Alta Alpina Challenge

| June 21, 2010 9:08 am

by Brian Shaner

That first blast of cold wind almost blew me back into the car. Why hadn’t I worn warmer clothes? It was in the mid 40’s but that wind was vicious. Later I’d thank that same wind as it seemed to always be at my back giving me a little push up some of the harder climbs. But now I was cold and a bit afraid that I’d bitten off more than I could chew: 141.5 miles with over 14,000 feet of climbing in this thin air. Fortunately, I’d ridden up with Eric Wessler, so I had someone with whom to share this challenge. It was nice to tuck in behind him now and then during the first twenty miles to the foot of Kingsbury. It was 6am and the sun was just peaking over the hills to the east across the Nevada plains. The changing colors and patterns of light took my mind off the cold and the immensity of this ride.

We got to the base of Kingsbury and as previously arranged Eric went ahead at his faster pace. I was determined to take it easy and not burn out on the first climb, so it took me an hour to ride the seven miles to the top. Waiting for me was a well oiled team of Alta Alpina club members. The first one took my bike, the second filled my water bottle and the third attached my Kingsbury sticker. This happened at every rest stop (with the exception of Carson which we’ll get to later). I felt like I had made a pit stop at the Indianapolis 500, and was ready to go in less than five minutes. As I was getting ready to leave, one of the club members asked if there was anything else I needed. Trying to be clever, I asked if he would mind peddling my bike up Carson for me. Without missing a beat he asked when and where he should meet me.

Descending Kingsbury was great with a smooth road and little traffic. After a few miles of gentle rollers, we began the long slow climb up highway 88 towards Carson via Luther. It was past 9am and those clouds that had looked beautiful a few hours before now looked dark and ominous. But unlike last year, the weather held for the entire ride. Plus there was more traffic and less shoulder. I had met Brian Birkeland at the Immigrant Gap rest stop but left earlier than he and his riding companion. In fact, I didn’t see anyone in front of or behind me most of the way to the Luther turn off. But then part way up Luther I saw a familiar face as Eric whizzed down the mountain. I met a hefty rider at the top of Luther who was just doing three passes so only had Blue Lakes left. Eric and I had driven that route the day before and gone for a hike to get a bit acclimated. So I told him that it wasn’t very steep (not true) and that it ended at the fourth gate because the real steep part was still covered with snow (true). Later as I was struggling up some 10% grades on Blue Lakes, I realized that I had not been paying very close attention from the car. So when I saw my hefty friend descending, I was glad he gave me a friendly ring of his bell and not the finger for misinforming him about the difficulty of the climb. But all of this happened after Carson. I was struggling near the top of Carson Pass. It seemed to go on forever, and even though the views were spectacular, I was beginning to have doubts about being able to complete the ride in the time allotted. Then just as I was feeling discouraged, the tailwind picked up and seemed to lift me effortlessly up the last few tenths of a mile. This was not the last time I would have a “helping hand”.

Near Carson Pass

Then there was the Carson Pass rest stop. I was the only rider there but the three club members didn’t seem to notice my presence. Unlike the other rest stops, there was no rack for your bike, so I leaned it against one of the tent poles. Later a gust of wind blew my bike over, but it was saved by a large water bottle. It was wedged awkwardly between pole and bottle, and I had a cup of soup in one hand, but I was given no assistance. However, this was my only negative experience with the support staff. Everywhere else they were extremely friendly, helpful and appreciative that I had chosen their ride.

On the way down from Carson Pass the route turned right up towards the shortened Blue Lakes climb. I was pretty beat by this time and very glad that the climb had been shortened. I saw Eric again and he stopped to chat a bit and give me some much needed encouragement. The rest stop was at the fourth gate, and the views were terrific. I ate quite a bit of food and took some extra time to see if I could get my legs working.

Near the Blue Lake Rest Stop

I’d completed almost 90 miles with 50 remaining but was close to exhaustion. The next 15 miles were mostly downhill with over a 2000 foot elevation loss. I was hoping that the lower elevation and food would do the trick. And in fact, I was feeling some better by the time I turned onto highway 89 toward Markleeville. About this time I saw a group of riders gaining on me. It turns out they were Alta Alpina club members. One pulled up beside me and said, “You look like you could use a push”, and he put his “helping hand” on my shoulder and pushed me for about 200 yards. After this help, I felt so good that I tucked in behind them and drafted for the next mile or so.

Just before arriving back at the start at Turtle Rock Park, the route took a left turn up Airport Rd. This extra six miles had been added at the last minute to make up for the closure of the top part of the Blue Lakes climb. The club members had told me that it was only a 500 foot climb which was true. However, the route continued down over the peak and descended another 500 feet. It was a pretty area and the grade wasn’t too bad, but I was getting very concerned about the 6:30pm cut off at the top of Monitor. I was going to stop at Turtle Rock to talk to someone about the various cut offs and whether or not it made sense for me to attempt the fifth pass. But there was a little rise up to the building where I might find someone to talk with, and it seemed a bit crazy to take the time and energy to find out. So I turned around and continued on towards Monitor.

It was about seven miles to the base and another seven miles up to the pass. I stopped briefly at the rest stop at the base of Monitor and saw some of the eight pass folks who had just finished Ebbetts. On my way up I calculated that I just needed to average 5mph to make the cut off. This seemed reasonable for the first mile or so, but then things slowed down. I had never climbed Monitor (or any of the other passes), and wasn’t prepared for the sections of 8-11% grade that seemed never ending. I stopped twice to rest which I hardly ever do while climbing. Each time I stopped I had to have a good talk with myself about continuing. It would have been so easy to turn around. I was well below my 5mph and was pretty sure I’d miss the cut off. But about two thirds of the way up I was passed by another rider who told me that they had extended the cutoff half an hour. And sure enough, even though I missed the cut off by eight minutes, I got my sticker.

Monitor Pass

I stayed in the tent at the top of Monitor for 15 minutes before attempting the descent. On the way down I noticed that my bike felt a bit wobbly; the steering didn’t seem quite right. But when I stopped I realized that I was shaking (from exhaustion and cold), and that it wasn’t the bike that was a bit wobbly. So I took it easy and stopped a few times to take pictures, and I felt much better by the time I was at the base of Monitor.

Monitor Descent

The return to the start wasn’t as bad as I had feared, but my pace was slow, and for some reason I had decided that I wanted to make it back by 8pm. This was half an hour after the original cut off, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be DNFed if I made it by then. So at 7:57 I put my bike on the rack at the finish and by 7:58 #480 had checked in. Apparently, my Kingsbury sticker had come off, so I was a bit shocked when they listed me as completing only four passes. But they took my word for it that I had completed five. Eric had said he was going to do six passes if possible, and he showed up about fifteen minutes later having done just that. They had some pretty good food for us at the finish, so we just sat around and compared notes for awhile before heading back to our place at Kirkwood.

This was the hardest ride I’d ever done and the closest I’d ever come to quitting. At the finish I swore I’d never do it again, but on the way back to Kirkwood we were already talking about which passes we’d include in our ride next year. Since some of my riding buddies are doing the Death Ride this year, I had considered seeing if I could get an entry. But after the Alta Alpina Challenge, I think I’ll pass.

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