Stevens Pass

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There are times when no matter how hard you wrangle, coax, coerce and try to ply the day into behaving and delivering, it doesn’t. It’s a phenomenon of celestial proportions and it cannot be overturned or bargained with. And when things go so horribly bad or wrong, in this case a ride, sometimes the best course of action for everyone involved is to just let go and enjoy what happens. It’s when ‘rides attack’ and the day becomes an epic, in the tragic Greek sense.

For the first time since the Rapha Continental project began, in two years and more than 3,000 miles, we decided to called it quits, mid-ride, and bail out. With 10-miles of climbing and 50-miles of pitch-black highway still left to go. In a gravel turn-out on the side of the road, daylight already all but gone and 95-miles into a day hallmarked by entropy, we did some quick and dirty math. A hastily revised plan was drawn-up. Dan Sharp and Trystan Cobbett, our photographer and driver respectively, would turn around and head back to Woodinville, WA, and pick up Ryan Thomson’s car, while the rest of us finished climbing. Then, in no more than two hours, we’d all meet at the top of Stevens Pass and drive home together, defeated but living.

An hour later, 103-miles into the day, we rode, steaming, one by one into a starkly empty and theme park sized parking lot at 4,000-feet. As we did, the sun and the temperature, in tandem, promptly sunk for good. We abandoned our bikes in the dirt or against whatever trashcan and descended, from every direction, upon Stevens Pass Ski Resort in search of any way to meet our simple, primal needs: warmth, shelter and sustenance. Or at the very least, to find a well provisioned St Bernard. There was still hope at this point that something, anything would be open.

Having wasted 30-minutes and the last of our caloric reserves on a fruitless search, we found ourselves alone atop a mountain closed for the season. We sat huddled together on a decommissioned, wooden chairlift, watching as Aaron and Hahn performed a half-hearted, half-assed routine, a combination of ‘River Dance’ and ‘Jazzercise’. Shoulder to shoulder, as close to each other as propriety allowed, they bounced and gyrated on cleated toes in an honest attempt to stay warm. We wore sweat-soaked summer kit, arm and knee warmers stretched to their limits and every zipper, even on the pockets, pulled all the way closed. Anything that resembled a hatch or closure was battened and buttoned.

Later, after an hour or so of waiting, boredom and temperatures in the low 50’s left us feeling shipwrecked. We turned Lord of the Flies but with Sportwool and carbon-soled footwear. A dark, Cole-shaped shadow spotted periodically, running among the buildings scattered about the resort. He’s climbed, scrambled and jumped, navigated his own impromptu obstacle course. Tony tried to coax an outdoor gas heater into life with cold hands and a half-empty plastic lighter. Ryan, with a pair of recently found rental skis and poles over his shoulder, pantomimed a skier headed for the slopes. Hahn, Aaron and I concluded that a 100-mile ride in the summer heat, followed by a three-hour wait in the cold (with nothing to eat and barely moving) is not the healthiest post-ride ritual. Greg looks up from some deep and private place, somewhere far, far away and warm. He sat on the ground, his eyes cloudy. “There’s heat,” he suddenly cried, “there’s heat in the concrete. It’s like, it’s coming out of the concrete.”

We didn’t plan the ride to be like this. In fact, the day unraveled right from the start into something far from what we intended. Crafted by Aaron and Hahn, our co-hosts and Seattle locals, the idea was to ride out of the city to the top of Stevens Pass via the harder and less paved Jack Pass, and back again. It was, or so we thought, a little over 100-miles long. We thought wrong.

That morning Hahn, Cole and Tony walked through Aaron’s door at 7:15am. Fifteen minutes late was as good as on time by Continental standards. Those of us who stayed at Aaron’s the night before finished the breakfast dishes, while Aaron and Hahn met in the ‘computer nook’ to discuss the final route and print the cue sheet. This took an hour too long and yielded several unforeseen complications and conclusions. And so it began.

Hahn wanted us to drive 20-minutes to Woodinville. “It will knock off a bunch of unnecessary city riding,” he said, “a round trip of 50-miles, and save time. That brings the total mileage down from 185 to 135. That’s a good thing because it’s now 9:00am.” Too many voices, louder and higher pitched than usual, filled the room at once – the themes are disbelief, relief and how did a double century with thousands of feet of climbing ‘sneak-up’ on him and by association, us.

The drive to Woodinville is not uneventful. We go the wrong way on a freeway and once in town, overshoot our exit several times and by several miles on each occasion. We drive around the Start/Finish parking lot five times before we find the entrance.

The ride itself starts with a steep climb on a residential street. It’s long and for half a mile does the every-turn-leads-to-another-steep-turn thing. We’re trying to find the right way through this hilly neighborhood to avoid riding on Highway 2. Things are good for five or six miles – until we miss a crucial turn. We embark thereafter, on the first of many circles and a case of chronic déjà vu. For the next two hours we plumb a vast network of dead-end, unimproved and circuitous streets. We move through four of the five stages of grief; anger, denial, bargaining and depression. Depression finds us in a gravel driveway, standing around in wet, cold kit, kicking rocks and considering whether or not we should bag the day for the new Batman matinee. Meanwhile, Hahn charms the big green pants off an old redneck woman saddled on a still-running, riding mower. He returns, with the first accurate directions of the day and we’re finally able to leave this suburban maze behind.

The next 25-miles brings hills, green and thick with trees. Next, we roll through a valley, one lush with neat rows of fruit, yellow, red and orange, ripe and earthy. It‘s almost enough to make up for the morning.

The last real place to eat for the day is in Sultan, a town less than a mile long and no wider than an average-sized freeway, at The Sultan Bakery. Formerly The World Famous Bakery. Formerly The World Famous Swedish Bakery. We decides to honor this ever-evolving nomenclature with a full, sit-down lunch. Probably not a good thing to do just 40-miles into a 135-mile day.

The first Skykomish River crossing is rideable. Actually it’s not, but some of us try anyway. On the far side of a recently built gate is what looks like an infinity pool, covering some 40-yards of the paved road with just over a foot of crystal clear river water. Tony, with a grin, rides into it first and cleans the whole thing but almost goes down trying to ride up the rocky embankment on the far side. Ryan, pointlessly attempting to keep his shoes dry, ratchets his pedals the whole way across. He is nearly successful. Nearly.

The next crossing, here the road is buckled and broken, forces us to ‘hike-and-bike’ around a scene of total destruction. We shoulder our bikes and walk along the sandy, rocky edge of the river until we’re forced onto a recently built trail cutting through a narrow stand of trees. It’s hard now to know where the road is, or was, and where the river was or is supposed to be. Brambles, stumps and roots go from merely inconvenient to seriously annoying.

The next river crossing is worse. Any evidence of a highway has been thoroughly washed away – vanished. At this point, the woods do come to an end and now the river flanks us on both sides. To our right, it’s narrow and deep and mostly foamy white. Cole, fearless as ever, wades in first and is almost swept downriver before a half-drowned pine sapling saves him. “Does this void my Specialized shoe warranty?,” asks Ryan. “Did you get them wet?,” replies Aaron, at roughly the same moment Ryan is wading through water rising past the tan line on his thighs.

I choose the left side, where the river is much slower and calmer. And deeper. Hahn and Aaron, meanwhile, form an unbroken chain, rider-bike-rider-bike and cross one tentative and slippery current-challenging step a time. At it’s deepest the water rises above their thighs and dangerously close to the chamois zone. Greg and Tony follow across in various spots.

The next crossing is a challenging, quarter-mile hike-and-bike past several aircraft carrier sized sections of road strewn haphazardly about the river valley. When we reach the far side, we are back on solid ground for the rest of the day. We empty our shoes of sand and rocks, eat bars and take in the snowy mountains standing tall behind the forest on the other side of the river. Back in the saddle and up the road a bit, Greg, with total conviction, breaks our serene semi-contemplative mood with a shout: “Car back!” We almost fall off our bikes laughing.

Jack Pass is gravel and steep. Stand, and every other pedal stroke is a waste; sit, and you’re forced to tack for power and lean hard and awkwardly into the bars for fear of wheelies. On the backside of the climb is a wicked gravel descent and miles of tree-lined, dappled rollers. Ten minutes after the turn onto Highway 2, comes the start of the final approach to Stevens Pass. In the middle of the pace line, Aaron unexpectedly sits up and screams “You have got to be kidding me,”. Apparently, he’s seen a sign the rest of us missed.

Once again, we are forced to recalculate the mileage and now possibly our trajectory. If the sign Aaron saw wasn’t lying, we’ll have covered well over a 100-miles by the time we make it to the top with another 50 or 60 more left before we’re finished. And that’s when we threw it in. We waved goodbye to Dan and Trystan and prayed to Mercury they’d be quick. And then we finished climbing.

In the end, we waited in the dark at the abandoned ski resort for three death-defying hours. Going half-crazy at times, laughing uncontrollably at others and pouting and sulking the rest. When Trystan and Dan finally show up with the cars, they come bearing gifts of Taco Bell beef burritos. We eventually made it back to Seattle a little after 1:30 in the morning, haggard and chilled. And though we didn’t know it at the time, tomorrow’s ride (Snowqualmie Falls), would be even more strange.

Post Script: Snoqualmie Falls will be published September 26th.

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