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Lael Wilcox: The Mount Lemmon Challenge

I love the scenes in movies and the chapters in books when the hero is training and developing and working to become great; when you see that drive and ambition to face sacrifices and to improve. You see cold early mornings and sweat and pain become results. I want to live that story. I want to climb that mountain.

The beauty of climbing is that you won’t just have one experience. There will be fierce moments of riding into a driving wind, of your lungs flaming and your quads disintegrating to cinders, and then there will be absolute calm. The longer you stay out there, the more you’ll experience.

Mount Lemmon is special. It stands tall to northeast of Tucson. It glows pink and sometimes red at sunset. After precipitation and cold, it is covered in white snow. There’s a ski hill at the top, the southernmost resort in the US.

Every time I think about Mount Lemmon or look at it, I want to climb it. From the base, twenty-five miles (40 km) of ‘highway’ switchback up over 6,000 feet (1800 m) to the town of Summerhaven, permanent population of 40. There’s a general store, a visitors’ center, a Cookie Cabin and a post office, with one post lady and limited hours. While hiking the Arizona Trail in the fall of 2018, Rue and I planned to camp near Summerhaven. The night temperatures were in the low 20s and the ladies at the general store told us to sleep in the heated post office. We did. The lights stayed on all night and a local came to collect from her post office box (and gave us the look), but we stayed warm and got some sleep.

Climbing the first twenty miles the Mount Lemmon Highway is the biological equivalent of riding from the Sonoran Desert of Mexico to the pine forests of Canada through six unique vegetation zones. There is the dirt Control Road down the backside to Oracle, but I’ve never seen it open to vehicles. It is a treasure of a bike ride, up or down. In addition, the rough and rocky Arizona Trail travels from Oracle via Oracle Ridge to connect to the Mount Lemmon Highway at the top of Control Road. It’s a dream to connect the trail, Control Road and pavement – in a snowy pine forest. And all this in Southern Arizona! Different modes of travel yield entirely different adventures.

I am enamored with this mountain for a few reasons. You can see it from almost anywhere in Tucson and it’s not far away. It’s a 6,000’ gradual and scenic road climb that doesn’t connect into a road system. Anyone traveling there is just climbing the mountain. Yes, they might live or work in Summerhaven, but if that’s the case, it’s intentional – like living in the Grand Canyon, but you can ride a bike there. At a casual pace, it’s three hours of pedaling and almost entirely up. My thoughts and dreams live on Mount Lemmon. I’ve been spending part of every winter in Tucson for the past three years. I’m from Alaska.

Riding in shorts and a t-shirt in December feels like a celebration. Spending time in Tucson has always felt impulsive, like anything is possible, and I love that. It’s a sprawl of a city surrounded by public land and mountains with great bike paths and cycling infrastructure. It’s the first place that’s felt like home since Anchorage.

For the past three years, I’ve ridden my own Mount Lemmon Challenge. During the first and most productive, I rode from the base to Summerhaven every day for a week. I was on a week-long break from guiding endurance gravel camps with The Cyclist’s Menu out of Patagonia, AZ. I was reading through 160 applications for the Lael Rides Alaska Women’s Scholarship – for a woman to win a bike and all the gear she needed to ride her own 1,000-mile adventure in Alaska. The mountain was my reprieve. I’d work and read scholarship applications until the early afternoon and ride the mountain before dark. Every morning, I’d look forward to the ride. That week, I climbed 47,000 feet (14,300 m) and saw every sunset.

Last year, I set out to ride Lemmon five times in a row. Riding in a down jacket and into a stiff headwind on the first climb, I thought the whole thing might be a mistake. The headwind only lasted for the first five miles to Molino Basin and then went away. Willie rode up with me once and Myke rode up with me twice. Even with a cold, Rue was there for support. We stashed a cooler full of drinks, snacks and layers at mile 15, so she could go home and take a nap. She came back at dark to make sure I was okay. I was thankful, because guys in Honda Civics were racing up the mountain. I rode up five times in seventeen hours. I started at the base and climbed to the high point just before mile 21, something like 27,000 feet (8,200 m) that day. The last two climbs were in the dark. It all felt good.

The challenge has to grow. This year, while riding Lemmon with a couple of friends, I thought, what if I made a challenge where it just got harder every day. On the first day, I’d climb it once. On the second day, I’d climb it twice and on, until the fifth day and five climbs. It’d be a total of fifteen Lemmons. I planned for a Christmas attempt – the 15 Lemmons of Christmas instead of the 12 Days of Christmas. It snowed several feet in Summerhaven over Christmas, and the road was closed. I waited for a better weather window and started on January 5.

For preparation, I swapped the heavy tires on my Specialized Diverge for 38mm Barlow Pass Extralights and put on road pedals. That first day, I felt like I was flying, I was climbing the mountain in a higher gear with less effort and absolutely loving it. A three-pack of roadies were sitting on my wheel. I was listening to a crime novel, in my own world, until one of the guys caught my attention by blowing his nose. Two of them passed and one pulled up beside me. “What’s your name?” – “It’s Lael.” – “My wife and I just watched your video. We’re new huge fans. You should be on the cover of the Wheaties box!”

We get to talking. He has a carbon Colnago frame with carbon lugs. It looks really cool. He was a pro road racer for ten years and rode this model, but the teams always took back the bikes, so he decided to splurge and buy one for himself. We talk about riding bikes in Israel and how hard mountain biking is. I wasn’t expecting company and it’s a welcome surprise. It’s sunny and 70 and the day is perfect. We part ways at Windy Point and I keep climbing.

It’s Sunday and there are loads of cars driving up the mountain to play in the snow, many with Mexican license plates. I see snowmen and snowballs and even a guy shoveling snow into the back of his pickup to bring down to Tucson. I hit the high point at Mile 21, but I just don’t want to turn around yet. It feels too good. I keep pedaling to Summerhaven. It’s cold up high. I ride to the Cookie Cabin and turn back around. I’ve never seen so many people in Summerhaven. I put on pants and a down jacket for the descent. Rue’s plan is to ride the mountain once every day and when I turn around and catch her, she’ll turn around too. I see her near mile 18 and she’s not smiling.

“What’s going on?” – “Some guy threw a can of Bud Light at me out of the window of his truck.” – “Did it hit you?” – “No, but it barely missed. It was full. I took down the license plate number because I though he might come after me. Another cyclist offered to ride the rest of the way up with me.” We descend together and go home to make spaghetti.

For the next three days, the mountain is all consuming. I get up early to make little burritos and drink lots of Cokes. It’s all pedaling and eating and listening to audiobooks, and I’m in my happy place. On the fourth day after two repetitions, we eat some fast Chinese food for fuel. After shoveling sweet-breaded chicken and fried rice, I open my fortune and erupt in laughter. “What is it?” – “It says, ‘it’s time to find new passions.’” Rue laughs, too: “Don’t take that too much to heart.

I climb a third time and begin the fourth at sunset and ride up for another three hours in the dark. Rue is in the car. She stops at pull outs to cheer me on and take photos. As I climb, it gets colder. I put on warm gloves, a wool shirt and a down jacket. Rue is waiting for me at the high point, so we can ride down together in the car and go home. I’ve ridden Lemmon ten times in four days with a total of 54,450 feet (16,600 m) of climbing.

Standing there in the cold and the dark, I realize it’s over, and I feel content. I’ve gotten my fill, and it’s time to move on. We leave for Colombia in five days for a route-building project with Conservation International and bikepacking.com. It’s time to switch gears. There are other mountains to climb, and in my near future they’re in Colombia — the route we have proposed is 250 miles and 40,000 feet of climbing and most of that occurs at an altitude above 9,000 feet. The idea is to highlight the Paramo, an ecosystem that captures moisture from the air and provides 80% of the drinking water for Bogota, a city of 8 million. Biking is my vehicle for exploring the outside world and figuring out how I feel about it.

And yet – waking up the next morning, my eyes scan straight for the window and the mountains and my head and my heart are back there. I still want to go up.

Story: Lael Wilcox
Photos: Rugile Kaladyte

Further reading: Lael and Rue told the story of their adventures in Kyrgystan in the Winter Bicycle Quarterly.

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