Sunday, October 24, 2010

Part I The High Sierras...Hardest Climbs in the World?

Considered as a group, I believe that the climbs found on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California are the hardest paved climbs in the world. In my opinion, White Mountain Rd. and Horseshoe Meadows are the two most difficult climbs in the world…period. A third climb I would place in my top five hardest.

From now on, any time I am involved in a debate about the toughest climbs on Earth, I will lead with the Sierra climbs. If I am limited to comparing the Sierras with other hard climbs I have done, I’ll have to limit it to almost all of the major climbs in the Italian Alps or Dolomites, the French Alps or Maritime Alps, or the Pyrenees. Throw Haleakala on Maui into the mix, which I rode up twice in July.

I’m going to try and be objective with my comparisons, but obviously, opinion will factor heavily. I recognize that other cyclists have different criteria as for what makes a climb hard for them. In Part III of this report, I will attempt to quantify my opinions. I’ll list the hard numbers, and you can be the judge.


If you look at a map, you will find that the High Sierra Mountains run north to south, unbroken by a road for 180 miles. At the north end, Tioga Pass leading into Yosemite is your last chance for an east-west crossing. Travelling south on 395, you won’t get another opportunity to head west until Rt. 178 at Ridgecrest, which will take you to Bakersfield. Much of this country lies within protected National Parks, but this terrain protects itself; it simply is too rugged to build a road through it.

Of course, there isn’t a need for more roads; Rt. 395 is the only north-south road through the Owens Valley, the center of which is about 260 miles from both Las Vegas and Reno. This climbing Mecca is truly located in the middle of nowhere, and to me a road trip made the most sense.

No through roads means all of the climbs are out and back, and all but one head west into the Sierras. Only Bristlecone Forest-White Mountain Rd. heads east into, you guessed it, the White Mountains, capped off by 14,246’ White Mountain. Several climbs start from Bishop and Lone Pine, and others start from Independence and Big Pine.

Steep and rugged mountains make for steep and rugged roads. While not offering the purest “lines” in terms of loop trips, or the convenience of spending the whole week riding from one base, the Owens Valley climbs are memorable for so many reasons.

David Longdon and I spent six riding days in the Eastern Sierras. David’s impressions, Garmin maps of the rides, and links to some cool on the bike videos can be found here:

For David’s collection of great photographs:

My first impression of the Eastern Sierra area was that it was a lot like the Colorado Rockies, except a lot harder in terms of riding your bike. There were the same type of big sky open vistas, the Aspen were turning a golden color; but the Sierras are just so BIG, and a lot steeper.

On a typical mountain pass climb in Colorado, you start at 8000’, and then ride up 4-6% grades to 11,000’ or so. In the Eastern Sierra, you start at 4000’ in the Owens Valley, do 6000’+ of climbing on much steeper grades, and finish at over 10,000’. You often can see all the way down to the valley from the top of the climb, and the mountains still tower above you at 13,000 or 14,000’, a full 10,000’ above the valley. The vertical relief is simply amazing and makes for some incredible views.

I’ve never been a fan of desert riding, but riding in the Eastern Sierras is sensational. Bishop, our base for the first three nights, lies in the high desert of the Owens Valley, but there are real trees and a lot of green; always a plus. Climbing out of the valley, you move through the sub-alpine and finish in pure alpine terrain. This is just a very unique area.

We spent the week riding during a record heat wave in California, with temperatures hitting 113 in Downtown Los Angeles on our last day. Despite the fact that we were climbing out of a notorious hotspot northwest of Death Valley, we had cool morning riding temperatures and only mid-nineties back in town. High temperatures were well over 100 even on the coast in Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and Salinas.

Our last three nights were spent in Lone Pine, a somewhat well known town for two reasons: it’s the gateway to Mt. Whitney, and the nearby Alabama Hills and High Sierra have been the setting for a number of TV shows and movies, including, you guessed it, High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart. Many scenes from Gladiator and the first Iron Man movie were shot here, as well as The Lone Ranger.

Lone Pine is smaller than Bishop, and I preferred it overall. There was no Dairy Queen to be found in either town, a serious shortcoming, but both towns have pretty much everything else you need after a hard day on the bike.

The plan was to do two climbs on most days with total elevation gain of 10,000’+ per day. This formula worked well during my 2008 trip to the Dolomites, Italian Alps, Haute French Alps, and Maritime French Alps. Of 11 riding days during that trip, five of them had over 11,000’ of climbing, with two more in the 9,000-10,000’ range. The 10,000’+ per day formula would prove to not work in the Sierras.

My goals for the trip were the same as for any other alpine cycling trip: First off, ride every foot of every planned climb, and if it works out, pick up a bonus climb or two. Second, ride every climb from bottom to top non-stop; take pictures on the descents. The last goal is to never, ever do “The Weave”, wobbling across the road to lessen the grade punishing one’s legs. I’ve managed to ride the big climbs in Europe with these requirements intact. How would I manage in the High Sierra?

Coming soon:

Part II Day by Day Riding Report

Part III The Hardest Climbs on Earth; The Sierras vs. the Rest of the World


John said...

Tom: Are you going to complete parts II and III of your Sierras thoughts. I am following a similar training program for the Sierras in preparation for the 3 Volcanos in HI and am curious why 10k x day did not work for the Sierras while they did in other challenging venues. Thanks for the thoughts you have alreay posted.

Tom Meloy said...

Parts II and III are the very next posts if you scroll.

I'll be dooing a presentation about this trip at the Seattle REI at 7pm on Tuesday Feb. 8th.

Peter Milton said...

Good work…unique site and interesting too… keep it up…looking forward for more updates.track bike wheel