Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Going to the Sun Road midnight moonlit hillclimb

The weather has been perfect here at Glacier, and even though July 31 wasn’t the full moon, I decided that it was close enough to do my first moonlit Going to the Sun hill climb since the last time 21 years ago, just before I met Gail. I was incredibly nervous and filled with self-doubt in the hours leading up to last night’s ride. The climb itself isn’t dangerous, but it takes on a completely different dimension at night. There’s wildlife, illumination, and the road construction to take into consideration, as well as dipping temperatures and sheer drop-offs.

I arrived at Lake McDonald Lodge at 10 pm. The lodge is 21 miles and 3,430 vertical feet away from the Logan Pass summit and my turnaround point. I nervously took inventory of my gear and waited for other cyclists to show up. Surely there would be others on such a perfect night.

In addition to the leg warmers that I wore for the whole ride, I packed arm warmers and lightweight winter cycling gloves, as well as an additional long-sleeved layer. For illumination I had my trusty Cat Eye Opticube headlamp and a blinky taillight. I took two spare tubes and a Clif bar, and wore my clear bike glasses and favorite wool socks.

At 10:55 I still didn’t see any cyclists approaching, but was hopeful that maybe there were others who started further up by Avalanche, so I hit the road. The moon was bright and was finally above the tall pines, so I thought there would be plenty of moonlight to guide me for the first 11 flat miles, but I was very much mistaken. This section of road is densely forested so the moonlight was largely obscured. A number of cars were passing me west-bound, and at least two of them didn’t switch off their high beams, which was more than a little scary, since I had a hard time seeing where the shoulder was. My biggest concern at this stretch was an unwelcome chance encounter on some bears, but fortunately I saw no wildlife until later.

After Avalanche was startled by what I thought to be a bright headlight from a car. I turned around and instead saw an awe-inspiring moon illuminating the road brilliantly, and my spirits soared. From that point forward I had ample moonlight, and in fact I set my light to its low setting so that moonlight would be my primary source of light for the rest of the trip.

Shortly after Avalanche the climb really started, and the average grade for the 11 miles to the summit was 5.3%, a very manageable climb. Just past the only tunnel, I passed a couple on mountain bikes, which buoyed my spirits. They started at Avalanche, so I figured that there might be others.

As I passed The Loop, the only switchback on the west side of the pass, I noticed a bunch of people in the parking lot as well as some other cyclists, so I was hopeful that I would encounter others. My next encounter was with wildlife—a mountain goat was nibbling grass on the edge of the cliff, but skittered down the mountain as soon has it heard me.

Next up was the road construction, and the road surface went from smooth pavement to hard-packed dirt. The dirt sections were completely manageable for the ascent, though they proved a bit trickier on the descent. There were sections where the road narrowed to one lane and I encountered a few ridiculous traffic lights on long timers. Dear reader, you might guess what I did.

With about 2,000’ to go, I encountered a lively group riding at a leisurely pace. It was a party on wheels, with about ten cyclists having a blast, listening to music and joking around. I think I scared some of them as I passed, though I tried to made sufficient noise. It felt good to occupy the whole road for a minute, but I wanted to continue at my pace to the summit.

The rest of the climb was serene and uneventful, as the sky got ever brighter in the other-worldly moonlit mountain range. The summit was a bit anti-climatic, and after a quick minute break to eat my Clif bar, I headed back down, this time with arm warmers on, since it was getting much cooler. When I reached the big group, I turned around to join them for a short bit. They were from Kalispell, and even though they had to work in the morning, they were really enjoying their adventure. This group started at The Loop, so their climb was a bit shorter. They had some good advice about how to find others for a possible second time up the mountain and were exceedingly friendly and filled with good cheer.

The descent was very slow—my mantra was that it’s better that it’s a slow descent than my last descent. Managing the road construction was much tougher on the descent, and I was riding the brakes quite a bit, which left my shoulder and neck muscles really tense. I was actually relieved when the road finally leveled out, and just powered my way back to the safety of the car.

On the way back to the campground, I stopped by Apgar Village briefly to upload my ride to Strava. I was pleasantly surprised that I snagged the KOM for the HC climb, and with that happy thought I hopped into the tent at around 2:30 am in hopes of getting a little sleep before the morning arrived. I hope to do the climb one more time, maybe on Thursday starting from Avalanche.

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