Pedaling through the Cathedrals

Everything after that little hump, about a quarter of a mile before reaching the east entrance of Yosemite National Park at Tioga Pass at an elevation of just a little under 10,000 feet, was a bit of a blur. I had lost sight of Jürgen, my friend and partner in crime on this one-of-a-kind bike ride, a good forty-five minutes earlier, so I was alone on my quest to conquer this last bit of Tioga Road up to it’s highest point in the park. “…and it’s getting harder and harder to breath”, I was singing and humming out loud the chorus of Maroon 5′s hit song from 2003. Fitting, I thought, in light of the lack of oxygen at this altitude, hoping to distract myself with it from the pain in my legs and my lower back. In a borderline delirious state, affected by the altitude and caused by physical exhaustion, I told myself: “almost there…almost there”.

Eventually I topped out after that last ascent and saw the wide alpine Dana Meadows spread out to the right side of the road before Mount Dana rose another 3000 feet into the air, with patches of snow covering its upper regions. In the distance, I made out the top of an RV and concluded that the ranger station and the park entrance couldn’t be far away. Then the entrance, then seeing Jürgen on the left side of the road, waiting for me to arrive. Him getting up, taking pictures of me rolling in, high-fiving. Snapshots my brain was able to capture and store in a moment where I was filled with joy that I had made it. We were only half way into our journey, but we knew that the hardest part was behind us.

Only one way

The western end of Tioga Road, part of California State Route 120, lies about eight miles from the park’s west entrance on Big Oak Flat Road, just around the corner from Crane Flat Campground, our base for this adventure. As usual, traffic heading out from the Bay Area was an inconvenience, but after close to five hours of driving, we reached the campground around 10pm. Contrary to what I had seen in the online reservation system, the grounds were quite busy. The quiet hours were already in effect, nonetheless there was still quite some partying and hollering around campfires going on around us while we set up our camp. A group of french retirees occupied the site south of ours, discussing some matters at their picnic table in the light of their headlamps before they headed to their Jucy Mini Van to hit the pillows.

Despite the noise earlier, it got calm around 11pm when I laid down in my tent while Jürgen was sleeping on the picnic table, true adventure style with no tent. It was very mild, with temperatures in the high 60s and no wind, which unfortunately caused the smell of campfire smoke to linger around instead of being blown out of the campground. From my vantage point on my sleeping pad I could look straight into the night sky with mesmerizing bright stars, visible between the canopies of the surrounding pine trees. I had a hard time, as usual, to get comfortable in my tent, a problem I seem to have every time on the first night of a camping adventure. My body tends to reject such unfamiliar sleep environments on the first try, before giving in on the second night and deciding to adapt. Since we didn’t have a second night, the amount of sleep I got was way less than I was used to.

Start at sunrise. Well, almost.

Nature called around 3:30 and at 4:30am, one hour before sunrise, I could already hear zipping sounds from the nearby sites. Others apparently were hoping for an early start as well. I peeled myself out of my tent and started to get my things together for The Big Ride™. After some muesli and oat meal for breakfast, we got our bikes ready and at 6am sharp, twenty-four minutes after sunrise, we cautiously pedaled from the campground onto Big Oak Flat road and shortly after made a left onto Tioga Road. The adventure had begun.

With only two bottle cages for water, my bike setup evidently lacked the provisions to keep myself hydrated for close to forty miles without services. Therefor, I had opted to carry my CamelBak Mule NV backpack with a filled three liter reservoir in there. A good idea I had hoped and partly true, because I did well on hydration, however my lower back did not approve of the additional weight over the upcoming seven hours. So for similar future events, I would probably shell out the money to get seat or seatpost mounted bottle cages.

Bear sighting

We knew in advance that it wouldn’t be a straight climb up to Tioga Pass, but rather a lot of ups and downs. The initial climb at the beginning for about four miles was followed by a brief descent before the next climb brought us up to an elevation of 8,400 feet over about eight miles. It was on that stretch where we had the closest encounter with nature during our ride. Eyes glued to my front wheel and the ten feet or so ahead of me, I didn’t even see it at first. It wasn’t until Jürgen yelled “Bear!” and pulled up alongside me, trying to snap a few pictures of the animal with his GoPro. The black bear appeared out of the underbrush on the east side of the road, presumably to cross it and head up the slope on the west side. Traveling quietly as we were, he did not spot us until he was half way across. A quick glance at us and he dashed up the embankment and into the forest. By the time we passed the spot where he had crossed, there was no trace of him to be seen.

Passing Yosemite Creek Road, we covered about a four mile descent, followed by another uphill of about the same distance, before we reached Olmstead Point, a major milestone of the trip at mile 29. I was in dire need of a break and we sat down for about fifteen minutes, took some pictures and enjoyed the views of Half Dome. The next three miles were a fun little descent towards and past crystal clear Tenaya Lake, before our legs had to suffer again on the climb to Tuolumne Meadows. At 9:30am, about 3.5 hours into our trip, I was almost ready for lunch, but instead opted for Buckwheat Pancakes and a topping of maple syrup for good measure at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill. I could feel how low my blood sugar level had become, hoping the pancakes could serve as a remedy. The home stretch, if you can call it that, to Tioga Pass constituted of another 1,400 feet of elevation gain over 6.6 miles. With temperatures in the eighties, in addition to the altitude, I could only put my bike into second-to-lowest gear and pedal on. “Everything eventually ends. Even this climb”, I whispered to myself, streams of sweat running down my cheeks and nose, dripping on my top tube. The relief I felt when I saw the east entrance ranger station was palpable and after 4 hours and 22 minutes, I crossed the park border. Well, not quite. Actually, because I feared that a bureaucratic park ranger might charge us again for re-entry, we stayed inside the boundary and took an extensive break in the parking lot of the Gaylor Lakes Trailhead.

The long way back

I would have loved to lie down on the grass next to the parking lot, resting my aching body and maybe take a tiny nap. However after we had inhaled enough of the toilet-cleaner scented air that the north-easternly breeze waved our way from the bathroom building adjacent to the park entrance, we decided it was time to start the journey back.

It had taken me about fifty minutes from the Tuolomne Meadows Grill to the top of the pass. “How long do you think it will take us to get back down? 10 minutes?”, Juergen asked. It took us 15. Going down descents on a road bike after a lot of climbing is very rewarding in itself. Doing it at almost 10,000 feet in Yosemite National Park, makes you wanna shout out for joy. Exposed as you are on your road bike, with the wind noise getting louder and louder as you pick up speed, you nevertheless need to be careful to not get tripped up by one of the many little bumps, cracks and small potholes in the road surface. Needless to say, I clutched my handlebars overly tight.

Gravity

The flat Tuolumne Meadow quickly behind us, we headed down to Tenaya Lake, followed by one of the climbs I dreaded on the way back. What had been a nice gradual descent towards the lake on the way east, was now a two mile, shadeless ascent in what felt like baking oven temperatures. Another stop at Olmstead Point was in order, taking more pictures and chatting with a few of the numerous motorized tourists who had stopped here.

We had about a third of the total distance left to cover. Following Olmstead Point, we descended past May Lake Road and then hit another nasty short uphill where Tioga Road briefly turns north. I could feel it in those climbs that my energy was dwindling quickly. Besides, I was down to my last three Shot Bloks. At this point, we had reached the section that looks like a stretched “V” on the elevation profile, meaning a swift descent, followed by a grueling, swearwords-provoking elevation gain of about the same distance.

Two Shot Bloks and about half a water bottle left.

A few more rolling hills before we got to another six mile stretch of constant descent, speeding it down with an average of around 35 mph, only to be slowed down by a last little nub in the road with about six miles to go.

One Shot Blok left.

In the end, the nub was not more than that, a little nuisance compared to what was already behind us. Not holding back on the last four miles of this ride, we let it go down the hill and after 7 hours and 11 minutes, we were back where we started. Tired and aching I rolled into our campsite, mustered the last bit of energy to put the inflated sleeping pad on the dusty ground and rested for a few minutes, spread eagle style. On rare occasions before had I been this tired. But hey, riding a bicycle about 93 miles through Yosemite National Park, soaking in its natural beauty, exposed to the elements and working hard for every mile, every feet of elevation gain, I think I had every right to it.