Sunday, January 5, 2014

Jungle Games and the Search for Snow

The dirty tricks weather gods have been playing with us this winter (cold but very, very dry) have actually a few advantages: it is not pissing rain, which I hate, mountain biking trails are in great shape, and fire roads in the mountains are covered with 3 inches of frozen snow instead of 3 feet of powder. So while the freshly tuned skis sadly lean against the garage wall, opportunities for biking abound.
A strong group of six riders got together Saturday at Tolt Macdonald park. This is my favorite place, a small area with countless singletrack trails, technical riding and the only color you see there is green of all shades. That place is a rainforest jungle. After the morning fog in the river valley burned off, it was a great sunny day.
Since each trail intersection has between two and five possible trails to take, we decided to play a game of leap-frogging: the rider in the front of the pack will pull aside at a trail intersection and lets the second rider pick one trail, quickly, without planning. Then the first rides falls all the way back. This repeats at each trail junction. After four hours of playing this game, we almost got it mastered, but by then, most of us were toast. The trails here, with wet roots and roller coaster profile require one to stay in tall gear and power through, tight turns have to be leaned steeply, and this much body English is quite tiresome. It is also very difficult to take pictures at Tolt, on an overcast day, one needs a very fast lens in the green darkness, on a sunny day like this, the high contrast between shade and sun rays is challenging for digital photography. Luckily, Marc took a few pictures, so I can share one.

Photo: Marc, Rider: Thomas
Sunday was a blue carbon copy of Saturday and I planned to ride the fat Pepper up Highway 410, closed in winter, from the gate at Silver Springs up inside Mount Rainier NP towards Sunrise visitor center. This is a popular XC ski route under normal conditions, but today the surface was anything but normal. The highway surface was a mix of bare asphalt and ice, with more ice as I climbed up. At one point, the road turned and I found myself sliding from one edge to the other, down the camber, no matter how much I counter-steered. This will be fun going down, I thought, but quickly forgot about the ice at the intersection with Sunrise Park Road, which had a good snow cover and was packed by trucks and snowmobiles.

The next 4-5 miles were super enjoyable, except it was cold in the White River valley and the slant winter sun reached it only at few spots. Warmed up by the climb, I removed my Hestra gloves and unzipped all layers, just to stop a few minutes later to put the gloves back on, add a balaclava and to close all zippers.

No bike stand needed
I soon reached the junction with Sunrise Park road, which climbs steeply the northern slope of the valley. I found the road completely untracked, started my uphill climb, only to get stopped abruptly by my rear wheel crushing the icy crust and sinking about a rim deep. The sides of crust now grabbed the tire, making it really difficult to ride. I let lots of air out from both tires, got in the saddle again and leaned on the handlebar while pedaling standing to lighten the rear wheel. This worked fine for about fifty yards, until my front wheel dug through, almost making me fly over the bars (uphill!). So I returned to the junction and took the road towards the White River Camp, which had multiple snow machine tracks. Here, I had to shift the granny gear to keep moving, thinking about how hard it is ridin' them fat bikes on snow.

At the camp, I had the whole picnic area for myself (actually, I did not see a soul on this 20+ mile ride). My effort was also rewarded by a decent view of the big hill, but frankly, the best views of Mt. Rainier were during the morning drive, just past the Muckleshoot Indian reservation. I guess when you climb a mountain, you rarely see it.

After two Clif bars and a whole chocolate bar (!), the downhill was fun - in a packed track, the speed increased scarily, but slicing the crust kept the speed in check. I did not realize how steep this road was! With much less pedaling effort, I started to get cold, until I reached the ice rink on Hwy 410. Here, mostly sliding with one foot down to feel the road surface, I almost crashed several times, took a few good pedal pins into the shins, but this ice rodeo kept my adrenalin levels high enough to forget about the cold.
Back at the Sno-park, it took a full thermos of sweet chai to defrost. I am bringing this hot drink to each of my snow bike rides now.

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