Hey, first time posting in the mtn biking board. I almost exclusively stick to my road bike, but I do on occasion ride a mountain bike when traveling and camping. This past week I spent several days camping up in the Sierra Mountains in California. A buddy and I brought our mountain bikes and planned to ride to the top of White Mountain. This is the third highest peak in the continuous US and reaches 14,246 feet. Anyway, like I said, I usually stick to the asphalt, but I thought some of you would get a kick reading how a sea level road bike rider got destroyed attempting the ride a bike up past 14,000’ feet. Excuse the long post…
We camped just south of the Ancient Bristlecone forest on the HWY 168. If you have not checked this national park before, I would highly recommend. This park contains the oldest trees (actually the oldest living things) on Earth. Some of the trees are over 4000 years old. Here is a picture of one of the cool looking Bristlecone trees:
The Bristlecone forest is about 22 miles from Big Pine on the 168 and is at approximately 10,000 elevation. The road ends at the park and we turned onto a pretty bumpy dirt road and drove for about an hour and parked at locked gate which is the start of the route up to the summit. We arrived just after sunrise and it was definitely quite chilly. A few cars were parked at the gate, as some hikers had camped there to also get an early start. I threw on a warm fleece under my cycling vest and started the ride wearing my winter hat and carried my helmet.
There is a rough road that takes you most of the way to the summit and is approximately 7 miles from the gate. I am pretty strong roadie and have completed many very hilly routes and climbing specific events over the years. However, I had never ridden higher than 10,000 feet and I live at sea level, so I was curious going into the ride to see how I was going to respond to the altitude. The ride starts with a pretty steep climb right past the gate. I quickly found out that I was not going to adjust well to the high altitude. I switched into a low gear and found a rhythm and started the climb. My heart rate started to spike immediately and I was quickly gasping for air. This was not exactly a very challenging climb and something I would be able to handle quite easily at normal elevation. By the end of the climb, I was panting, feeling dizzy and quite concerned about how difficult the small climb was for me.
Here is a snap of the start of the climb.
The dirt road continued to climb for another two miles and we arrived at a research station run by UCSD. I think they do some high elevation research here. There was a small pen with a bunch of sheep – strange to see them so high. The two mile ride was rough. I just couldn’t seem to find my legs and I was suffering on a grade of climb that should have been easier. I was drinking lots of water and trying to keep an even pace.
We took a little break at the research station and talked to a couple of people who were hiking to the top. The sun was starting to get a bit higher and things were warming up a bit. We then rode for another 2 miles or so and continued to climb more. I actually felt a bit better and seem to be able to catch my breath a bit better and able to ride at a steadier pace.
After the longish climb there was a bit of a descent and that was pretty fun. The dirt road was not too technical, but I had to avoid and hop over some sand and loose rock. After the decent we could see the route up to the summit. I stopped for a bit, sucked down a Gu packet and took this picture of the remainder of the route. As the pictures illustrates, there was sort of a flat section before a pretty hefty climb up to the summit.
Another picture from a little further towards summit:
We traveled along the flat section and went down a pretty steep decent that was quite difficult for me. There was lots of loose rock and think I bailed at least once trying to get down. We then arrived at the last part of the climb that has a series of very steep switch backs all the way up to the summit. I started the climb and after the second switchback I was struggling big time. I took a couple of breaks and tried to ride some more, but it was no use. I had nothing. Zilch. Destroyed…I just couldn’t get any energy to push the peddles or suck in enough air. I got off the bike and decided to push it the rest of the way up the steep and loose switchbacks. After pushing for some time, I decided it was pointless to bring the bike any further, at this altitude I just was not able to ride anymore. I left my bike leaning up against a rock and would walk the rest of the way, I would guess about half a mile and 500’ from the summit.
I hiked up a few more switchbacks and arrived at a snowfield that was blocking the road. At this point you pretty much had to scramble up a section of loose rock to get back to the path.
I was definitely feeling the high altitude and my steps were a bit labored. I pushed up back onto the road and hiked up a few switchbacks and reached the summit. It took almost 4 hours to reach the summit. Even when you consider the rests and picture breaks, we were not exactly blazing up to the summit.
Here is picture of me at the summit:
At the top there is a small building and we were able to catch some shade and I tried to eat a half of a sandwich. I had a bit of a headache and had some trouble digesting the sandwich. Trying to eat the solid food was a mistake. On the decent my headache started to get worse and I began to feel a bit nauseous. I hiked down to my bike and then navigated the remaining switchbacks. By this time my head was pounding and each bump I went over started to really hurt. My belly began to churn and I was in the “just get me the “futc” home mode….
I tried to climb up the hill after the switchbacks and had nothing in the tank, so I pushed the bike up the hill very slowly. I finally reached the flat section and got on the bike and rode some more. My head was pounding and I was really feeling quite green and had to pull over. Resting was not helping and I eventually “lost” my sandwich and most of the fluid I had sucked out of my Camelback over the past couple of hours. Wretching at 13,000’ was not fun. Quite humiliating actually, when you consider that I was passed by a couple of hikers in their 60’s at this point who seemed to be doing quite well. However, this good news is that after I called to the goddess of “chuck”, I did feel much better. As I descended my headache started to subside, and thankfully the last two miles down to the research station was all downhill.
Anyway, that’s my ride report. Hopefully somebody will get some amusement out of my suffering I would definitely recommend this ride. However, if I attempt again, I will definitely spend a few more days camping near the start of the ride to get more acclimatized to the high altitude. I will also not try and eat any solid foods at the summit. Some aspirin will also be stuck in my pack if I try any additional high altitude riding as well.