Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Following Nate Harrison's Trail Up Palomar Mountain

I felt like one of the Danaides, caught in a timelessly futile torment trying to fill a porous jar with water that would wash away the sin of post-forced-marital mariticide. The thing is, there simply was not enough water left in my two bottles to squirt the multitude of hungry flies out of my every exposed orifice. The steep, narrow, and slippery dirt road I was on made me a fish in the flies' barrel. I tried to keep an eye on the road, but only caught flashes of trees and dirt in between the shifting curtains of gnats. My lungs gasped for air, but every other molecules of gas came accompanied by bugs.
The Danaides by John William Waterhouse circ 1903.
There couldn't have been more than a mile and a bit left from the top of Nate Harrison Grade Road where the trees would thin out and the cooler alpine air would be mostly free of pesky insects. The closer I got to the top, though, the distance seemed to stretch out like the magical pear branches that kept receding away from the starving hand of Tantalus. Cycling up Palomar Mountain outside of the cold winter months must be very offensive to the petulant gods of Olympus... and it has much less to do with the steepness and the length of the slope than whether one had splattered on sufficient amount of DEET before committing the crime commencing the climb. 

After a mile and a bit pavement ends on Nate Harrison Grade.
There are lots of view to see along the climb even on a misty day.
Old tarmac comes and goes, but the constant grind lasts (almost) forever.
That was my first re-visit with Palomar Mountain since last spring when I rode up and down the standard Hwy 76/S Grade Rd route with the friendly folks from Neighborhood Cyclery. It was a different day, then. I was in much fitter bicycling shape and had a lot of friends with me on the road. There was even a SAG support trailer keeping an eye on us up and down the mountain. This time around I was in a sad biking fitness and looking for much needed alone time away from civilization. The former didn't bode well for the steepest barely-roadbikeable route up the mountain (8.4 miles at 9% average gradient), the latter, however, is a given on Nate's mostly dirt road.

It took over two hours of constant grinding; about 20 minutes of which was spent in really-bugged-by-bugs purgatory, but I survived to the top and a bit (once you've endured the trial of Nate Harrison Grade Rd on a road bike, you might as well go another half mile up double digit gradient paved ramp to Boucher Hill fire lookout tower!). It is a very different climb from Palomar South Grade Rd. There are 5 or 6 ramps with gradients in the low teens, and there are false flats to catch your breath on. It's just a shame that the final mile of this thing is the steepest mile of the entire road.

The last mile and a bit of Nate Harrison Grade is very steep forested lane.
The burnt elephant stump guarding the road to Boucher Hill.
Boucher Hill Fire Lookout Tower (May 2017).
It had rained three days earlier, so the 6 miles of dirt on that narrow back door to the mountain was mostly dry and nicely firm. What I hadn't quite counted on was how windy the storm that hit the mountain was... The last two miles or so of Nate Harrison (and most of Boucher Hill Rd) was covered in downed trees; and a lot of huge roadside trees looked ready to come down with the next gust of wind (not a reassuring sight when you can hardly go 6 mph up the hill, and have neither the tires nor the brakes to even attempt to descend down the way you came).

I thought about swinging down to visit Doane Pond when I got to the top, but the road was closed due to storm-downed trees. Come to think of it, the rangers probably should have closed down Nate Harrison as well (or at least put up signs about downed trees and trees that might soon be coming down as you drive/ride under them further up the slope). At any rate, my legs were moderately grateful that the Doane Pond option was closed off. They had had quite enough of insect infested double digit gradient slopes for the morning!

Yes, there were still good patches of snow on Palomar Mountain!
A young doe crossed State Park Rd just ahead of me before stopping to give me a second look.
A glimpse of the snaky Palomar South Grade Rd from State Park Rd.
From Boucher Hill, it's three or so miles of paved rollers on State Park Rd (S7) to Mother's Kitchen and Palomar Mountain General Store, and the start of the descent back down the mountain. There aren't many descents in the county as hair-raisingly fun as the combination of Palomar South Grade and Hwy 76 to Jilberto's Taco. Twelve downhill miles (5-9% grade the whole way with just one short false flat in the middle), only one stop sign, and only two short straight stretches. A lot of times the descent alone is worth suffering up this big blob of granite for me.

Nate Harrison Grade is off my hit list until next winter, though. There are bugs waiting to ambush pesky cyclists along South Grade and East Grade Roads, too, but at least with those routes I would have the option to beat a retreat back down the hill if it gets too much. On Nate Harrison Grade, if you start up that on a road bike, you are committed to going all the way up in order to come down on the paved roads... unless you are a ninja bike handler on the level with Peter Sagan or his likes, I guess. But even if you can handle the super rough, steep, slippery, and snaky descent, you'll still likely need a couple of new tires and maybe spokes and brake pads by the time you level out again. That's just not quite worth it for me.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Starvation Mountain via Camino Del Aguilar - Revisited

I was fairly starved of proper on-bike suffering (and the glorious euphoria you get when you finally summit a hard-earned peak) during my exile to Riverside County in 2016. Now that I've returned to Didacus Sanctus (albeit quite a few clicks removed from the old Smorgabode), revisiting favorite scenic out-of-the-way climbs is the mission of 2017! On top of my 'Re-Hit List', of course, is the sheer brutality that is the hawks-infested super steep paved lane up the SW side of Starvation Mountain just east of Escondido/Rancho Bernardo, Camino del Aguila.

The relatively gnarly 'warm up' climb on Highland Valley Road.
These roadside cuties sure weren't starving for any breakfast!
I started out a bit late on a weekday morning from Rancho Bernardo and got on Highland Valley Rd a bit after the morning rush hour. Sycamore Creek Rd was looking dry and tantalizing, so I went snooping around there a bit. There might be a post on that one of these days if I ever shape up and become more disciplined about writing up exploration rides again. At any rate, I made it up HVR to the Camino del Aguila turn off without making too much stink... I think.

Pausing at the top of the 2nd bumps thru the winery gives you a good survey of the suffering to come.
By the time you get to this bit, the 3rd switchback, you're already cursing the day you were born.
Man, could I tell that I was over a year older and rustier since I last tried to 'spin' my way up this hideously relentlessly gnarly lane. The opening ramp from the bottom of the dip was amazingly demoralizing (no less because I knew now how horrible long I'd have to keep going before the gradient would drop to the humane side of 10% again. There was no longer any 'ignorance is bliss (or, rather, hope) associated with first time-ing up this road. No, the darn thing doesn't even let you breath at all until the 3rd switchback turn). I should say, though, unless you're trying to set a Strava record, you really should take it easy in the relatively mellow mid-section of this climb and take in the view (which, alas, will be behind you). Camino del Aguila is really one of the prettiest roads in San Diego County!

 The view of the top of Starvation Mountain looked quite different from the last time I snailed my way up this road a couple of years ago, though. There were now a few more houses near the top of the slope. I dread the day when they'd start putting in gates and turn this into something of the forbidden Cielo Complex between Via Ambiante and Mt Israel Rd in Olivenhain area.

The Snowman Boulder is still guarding the last icky steep (about 22% grade) ramp on Camino del Aguila.
I didn't go to the fence just below the summit this time, but opted to go sight-seeing around to the water tank atop Starvation Mountain Rd instead. A couple of new car gates had popped up in the last 2 years since I last came through here... along with quite a few new houses.

Starvation Mtn peak is well guarded. You must go up 22+% grader to get to the balcony, no matter from which direction you attack this hill from.

Mind you, every body I saw on the mountain was very friendly, though, waving and saying hello as they drove by. It sort of reminded me of my days in rural Missouri. People are much more friendly in person than they are in the news or online...

It was bone dry under Kreitzer Ped/Bike bridge over Lake Hodges. This was just before the winter storms hit last winter, of course!
Being too out of shape to attempt Mt Woodson after coming back down to HVR, I enjoyed the curvy descent (one of the best short technical descents around) down to Lake Hodges where I spent an hour or so stalking birds and a lovely little American kestrel before catching the bus home.

I know I had pretty much swore off ever pedaling up Starvation Mtn again on my way up.... but hills like this have a way of inflicting you with short-term memory loss of some sort and I want to go back up it again already. Before I do, though, there are a few other hills to check off my 'Re-Hit List' first...

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Box Springs Mountain's M Trail By Road Bike

I'm afraid I didn't get in many exploration rides in 2016, which will likely go down as the most terrible year I've had in a long while. But, but there were a few saving graces. One of them was the ride up Box Springs Mountain up in Moreno Valley!

Box Springs Mtn from Cottonwood Ave in Moreno Valley
Box Springs Mtn from Aqueduct Bike Trail in Moreno Valley.
Box Springs Mountain is pretty hard to miss for anyone passing through Moreno Valley on the 215 or the 60 freeways. It is the highest of the low hills south of San Bernardino Mountains, sports three separate sets of radio communication antennae along its peaks, and is marked with a large white letter 'M' on the Moreno Valley facing slope, and a big yellow letter 'C' on the northwestern flank above University of California - Riverside. Both big letters are favorite hiking destinations for the locals, of course!

I set out rather late one afternoon up Pigeon Pass Rd from Moreno Valley, spinning up the gentle climb into Spring Hills, the rural neighborhood of narrow lanes lined with farms, llamas, and patrolled by a rather large herd of wild burros. These four-legged cuties won't really approach you, but they are quite used to seeing humans and cars, so they'll let you get pretty close before moving off... and on... and off. It must have taken me 10 minutes to move 100 yrds when I ran into them just before Box Springs Mtn Rd branches off from Pigeon Pass Rd because they kept crossing the road back and forth in a weird attempt to both look at and get away from me at the same time.

Soon after the Box Springs Mtn Rd & Pigeon Pass Rd intersection pavement ends just as the slope pitches up to quite a ramp up the hard left-hand turn that had me up to my 34x28 gear ratio by the time it leveled off. This is a good bit of the road to remember on the way down, especially on my 25 mm road slick tires.

After that first ramp the climbing was pretty gentle (nothing steeper than 5% grade) and there was quite a bit of view to see down into Riverside and Loma Linda. After a mile or so I passed the Box Springs Mountain Park entrance where the road turns into a trail (it's still a wide fire road, but is closed to motorized vehicles). There isn't much there aside from the dirt parking lot, a few picnic tables, trash bins and a port-a-toilet.

Past the parking lot I rolled through the beautiful (and moderately flat) pasture and enjoyed the wild field so much I almost came off the bike when the road's packed dirt turned into moderately mushy sand for about 30 yds (it isn't exactly easy to see in the late afternoon light), after which the gradient picked up again on the left turn toward the first set of antennae. I think it's the complex atop the big C above UCR campus. It's still gentle enough for my 34x30 gear to cope with, until just after the 2nd encounter with Hidden Spring Trail where the road (now really just a narrow lane) makes a hard left turn into a huge set of ruts and a washed out 20% grade ramp. I don't know how I'd do with a full suspension mtb, but I'm no Martyn Ashton or Chris Akrigg on a rigid road bike and there was no way I'd have made it up that hideous section of the trail rubber-side-down. Heck, it was hard going even portaging the bike up to the switchbacks above!

Luckily that proved to be the only unrideable (at least by road bike) portion of the trail for me. There was another steep ramp (with some loose-ish sandy section leading to it) up to the next set of antennae, but it was still rideable. The road becomes much more trail-y and rough after that with the sharp turn-y descent and climb to the last antenna; the one directly above the big M.

Alas, the antennae complex was completely fenced in and it was too late in the day for me to venture down onto the .6 mile single track trail that leads around the complex to the actual M (I wanted to descend past all the sandy sections of the trail before it got too dark), so I just hang around on top and drank in the view for a bit. It was hard earned and beautiful!

Descending Box Springs Mtn Trail on a rigid road bike with dual pivot brakes and running 25 mm road slick tires was, I'm afraid, quite less than fun. I'm an above-average bike handler, and it took all of my skills and a lot of luck to make it back down to the flat-ish meadow path to the parking lot with all my bones intact. No matter how hard on the brakes you descend, you'll still carry too much speed down that trail to always be able to stay on a good descending line through all the curves - all the while hoping that the tires wouldn't go poof on you from all the skidding. Then, of course, there were the sandy sections and the ruts that you'd have to end up bunny hopping over simply because there is no way you can stop the bike with the dual pivot brakes and the no-tread tires... hoping that the landing on the other side of the ruts is firm enough for you to keep the bike under control. I think I must have aged 10 years in just 3 miles of riding!

It was as awesome a time as I'd ever had on a bicycle, mind you, but the next time I brave Box Springs Mtn, it'll be on either a mountain bike or a proper cyclocross bike!

Here is a short video clip of the Smorgmobile 1.2's last adventure:

Thursday, January 5, 2017

TBThursday: A LUNA Chix ride full of lessons for newbie rider

TBThursday: Riding to Lyons Valley Trading Post from Donny's Cafe in Bonita with the San Diego LUNA Chix in 2012.
Heading east on Otay Lakes Rd at lower Otay Lake with the SD LUNA Chix in late spring 2012.
 I had only been cycling for 3 months then, and boy, did I have much to learn! It was the most challenging ride on the LUNA Chix's schedule that season (the LUNA Chix have since warped into the Wheel Women of San Diego, of course, though they still welcome non-competitive guys on their rides); a 50 or so miler with a lot of climbing. I made several mistakes that resulted in my only unfinished ride that isn't due to crashing.

#1. I washed the bike the night before and didn't put the rear wheel back on right... because I had never tried taking out the rear wheel and putting it back on myself before. 😶 It is rarely a good idea to try doing new things to the bike just before a tough ride!

#2. I only checked tire pressure before rolling off, but never gave the wheels the spin check (to make sure they are spinning true and not rubbing the brakes, because, you know, I was green and didn't know better.

#3. I didn't ask the more seasoned LUNA Chix ride leaders to check the bike for me before we started riding (since I had taken off the rear wheel and put it back on myself for the first time. It's always a good idea to have someone else check your work for you!).

So, of course, it all went quite wrong. I rode in to the ride's start at Donny's from North Park and the bike already felt quite heavy. It didn't improve after we had taken off up the warm up climbs of Otay Lakes Rd and the rolling hills east to Pio Pico rest stop either. I brushed it off as being a bit over-trained (I was riding a lot because I wanted to ride the Giro di San Diego ride from Solana Beach to the top of Palomar Mtn and back a couple of months from then)... and thought that the heaviness of the bike was a symptom of my having a 'bad legs day'... After all, I checked the tire pressure often, and they were definitely not going flat. 

#4. I sensed that something wasn't right, but didn't tell any more-experienced rider or ride leader about it.

By the time we turned uphill on the long climb of Honey Springs Rd I was dropping off the back end of the group and struggling mightily to keep moving. I occasionally smelled burnt rubber, but it was a hot day (it must have been close to 100F on that slope by then), so it didn't feel that out of place for me. I only made it half way up the climb and turned around to make sure that I could make it back to Donny's. The rest of the group went on and tagged the Trading Post, then caught and passed me on the rolling hills back into Eastlake. One of the ride leaders even gave me a push up a hump on Otay Lakes... It was pretty darn demoralizing to implode so spectacularly on a sub-50 miler less than two months before the slated 111 mile torture ride with 10000 ft of expected elevation gain.

I only found out the culprit when I stopped by at an old pal's place before rolling home and finally thought to give the wheels a spin before mounting the bike. The rear one couldn't even complete a single revolution. I had put it on a bit off and it was rubbing the rear brake so much that the normally shiny brake assembly was completely blackened by rubber debris. I was lucky that the rear tire didn't blow out when I bombed down Honey Springs Rd 18 miles earlier.
LUNA Chix Ellen, leading B group up Cabrillo Tidepools Hill a year later in 2013.
I had one thing going for me on that ride, though. I was riding with Team LUNA Chix San Diego and they took care of me. The ride's sweeper, Ellen, absolutely refused to leave me behind until I got to a safe place (my friend's pad). She practically saved my butts!

You live and learn, but some days are more full of lessons than others!