Monday, August 20, 2012

Tioga Pass and the Yosemite Valley

Long, lonely shadow.  Time to do some rock climbing.
Amy and the kids were out of town at the end of last week.  On Wednesday morning, the morning of their departure, I got a random phone call from Amy’s grandmother just to say ‘hi’.  With little plans for the coming days, I suggested that I go visit her for the weekend at her home in Lee Vining.  She was happy to have me and I was hyped for the weekend of mountain air, no cell phone reception and adventure.  Lee Vining is basically 250 miles due east of San Francisco, through Yosemite, on Mono Lake.  

Tuolomne Meadows
I left work on Thursday afternoon and made pretty good time.  Driving through Yosemite, I was blown away by the beauty and the scale of the Yosemite Valley.  I realized that I probably had not been to Yosemite in my adult life, most likely since a 4th or 5th grade camping trip.

After a solid nights sleep, I woke up early on Friday morning, packed my backpack with food, tubes, CO2 and lots of water.  I was on the bike by 6.15am with little plan other than to make it up the Tioga Pass.  The first thing that I noticed, even before the ride got going, was that my heart was beating out of my chest.  I don’t know if it was my nerves or the elevation, but my heart rate in the parking lot was north of 140, where I can typically get to work on a casual commute sub 130.  An ominous start. 

I headed up the hill not knowing exactly how long the climb might take.  All I knew was that I had the longest climb of my life - 3,000 feet and 12 miles - ahead of me.  I settled into low gear and tried not to work too hard.   Moreover, I wanted to get my heart rate back into check and not blow my load in the first few miles.  I snapped a few pictures and took deep breaths.  With each crank of the pedals, I was doing math in my head.  Twelve miles at eight miles per hour was an hour and a half, ninety minutes.  Perfect.  The grade was a steady six percent and my MPH were steady.  All of a sudden, the grade increased and the MPH dropped accordingly.  More math.  Seven percent grade, 16 percent steeper, MPH down from eight to seven or six.  Another increase in pitch, the MPH dropped again.  The next thing I knew, I was struggling to keep the MPH above five.  Four point something.  Yikes, 12 miles a four miles per hour.  Could I really be climbing for three hours?!? 

The road turned a bit to the left and I looked over my shoulder.  It was at that point that I noticed the valley beneath me that I had already climbed.  I couldn’t see the top yet.  But the view to the bottom was breathless.  My four-something MPH pace felt comfortable and I kept chugging along.  I should mention that I started the ride at about 6,500 feet and I had seen a picture of the Tioga Gate reading 9,900-some-odd feet.  Rather than focus on speed or time, I figured I should just look at my altimeter.  One revolution of the pedals equaled about two feet of climb.  So I just counted my strokes and the altitude cranked by – 7,100 feet, 7,200 feet, 7,300 feet.  As I was expecting to see my meter get to 7,500 feet, I noticed the sign on the side of the road.  It read “Elevation 8,000 feet”.  Wait, what?  My meter read 500-600 feet LOWER than the sign.  I was closer to the top than I had thought.  More math.

I flipped my Garmin screen to a pre-programmed screen to only see two data points - my heart rate and the elevation.  I consciously chose to avoid my speed, the time of day or total time ridden.  I threw the math out the window and just tried to enjoy the ride.  This helped a bunch and I further settled in to the pain.  Just keep pedaling, knock off the elevation foot by foot, take deep breaths, enjoy the scenery  and keep my heart rate as low as possible.  I reached the “Elevation 9,000 feet” marker on the hill and compared it to my Garmin at 8,700 feet.  Crap, it was equalizing.  I don’t understand the technology.  But I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to calculate that something didn’t jive with the data.  I trusted the sign and felt comfort knowing that I had less than 1,000 feet to go.  

Was I an hour into my ride?  Two hours?  I had no clue.  Keep pedaling.  Some orange road signs appeared noting some road work ahead.  I recalled from the drive in that the road reduced to one lane as they were working on a bridge.  I approached the construction woman with the two-sided sign – SLOW and STOP.  She graced me with the stop sign and I got to catch my breath.  After a couple of minutes of small talk, she prodded me to go forward and I went on my way.  I reached the guy on the opposite side of the sign team and he quipped, “Do you think you will get to the peak before dark?”  I smiled but thought to myself, “Man, that was just plain cold.”  

Ellery Lake, just west of the Tioga Pass.  A mile or less to go.
All of a sudden, the road turned to the right and started to flatten out.  Was it possible?  I was almost to the top.  I passed a few resorts and hotels, a big lake, and there it was - the ranger station at the peak.  I slowed to a stop, parked the bike against the station, nodded to the ranger and took a final deep breath.  I finished my water bottles (I drank 48 ounces total on the climb), pulled out my breakfast burrito, snapped a few pictures and forced myself to keep eating.  I finally checked my Garmin and the stats read something like 3,100 feet of climbing, 2 hours 15 minutes, 13 miles.  Ouch.  But I also realized that I was “done” and it was only 8.30am.  No way I could call it a day at this juncture.  I kept eating, filled up my water bottles and prepared to keep going – no clue where I was heading, but it certainly wasn’t back down that hill.

The rest of the ride was basically a blur.  You would have thought that after reaching the peak at 9,900 feet of elevation, the only thing left for the day would be to descend.  Well, boy, was I wrong.  I was in no rush and I was constantly taking pictures, but it seemed like the whole ride was uphill.  I kept heading west with the goal of reaching Cedar Flats, the western gate to Yosemite.  The hard part was that the ups and downs were so severe.  I would do a few hundred feet of climbing at five MPH, taking 20-30 minutes, then I would bomb down a hill at 35+ MPH (sub two-minute miles) for a few minutes/miles.  The thing is, a descent at those speeds passes really quickly, and then the climbs pass that much more slowly.  There wasn’t enough time in the descents to rest before the next climb approached.

Upon reaching Cedar Flats, I looked around for the bus schedule.  My plan was to take the bus back to Lee Vining.  Unfortunately, it was 11.30ish when I got to the bus stop and the next bus was not scheduled until 5.30pm.  What to do?  If I waited for the bus, I would not be back to Lee Vining until 7.30pm, 8 hours.  I could ride back in way less time than it would take to ride the bus.  I went into the gas station, loaded up on food and drink and prepared to hit the road again.  Thankfully, my senses got a hold of me in the line and I decided that 125 miles was not in the cards for this day.  I was already spent, on a balding rear tire and at altitude.  I just didn’t have another 6,000 feet of climbing in me.  Luckily, I only had to ask about ten people whether they were heading east to Tioga Pass.  I found an old hillbilly and his wife, with an empty pick-up truck cab that were willing to give me a ride.  He refused allowing me to buy his gas or even a coffee.  The conversation was stimulating and the effort was minimal as we hauled across Yosemite. 
My ride home.  No pedaling necessary.  Note the full bottles of Gatorade.  That's how close I can to riding back.
I left my ride at the top of the Tioga Pass.  There was no way I was going to pass on the opportunity of descending that bastard of a hill that I had trudged up a few hours earlier.  My Strava time was negatively affected by the road closure and another few minute wait.  But, needless to say, my hands were killing me from braking so much on the 27 minute downward bomb.  

View down the Tioga Pass.  You can barely make out the road that travels along the left of this canyon.
All in all, an amazing day.  The pictures above do not do justice to the beauty and grandeur of the Yosemite Valley.  Let me know when you are ready to do this again with me.  I will either start before you or you can get extra rest at the top of the Tioga Pass.

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