Saturday, June 11, 2011

June 9, 2011: GGT Day 10, Dubois to Moran - Beaten by Togwotee Pass

STATS: 32 miles, about 3.5 hours, approximately 2500 feet or so of climbing.

First let's get it straight: I do not get along with cold weather and snow. I live in Florida, have made a solemn vow to live no farther north than Gainesville (FL), and wear the badge of Weather-Wuss among my cycling friends back home. If the thermometer dips below 47 or so, or the wind is over 15 mph, I quickly dive into my bag of lame excuses and find something other than bicycling to do.

To put it mildly, it is a mystery that I found myself pedaling toward Togwotee Pass in mid-thirties temperatures, a 20 mph headwind, and all but certain snow or freezing rain between me and the summit. My three companions (Fred, Ray, and Mike) were all Colorado residents who live at 6,000 feet and deal with this kind of crap weather most of the year, but this whole scene was foreign to me. 

You may recall that Jim, our Warmshowers host in Lander, had ridden with us from there to Dubois. At breakfast he agreed to make the ride over the pass by himself rather than slow us down. We all went out together, but after a while he dropped back and we continued without him. The plan was for him to meet us at the Lodge on the other side of the pass. 

Once Jim dropped off, I took his place at the tail end of the line for the remainder of the first 20 miles, at which point we pulled into the Lava Mountain Lodge and store. After a brief rest, my companions all started adding layers of clothing, gloves, shoe covers, rain gear and more. I did likewise, trying to mimic their preparations, within the limits of the stuff I had. In retrospect, I could have added another layer or two of socks and switched from my five finger gloves to the more waterproof lobster mittens at the bottom of my pannier. Maybe that would have made a difference, maybe not.

Up to now the skies had gone from clear to overcast but we were still dry. The top of the pass was 12 miles away and almost 2000 feet above us at an altitude of 9635 feet. We got back on the road and almost immediately a light snow began to fall as the road ratcheted up a couple percent. Ray quickly rode away into the distance. Fred, Mike and I stayed pretty close together as the storm intensified by the minute.

Soon the snow was thick and accumulating on bike and body alike. It took an hour to go six miles. I could no longer feel my fingers or toes and could see through only a tiny area of the right lens of my glasses. I could not imagine another hour-plus of climb, followed by an even colder descent to our hotel on the other side. I decided to quit while I still could and told my companions I was going back down. Mike and Fred were doing considerably better than I (though they had stopped to chip the ice out of Fred's rear derailleur) and said that they were going to continue. I made my U turn between the walls of snow flanking the road and carefully felt my way back down. I used my brakes liberally; the thought of overheating a rim was laughable. The brakes, especially the rear, made unfamiliar noises which I realized was due to a mixture of ice and accumulated road dirt on the rims and brake pads. (Later inspection showed the rear brake pads to have gotten severely worn in just that six mile descent, probably from all the sand deposited on the rim.) Nonetheless, they were still effective. After what seemed like a very long time, I finally made out, through my nearly occluded glasses, the Lava Mountain Lodge buildings.

I pulled up in front of the store and somehow got off the bike without falling. I had the thought that a photo of my snow-covered bike would be great for the blog, but when I tried to fish out my phone to take a shot, I found that my fingers were not working very well and I was too cold to stay outside any longer. Take my word for it. There was snow. All over the bike.

Inside, I peeled off my saturated gloves, rain pants, and shoe covers, and paced around in the store, shivering. I guess the store staff had witnessed similar scenes many times before and paid little attention to me. I did share the high points of my experience with them, and shortly one said, "Here comes one of your friends." It turned out to be Jim. Apparently he had ridden past the store, but saw me coming back down the mountain, even though I had not seen him. He soon decided to retreat as well. His wife, Julia, was due to be coming up the road pretty soon to meet him, though the planned meeting place was on the other side of the pass. There was no cell phone service, so Jim moved his bike to a location that he hoped would catch Julia's eye as she drove by.

As I thawed out I realized that my best move would probably be to catch a ride to our hotel on the other side of the pass rather than go 20 miles back to Dubois. I can't exactly remember the details of how it happened, but before I knew it I was happily sharing the back seat of Billy Snodgrass's truck with several huge bags of dog food, my bike equally happy in the otherwise empty trailer behind us.

Billy is a celebrity sled dog musher, having been the subject of TV documentaries, and a three-time Iditarod competitor. It turns out that he runs sled dog tours from the Togwotee Lodge (my destination) and was headed there to pick up some of his equipment now that his winter tour season was over. I coulda/shoulda gotten an autograph, but I didn't know who he was until it was too late. Shortly before arriving at the hotel we passed both Fred and Mike riding down the mountain. They didn't look happy, but I was very, very relieved to see they survived the pass. Later they explained that they had made a stop at a construction trailer to warm up. Mike spent the time with his fingers in the heating vent of the trailer. Amazingly, Fred was not particularly cold thanks to all his layers of clothing.

Before leaving Jim at the store, I had the good sense to get Julia's phone number. As soon as possible after arriving at the lodge, I got off a message to her with Jim's location and got a return message confirming that she understood, so Jim and I were both saved.

Shortly after entering the lodge lobby, Ray walked up and told me that there had been a snafu with the reservation, but that he had it fixed up. I was still euphoric about being rescued and delivered to the hotel, so, "Sure, Ray, whatever you say." I let him know that I had seen the guys a short distance up the road, and sure enough, they appeared a few minutes later. We had all survived, though Ray's fingertips are still numb 24 hours later. Hopefully that is not a permanent thing and nobody else has any physical injuries.

Togwotee Mountain Lodge, the reward on the far side of the pass
Our cabin at the Lodge (photo taken the next morning)

1 comment:

  1. Great story. Wow, I don't think that you had snow in your planning. What a difference cold and snow make. In any case you mastered it. Congratulation.