Monday, July 27, 2009

Tuolumne Meadows To Tioga Pass and Beyond Before Breakfast

One morning, after a few warm-up rides the previous few days, I cycled up Highway 120 to the entrance station at Tioga Pass, staring from our Tuolumne Meadows campground. From there, I wanted to plunge some 3,000+ feet in 12 miles, down Highway 120 to the Mobile Gas Station, which contains the famed Whoa Nellie Deli gourmet fast food restaurant. The station is just above Mono Lake and the little town of Lee Vining.

Of course, I would also have to ride back to Tuolumne Meadows. Because I had ridden from June Lake, several miles south of Lee Vining, up to Tioga Pass and down to Tuolumne Meadows some years ago, I was familiar with the route, and I thought I knew what it would take to complete a 40 mile, 4000+ foot ride that would return me to my companions in time for brunch. And as this was a relatively light day of work for the trip leaders - we were between camping groups - I knew I could spare the time to make the round trip, which I estimated would take me about three hours and fifteen minutes to complete.

That estimate included a little less than an hour for the eight miles to the entrance station, half an hour down to the Mobil Station, and an hour and half or so back up to the pass, then a screaming descent the last eight miles back to camp.

It would have been so pleasant to remain in tucked safely, and warmly into the confines of my sleeping bag, in my little tent at the campground. But by 7:15, when I judged the temperature at our 8,600 feet elevation to be warm enough, I was off. Even so, I wore leg warmers in addition to my bike bibs and a retro-jersey (made by Rapha, definitely the most comfortable and well-fitted jersey I own), as the temperature in the shade was not much above 50 degrees. My camera - part of my cell phone - was tucked into a back jersey pocket, as were some packets of Gu, and a credit card. Two bottles of energy drink were in their holders on the down tube of my bike.

Unlike my first ride, a few days earlier, I put my bike into a fairly low gear, about 39/24, and I pedaled, seated, slowly up the hill which I engaged shortly after leaving the campground. I didn't want a repeat simulation of what felt a knife to my chest on my first ride at altitude, earlier in the week.

This time, my breathing was under control, helped out with some background music, compliments of my little Apple iPod Shuffle. As I warmed to my task, I would pedal a little faster, or try standing up for a while. I could indeed up the pace, but only for a while, and recovery was much longer than would have been the case at smoggy sea level, which I'm used to in Los Angeles.

I cycled easily past the eastern end of Tuolumne Meadows, then pedaled slowly past Lembert Dome, past the stable with its rental horses, and the up along the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River, which dropped contentedly over unending cascades, right along the edge of Highway 120. There were numerous places for cars to pull over so that their occupants would be able to enjoy the little river; on my bike, I could pull over wherever I wanted to.

Traffic so early in the morning was light. Too bad there are cars at all allowed in the park. On the other hand, it's a good thing cars are allowed in the park, or I'd have had to have started my ride from the bottom up, and I certainly wouldn't have been able to haul up all the camping/cooking gear need to pull off a couple of full-service outing for several families.

In a little under an hour I reached the entrance station, at almost 10,000 feet above sea level. By then, I was fully warmed-up, and I even sprinted a little up the last rise above Dana Meadows, stopping just long enough to make a photograph of the ranger in the booth and the sign marking the elevation. Time, with a few photographs: just about an hour.

From there I enjoyed the 30 minute descent, 12 miles and 3,000 feet down into Lee Vining Canyon, passing a couple of picturesque lakes and the rustic and comfortable Tiogas Pass Resort along the way. Having cycled and driven up and down the road many times, I had no fear of the drop-offs that suddenly appeared along the road after a hard right turn, vertigo-inducing drop-offs that frighten so many first-time travelers up and down the pass.

The lack of guard rails probably contribute to the overall effect of looking out - and over - vast amounts of open space, surrounded by massively steep and gigantic mountains. The road, viewed from above or below, looks like an insignificant, gray ribbon, and the vehicles on the road look like tiny dots.

As the road reaches its lower levels, the terrain changes from alpine to high desert, and finally beautiful Mono Lake, twice the size of the city of San Francisco, comes into view. The temperature rises, too - I shucked my leg warmers well before reaching the mobile station.
There wasn't a lot of vehicular traffic, and I saw only one rider slowly grinding his way up the highway as I shot down it.

Once at the gas station, I made a few more photographs, used the restroom, and down some Gatorade, swallowed some Gu, chewed on a Clif Bar, and made an unsuccessful attempt to communicate with some French tourists - none of them seemed to understand or care about my Tour de France query.

Then it was time to turn around. The distance, as I stared upward along the highway, seemed daunting. Was I really going to ride that awful grade? Could I ride to the pass without stopping? Those were the challenges, after all, the challenges that would help prove I'm still alive and vital, even if time has slowed me down. Of course, even if I would have to stop, simply riding uphill to almost 10,000 feat would be an accomplishment. Just trying to make the ride, whether or not I finished a mile or a dozen miles, would be an affirmation of life.

Most of the time I was in my second or third easiest gear - 30/24 or 21, and once in a while I dropped down into my granny gear. On the way up, I could appreciate the flowers as I slowly pedaled past them. The desert dropped away, then I passed by aspens and pines, and then the walls of the canyon steepened and widened.

Pedal stroke by pedal stroke, I made my way, without stopping, up that awesome incline, 3,000+ feet in a dozen miles. Not as fast as some would make the climb, faster than some others; it was just the right speed for me. I didn't eat anything, but I guzzled most of two bottles of my energy drink.

Sweat continually poured off my chin, dripping onto my my wonderful moisture-wicking, wool Rapha jersey and my bike. At some point I realized the front of my jersey was soaked with my sweat, wool or no wool. At the slow speed I was moving, combined with the temperature, and the probably somewhat humid conditions indicated by the gathering clouds above the pass, evaporation of my perspiration, at least on the front of my torso, was impossible. With a few miles to go, I could tell that my strength had ebbed some, but I had plenty of gas left to grind my way to the summit of my climb.

At last I did gain the heights. Near the entrance station, a large passenger van coming up behind me tooted, whether in greeting or as a warning I could not tell. As I tried to double time it up the last little rise to the entrance station, I passed a line of vehicles waiting to enter Yosemite, including the van. I was so tempted to shout out a "beep, beep" as I went by, but I refrained.

Beyond the entrance station, the expansive views of Mount Dana, Gibbs Peak, and Mammoth Mountain grabbed my attention. I put the chain onto the big ring up front, and made quick work of the last eight, downhill miles to camp. My bike jersey, facing a 30+ mph wind blast, dried out in a couple of minutes.

Irene and Eric were waiting for me, and in a little while after my return, we all dinned on Irene's scrambled eggs with fresh vegetables, some fresh fruit, and strong coffee. Although I'd taken 17 minutes to make photographs, use the restroom, eat some food, and try to communicate with the French tourists, my actual ride time was three hours and 18 minutes, just three minutes longer than I anticipated.

My trip to Tuolumne was far from over. There were several days left of camping, and there was still ride I would take with my friend Jean to come, as well as more animals and flowers to see, domes to ascend, views of the high country, rivers in which to splash and swim, and marshmallows to roast over a campfire. My 40 miles before brunch, though, was definitely a high point of my visit to Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite.

As usual, click on any of the photographs for full-size versions.

1 comment:

jean ray said...

I really enjoy your cycling blog, Dave. As usual, rour ride descriptions are fun and interesting. Also fun to see some of the photos you took on our ride.