Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mt. Tamalpais 4 - Peeking from the Peak, Abject Terror, and Job Well Done

In Part IV the author discusses: topographic teasing, hawks aloft, dude-ish-ness, fear, food, and the satisfaction of a job well done....

Part IV begins just before mile 40.
Note the gun notch between miles 38 and 43.

Peak Form

I reached the first peak, near the intersection of Ridgecrest Road and South Side Road (one of those schizophrenic roads that keeps changing names...Pan Toll Road, Mountain Theater Road, Eminent Death from Gravity Road...). A direction sign pointed forward, indicating that there were 2.3 miles to the end of the road and the West Peak.

I was tired, but I had already come so far. I was so tired that the camera was put away and I have no photo of the sign. Nevertheless, I was determined to see the journey through, so I proceeded along the final leg of the climb.

The next mile or so was a struggle. It was 400+ feet of steep climbing that never let up. Then--just to mock my ambition, the road dropped before me, plummeting down into the notch between the peaks. Exhaling, sighing, cursing, muttering, and descending, I flew down the tarmac, losing more than 200 feet in the blink of an eye.

Never was a descent so awful. Not only could I see the pitch of the remaining climb to the end of the road (yep, 200+ feet to be regained), but I would need to climb back up this beast of a slope on the return trip. Crikey!

With gritted teeth and bursting lungs, I pumped my lactic-acid-infused legs and reached to top.


A View Worth Viewing

I dismounted and walked down to some tables at an observation point. Spread before me was a new perspective on the Sausalito view of San Francisco Bay. Again, off in the distance, the horizon was framed by the Bay Bridge. The city fingered out from behind the Marin Headlands, and I could just make out the top of one of the Golden Gate's piers from a notch in the mountains.

You MUST click the photo to appreciate the view. Breathtaking.

I took out Hoot and Mousie so they could see the view as well, and they took it all in while I refueled. I called BCB. Just as she picked up, a hawk gave me a flyby. Team Ladyhawk, indeed.

 Hoot and Mousie were happy to be out of the bag;
they were mindful of the hawks, though.


The breeze was beginning to get to me, and I wanted to get moving before I stiffened up. I filled my water bottles at a fountain, and an older cyclist (who bore a faint resemblance to Robin Williams) stopped me, asking me if I was OK.

I'd heard that line somewhere before...

It wasn't the other RW, but it looked a bit like him.
Oh, and he rode a bike
almost as expensive...

It seems that I had passed him prior to the lake, thus prior to my re-bandaging. I assured him that I was fine, I displayed my wrap, and I expressed what a great experience the climb had been.

He looked at me sagely. "Impressive," he said. "Your tenacity [yep, he actually talked like this] impresses. It sounds like you found a spiritual place, man."

His eyes shone with delight, a bit like a NorCal Santa Claus. I kept expecting him to call me "Dude." He didn't, but he did wax on about how beautiful the day was, and just how great it was that I came all the way from DC to ride Mt. Tam.

When I could break into his audible internal monologue, I was able to ask for (and receive) directions back to the city.

Ominously, as I pedaled away, he warned me: "Watch out on the descent, some of those turns'll get ya, if you're not careful."

My guardian angel, what a worrier...


I headed back to San Francisco with absolutely no sense of how long it would take me to get downtown. I forgot to ask The Dude. I knew I had about 25 miles to go and that it was mostly downhill, but my experience couldn't translate altitude and mileage into time.

I climbed back up to the east peak with far less effort than I expected (revisiting the gun notch) and headed downhill in earnest.
Nothing had prepared me for the experience before me. For the next eight miles I went down...fast. No photos would chronicle this leg--there was no way I was taking my hands off the bars.

Cyclists are supposed to relax during descents. We are to visualize and pick our lines through the curves, and we are to brake early, feathering the levers to finesse our speed.


Don't try this at home, folks. These guys are professional!

I held on for my life, with cramped fingers, stiffening neck and shoulders. I was so tense from fear that I couldn't even scare the crap out of myself. I was absolutely waterproof.

On one inboard switchback (on the inside of a curve, such that if I lost it I would crash into the face of the slope, as opposed to careering off a cliff) I went wide into the oncoming lane. Mercifully, I recovered in time to get back into my lane. Just before a screaming-transmission convertible passed me heading uphill.

Soon thereafter, a car got stuck behind me for a few curves. I was stayed right, but there was nowhere for me to go. There's nothing quite like screaming down a mountain at 30 mph, clawing your handlebars like a deranged lobster, with a few tons of steel, plastic, and rubber hounding you.

When it was finally safe for him to pass, he roared away from me, opening up his BMW sedan's engine...for less than a quarter mile. Yep, he got caught behind a line of traffic, slowed by the remaining corkscrew turns. I noticed this, but I couldn't gloat, what with the whole defying-death thing.

Traffic picked up noticeably when I turned onto Shoreline Highway. Endless millipedes of vehicles passed us the other way, heading upward, and a steady stream of cars flowed down the Tamalpais Valley into Almonte. Two cyclists—clearly familiar with the road—maneuvered in front of me.

Their composure mesmerized me, and I tried to emulate their example. Doing so, however, violated another one of those cycling rules. When descending, you should always pick your own line. Never follow someone directly. What works for one doesn't necessarily work for another.

I learned this on a sweeping left that nearly perched me in a tree. Flight was a real possibility. Aerodynamic as the Kestrel may have been, I don't think it was designed for liftoff.

Duly schooled, I followed my own guide for the remainder of the slope.


When we arrived at Route 101 in Marin City, I thanked them for showing me the way down the hill. Then, feeling remarkably strong, I tucked in and found a 19 mph groove back all the way through Sausalito. My legs protested and slowed noticeably on the final climb from Sausalito to the Golden Gate, but I had the bit between my teeth, and I was ready for the final run-in to the city.

I crossed the bridge, into the face of scores of touristas on rental bikes who had absolutely no clue how to ride in a group. The return crossing may have been the most dangerous part of the day. I had no way to predict when someone would pull out into my line while jabbering to their neighbor.

Bridge crossed, I headed downtown via the Embarcadero. I was hungry, in an "I just burned more than 5,000 calories" way.

I got into the hotel neighborhood and couldn't think of any takeout places nearby. I wanted a sandwich, or a burrito. Or a sandwich and a burrito.

On a corner I saw a guy on a fixie, and I asked him where he would go. He directed me to BrainWash, a combination café and laundromat. Maybe he thought I would stick myself into a washer.

Food...and soap?

I ordered a fish sandwich and a Brainwash salad and sat on a sofa, sweating all the while, as I waited for my food.

Waiting was brutal. I was hungry. I smelled fries. I was hungry. AND I was going to take it back to the hotel, so I had to wait...for this...

Food glorious food!


I soft-pedaled back to the hotel with only a tenuous hold on my plastic bags. I'm sure I was a sight to behold as I walked through the lobby with a backpack, bike, two plastic bags, shoes, and helmet in tow. Never let it be said that Marriott hotels aren't accommodating.

Entering my room, I finally relaxed. At 1:56 pm I checked my mileage (70.25), almost exactly the 70 miles I had planned. I got back with enough time to eat and have a nap before I had to go to work.

Time and distance...nice job!

My hand survived the second half of the ride, what with my professional wrapping. Sure, it was dirty. But you don't think it stopped me from devouring my sandwich, do you?

I survived with all digits attached!

It's trite, but true: I was happy. I had planned it for a long time, and I was blessed with good weather and few mishaps. A little blood lost was nothing compared to the experience gained.

A happy—if dirty—boy.

I'd do it again. In fact, I'll have a hard time going back to San Francisco and NOT doing it again.

There's nothing quite like a ride to raise and renew your spirits.

To steal a thought from John Muir (appropriate, considering the proximity of the Muir Woods to Mt. Tam):
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

Hoo Hah!


Mt. Tamalpais 3 - Ascension

In Part III the author describes: climbing, descending, scenic beauty, personal medical attention, a slug, and seven naughty sisters...

Part III begins with the friendly, upwardly-pointing line at (roughly) mile 24.

Upward, Ever Upward

The climbing was a steady, serpentine pitch. No switchbacks spiked the rise along this leg. I settled into a rhythm and started upward.

People live here? Cool! (Except for that earthquake/mudslide thing...)

Houses perched along the roadside on vertiginous slopes, seeming held in place by matchstick piers. Instantly I groked the property loss caused by mudslides. Those views come with a price.

I passed two vultures, sentinels of the slope as I struggled to maintain a rhythm. The rise wasn't the problem; it was the camera and my hand.

I kept trying to take photos to document my adventure, but I couldn't keep a steady grip on the bike with my right hand. Between the pain and the liquid stickiness, I was a mess.

Climbing is about will and focus. I had the will; my focus was compromised. My concentration was scattered. I was all over the place, and I was struggling.

Yet, the scene surrounding me was beautiful. To my right (roughly North) was Mt. Diablo. It rose from across the valley with emerald elegance. Seeing it inspired me to soldier on.

Mount Diablo (no relation to Marco Etcheverry...) broods in the distance.

Soon enough I passed the lonely golf course. Just after, a roadsign for the Mt. Tamalpais watershed beckoned. I had reached the inner edge, marking the heart of my adventure. For the next ~30 miles I would be embraced by the wild of the Mt. Tam parks.


They Don't Grow 'em Like That at Home

I'm no botanist, but I could tell that the flora around me was nothing like the hills of Maryland. The groundcover sprawled about, gnarled and grabby, while pines aspired to ever-greater heights. Like sentinels, the trees soared above, even as the road rose.

Trees that pierce the sky and scented ground cover are your companions for the climb.

I passed a few mountain bikers on the ascent. Despite my wound and lack of rhythm, I easily overtook them. My Granny was bigger than their granny. So were my thighs, for that matter.

My Granny beats your granny!

I crested a peak, apparently above the treeline. Deep within the valley before me a lake mirrored the sky. She was well below me, and as the road curved to the right, I caught a glimpse of the road's winding path. It was going to be a long descent, from alpine to treeline, with several 180° switchbacks through the redwoods.


Way down yonder in the valley below...Alpine Lake!

The route to the lake was marvelously downhill, from above the treeline
through switchbacks among the redwoods.

Mindful of my guardian angel, I kept my speed at or below 30 mph. My hand was still giving me a lot of trouble, and I was not willing to risk a wipeout. Even so, I passed several riders along the descent and on the brief uphills that led to the lake. My legs felt strong, even though my mind was unsettled.

I would race along that distant road at a controlled 32 mph.
On my bike I would have felt comfortable above 40.

Anticipation mounted as I approached the water.
It was quiet...exactly what I was looking for.

I descended to lake level and approached the dam. The water was unnervingly still. Its mirror surface seemed impervious to wind or current. It was a photograph made real.

Trees were mirrored in the lake surface.
Tiny ripples marked the breeze. Lovely.

A number of riders were stopped along the dam's walkway. Clearly it is a rendezvous point for groups who separated on the ascents and descents.

There be cyclists...

Rest & Recovery (Paging Dr. Whitney)

I nearly crashed while crossing the dam.

To the left, there was little difference between the road and the water surface.

I didn't expect a  seven-story drop to my right. I don't like heights, and this was a shocker! Out West, everything is bigger; this was hardly the dam at Lake Elkhorn.

Water to the left of them...

...abyss to the right!

The cascading waters were soothing, however, and I decided that this was a good time and place to stop, eat a little, and re-bandage my bloody stump.

I went down a flight of log steps to the water's edge and had a seat. From my perch I was a full fifteen feet below the road, nestled in a corner. From that perspective I had the place all to myself. It was spectacular.

It was a view so good...

...I photographed it twice!

I cleaned up my hand and re-bandaged it, using a wrap I used to use when crack climbing. (Stop snickering there in the back! "Rock climbing using cracks", your naughty-minded sass.)


It was tight, reinforced, and I wrapped a curve into my finger to help me with my grip. Nice work, if I don't day so myself...

It was just after 1000. With a snack in my belly, a functioning hand, and a recovered heart rate, I saddled up for the next leg of my journey. According to the map, I had some 1,300 feet of rise before the peak of Mt. Tam. I was ready.

I was back in the saddle at 10:04--32 miles gone, nearly 40 to come,
and the the
serious climbing was about to begin.

With high spirits I set off and was soon swallowed by the redwoods. Here the pitch varied from steady to steep. A lot of switchbacks greeted me, and precipitous drop-offs hazarded me.

Pretty. Quiet. Steady. Upward. I hope there are no bears here...

My hand was holding firm, and I was finding my rhythm. This was the climbing I had dreamed about, and I was experiencing it to the fullest. For miles, I climbed, and I enjoyed the beauty all around me. Natural springs trickled and flowed, and the trees whispered and murmured with the breezes.

Just after a particularly steep switchback, an enormous (6+ inch!) slug was crossing the road (Why'd the slug cross the road?...). Were we racing, it probably would have won.

 At some point I realized this giant slug was probably
moving faster than me...

Sisterly Love?
I felt good, so I committed to my original plan. I took the right off of the Fairfax-Bolinas road and headed up Ridgeline Road to the peak. I soon emerged from the thickets and encountered the Seven Sisters: a number of small pitches that sawtoothed up the mountain. Each has her own character; all are deceivingly difficult for a first-timer.

Seven sisters, my arse. Stuck in my head is a word that rhymes with "rich".

I had a rabbit in front of me. That helped with my motivation. What didn't help was that every time I took a photo he got further and further ahead. There's no escaping it; taking photos compromises performance!

Out there is front is my rabbit...you need to click the photo
(to see a larger version) to appreciate the undulating distance.

Ok, it's partially an excuse. I was getting tired, and the Sisters just kept on a-rollin'.

They keep coming at you, the hussies!

Slope and trees framed my ride on the left.

Looking upward into the sun, the peak peeked at me...

The view ahead was a ribbon of road through rolling highland.

There's ocean in the distance, and a sweeping left upcoming...

Off to the right was a spectacular slope down to the Pacific.


Worn, winding walking paths snaked down through the meadows. In my imagination, they formed an alpine slide straight into the ocean.

In the center-left of the photo you can see a thin, tan-colored
ribbon of path. It was easily 200 feet below the road...

Mt. Tamalpais 2 - Sunday, Bloody Sunday

In Part II the author describes: a bridge crossing, his hand, the beauty of Sausalito, his hand, the joys of cycling in Northern California, and his hand...

Getting On with Getting On

There was nothing for it but to keep going. I (sort of) new where the 12k start was, and I figured they would have a first aid tent. Someone was bound to take pity.

I got the camera out to take a few sunrise snaps. The sun was rising with alarming speed—either that or the previous five minutes had distorted my sense of time. Either way, Alcatraz was bathed the warm yellow and orange of the new dawn.

Alcatraz's silhouette in the dawn's light

My right hand was stuck to the brake hood, so I held the camera in my left hand, pedaling all the while. (Whenever I take shots like this I pray that something turns out, and that I don't just get a closeup of my nose hairs.)

I think I can...

Right about now (the funk soul brother...) my finger started to throb.

I think I can...

A-ha. Yep, that hurts.

I think I can...

Sardonically, I muttered aloud: "You've got to be kidding."

Despite the planning, yesterday's scouting, and this morning's commitment, I realized that I might need to cancel my ride...because I fell over like a newbie and got a boo-boo. Unbelievable.

I stowed the camera, finished my crossing, and started the descent into Sausalito. Yellow school buses were dropping off runners ahead, so I slowed. A race volunteer saw me and directed me to the start area. "Just old up your hand when you see the cops, they'll let you through."

Dutifully, I headed for help. As I rode in I caught 1,000 stares from the runners. Nothing belligerent ("Back off, roadie!"), just...stares.

I found first aid and approached the EMT. He was a dark-haired, mustachioed gent, about 5'5" x 4"4'. Seriously, he looked like a one-hundred-pound overweight, height-challenged Brooklyn firefighter. He had a New York accent.

Appreciatively, I made small-talk as he cleaned my hand. And my face. He examined both with a professional eye. "You look like hell," he said as he wiped my cheek.

That explained the staring.

Unconsciously, I had brushed my hand across my face. I had a streak of blood from lip to ear. It doesn't even show in the photos...it was on the other side from the camera. (I guess I was taking portraits of my "good side".)

He bandaged me up, applying pressure the whole time. The wound was essentially a blood bluster that had burst. Some skin was lost, but it was nothing serious, and the bleeding was entirely explained by my hydration and heart rate.

He gave me some extra band aids and a roll of compression tape. "Just in case," he said.

With many thanks, I went on my way, hoping that would be the last of the distractions.

Sausalito and Camaraderie

The morning mist obscures some of the detail, still the view of the San Francisco from Sausalito harbor is wondrous. The Bay Bridge frames the horizon, and the spires reach for the sky like jagged teeth of some mythical beast. 

Looking back to San Francisco from Sausalito.

Bonus Photo! (I included both, because I couldn't decide which I liked better...)

Warmed by the beauty, I rode on.

The Bay area is ridiculously bicycle-friendly, at least from what I experienced. I rode from downtown San Francisco through Sausalito on bike paths, and there were plenty of other cyclists to chat with along the way. Local riders shared their knowledge of all the little details you won't find on the map...like where to fill water bottles and other necessities...

It had already been eventful, and I was well-behind schedule. Even so, I thought it best that I make sure that I was ready for the journey's next leg. I stopped at a public toilet for a quick constitutional and wash, making sure that my bandage was in place. It felt weird under the wrap, like it wasn't quite on correctly. But it looked OK.

Accommodating...and convenient!

Along the path that parallels the shore road I caught up to a skinny, serious-looking guy on a Cannondale CAAD5. I introduced myself as a tourist and told him that I was heading for Fairfax (not, VA...CA!), and I asked for any advice or route information he could share.

Generously, he told me that we was not going all the way to Fairfax, but that he could guide me part of the way. We rode two-across and chatted for the next half-hour or so.

He explained that he would love to join me further, but that he was recovering from an accident. "Just trying to get some base miles in," he said, grinning toothlessly.

Let me repeat that: toothlessly.

He was missing his four front teeth.

It turns out that his accident resulted in some dental damage. He proceeded to warn me about the descents—especially as we don't have anything like them in DC.

"I'll be careful!" I told him. "Between the 30 mph wobble on this bike, my bloody hand, and your teeth, someone is sending me a message."

Subtle, my guardian angel was not. He probably was compensating for my density.

The road turned upward and I said a hearty good morning to My Granny. Meanwhile. my whippet partner turned around at the top of the climb and we bid each other adieu.

I descended into Corte Madera along a serpentine road that tested my nerve and bike handling. I kept telling myself to relax, even as I clawed the bars with an iron-firm death grip.

At the bottom I looked down and discovered that
while both hands were sweatingmy right hand was coated in blood...again.

I got scared. I couldn't find the source of the blood, and I had officially crossed over from Hitchcockian Hershey's syrup to Rob Zombieland's hyper-realistic gore. Feeling around, I realized that inside my tubular wrappings was all liquid. The source was the original (modest) wound. The problem was that I simply was not clotting.

What was I to do? Turn around? Re-bandage? Ride on? I decided to ride on. I knew it wasn't a serious wound. I had ridden with much worse.

But it sure was ugly...

Fairfax, Gateway to Adventure

All the way to Fairfax I passed lovely small towns and escarpments of homes nestled into the sides of the valley.I climbed over hills and descended through gorgeous valleys, passing spectacular homesteads and immaculate bungalows. There's a lot of money in this area, and it shows...

The beauty of the area is intoxicating. Spring blooms were blossoming all around, and I was taken by the care with which the residents tended their landscape.

I got into Fairfax and passed a Java Hut that was doing a brisk business. Californians are serious about their coffee. It was around 0900 and the only people about the town were cyclists and coffee-seekers. Often, they were hybrid coffee-seeking cyclists. The parking lot was a meeting place for caffeinated cyclists; there were bunches getting geared up for rides.

Busy, busy, busy! I could have used a nice cuppa...

I reached the intersection of Broadway and Bolinas Roads and made the left turn that would lead me into the heights. I pulled over again to take a look at my hand. By this point, the inside of the wrap was wet while the outside was sticking to the brake hood. As long as I kept my hand in one place I was fine. But as soon as I moved it around, things got ugly.

I was something out of a horror movie...
This photo fails to do justice to my dripping plasma...

I was at the northernmost point of my ride, I was about to start climbing in earnest, , and my damned hand was not cooperating! I was pained and pissed. as I arrived at the road sign that marked the final intersection before the climb into Mt. Tamalpais. Two miles straight up to the Meadow Club, a private golf course in the hills. Seven miles to the reservoir's dam. Nine miles to Mount Tamalpais. Here we go!

 There be dragons...with long, winding, sinewy tails...

...on to Part III, "Ascension"...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mt. Tamalpais 1 - Inauspicious Beginnings

In Part I the author introduces his subject, details a comical event, and laments a loss...

An Epic Begins...Unepicly

The alarm sounded at 0530, waking me from a decent sleep. It was to be a big day in the saddle, so I wanted a solid breakfast. And I needed to have time to digest prior to my planned 0630 departure.

 Adventure! I had a long day ahead of me in NorCal .

I stumbled out of bed and made myself an instant oatmeal breakfast with dried cranberries, nuts, and chocolate. I cleverly had forgotten a bowl or spoon, so I broke my fast using a plastic fork, eating out of a paper coffee cup.

Inelegant, but workable.

I spent the next hour eating, drinking a liter of water, and studying the Marin County map. I burned the route into my mind, knowing that once I was on the road I would need the ready reference to inform decisions. Like all great plans, a long ride (such as this one) can change at any time for any number of reasons. As I scanned the map, I filed away several route combinatons, paying special attention to altitude references.

I am comfortable with distances, but when I looked at several miles-long climbs, I knew that I was out of my ken. I needed to know where I could bail on the routes!

I stuffed my backpack with an apple, a few Clif Bars, Hoot and Mousie, a camera, the map, and a few other necessities. In truth, I really did not want a backpack, but there was too much about this ride that was unknown, and I needed something to carry the layers I would shed when it got warmer (and the route turned upward).

Knee and arm warmers, merino base layer, sportwool jersey, softshell gilet, and a lightweight shell shielded me from the cold (it was 45 degrees at the start) as I hit Market and the Embarcadero on my way to the Golden Gate Bridge. I was without gloves, however, as I lost them the previous day (most likely at Trader Joe's in North Beach). My bare hands felt odd on the bars, something between uncomfortable and unnatural. It was an unwelcome distraction, considering the descents that I would face on the day.

 What goes up...and all that...wheeeeee!

Hitting the Road

No one was on the road as San Francisco slumbered. Sunday dawned cold and misty, a typical San Francisco day. The false dawn lightened the sky as the cool, wet morning air flowed past me. The filtered morning twilight cast everything in its bluish glow, making a dreamscape of the bridge approach.

The Golden Gate stands sentry in the false dawn light.

 This is the view of the road as I approached the bridge.
Everything was a little blurry!

A Policeman shocked me into awareness, just as I was about to turn onto the final approach to the bridge's western path.

Half-asleep, I fell over.

It was one of those slow-motion falls, where you make eye contact with the other person and proceed to shrug as gravity claims another victim. So surprised by the officer's arrival into my reverie, I simply forgot to unclip from my pedals.

Falling over in front of a policeman...bad form.

I was mortified.

Hastily, I got up, scraping my fingers across the glass-strewn gravel as I tried to recover my composure.

The policeman explained that the western path was closed, due to a 12k run that was scheduled to start within the hour. He asked if I was ok. I told him I was fine, thanks, I just bruised my pride.

"You sure you're ok?" he asked earnestly.

"I'm fine, thanks, good to go," I declared over my shoulder as I headed for the parking lot near the entry to the eastern path.

Brave Warrior Needs...Band Aid?

I reached the lot and saw a number of cyclists. The locals were gathering for their Sunday morning group rides. Good sign.

I smiled and said "hi!" as I rode by. One called after me, "Are you ok?"

I kept riding and noticed that my right hand was sweating profusely, and that my grip was...odd. Looking down, I was shocked at the sight. My hand was covered—and I mean covered in blood. Gobsmacked, I stared at my hand like it was an alien...thing. What happened?

I pulled over just as I crossed onto the bridge and examined the damage. Apparently I had cut off a chunk of my index fingertip. I also had a tick-sized blood blister on my thumb. Charming.

And I was bleeding...really bleeding. I learned something: when you're well-hydrated and have a steady heart rate over 130 bpm, you don't stop bleeding. It gets ugly, quickly. Not threatening, just ugly.


Meanwhile, somewhere in North Beach there's a homeless guy wearing my well-loved, black, fifteen-year-old bike gloves. 

...on to Part II, "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"...