Climbing Dirt Roads at Night

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Rides

Climbing Dirt Roads at Night

Ever since the Super Randonnée 600 program was announced by RUSA, we’ve been planning our ride. Even though RUSA cancelled the program, we’ve been pursuing the idea. (You still can ride the SR600 by applying directly to the ACP in Paris.)
Last week, we headed out to see whether the snow had melted enough to make our route passable. This also allowed us to examine one short piece of road we had not ridden before. (During my pre-ride, I encountered a massive landslide, which required re-routing the course slightly – see the article in the Winter 2012 Bicycle Quarterly.)
As so often, the ride started with an e-mail, but this time I was the instigator: “I’ll leave after dinner on Tuesday. Will you join me?” Ryan replied that he could make it! So we headed out of town on little-known backroads as the sun set on our destination: Mount Rainier.
The route toward Mount Rainier through and past the metropolitan area is a “transport stage.” We know these roads and prefer to ride them night when there is almost no traffic. In three hours, we saw no more than 5 cars. And that was before we turned off the pavement and started climbing Forest Road 84. Last autumn, I barely made it across this road, having to walk my bike for about a mile through the snow at the summit. Had the snow melted enough to make this road passable now in early June?
For now, things were going well. The gravel was smooth, and only occasionally were tree branches strewn over the road. Our Edelux headlights provided ample light for riding this gravel road on this moonless night.
As we gained elevation, we started seeing patches of snow on the road. For the most part, we could ride on the edge of the road where the snow had melted. We had to hike from time to time (photo at the top of the post), but finally made it to the summit. We probably were the first people to cross this summit this year – there were no tire tracks in the snow, and several fallen trees made the road impassable for motorized vehicles. It was strange to think that nobody else has crossed this summit, since I came through here more than 6 months ago (except perhaps on skis). It makes you realize the power of nature when a road is passable less than half of the year.
We stopped for a moment and admired the stars. At this elevation on the moonless night, the stars were incredibly bright. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon. It was an incredible feeling, having climbed this dirt road pass in the middle of the night. Even though it was about 3 o’clock in the morning, we were wide awake. Sharing this moment with a friend made it doubly special.
The descent was even more exhilarating. We saw the silhouette of Mount Rainier against the first dawn. A few more hike-a-bike sections followed, where snow remained in narrow valleys that don’t see much sun. Then we could let the bikes roll in the twilight. We zoomed past amazing rock formations as we approached the Skate Creek valley. Back on pavement, but still “off the beaten path,” we rolled into Packwood as the first rays of the sun illuminated the slopes above.
We hadn’t seen a single car in more than 5 hours, and most of all, we had made it across the first mountain road of our reconnaissance trip. Riding passes on dirt roads in daytime is great fun, but doing so at night adds another dimension to the experience.
In Packwood, we took 15 minutes for a short rest and snack at the 24-hour gas station before tackling the second part of our journey… (to be continued)

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