Adventure by Fair Means


I look at my watch. It’s 7:35. The light from Dan’s headlamp bounces off the rock face in front of him only to disappear into the dark void that surrounds him. I'm thirty meters above Dan as he searches the rock wall for an anchor, a horn, anything to set up the next and hopefully last rappel. My feet, crammed into my climbing shoes have gone numb from the cold and kicking snow off ledges. We were bailing down and into the darkness of the night - looking for the safety of the ground. 

This is day six of our adventure to bike and climb across California.

It’s Sunday afternoon and the gear for the human-powered voyage is spread out across Dan’s porch. There’s a pile for food, clothes, climbing gear, a definite no pile, and the maybe pile that always seems to make its way on a trip no matter how strict the packing list. We weigh each pannier to make sure our bikes are balanced. Four panniers weighing 15lbs each. 25lb steel frame bikes. Plus water. After everything was loaded and accounted for, each bike weighed over 100lbs. Not exactly light and fast.

The idea: to adventure by fair means. Which translates to traveling by human power, door to door. Dan and I have been climbing partners since we met rafting Oregon's Wild and Scenic Rogue River. We are always brewing up crazy ideas and the first response is always a ‘yes’ regardless of how logistically impossible the idea. We’ve run ridge lines together, climbed mountains, rafted through various stretches of whitewater, and now this: a bike to climb adventure to say farewell to California for a bit.

Fast forward a few crazy ideas and here we are: hundreds of miles from home with bikes for transport, on a rock wall hundreds of feet up shivering in the dark cold night.

Dan was moving east to North Carolina in the coming months to support his wife as she pursues her Master's degree. His wish was to tick off an adventure that had always been on our minds but just never quite got around to doing. With a couple of weeks free of work, we dusted off our Craigslist finds. Vintage 1980 road bikes. Complete with rusty steel frames, friction shifters, rim brakes, chipped paint, and years of stored garage experience. Well-conditioned stallions ready to carry us and our gear across and over the golden state. Twice.

It's early Monday morning and the bikes are packed. We slam down instant oats and coffee. Dan and I don’t say much. We are nervous. Excited. Anxious. But ultimately curious. We had talked about our goals for the trip and given our bike-packing and cycling experience (zero) we decided to break it down into segments. Compartmentalizing our objectives without getting too far ahead of ourselves. Our first goal: making it up and over Carson Pass. The rest would hopefully fall into place. Piece together a route. Attempt a couple of climbing objectives, but ultimately slow down and take in California, mile by mile. Pedal by pedal.

Dan on the approach to Blacksmith Peak

Dan on the approach to Blacksmith Peak

Davis, California was our starting point. It’s where Dan and I both went to school and where he was currently living. Davis has a strong bike community and its proximity to Californias history felt fitting. We would cross the causeway connecting Davis to Sacramento and immediately arrive at the American River. The same American River where the California Gold Rush was ushered into existence. Rewind 170 years and gold miners litter the river banks looking to strike it rich. Boomtowns and Inns every couple of miles are bustling with patrons. Horses tied to hitching posts. That kind of thing. Today, cars scream by over bridges, a concert venue is being set up in the park on the bank of the river, and construction seems to be almost every other block.

From the American River, we would branch off onto Highway 88. Also known as the Old Emigrant Trail. A wagon road and supply chain over the Sierra before the dawn of the transcontinental railroad and the age of the paved highway system.

The first couple of days involved getting used to the weight of the bike, waiting for our butts to go numb, and cars and semi-trucks flying by way too close. We would get the occasional honk of support, yes, the middle finger too, and even had a nice local, Pete, pull over in excitement to share what he thinks is the superior bike route over the Sierra. With Pete's guidance, we pedaled on.

One of the beauties of a bike is that in large part, the pace is slow, giving plenty of time to think. And access is fairly open. Road closed signs mean no cars and a potential spot to sleep. I imagine wagons and cattle traveling this twisting and winding road through the mountains and pine trees up the western flank of the Sierra. With gravity fighting each and every crank of the pedals, we finally crested the top of Carson Pass. Elevation: 8652ft. It was a triumphant moment. After two and a half days of biking uphill, our first goal was complete. 180 miles and 13,000ft of total elevation gain. But as we looked beyond the Carson Pass summit sign - the commitment of biking on became very apparent. We were feet away from dropping over 4000ft down the east side of the Sierra and into Nevada. Which meant if we wanted to make it home - we’d undoubtedly be biking up and back. With excitement awaiting in front of us - we continued on. Hollering and screaming as we tucked into position, let go of the brakes, and felt our worthy steeds sprint down the Sierra.

October isn’t necessarily the best time for such a mission. The days are short, and the temps are cold. As we descend highway 88 in pants and down jackets, the sun is setting and we eye the lights illuminating the town of Minden and highway 395. Population 3,001. Battered and feeling physically broken from the previous days of biking - we checked into a hotel. We longed for a shower and to be out of the cold for a night. Having made it over the Sierra, we were as excited as ever to arrive at our first rock climbing objective. However, this objective was still 75 miles away and another 4300ft of climbing. An hour car ride, but for us, another day in the saddle. After checking out of the hotel, fueling up at the Cowboy Cafe with coffee and pancakes - large stack, we were prepared as ever to beat into the wind and the cold. The northern region of the eastern Sierra is notorious for southerly winds and the lowest recorded temperature throughout the entire state of California. Thermometers posted on the illuminated signs leaving town read 15degrees. At one point, we hunkered down behind a water tank to hide from the wind and thaw out our frozen hands. That evening, we rolled into Bridgeport. What would have taken a car a mere hour took us 6hrs of battling the wind and cold. Fair means at its finest.

Dan making his way across the Sawtooth Traverse.

Dan making his way across the Sawtooth Traverse.


The Sawtooth Traverse. It's not an unknown route by any means but the beta is scarce. There are no designated trails to the start of the route. Its steep hillside scrambling, Sierra manzanita bushwacking and creek boulder hopping are all part of the fun and quintessential aspects to most Sierra objectives. Twin Lakes Resort is the jumping-off point for this section of the Sierra. A quiet fishing resort that serves the weekend warriors of Los Angeles; the grandparents and grandkids looking to hook the monster rainbow trout. It's quiet here as they wrap up for the season. We talk to a resort manager who Kindly lets us store our bikes and gear that we won’t be taking in an old storage container overflowing with mice droppings. We decided to attempt the route North to South, ascending Blacksmith peak and traversing to the Matterhorn via a series of peaks connected by knife-edge ridges that can be seen from miles away. It's a beautiful line that towers over the cows of the valley and beckons climbers.

As you already read - things didn’t go as planned. On the ascent of Blacksmith, we discovered that an early season October snowstorm had stuck around longer than anticipated. We were climbing over ledges knee-deep in snow, brushing snow out of cracks, and on top of that - in order to complete the route in a reasonable time, the climber must be comfortable soloing. Neither of us was keen on the conditions and the idea of foregoing the rope. After topping out on Blacksmith and attempting to traverse to the next peak, we decided to call it there and bail. With the short Fall days - darkness was descending fast.

The lights from our headlamps raced across the rock wall as we searched for suitable places to build the next anchor. We found a few anchors on our way day from previous parties that had come to the same conclusion. Each rappel was short, given the lack of light to make sure that we didn’t pass a critical spot. Seven rappels later our feet touched the ground and we hugged. Thankful that we had managed to get off the mountain safely. We slept well that night knowing that we were on the ground, in the comfort of our sleeping bags We woke in the morning feeling rather excited. Our bikes awaited us down in the valley, ready to ride to the next destination. We hiked out and set out for Lee Vining and Tioga Pass. 45 miles and almost 5k of vertical gain. Tired from the day before and the hike out, we pulled off on the side of the 395 as the sunset. We found a nice dirt road branching off of the highway. We traveled the road for little ways to hide from the road and camped among the bushes. It was truly one of the more glorious roadside bivies. It wasn’t much but it was something.


Clayton climbing up Blacksmith Peak

Clayton climbing up Blacksmith Peak

The beginning of the descent off Blacksmith peak with night approaching.

The beginning of the descent off Blacksmith peak with night approaching.

Tioga Pass looms above Lee Vining like a dragon, guarding the treasures of Toulkoumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. The pass averages a 5% gradient with sections reaching 9 % to create 12 miles of continues climbing totaling over 3,000 vertical feet of gain. RVs and motorhomes raced by coughing up black smoke out of the exhaust as the driver tried to punch it up the mountain. The occasional cloud in the sky would offer some reprieve from the sun but it was one pedal after another. Granny gear the entire way. After a couple hours of battling the dragon, Dan and I topped out Tioga Pass and shed a couple tears of joy. An overwhelming sense of emotion overtook us as we passed through the entrance gates of the National Park. Joy that we completed our last major bike climb of our voyage and that we had actually made it to Yosemite National Park. 400 miles and 35,000ft of vertical gain behind us.

Dan waking up after a cold night somewhere in the bushes off highway 395

Dan waking up after a cold night somewhere in the bushes off highway 395

We biked down to Tuolumne Meadows, heads on a swivel as we took in every granite peak, every pine tree, and every alpine lake. We stopped at a picnic area to spread out the sleeping pads and lay in the sun. A friend was driving out to camp with us and spend time on our trip. We made dinner and then snuck into a closed campground under the veil of darkness to set up tents and sleep. We were joined by a gentleman from London on a bike down the west coast. We shared the campground, listened to his perspective on Brexit, questioned the workings of the solar system, and were entertained by his excitement over his joint that he was so keen on enjoying. We rose with the sun, enjoyed the Alpine Glow, and set out for a Yosemite classic - Cathedral peak. We stored our bikes at the base of the trail and set out on being the first to the route.

The climbing was nothing but pure enjoyment. Pitch after pitch of moderate granite crack climbing in the high Sierra sun with endless views of mountains, shaped and crafted by glaciers hundreds of thousands of years prior. At last, we topped out and looked around - amazed at the distance we traveled and all that we had accomplished. We could see the Sawtooth Traverse off in the distance, highway 395 down in the valley. We high-fived and yelled out in excitement.

Dan on the summit of Cathedral Peak

Dan on the summit of Cathedral Peak

Now we just needed to get home. With no climbing objectives planned, it was just biking from here on out. I’ll save you the agony of reading of how on the way home we beat into 25mph headwinds. Tried to ride 150 miles in a day only to sleep on the side of the road, in a drainage ditch because we ran out of energy to bike any further. But I will say that over the course of 12 days, we biked 538 miles and climbed over 37,000ft, went rock climbing, and had one hell of a good time. We had set out to explore California from a bike seat - to earn every mile traveled, every vertical foot climbed. To slow things down and see the beauty around.

To travel by car is to see but to travel by the power of the human body is to feel. To not only see the hills, the topography but to actually feel each and every contour, each twist, turn up and down. To not just see the wind blow the trees, but feel it push you down and sideways. And sometimes give you a push up the hill. To see the clouds in the sky but also feel them give you shade as you bike up and over Tioga Pass. That there seem to be fewer road signs on a bike. And to feel that we gave the adventure the fairest chance.

Home. 544 Miles and 39,780Ft later.

Home. 544 Miles and 39,780Ft later.

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