DAY ONE: Cutthroat Pass
It always mystifies me, when I do a ride I’ve done many times before, what I remember about the ride and what I forget. Because it seems the harder the ride is, the more I remember the good parts and forget the bad bits. You would think it would be just the opposite, because the pain a hard ride extracts is much more shall we say pointed than any euphoria it produces. Psychologists call this the halo effect, and around Winthrop the nomenclature is all the more appropriate.
I’ve been getting some very nice emails and postings on my recent Palisades review from people I’ve never met, even if I kind of knew them by their email addresses on the BBTC forum. So when Cary Westerbeck posted his Winthrop birthday weekend, I figured I’d tag along and see if I could make some new acquaintances. There aren’t too many names around any more from the old days, back in the ’90s. I’m guaranteed to be the oldest rider on just about any club ride today, which means I’m likely to be pulling caboose. But at least during the rest breaks I can get to know the club’s New Order.
I had to be back Sunday, so I headed up early on Thursday to get a bit acclimated. The standard first-day ride at Winthrop is Cutthroat Pass, partly because it’s right on the way into town (from North Cascades Hwy), but also because it’s a good two-to-three hour jaunt with lots of climbing, and you can get some altitude adjustment without burning your lungs out on the first day.
There was just one other car at the trailhead, a fisherman and his wife, who had the standard reaction from non-mtbers: “You’re gonna ride a bicycle all the way to the top?” Then you tell them you’ve done it many times, it’s a classic mtb ride, it’s beautiful up there, and they just kind of stare at you like you’re purple or something. So we headed out together up the trail, chatting a bit, and I gave them directions at the Y to the lake before pedaling off.
They’ve done a a bit of work on the trail down toward the bottom, particularly on the creek crossings after the Y, that I have mixed feelings about. Trail work (in the U.S. at least) always seems to be about smoothing everything out. The creek crossings were a nice technical test back in the day. Now it’s just roll on through, and there’s not even much water in them.
Cutthroat is a steady climb with a lot of switchbacks, not all of them rideable (by me at least; I’ve seen others ride them). The scenery is gorgeous as long as you happen to be there on a clear day. All too often you elevate into mist and fog, even when it’s been sunny and warm at the TH. What struck me this time was 1) how great the weather was, sunny but not chilly with a nice breeze, and 2) how many dead trees there were on the east slope. I’d estimate one out of four is dead or dying, going that rust brown you always see at altitude. They blame it on the pine beetle, but that’s like blaming drought on sunshine. Without global warming, the pine beetle would die off every winter before it could cause any harm.
The larch were not yet turning, which I took as a sign of an Indian summer. (When I mentioned this to someone, they said the term Indian summer isn’t politically correct. That seems a shame to me. It’s one of the few things they’ve gotten credit for!) Not that I know anything, it’s probably just wishful thinking. As I write these words the overnight lows at Winthrop are dropping into the 30s, and two days after I rode Cutthroat it was slammed by rain.
I was encouraged not to encounter any smoke, or even signs of fire, on the ride or at the top. Every time I ride Winthrop I think of the Methow River fire a few years back, and it seems like the last few years I’ve been to Winthrop there’s been some major fire going on.
It’s always fun to do a little slick rock stunt riding atop Cutthroat before heading back down. Once I was riding with a group and someone who’d been goofing on the rocks had left his pack at the top. We being the last ones to head back down, we picked it up. Just after the Y we encountered him headed back up the trail to get his pack. Let’s just say that, and not Rolaids, is how you spell R-E-L-I-E-F!
The ride down Cutthroat is pretty much a scream, although there are those pesky switchbacks to negotiate (I can ride a lot more of them going down, luckily). Predictably, the good intentions of trailbuilding fade the higher you get on Cutthroat, and the top is getting a little ragged. Not that I’m complaining, just observing. There’s nothing to really worry about as long as you have proper tire inflation to avoid pinch-flats.
I had brought along Juju, my new carbon fiber Ibis Mojo, for this weekend set and was feeling more comfortable on it after a couple of years riding a 35-lb. Intense 6.6. Nearly 10 pounds lighter, Juju doesn’t roll over stuff as easily but she really accelerates. The biggest difference was switching back to Eggs from platform pedals. You can pull up again rather than pushing down, which takes some getting used to.
At the bottom who should I run into but the fisherman and his wife, headed back to the parking lot. Any luck? “I caught one little bugger,” he said. “Tossed him back.
“What was it like at the top?” he wanted to know.
Like riding with angels, I said.
DAY TWO: Foggy Dew
One thing about Winthrop, I hardly ever sleep well there. The air is too dry, and too thin, and I keep waking up every couple of hours, parched and tense. So I was up early the next morning, which was good, because I had a full day of riding ahead.
There’s a new bike shop in Winthrop — Methow Cycle and Sport — on the main drag next to the Internet provider shop. I stopped in to say hello to Joe Brown, the proprietor, and check the place out. It’s nice to have a full-on bike shop, I noted (the ski and cycle place down the street never seemed to have quite the right stuff). From what I could tell he’s well-stocked with the important stuff, derailleurs, rotors, pads and so on. He says he keeps as much on hand as makes sense for what really is a full-range shop, from family bikes to XC MTB. Anyway, check it out next time you’re there and say hi from BBTC!
After talking to some locals, who warned me off Starvation Mt. because of last year’s forest fires, which apparently turned Blue Buck into a nasty mush that forces you to pedal downhill like you were climbing, I headed for Foggy Dew. It’s a nice out and back, readily accessible from the campground below, and I wasn’t sure how far I wanted to ride. With Horsehead Pass the next day, I wanted to leave something in the tank. If I even had a tank, which was an open question after my long layoff.
If you’ve spent any time at Foggy Dew, you know all too well why it’s so named. But on this day, once again the weather was absolutely brilliant. I went with lycra and a sleeveless base layer, and never got too hot or too chilled. Wow. How often can you say that riding at elevation around Winthrop?
Foggy Dew is a bit steeper than most riding trails, but if you keep at it you and don’t mind granny gear, most of it is negotiable. Actually, it was steeper than I’d remembered (the halo effect again). And there were areas pitted by the motos, and much of it was dustier than usual, but nothing to complain about. On the flip side, the falls weren’t anything to get too excited about, being pretty anemic this time of year. They’re a nice break, in part because the trail tantalizingly levels out for a bit (before turning steep again) right after the falls.
I do really love this route, though. There’s something calming and meditative about Foggy Dew, like you’re in Sedona with all the crystal and laylines and New Age whatnot. Only instead of red rock and cactus you’ve got granite and larch. Which were not turning here, either, with a couple barely noticeable exceptions.
At the falls I wasn’t feeling too poorly, so I kept going. I figured I could turn back any time, I’d gotten a good warmup already. One thing to note about the falls, however. You think that since you’re at the falls, you’re up trail a pretty good piece. That is, alas, not the case.
But by now I was in a meditative kind of place. Riding solo may not be the safest thing to do, and most of the time I’d rather be with someone. But where no alternative exists, it has its benefits. Absent any distractions, you can really absorb the terrain, the scenery, the joy of the ride itself.
I figured I’d be pretty beat by the time I got to the junction with the Merchants Basin connector. And I have to admit, I was tired of climbing. There’s really only one reason to climb Foggy Dew, and that’s to ride Foggy Dew back down. I was tempted just to point the handlebars about face and start rippin’.
But then I saw the trail sign indicating Cooney Lake, 2 m. Sheesh. Two miles after all the way I’d come, how bad could that be? I envisioned the glittering lake surface, the gentle breeze, the solitary quietude. What the heck. I could always turn back.
Most of the leg to Cooney continues upward, which is just as well. I didn’t want to ride down and then have to ride up the way back. Once I start down, I like to keep going that way. Much of the two miles is fairly gradual. You cross some bridges and a talus field (rideable even by me) and climb through some scrub pine. It isn’t till the final few switchbacks, over moto’d rock and rubble, that the trail really gets rough. Some of it I rode, some of it I was just too trashed to negotiate.
About the time I started questioning the trailfinder’s distance estimates, I rounded a corner and there it was. That deceptive little cutback to Cooney. It’s easily missed — moreso on the way up from Martin Lake than from FD — but still, you have to be paying attention. They need a signpost right there.
Cooney was calm and not at all chilly. And completely deserted. I should say that on the entire Foggy Dew route I saw only one track of mtb tires. And they may have been from my Team Mojo cohort Jim Lyon’s bike. Jim had ridden FD a few weeks earlier, and had noticed a total absence of bikes on the trails around Winthrop. Jim even wrote a letter to the editor of the Methow Valley News, which they haven’t printed yet, pointing out that without better promo and trail maintenance, mountain bikers will just keep going to Whistler and other BC destinations that cultivate the mtb crowd a lot better.
But there wasn’t much evidence of other activity, either, even motos. I never heard or saw a moto the entire day and, even though it was a weekday, that surprised me.
I always like to swim in alpine lakes when I get the chance, and the climb up had left me yearning for a cool-down. With Cooney, “cool” is a relative term, but I’ll say this: After the initial youch, the water felt really good. Your core temp reaches an equilibrium with the water and after that it’s just like Modest Mouse says: Float On!
About that time I started having an Art moment. You know, where you reach the point in the ride and you’re totally fried and Art suggests taking an extra loop up before dark. One time a few years back, a bunch of us got to Cooney a bit late in the day and Art tried to persuade us to go over the top to Angel’s and Horsehead. We figured we didn’t have energy or daylight left and watched as he spun off in t-shirt and shorts. I think he was riding a fully rigid bike back then to boot. Anyway, by the time we decided to get off our duffs and head back down, we could see the little ant Art on his little ant bike riding along the ridge up to Angel’s, flying along heaven’s gate. And we shook our heads and hoped he made it back to camp, because light was fading and it was getting really cold.
The downhill back to Crater Creek is full of whoops and hammers, and we had a great ride back. But here’s the kicker. We’d no sooner gotten out the director’s chairs and cracked open our libations than who should scream out the mouth of the trail but Art himself. He’d almost beaten us back! I can still picture Dominic’s jaw dropping when he saw who it was in the shadowy twilight.
So here it was, only 2 or so, plenty of daylight left and I started thinking about heading over the top. I wasn’t feeling near as trashed as I thought I’d be, and the way I recalled it, the hard part left was just ahead, the hike up to the ridge. Once on top, it was pretty much a breeze till you got past Boiling Lake. And that climb up, albeit scree-laden, wasn’t so bad. I could loop back down to Crater Creek and then just roll the road all the way back to FD campground. What the hey.
Then I remembered a crucial rule when getting an Art moment. Rule No. 1: I am not Art! I wish I was, but even on a good day I can’t carry his water bottle. Rule No. 2, as noted at the outset: When it comes to doing a ride you’ve done before, you never remember the hard bits. The full Horsehead loop had to be tougher than I was thinking, blissed out like some furry mammal in the still waters of Cooney Lake.
Besides, I was signed up to do Horsehead the following day with Cary and the gang. And I had the Foggy Dew downhill to look forward to. It’s one of my favorites in Washington State. An hour of just plain flying, barely riding the brakes, full of little jumps and berms with just enough technical challenges to keep you occupied.
So that’s what I did, again not seeing a soul, or evidence of one, even at the campground. It was a great screaming euphoric anthem of a ride back to the trailhead. Once again, the day had left nothing wanting. I never got chilly and never felt fatigued. How much better could a weekend get? How long could this last?
DAY THREE: Down the Up Staircase
In terms of a pure loop not involving shuttling or out and backing, Cooney/Horsehead is one of the toughest rides our fair state has to offer.The term “ride” may be used advisedly, since for me at least, there’s a fair amount of travel by foot. I’ve actually seen a guy, Pat Norwil, ride just about the whole thing counter-clockwise, even cleaning the hike-a-bike down toward Cooney (he did crash once). But Pat is a Trans Alp kind of rider with bones of steel and a hide of pure kevlar. Hiking up that section, it seems impossible to think someone could ride it down.
When Cary, whom I’d not met before, suggested taking off from the TH at 8:30 a.m., I had to chuckle. Art’s annual Horsehead ride always lists the putative start of 10 a.m. But the ride is popular enough, and Art is laid-back enough, that we’ve seldom gotten rolling much before 11. Which is fine. That usually leaves you 10 or 15 minutes at the end of the ride before total darkness descends. I may be kidding, but a BBTC ride starting at 8:30, while probably well-advised, seems like a fairy tale.
So I was taken aback when I pulled up to the TH around 8:35 and everyone looked ready to roll. Credit Cary with stellar organizational skills and the rest of the crew with the good sense to know a leader when they see one. Cary mumbled something about not having done the ride before and not wanting to take chances. But I had the feeling this gang was fast enough they could be back in time for a late lunch if they wanted.
I didn’t know many, and have to say that I didn’t recognize Bob when he said hi, it’s been that long. But one face did jump out at me, and there was a legacy to it. Peter Partel and I had first met on this ride, somewhere back in the ’90s, and here we were again, looking none the worse for wear. Well, at least Peter wasn’t.
Most of the crew was gone by the time we hit the trail, and I figured to be caboose on this tour. But Peter hung back and we had a great talk when we weren’t sucking dust. It was so dry that my “dry lube” (Purple Extreme, usually very reliable) had totally left my chain, which began rasping within the second or third mile. There are a few rolling downhills at the beginning of this ride, and I gave Peter wide berth. At the rate we were going we’d be coughing up Black Lung by the time we got to the top.
Peter said I should write a novel about mountain biking, which didn’t sound like a bad idea. At least I could justify all the time and energy I put on the trails as “research”! We started talking about some of the characters a novel might include. Let’s see… The plot would involve a fateful ride up to Cooney with a gang of mtbers linked by international intrigue and espionage. There’s a mad Russian named Igor who’s working with foreign mercenaries to steal U.S. military secrets. Igor has a secret plan on this ride to kidnap a seemingly laid-back aerospace engineer named Peter, who in reality heads a Boeing development project on a top secret surveillance aircraft. But Anthony, a misleadingly mild-mannered accountant who actually works for the CIA, has gotten wind of the plot and with his faithful assistant, the beautiful but dangerous Mire, has set up a strike team of off-road motos to intercept Igor at the final trailhead. Alas, Igor blasts through the roadblock … and hucks off a 50-foot precipice, seemingly eluding the frustrated intercept team above. LIttle does Igor know, however, that an FBI undercover named Art is waiting for him on the tranny below…
To pre-order your autographed copy, contact…
While Peter and I were outlining the next big international bestseller, the real riders were putting in miles ahead of us. By the time we got to the top, everyone looked like they’d finished lunch and were trying to keep from chilling down. Bob was his peripatetic self, scouting the shoreline and hopping to and fro, when voila! He spotted a big bristly marmot slinking along a creekbed in the meadow below. Never one to be bashful, Bob went up and engaged the little guy in conversation, and the marmot actually seemed to be paying attention except I think he just wanted a handout. Bob ran off some photos before the marmot popped into its abode below a big rock. Bob noted these are the famous “whistling pigs” of the North Cascades, namesake of that well–known meadow below Mad Lake.
The group was kind enough to dally while I got some lunch and got to meet some of the new faces. It turns out that Cary, the birthday-boy (never did find out what year) ride leader, is a former bike mechanic who was active in the 90s but took time off for some adult responsibilities involving work and family, can you imagine?! Whatever, Cary had sure picked the right day for this ride. It was great to connect some other faces to names on the BBTC list: Piset, Scott, Angela, Marvin, Stephanie, Jeremy, and some others I never did quite make acquaintance with. For most of the ride, they were too far up ahead of me.
I thought about jumping in again for a cool-down, but no one else seemed interested. There was a lot of sunbasking going on, though. As long as the sun is above the ridge, Cooney is a veritable spa.
Eventually we decided to assault the ridge, which includes an evil hike that’s almost like climbing a rock slide. If you’ve done Jacob’s Ladder in Moab you have a faint idea of what is offered above Cooney, but let’s just say that this would be hard enough in hiking gear. Add Sidis and the weight of a bike on your back to the mix, and the fun factor really kicks in.
But the views are unrivaled anywhere, and let’s face it. You’re scraping the heavens at 8k-plus elevation. I was feeling pretty light-headed at the top, but that line about riding with angels kept coming back. This was the biggest single group of riders I’d ever been with atop Angel’s Staircase. I knew they weren’t exactly angels in the religious sense, but Angels Staircase could easily double for heaven in my book.
Angels is putatively the highest mtb spot in the state, the arguable rivals being Pyramid Peak just to the south in Entiat and Tiffany Mountain to the north. Ironically, it’s not a 360, unlike Klone, Miller, Jolly and a handful of other spots. But there are spectacular views to the west, marred in this particular instance by rivulets of smoke swirling upward. They were far away and in obviously rugged, steep country, but you hate to see a fire anywhere.
I think on a past ride Armando cleaned all the switchbacks going down, and it only took him two and a half hours to do it (hey buddy, just kidding!). I don’t know if anyone made ’em all this time (never one to back off, Bob took a header trying) but this group was a marvel to behold going down the up staircase. I’ve done this loop both ways, and although there are advantages to both (a chief one being the option of Foggy Dew downhill), the ride from Boiling Lake to the Angel’s cutoff is a real slog counter-clockwise. It’s virtually all uphill, and after climbing from the Crater to Horsehead you’re not in much mood for climbing some more.
Coming clockwise, though, the meadow is a joy. Again, dust was an issue, but most of the ride is rollicking singletrack in open vista. Then you pop out below Boiling Lake at a trail intersection, another good place to kick back. I should say that this leg was the only place we encountered other people, and they were hikers. No other mtbers to be found anywhere, another curiosity for this ride, for this time of year. All at Whistler, no doubt. I had a discussion recently by email with Cary on this topic, the gist being that you won’t find any rides approaching Winthrop in Whistler, but there’s no use arguing the point either. I’d rather let BC and Cali and Colo say they have the best rides in the world and keep our treasures for those with the chops to get to them.
The intersection still contains a little half-moon sign indicating an outhouse, and I hiked up the hill a bit to see that the open-air crapper still exists. In fact, the hikers apparently had taken good use of it.
It’s a quick ride up to Boiling Lake, then up a long switchbacked section of talus to Horsehead Pass. The group decided to explore the wonders of Boiling Lake, which gave me an opening to avoid eating any more dust. I pushed on, climbing the ridge while watching the little ant people with their little ant bikes roam the perimeter of the lake. I thought of how Preston can ride this abomination up when it’s hard enough riding it down and was glad I was giving myself some distance with the group. If luck was with me I could get back to camp without inhaling any more powder.
Eventually I topped out and took one lingering view around. You never know with a ride like Horsehead if it’s your last time through, and I wanted to appreciate the moment. Horsehead looks less like a horse’s head every time I ride the thing, but Martin Lake and Boiling Lake and the endless ridges and drainages held all their usual splendor. I even tried to pick out Hoodoo Pass to the northwest, in honor of Juju, my carbon fiber Ibis Mojo. I’ve never heard of anyone riding up Hoodoo, but from the Green Trails map it looks like you could do so with a minimum of pain.
The ride down Eagle Lakes trail was a lot rockier than I remembered. I’m thinking the motos and global warming have just worn the trail out. There are lots of challenges, and you can get up good speed on some sections. But I’ll always like Foggy Dew better. It’s longer, straighter, and drops a lot more. In fact, my favorite configuration of this ride has become up to Cooney, then down Foggy Dew. It requires a shuttle or ride to the top, unless you want to do 7 miles or so of road climb afterwards. But FD as a downhill is hard to beat.
I figured I had 10 minutes on the group when I got to the top. Which was good, because I wasn’t back at camp more than 3 or 4 minutes when the rest of the gang started screaming in. Scott had cut his shin pretty bad on one of the rock steps high up, and it was interesting. He just let the thing ooze. I’d be after the Neosporin and cleaning it with soap and water and dressing it with the big patch bandages I always carry, and this guy is like Where’s my beer? But he’s a doctor! How do you tell him Dude, you should look after that!?
As we cooled down at camp and swapped stories, the halo effect was already kicking in. At one point someone finally did a reality check. Yeah it was a great ride, but what about the hike-a-bike? What about the switchbacks down the Staircase? And that horrific climb out of Boiling Lake?
“Were there any rocks? Did anybody notice any rocks?” I chimed in. Of all the photos taken that day, the one I wish I could’ve had most was of Angela’s face as she tried to figure out what planet I was on. After 7 hours in the saddle, irony gets lost a little too easily.
I had to head back to Seattle for those adult responsibilities, so had to offer my goodbyes way too early. I even committed the cardinal sin of missing Bob’s Burrito Bar. But the high from riding with angels stayed with me all the way back to town, and it lingers still. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have a better 3 days in Winthrop, although that won’t keep me from trying.