An Epic Memorial Day Weekend in the Eastern Sierras

Mike and I both love the Eastern Sierras and the area around Bishop – it’s just a long way to go for a weekend trip (a 6hr drive if Tioga Pass is open, longer if you have to go via Sonora Pass or Carson/Monitor Pass). So the Memorial Day long weekend at the end of May seemed like a perfect opportunity to head out that way, and being 2.5 weeks before the start of Race Across the West it seemed like good timing – do some shorter rides but still get a good workout in, and get some elevation acclimatization. At this point I’d given up on getting any heat training since spring and summer seem to have bypassed California. Of course that didn’t mean that I was expecting snow storms and sub-freezing temps (which is what we got)!!

Anyway, we headed out Friday afternoon, and thankfully Sonora Pass had just opened that day, so we were able to take that route. We left the bay area around 4:30pm, and with a stop in Oakdale so that I could finish up work we finally pulled into Mammoth Lakes just after midnight. It was cold and windy, a bit of foreshadowing for what was to come.

Saturday morning we decided we would do a loop from Mammoth Lakes to the top of Rock Creek Road and back – it looked like it would be about 60 miles round trip and would go up the highest paved road in California (according to Mike’s guide book about cycling climbs in California). The weather was nippy and windy, and a storm system was supposed to be moving in later in the afternoon so we wanted to be done before the winds got “unsafe”, plus I had to be online for work at 5pm. We set out from Mammoth Lakes and were screaming along with the downhill and the strong tail wind (great, I thought to myself, that meant a head wind coming back which was likely to have intensified even more by then…..). We got off Highway 395 and onto the Crowley Lake loop which took us to Tom’s Place. Just as we passed Tom’s Place I heard a loud popping noise from my bike. At first I thought it was just my derailleur slipping or something (it hadn’t been shifting great lately, and definitely needs a tuneup before RAW). We turned the corner onto Rock Creek Road and the start of the 9 mile climb, and I could tell that something wasn’t right. I looked down at my wheels thinking maybe I had a flat tire or something. It didn’t look like I had a flat, but something wasn’t right, so I stopped to look closer. Sure enough, I had broken a spoke on the drive side of my rear wheel! Even after opening up the brakes the wheel couldn’t spin without rubbing on the brakes. I was incredibly bummed out, and wondered if my weekend of cycling in the Sierras had just come to an unfortunate end. I told Mike to continue on and do the ride, and that I would wait at Tom’s place, try to call some bike shops in Mammoth to see if any might be able to fix my wheel later in the day, and intended to have Mike come pick me up after finishing his ride. I called a couple bike shops and got that lined up, but then I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting waiting for 4+ hours doing nothing. I started playing with my wheel and brakes to see if I could get it to spin without rubbing the wheels. I tucked the broken spoke behind a spoke on the non-drive side so that it wouldn’t flop around, and although I couldn’t get the brakes to stop rubbing I finally decided “to heck with it, I’m going to at least start riding up the climb and see what happens”. Since it was a 9 mile climb I wouldn’t be going much faster than 6-8mph, so even if something catastrophic happened, I would be going so slowly that I shouldn’t get hurt. I figured I could always wait at the top, or start to walk down or something, but at least it would give me something to do other than sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting to be rescued!

So I set off up Rock Creek Road, a 9 mile climb with about 3,000ft of elevation gain that goes up to 10,300 feet total elevation. The bottom section I was definitely laboring, and it was pretty steep, so I quickly dropped into my easiest gear in order to not put too much stress on the already maimed rear wheel. I was starting to wonder if I’d done the wrong thing, but being as stubborn and ornery as I am, I kept going. The road leveled off a bit, but on these sections the wind was howling down the mountain, so although the gradient was less, it wasn’t much easier riding since I was fighting a vicious head wind. There was also more traffic on the road than I’d been expecting – I didn’t realize that there were some lodges and several campgrounds up the road. About a mile and a half from the top I saw Mike coming down the other way. He stopped and I told him my plan – that I was going to go to the top, and if I felt safe descending slowly I would, and that I’d continue to limp along towards Mammoth so that he could come pick me up. He continued down the climb and I continued up. The road pitched up again near the top, and I was definitely feeling the effects of the altitude (amplified by the headwind and the fact that my brakes were rubbing on my wheel while I rode – nothing like a little extra resistance training!).

Top of Rock Creek Road, 5/28/11


I finally got to the top, and there was lots of snow around, and the lake near the end of the road was covered in ice. It was however a beautiful view up the valley into the mountains. The end of the road was marked by a large wall of snow. I propped my bike up against the snow and took some pictures. The ranger came by and offered to take my picture, so I graciously accepted his offer, and we chatted for a bit. It looked like this was the end of the paved road, which was supposedly at 10,300ft, but now I’m not so sure since someone else who did the ride that weekend posted that it was only 9,900ft at that point. Regardless of whether it was 10,300ft or 9,900ft, it was still pretty darned high! It had taken me about 2.5hrs to climb the 9 miles – certainly not very fast, but given the conditions and the fact that I wasn’t trying to kill myself off with super hard efforts this close to RAW I wasn’t too upset.

Top of Rock Creek Road, 5/28/11


Top of Rock Creek Road, 5/28/11

I then set about descending. The road wasn’t very technical, so I figured it would be safe if I could keep my speed fairly low – I initially was going to stay at 10mph, but ended up going about 15mph down the climb (and even crept up to almost 20mph a few times before I realized it and was able to slow down again). I could only really use my front brake (since my rear wheel was so out of true – it was wobbling violently and was mesmerizing to look at), so I just kept things under control and took my time going down the hill. It looked like it would have been an awesome descent if I could have “let er rip” since it was a fairly straight road and I had a tailwind. The bottom was definitely a bit steeper (reaffirming my earlier suspicions when I’d been suffering up that section), and it tested my ability to maintain my speed with only the front brakes. I finally got to the bottom and texted Mike to let him know that I was now about to head out onto Highway 395 and head towards Mammoth. There was more downhill towards Crowley Lake, so I again got to ride my brakes. Then I started hitting the head winds and cross winds……

The wind was definitely picking up, and there were a few sections near the Mammoth Airport where I almost got blown off the road with a couple cross wind gusts! I kept trudging along though, and finally got to the turn off towards Mammoth. I stopped again to text Mike and let him know that I was exiting 395. From 395 into Mammoth is mainly uphill, and the wind was pretty much a straight on fierce headwind. I slogged forward, and finally saw Mike a couple miles from town. At this point I figured there was no point “quitting” – I was so close that I might as well just finish, so I just rode to the bike shop. I ended up with just over 56 miles of riding in 5hrs ride time (thanks to having to go slow on the descents, and then fighting the wind the rest of the ride) and about 5,000ft of elevation gain, most of it at over 7,000ft elevation.

We went to Brian’s Bicycles, and were super impressed with the service we received! Brian (the owner) immediately set to finding a spoke for me and repairing the wheel and truing it. We were probably in there for close to an hour, and all the parts and labor were only $22! So if you ever need bike services/supplies while in Mammoth, I’d highly recommend checking out Brian’s Bicycles. In the winter he’s a Cross Country Ski store, so keep that in mind too!

We headed back to the hotel and quickly changed and then headed to the Looney Bean coffee shop so that I could logon and finish work. I had a mocha which was particularly yummy and hit the spot after a day out in the cold and wind, and some banana bread with chocolate chips in it – also very tasty! Then we headed to the hot springs just south of Mammoth and east of the airport. Shepherd’s hot spring was full, so we backtracked to “The Tub”. There was someone in it, so we waited until he left (let’s just say that he was traveling “light”, which meant not even a speedo….!). After he left we got in, but were surprised that it was only luke warm – that was very unusual. We still soaked for a while and took in the great views of the Sierras and the storm that was moving in over the crest.

Snow in Mammoth Lakes, 5/29/11. Note that Mike is wearing flip-flops!

After dinner we soaked up some more heat by using the outdoor jacuzzi at the hotel – at this point it was snowing and blowing pretty good – hard to believe it was almost June!!! Then the power went out at the hotel……great! Sunday morning the power was still out, so it meant for a cold shower – brrr!!! There was an inch or so of fresh snow on the ground, so no biking today! We instead decided to drive south to Bishop and then drive up to South Lake and Lake Sabrina and hopefully do a bit of hiking there. We stopped at the Looney Bean again for coffee (and a cherry scone!), then headed to Bishop where we stopped off at Schat’s Bakery – a must stop when in the Bishop area!!

Mike at Lake Sabrina, 5/29/11.


Rocky trail at Lake Sabrina, 5/29/11.


We drove up towards South Lake and again entered a snow storm, and the temps quickly dropped below freezing again…. At South Lake we couldn’t really see anything – it was completely socked in. So then we headed to Lake Sabrina. It was a bit clearer there, so we decided to explore a little bit and hike around the lake. We made it to the end of the lake, but then couldn’t find a way to cross the inlet creek, plus we weren’t sure if the trail was passable on the other side of the lake since there was more snow on that side, and it was on the side of a mountain. So we back tracked the way we came. During our hike the clouds came and went and came again, so one moment we could see the mountains, and the next we couldn’t! The wind picked up on our return, and it started snowing a bit again. It was still a nice 3+ mile hike at about 9,000ft elevation though with some nice views of the lake and the surrounding mountains.

Mike in front of a typical rock formation at the Buttermilks, 5/29/11.


We then headed back towards Bishop and stopped off at the Buttermilks – an area where a lot of climbers congregate for climbing and bouldering. We drove around the backside of the main formation and then climbed/scrambled our way to the top. We saw a rattlesnake curled up under a rock at one point – good job it was cold and he was too lazy to bother us!!

Rattlesnake at the Buttermilks, 5/29/11.


Mike at the Buttermilks, 5/29/11.

From the top we had some great views of the White Mountains on the other side of the valley, as well as the mountains behind us. And the climb had been non-technical enough that even chicken me had enjoyed it! It would have been great to have stayed and explored a bit more, but we had to head into Bishop so that I could get online for work again, so after soaking up the view for a while we headed down again. Going down was much faster than going up!! We just slid down the scree/sandy slope – it reminded me of descending down the scree slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2007 with Katie and Carson.

After re-caffeinating we grabbed pizza and wings at the Pizza Factory in Bishop and then headed north to the hot springs again. This time there weren’t as many people at Shepherd’s, so we waited there and ate our dinner as the sun set over the Sierras. Then at dusk the others left the hot springs and we were able to get in – yay – this one was MUCH warmer!! So we soaked in the hot water and watched the stars come out over the Sierras in the sub freezing temperatures – what a great way to top off the day!

Squirrel enjoying his breakfast at Convict Lake, 5/30/11.


Sunday morning we got up and visited Schat’s Bakery in Mammoth before heading south towards Independence where we were going to do the Onion Valley Road climb – the hardest climb in California according to the book Mike had. First though we stopped off at Convict Lake just south of Mammoth to eat our pastries from the bakery and soak in the great views. There was a squirrel there that was also enjoying the view – of our pastries!!! He was a brave little fella, and even darted onto my foot. Mike was mean and put out his hand pretending he had food in (when he didn’t), so the little guy bit his finger!! Serves him right! ;)

From Convict Lake we headed south to Independence. It was much clearer than the previous day, so we could see the mountain ranges on each side of the valley. The climb up Onion Valley Road is 13 miles long and climbs 5,200ft (going from about 4,000ft in Independence up to 9,200ft at the top), and the last 10 miles are a steady gradient above 8% – yowzers! The bottom 4-5 miles of the climb are deceptive – it doesn’t even look like you’re climbing much since it’s a sloped valley floor that’s so common in the desert as it leads to the base of the mountains, but we could tell from our exertion level that we were definitely climbing!!

View from Onion Valley Road, 5/30/11.


About 5 or 6 miles in we passed a couple of campgrounds, and the road got significantly steeper as we started up some long windy switchbacks. All the while I was wondering where the heck the road went, because we were literally heading towards a mountain wall that looked impassable!! Where the heck was this road going??? Then I caught a glimpse of sunlight flash off a vehicle that had passed us a while back, and I could sort of make out the huge switchbacks that were heading literally up the side of the mountain!! Wow! As we got up higher it continued to get more and more scenic as we got views of the rocks, trees, mountains, and snow up ahead. This stretch of road was probably one of the most scenic climbs I’ve done in California – totally worth the effort!!!

Finally we got to the top, a little valley at 9,200 feet elevation. What a spectacular climb! It had taken about 2.5hrs to climb 13 miles, but climbs like this are what make riding a bike so incredibly invigorating and make you feel alive!! We stopped and took some pictures and put on some more layers of clothing for the descent.

Onion Valley Road is VERY windy!!


View descending Onion Valley Road, 5/30/11.


The descent was even more spectacular than the ascent. Seeing the windy road cut back and forth across the mountain side was pretty amazing. No wonder we couldn’t really see where the road was going when we were climbing – the road was literally right above us!! We stopped several times to take pictures and soak in the views. We finally got back to the car with 3hrs of ride time for 26 miles and 5,200ft of climbing. In terms of “difficulty”, it was certainly not easy, but I find steeper gradients over shorter distances to be more difficult – so to me, a climb like Welch Creek is probably harder. Long climbs like this though with steady gradients I happily drop into an easier gear and just spin up them since endurance is what I’m better at as opposed to brute force strength/speed (although 8% is harder to “spin” – but still easier intensity wise than 18%!). The Onion Valley climb though is a MUST DO if you’re a cyclist in California – it truly was an amazing climb and descent!!

Near the bottom of the descent of Onion Valley Road, 5/30/11.

We loaded up the bikes and then continued heading south where we stopped in Lone Pine for pizza to refuel after our epic climb. Then we continued on with the long drive home, stopping in Weedpatch outside of Bakersfield so that I could get online for work again. There we met a fellow who saw our bikes and started chatting with us – turns out he’d crewed at the 508 and RAAM before, so it was cool to chat with him. Turns out he was from Canada originally as well (so he’d noticed the maple leafs on my bike and the McGill shorts that I was wearing). We finally hit the road again after 8:30pm for the long drive home, arriving after 1am.

All in all it was an epic weekend in all regards – amazing climbs on the bike, weather adversity in terms of wind, cold, & snow, bike adversity in terms of a broken spoke, beautiful scenery everywhere, bakeries, coffee shops, & hot springs! Certainly one of the better all around weekend trips we’ve done – we’ll definitely have to try and do this more often and explore some of the other epic climbs that are in the Eastern Sierras!

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