it’s pouring on the way, it makes one seriously reconsider going on a bikepacking trip. But nearing Pemberton, the weather improved and a twinkling of sunshine was seen. I parked my car at beginning of the dirt road where there would be a vegetable stand in summer, and started riding the muddy road.

If I would have known that there is a snowpark-like parking area near the beginning of the Hurley, I probably would have driven the dirt-road section, but I believe that a fee/pass would have been required.

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There’s snow up in the mountains!

The first couple ‘bilers that I met coming down were awfully nice – we chatted for a while as one of them was local (just a few houses down) and had a lot of good info to share with me regarding the trails up there. Noel Creek trail apparently was a no-go for a bike. I was still planning to check it out though, just in case.

It was about 40F with a light rain, which made the slushy snow even worse. Mostly, I was pushing my bike, occasionally struggling mightily in the soft mush on the 10% slope. Just before I took this picture below, I was considering turning back. Rain, wind, 35 F, how much more fun can I have on a Friday night? Then, a large group of ‘bilers came up the Hurley, all women, who were going to spend the weekend at the Backcountry Snowcats cabin, I believe. Everyone cheered me on. Ok, I suppose the rain will have to turn into snowflakes somewhere up there…

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The road briefly leveled off and a groomer came down, but riding on _top_ of the groomed mush was still not possible.

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Things finally improved after the bridge and coincidentally after sunset, as the snow firmed up and I was able to ride up to the pass. It was near a full moon, so I was mostly riding without my light on. It felt beautiful being out there, big mountains left and right in the moonlight, the wind had stopped, and all I needed to do was find a place off the road to camp. And a perfect, groomed spot, appeared at the Donelly Creek recreation site. The first 18 miles had taken me 6 hours. Time for a big dinner and a nap.

I awoke the next morning to light snowfall and near 20F. Time to get up and explore a bit!

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My goal was to check on the condition the Noel Creek snowmobile trail. The ride was slow over the crusty packed snow on the Hurley and Hope Creek FSRs.

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On the Hurley.

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It was quite a cloud show – no doubt that this is mountain weather.

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On the Hope Creek FSR.

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The snow held up well after the turn-off for Noel Creek. Sunshine and clouds rapidly interchanged, but the snow was holding. I was happy – even though it was likely that I’d have to turn around any minute if the snowmobilers from the previous day were correct.

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Along the secondary road towards the Noel Creek trail.

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Beautiful plateau up there!

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I loved the shape of the snow here.

I rode for a couple miles, until the up–turn when I found myself looking at a couple snowmobile tracks going off into the woods. Oops – looks like the Noel Creek trail is off-limits for snowbiking after all. There may have been a better way if I’d stayed on the ‘road’ straight ahead, but the snow was getting powdery and I know when I am done for. Time to turn around.

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The Noel Creek snowmobile trail. Anyone up for pushing through 10 ft. deep powder?

The downhill was super fun. Suddenly, I heard ‘bilers and there they were: 2 to a sled, standing side-by-side. Everyone gave me a high-five with their big gloves on as they rode past. How fun!

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After noon, the sun came out for good – which made the riding really bad. Good for pictures, though! My next goal was the Gold Bridge Hotel for dinner! I still had plenty of food if things didn’t work out, but I was sure that I could be there before they closed around 6 pm or 7 pm (I couldn’t remember).

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While riding up to the East Hurley had been slow, I didn’t remember at all that the west Hurley climbs after the fork. Funny, how driving in a car in summer doesn’t make one realize how much climbing or descending is happening.

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Just a few hundred meters up the road, it looked like a gas station at the turn-off for the Lone Goat snowmobile trail.

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The gentle, 5% climb up the Hurley towards Green Mountain sucked the life out of me. The phrase “This shouldn’t be so hard.” got a deft reply every time with “It is what it is – and it’s hard.”   The snow was like velcro and the 4 miles took 1.5 hours to walk. Yikes. Luckily, the views were good.

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Avalanche covered the road. Looked pretty old, I think from 5 Feb?

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No footsteps! Proof that I did ride a little bit on this section after all.

Near the top it was suddenly plowed. Yay for logging operations on Green Mountain. The view opened up over the valley, with Mt. Penrose towering over Downtown Lake.

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A steep descent brought me to the Gold Bridge Hotel for dinner. Though there’s a “For Sale” sign in the front yard and the building appeared dark on the outside, it was warm and bright on the inside.

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Burger, fries, and a couple sodas with desert hit the spot. A little bit of shoe and clothes drying after the long day out in the warmth helped, too.

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After dinner, I pushed in the moonlit night back up to the Penrose Mt. viewpoint. Good place to wait for morning light.

The night brought cold air with it. By 7 am, it seemed to have warmed up even, but I am not sure. There were still clouds around, and I was eager to get going so as to avoid the daily melt. I wanted to ride _on top_ of the snow, not in it!

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My inner shoes and Simple Slipper neoprene shoe covers were a bit damp from the last 2 days, and not as warm as before. On the long downhill to the fork with the East Hurley Rd., I finally broke down and stuffed a toe warmer in each shoe: happy feet within minutes.

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Something was not so lucky in the last 12 hours since I had come by here, and got eaten!

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Heading home.

Though it was bright, the sun never fully came through the clouds and it stayed cold at ~20 F. The snow was pretty good to ride on, especially some smooth and frozen sections off to the side of the road.20160221_08293920160221_09242020160221_093435

I stopped briefly at the first night’s camp to melt some snow when a group of ‘bilers came by. One of them mentioned that the snowmobile trail up to the Pemberton Icecaps would also be something that I could do – indeed, they saw someone there last year. Sounds good!

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Coming down, the snow was initially pretty fun and fast, but turned into utter slush-over-ice farther down. I finally crashed going about 1 mph with only 50 meters to go to the end of the Hurly.20160221_125923

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That wasn’t the crash.

Final thoughts:  Would I do it again? Well, yes, but I’d want better weather: colder and less cloudy for better views! Everyone that I met out on the trail was very nice – and very different from the US: most snowmobilers brought skis or snowboards with them. All the gear worked well. The only issue was that occasionally, a little bit of air was leaking from underneath the tubeless valve stems.

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Snow bikepacking in the Cascades

Napping on the bench atop of Sugarloaf Peak last year, it wasn’t hard to imagine camping there. Some serious insulation would be required, as would some means to transport those items on my bike. With a couple winter-backpacking trips under my belt now, I felt ready to tackle such an adventure.

As many plans of man often go awry, so did this one – at least in the specifics. The canadian epic that I had been dreaming off would not be happening, as a last minute job interview brought that idea to a screeching halt. After being bummed out about that, the suggestion was made to do a shorter, more local, bikepacking trip. You mean a sub-24 hour overnighter? Yep. I suddenly remembered that Sugarloaf Peak had started this chain of thoughts last year, and so pointed my car towards the eastern Cascades the next day.

It was about 3 pm on Saturday when I finally started to ride from the Eagle Creek Rd. parking area. There were a few ‘bilers coming down, but as this was superbowl weekend, I was hoping that on Sunday I’d have the entire mountain to myself.

After a pedaling for a while, the first view point was reached. Lots of climbing was to be done, about 4000’ worth in total.

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My new Motobecane Nighttrain Bullet looks pretty smart with all its gear and extra big wheels.

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The handlebar bag contained a couple freeze dried meals, sleeping bag, down pants + jacket and mittens. The drysack was securely attached via 5 straps in total. Easy.

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The snow was ok to ride on at 35 F. Traction was outstanding, even with relatively high tire pressure (6-8 psi?), and I rode the entire section up to the first outhouse. There, a large group of ‘bilers were hanging out and all were looking straight at me as I turned the corner and headed towards them. “Don’t slip at the corner, now!”, I was telling myself. They were surprised to see my bike, and one guy commented “Dude, they ride these things in Anchorage!”. Offers of beer and Whiskey were made – and declined. I was warned about the unruly weather atop Sugarloaf Peak: clouds, wind and cold had force them to turn around early. An older gent was quite concerned for my welfare; I suppose my skimpy clothing did not inspire confidence in my winter survival skills. It was about 30 F at this point and the temperature was starting to drop as the sun was setting.

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Onwards, upwards, and no dang slip-ups as the ‘bilers watch me ride the first hundred yards, please! I cleaned the initial climb, and most of the rest. The sun was setting and it was beginning to sink in that I was doing a winter-bikepacking trip. The thing I had planned for so long – I was out here doing it. The evening light faded very slowly as the snow reflected every last bit of light. 20160206_17030820160206_171105

Through the dimming light, I did not fail to notice that clouds were blocking the view of Sugarloaf Peak. Had the ‘bilers been correct about the abysmal conditions on top?

And sure enough, nearing the top of Sugarloaf Peak, it became windier and colder. Frosty fog formed on the handlebar bag. I stopped to put my baclava and windjacket on, and continued to push my bike up the hard snow; mostly rideable snow, if it hadn’t been for the wind. I was looking for a sheltered spot to pitch my tent, but nothing seemed adequate by the time I reached the summit. Freezing fog was blown by the ~20 mph wind. A nice little storm. Time to head down and find a more sheltered place.

From last year, I recalled seeing trees west of the summit along the main road, so I headed down. The fog made it difficult to see very far with the beam of my light. I kept on pushing through the snow until the wind lessened. Was this the sheltered place I had been looking for? I couldn’t tell as it was so dark, but it felt nice here. Time to put the carefully orchestrated evening ritual to the test:

  1. Put on down pants and jacket.
  2. Stomp down snow for tent site while connecting tent poles.
  3. Crawl in tent and insert poles.
  4. Inflate mattress (what a piece of $%^& the NeoAir XTerm inflation method is!)
  5. Down a couple hot meals and go to bed.

After setting up camp, I noticed that the wind had ceased. Should I break camp and head back up to the summit? It sure would be nice to wake up atop the mountain and see the sun rise from the comfort of my sleeping bag. But, laziness won out and instead I promised myself to get up before sunrise and head to the summit.

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Day 2

A clear and cold night followed the storm. Stars were out all over. Too pretty to go to sleep! But, my eyes did fall shut after a while. I zipped up the tent door a bit to keep the ice cold air from my eyes, but I still needed to throw a sweater over my face. The new NeoAir XTerm mattress was very warm: I had moved all the down in my bag to the top and was basically insulated only by the mattress. It was a bit difficult to stay on top though and not slide off sideways.

After almost 10 hours of sleeping, I was blinking to see red sky all around me. Get up! – I was telling myself and barely made it out of the tent to snap a couple pictures of the quickly fading red sunrise show.

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Now it became obvious that I had not found a sheltered spot at all!

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I hopped on my bike to ride up Sugarloaf Peak (a bit downhill east from here and then back up).

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What a view from the top!

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The views to the east were not as stellar, but interesting to see where a couple roads go:

After spending an hour snapping pictures, I headed back to my tent with cold feet.

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A storm quickly approached and left.

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Being up early in the middle of nowhere meant that some exploring had to be done. The easiest seemed to do the lollipop-route to Miner’s Ridge. It’s the far-right ridge in the picture below:

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I hid my gear behind trees and set out with a light fatbike to ride what could be ridden. And the riding was wonderful. The snow had setup nicely overnight; not quite hardpack, but good enough and the sun was heating my back. Not long and I was removing my layers to stay ahead of sweating.

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Which way shall I ride the loop? Start off on the path less traveled and see how it goes…

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Yup, rideable! Not sure how I kept getting away with riding the big 32T ring in front on this section.

Soon, I heard the shrill sound of snowmobilers gassing it. Here they come! Turns out they were escaping the pre-superbowl madness for a bit. The three guys were a most chatty and friendly group.

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Soon, they took off and I was left to enjoy the fairytale snowscape on my own. There’s Sugarloaf Peak in the distance! (a bit left of center).

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To test just how perfect the snow conditions were, I pointed my bike on a single snowmobile track – and stayed afloat! Riding cross-country on the narrow path, a big grin may have been plastered to my face.

Somehow, I either missed the main part of Miner’s Ridge, or it just hadn’t been traversed by snowmobiles, yet, but I ended up coming down to the road quickly.

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I tried to ride the Miner’s Ridge trail clockwise, now, but I never found the turn off. Instead, I ended up at a nice viewpoint of Fish Lake.

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The ride back was quite a slog, but not too bad. The snow was still good, even as it was  around 40 F by now.

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Made it back down to my car just around 4 pm. An excellent overnight trip this had been.

 

 

 

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