Sunday, November 21, 2010

Embracing the cold

(Yes, I'm getting around to finishing my Susitna 100 story. I haven't had time to blog this weekend, so this is just a quick photo post.)

Sunday morning crept toward afternoon. The temperature outside was 11 degrees F with a brisk wind, overcast, and more than a little blah. Beat's in Montana for a week for the Thanksgiving holiday, and is pretty much fresh out of California in every way. This is his first time in Montana where it's really been "winter." His total experiences with winter as an adult are minimal at best, and he's still trying to acquire gear that most people consider standard issue, like mittens. Despite all this, he's willing to putting himself out there, in the thick of the ice and snow and bitter chill, even with untested gear and no prior experience to give him understanding of how his body will react to the cold. We went out for a shakedown hike on Saturday, in similar temperatures with a severe wind. We climbed more than 3,000 feet and six miles to the Stuart Peak saddle, the last two miles up wallowing without snowshoes in more than two feet of fresh powder. His feet went numb from the trail-breaking and we decided to turn around, and even then just made it back before dark, drenched in sweat, with temperatures plummeting toward the single digits. And even after all that, he still wanted to go back out in it today.

Since we hiked on Saturday, I suggested snow-biking today. It's even harder to stay warm on a bike than it is on foot, but Beat was admirably excited about the adventure. We took Pugsley and my single-speed Karate Monkey, which has studded 29" tires. We had one pair of pogies and new mittens, socks and balaclava that he just purchased at REI yesterday.

I thought we'd go out for two hours, three tops. We rode up Butler Creek Canyon on a road that had only seen extremely light snowmobile traffic since the beginning of winter. There wasn't much consolidation to speak of. It was hard work on the Pugsley and impossible on the singlespeed.

As we walked, the air started to clear, until we were bathed in sunlight. Smiles broke out and the layers came off. It still wasn't warm by any stretch of the imagination, but pushing bicycles up a medium grade through soft snow for thousands of vertical feet is hard work. Really hard work. Snow smothered the trees and the sparkling ice and light made for incredible scenery. We were downright giddy. This of course meant we had to keep climbing.

Just before we reached the top of the Snowbowl ridge, we ditched the bikes because the snow was ankle to shin-deep, completely unridable even on the descent. In front of us, drenched in late-afternoon sunlight, was Point Six, an 8,000 foot peak that looms a full 5,000 vertical feet above Missoula. Having ridden a bike up there before, once, I announced that "we can probably reach the peak by sunset."

I had forgotten that, by road, Point Six was still at least another four or five miles away. We began winding up the meandering path through the wind-drifted sugar, punching through to our shins, sweating and struggling and gasping even though I was only able to achieve a moving speed of about 1.5 mph.

Here Beat is in the midst of the slog, on one of the wind-scoured - and therefore harder packed - stretches of road. We were moving slow. I was exhausted, because I've spent a lot of time on my feet this week, wearing an ankle brace and overworking all of the other muscles in an effort to baby my sprained (but healing nicely) ankle as much as possible. I went into full-on endurance mode for a little while - mind shut off, plodding, one foot in front of the other.

The sun set and although we had walked for two hours since we left the bikes, we still hadn't gotten all that much closer to Point Six. We veered off the road and picked our way up to the very tip top of Snowbowl, were we could still stand near 8,000 feet elevation and look out over the Rattlesnake, the Missions, and the glowing city lights of Missoula. At our rate of speed, it would have taken us at least two more hours just to reach Point Six, and we were both low on food, and both dealing with frozen water issues. After all, we were out for a "two-hour ride" that was already becoming closer to seven or eight.

We ran straight down the mountain, kicking up clouds of powder as we slid toward the city lights. It took us about 20 minutes to undo more than 2 hours of climbing, and just like that, we were back at our bikes.

The ride down was fantastic fun. Beat managed to carve nice fresh lines with the Pugsley, but I was all over the place on my singlespeed, using my right foot as a second front wheel to steer through the hardening powder. My erratic lines and intense focus on the road did reveal some cool sights - like these fresh mountain lion tracks. The lion's tracks were laid on top of our uphill tracks, which meant it came through after we did.

It was a bit nippy on the way down - but in my own standard winter fashion (laziness), I wore the exact same clothing without changing, removing or adding layers for the entire seven hours we were out. Nice and toasty on the way up. Brrrr on the way down.

Not a bad "first snowbike ride ever" for Beat: Seven hours, 4,000 feet of elevation gain, about 20 miles of bike pushing, walking and strenuous downhill riding, temperatures in the teens and single digits, soft snow, wind crust, frigid breeze, darkness, and lots of time to dream up great ideas for cold-weather technical gear. It was certainly one of my more epic "little Sunday rides," and went down perfectly.