Riding Cooney Lake to Horsehead Pass

Spent one final weekend this year camping and riding to celebrate my 30th birthday. This time we were out in the Okanagon National Forest, just to the east of North Cascades National Park in Washington. This would be my toughest ride yet.

Friday, September 30
We pulled into the Riverbend RV Park outside of Twisp around 7:30 Friday night, right behind Doug St. John. Once at the group camp area we met two other former BBTC members who decided to join us. One named Ricardo, the other was yet another Doug. I go my entire life not knowing another Doug and here I am with 2 of them. Cool. The temps alongside the Methow River Friday night were balmy and I was walking around in a t-shirt until nearly 10pm. This campground charges $8 per person per night, but in my opinion it was worth it. The group camp area was both large and clean, and had multiple picnic tables. It was also near the very clean bathrooms, where one can buy a 5 minute hot shower for $0.50. Ellen and Piset showed up later Friday night after enduring rain storms much of the way. It stayed dry in the Methow valley and we slept well.

Saturday, October 1: Cooney Lake to Horsehead Pass
25 miles with over 5,000 feet of climbing

It was a 40 minute drive to the Crater Creek trailhead from our campground. Once there, we met the other riders: Dave, Bob, Igor, and Paul; each of whom camped in the frigid temps at the trailhead. Two other riders, not from BBTC, were venturing off just as we were and we would see them frequently throughout the day. We were off.

The climb to Cooney Lake is 9 miles long and climbs steadily much of the entire way. A few of the riders took off immediately and were pedaling very fast, but several of us took it easy and paced ourselves for the lengthy day. After about 6 miles of climbing, we started to really gain some elevation and the effects of the high country were starting to take their toll on me. The final 2 miles to Cooney Lake were pretty slow going, as the cold air (by now, it was flurrying) and being over 6,000 feet started messing with me. I stopped often to take plenty of photographs of the golden larch trees, and by the time I and the others at the tail end of the pack reached Cooney Lake, it was clear that the band was about to break up.

Climbing to Cooney Lake

Encountering a bit of snow amongst the larch

My bike and the larch trees... perfect together

Some turned back for medical concerns, others because of the cold and altitude (we were now above 7,000 feet and headed to 8,200) and when all was said and done, our group of 10 was reduced to 6. I personally didn't care whether I went on or not, but as the "ride leader" I figured I would go along with the majority. Nevermind the fact that I felt as if I couldn't take three steps without collapsing over my bike gasping for air. From Cooney Lake, the trail turns vertical and involves pushing & carrying your bike for the better part of a half mile as you make the ascent to 8,200 feet. Igor and the two other Dougs were up ahead yelling words of encouragement to Piset and I who were reconsidering the sanity of our decision.

Piset enduring the climb from Cooney Lake

The climb levels off briefly amongst the larch

Piset enjoying the tremendous view from above Cooney Lake

The views on the ascent from Cooney Lake were nothing short of spectacular, but by the time we made the traverse to the top of Angel's Staircase, the view was much different. There we stood amongst the clouds with a strong snowfall blowing around us. We all piled on every last stitch of clothing we had with us, paused to eat some food, and hydrate, and then straddled our bikes for the technical descent. Some hikers who had just climbed the Staircase paused in disbelief at the sight of us. They took pictures to show their mountain biking friends who, apparently, aren't nearly as tough as they think they are. Then they smiled and said, "I hope the descent is more fun than terrifying". Just what I wanted to hear.

Shrouded in snowfall and clouds atop Angel's Staircase

Descending Angel's Staircase is not for the faint of heart

The descent proved to be both. I was experiencing a noticeable delay in my reaction time due to the conditions and made the descision early to unclip at each switchback. As my photos will testify, an error at this part of the trail will come with a very hefty price. Helmet or no helmet. So while I knew I could negotiate most of the switchbacks, I decided not to even try. I rode what I could and walked the rest for safety. Once we regrouped at the bottom of Angel's Staircase, we all had some fun zipping along the valley on the west side of Sawtooth Ridge. It was about 2pm now and we had been out in the cold for several hours. It was good to finally get some fun, flowy singletrack to ride through.

Off the Staircase and across the valley

We eventually came to the wonderful site that is Boiling Lake. There we basked in the sun, ate, talked, and took photos. We were there for a while, but it felt so good to relax and regain some strength for the final push to Horsehead Pass (elevation 7,600). The climb from Boiling Lake to Horsehead Pass was slow and arduous for me. I was now at the point where if the ground wasn't flat, I had to push. The elevation had really cooked me good (this despite having once ridden 50+ miles above 10,000 feet with nary an effect) but fortunately for me, Piset was also experiencing some unexpected adverse effects and was there to keep me company most of the day. Hence, most of my action shots being of Piset -- nobody else was around.

Yours truly catching some Z's near Boiling Lake

The final climb of the day -- up to Horsehead Pass

Once atop Horsehead Pass, I was ready to get the final 7 miles over with. We had struggled all day, and now it was time for the reward. The temps were dropping as was the sun, but the snow had stopped, and we had plenty of light left to rip down the final few miles. And what fun they were. I did my best to try and keep Igor in sight, but that was to no avail. That guy can ride! We regrouped a couple of times on the descent -- it was nice to not be the one everybody was waiting on for once -- but mostly just let rip back to the cars.

Everybody was pretty cold, hungry, and exhausted so there wasn't much hanging around the trailhead after the ride. We all drove back to the campground and made a mad dash for the showers. A hot shower never felt so good. Later that night, we all had dinners at the campground and then my wife Kristin (who had hiked to Martin Lake and back, just 3 miles shy of Cooney Lake) lit the candles on my marzipan-covered birthday cake. I was turning 30 and as if that wasn't bad enough, Doug St. John went and bought those magical candles for me to suffer with. In case you skipped ahead, let's flashback for a moment. I already spent 7 hours on my birthday gasping for oxygen and now Doug thought it funny to put non-extinguishing candles on my cake. Yes, it was pretty funny. We hung around the campfire pretty late and had a great time.

Sleep came easy Saturday night, despite the below freezing temperatures.

1 comment:

Criscipline said...

Out of all the pictures I've seen so far, that's my favorite place you've been to.

I am so happy you had such a great birthday. I knew you would. That place really sounds amazing. I hope you know that those three syllables are really just encompassing a million more.

I love reading about your adventures.