I need to work on my camp sleeping skills. I did not sleep at all the night of day 2.
It was a combination of factors: clammy nylon sleeping bag, too-flat inflatable pillow, fussy sleep mask and earplugs, crackly air mattress that I just couldn’t get comfortable on. Oh, yeah – and then there was the fact that we were facing a total climb on day 3 of over 8,000 feet, up and over Beartooth Pass at 10,000-plus feet.
The prospect of the climb was definitely making me nervous. We had never ridden anything like that before. And then the added time pressure, to try to beat the forecasted storm. Egad!
I shut off my alarm before it sounded at 4:15 a.m., poked Bugman to wake him up, and started getting dressed. With the super-early start time, I developed a camp technique that I would use for the rest of the trip: pack the next day’s clothes into my pillowcase. That way, there was no frantic searching around in the dark, and also, my clothes were pre-warmed when I put them on.
We took off at 6:04 a.m. with our bike lights a-flashing.
The first picture of the day, a half-hour in. Mountains calling! And what a lovely clear sky!
The route was pretty much all-climbing-all-the-time from this point, so we were getting passed a lot. The thick cover of young trees along the side of the road here made me wonder what kind of critters might be hiding in there, watching me go by.
There was some of our emergency support crew up ahead, keeping watch on us riders. 7 a.m. now – a few clouds developing.
Entering Custer National Forest. The morning started out pretty chilly – in the 40s, I believe. It seemed to be getting colder.
At the first rest stop at mile 11, I really appreciated the soothing sound of Rock Creek. I could have stayed there longer to rest, but I started getting cold just standing there.
7:45 a.m. in this picture at the Rock Creek rest stop, and the sky was clouded over. Bugman was getting cold. He already had his hand warmers in his flip-mitt long-fingered cycling gloves, but picked up an extra pair of warmers at this rest stop to tuck into his shoe covers. We brought pretty much all our cycling outerwear along on this ride, smushed into the bike trunk. We’d had another option. The ride organizers on this day had a reverse gear drop. Instead of picking up discarded clothing as they day warmed, the crew would haul a bag of warm clothes to the lunch stop at the top of the pass, for riders to wear on the descent. I’m glad we had all our stuff with us. We’d wind up needing it.
8:45 a.m. – climbing, climbing – oh, the relentless climbing! Never too steep, but never ending!
About 15 minutes later, we saw the sign van pulled to the side of the road up ahead. Bugman and I checked in with each other: should we sag to the next rest stop? Our energy was flagging, and we still had a long way to go. Perhaps we’d not been eating enough. We always seem to need to re-learn that lesson. Also, I knew we were towards the back of the pack – maybe we would get hopscotched ahead soon anyway? And we couldn’t use a regular sag van – we’d have to take the sign van opportunity while we had it. We called it. After 15.5 miles and three hours of climbing, we were going to sag a bit and bypass the switchbacks.
We weren’t the only ones sagging there. Another couple on a tandem – a red Burley – loaded their bike into the sign van, too. Not sure where the two of them went, but Bugman and I rode inside the sign van, keeping a hold on the two tandems.
Sag #1 of the day
The view from the sign van window, looking down, down, down at the switchbacks we were bypassing.
9:30 a.m. – the refuel stop at mile 21, at Rock Creek Vista, at which lived some of the most corpulent chipmunks I have ever seen. I was pretty hungry and wolfed down two packages of peanut M&Ms. I know we were not supposed to take more than one, so as to leave enough for the rest of the folks, but I was four hours past breakfast, and I was needing some serious energy, and the candy was the only thing that sounded good to me at that moment.
It was starting to drizzle, so Bugman put his full rain gear on and we headed out to tackle the “hill” again.
10 a.m.: we’d climbed up far enough to look down on the rest stop. The drizzle was changing to snow.
The snow got heavier.
10:15 a.m. – we had to stop to remove layers. We were working so hard on that climb above the treeline, above 9,000 feet, that we were sweating. Bugman took off the rain pants. I took off my rain jacket and relied on my long-sleeved fleece, constantly zipping and unzipping it. It was a difficult dance to thermoregulate on that climb. As soon as we’d stop for a breather, we’d start to get uncomfortably cold within 30-60 seconds. But if we put on more gear, we’d overheat when we got moving again.
Still snowing . . .
10:45 a.m. – a moment of filtered sunlight! It felt so much warmer! Oh, we could keep going if it would just stay like this!
About ten minutes later, we crossed into Wyoming. The sun was coming and going in patches, but the wind was picking up. Earlier, my hands had gotten too hot inside my mittens with the handwarmers in them, but I had to put them back on at this point. Bugman’s responses to “how’re you doing?” were becoming more gloomy. His hands were getting really cold.
We were over 10,000 feet now. The clouds were broken up a bit, but it felt bitterly cold with the wind. Bugman’s hands wouldn’t work properly anymore. We had to stop. But if we stopped, we’d just get colder. I handed Bugman my rain jacket, and he wrapped his hands in it. Thick ski mitts were the only thing that would have kept him going, I think. I took the bike, and together we trudged upward on foot, awaiting an opportunity to sag. A sag van came along, but there was no space along the narrow two-lane road for a rescue, so the van continued a few hundred feet to a pullout above Twin Lakes, and we walked the bike alongside the road to meet them.
Twin Lakes, where we officially sagged off the course for good that day, at 11:20 a.m., after making it another 5.5 miles up the pass, but 6 miles short of the summit.
The sag crew didn’t think they could get the tandem on the roof of the vehicle, so they radioed to request the sign van. Meanwhile, we joined the other cyclists inside the sag van to warm up. Several more people coming up the hill behind us decided to sag, too, including another couple on a tandem. There was no more room in the van. Bugman and I got out of the van and put on all our rain gear, to make room inside for others who were worse off. The sign van arrived, and we loaded up the two tandems and headed off for the lunch stop at the summit.
Our speed profile that day. It’s pretty obvious when we were sagging. The first part of the day, we were moving at 5-12 MPH. After the rest stop we sagged to, we were only managing 2-7 MPH.
It was so good to eat food!!! Especially the soup!! I was also very thankful for the windblock around the food tent, and for the volunteers braving the cold to help us out, way up there at Top of the World. The snow was starting to accumulate, and gusts of wind would send clumps of snow sheeting off the top of the tent. Nobody was biking down now. One cyclist had tried, but he turned around because the visibility was so poor. We just hung around, waiting for a sag ride down to camp at Cooke City.
Überbrew has a good picture on their Facebook page of what the summit looked like when we left – a pile of bikes covered under a thin blanket of snow. I’ll share it here if they give me permission. One of the bikes was an orange tandem belonging to a couple from Iowa. They summited! Well done, Brian and Andrea!!
This is our decidedly non-triumphant Beartooth summit picture, from the inside of a pickup truck belonging to one of the radio volunteers. Oh well. You win some, you lose some. I’d probably consider this one a win, though. We didn’t get hypothermia or frostbite. As we passed dozens of cyclists still out there pedaling away, braving the rain at the lower elevation, gutting up that final, awful climb into camp, I was in awe. There were a lot of tough people out there!
When we got to camp, it was definitely warmer than up top. It had started to rain, but the precipitation didn’t last long. The sun came out and was oh so welcome!
Our grasshopper-bedecked sherpa tent at our campsite in Cooke City. The site was a former ball field surrounded by a fence. Because of bear activity in the area, our camping permit required that we store all food and scented toiletries in a truck overnight, to avoid attracting bears into the campsite. I noticed all the garbage cans were packed away, too. We were also required to have a sentry up all night with a flashlight and bear spray, just in case. There were no bears that I know of, but I had the best sleep of the whole ride that night.
I’m glad I finally slept well. There would be another mountain pass to climb on day 4!
Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw