Typically, a 9:30 am start is late, especially when the air temperatures are supposed to skyrocket into the 90s. But Newhalem, a small hydroelectric generating town in eastern Skagit County, is 2 1/2 hours from Seattle and no one wanted to get up before 6 am. Giovanni had been talking up the “Big Day”, a 80+ mile and 7500+ vertical feet climbing day for quite some time and a 9:30 start could only make hard men harder. So, six of us met across from the antique black train engine in Newhalem on June 29, 2015. We knew there was no support, no food, little water and no phone coverage, so we stuffed our pockets, brought along extra water and filters (just in case) and encouraged extra safe riding due to the lack of instant 911 access.
The first 10 miles was a nice warmup. We took it extra slow and really enjoyed the views. We had agreed to keep the pace “chill”. This happened for the first 10 miles. The route took us northeast along the currently dry upper Skagit. Between the almost complete lack of snow in Washington this winter and the unbelievably dry June, the Diablo dam was not letting any extra water flow to the river. As we skirted Gorge Lake, I was surprised at how long it had been since I’d been in this area and my thoughts returned to my youth, which included many drives over the North Cascade Highway with my family to Winthrop and Twisp. The memories included fishing in Banks Lake with my grandpa and picking peaches as big as my head, followed by a long nap in the back seat on the way home.
The ascent was minimal and the southern descent into Diablo Lake’s Thunder Arm was breathtaking. Fog lay over the lake, but the sun was bright and beautiful at 10:30 am. We stopped at the campground and refilled the first water bottles we had already emptied. Our calculations determined that we would be unable to get water for the next 60 miles, so we drank more and headed up the first moderate climb in temperatures already reaching into the low 80s. The 20 minute climb rose up in sections over 8% for 800 feet, but we were still in “chill mode.” Being high above Ross lake at this moment gave us incredible views of the green waters reaching up into British Columbia followed by aptly named Ruby Arm. The descent to Crater Creek was the last bit of coasting before our long climb to Rainy Pass. 18 miles and 3000 vertical feet were completed in 90 minutes. Although this was by far not a record time, with temperatures in the upper 80s, heartbeats were at times in the 180s. The climb was steady and our double paceline was only rarely interrupted by RVs passing by. The shoulder was wide, the views were unmistakably north Cascades and we were riding almost directly into the sun. As Seattlites, we are not used to bright sun and hot temperatures. After a brief coast near Bridge Creek, we began the last climb up to Washington Pass, the mile high goal we had been reaching for all day. That last climb was pretty relentless, and I think we were all happy to be at the top.
We had passed a lot of cyclists in the 42 miles from Newhalem to the top of Washington Pass and a lot of them were women. That is unusual, but very cool. At the top, their guide was waiting with water and she was very generous with some badly needed refills. Thanks so much to Washington Women Tours for the (almost) life saving water. We snapped a few photos and did a quick ride around the huge hairpin turn that bends under Liberty Bell Mountain. That added a few hundred more feet of elevation gain and a couple of miles, but the descent down from Washington and Rainy passes was a nice time to relax… Or was it? Strong headwinds almost the entire way down made for more work than we expected in the 90 degree heat. Derek was riding like a demon and pulled hard the majority of the way. Nathan joined in by throwing down huge watts and sprinting for most of the signs in the last 20 miles. Following a descent into Thunder Arm that approached 50 mph, we were able to restock our water supplies and mentally prepare for the two small remaining climbs. Temperatures were approaching the mid 90s and although it felt good, I think we were all feeling a bit dehydrated and spent.
Sitting around the parking lot after the ride always feels great, but in 95 degree heat and with fresh watermelon, it was even better! Aside from one flat tire and some degree of exhaustion, the ride was nearly perfect. The views were exceptional, the six people who made up the group were all strong and really fun to share the experience with, not to mention the workload! Thanks to John for the organization and leadership, Derek for keeping the pace manageable and then almost reasonable, Nathan and Zac for being pure, quiet machines and Scott for the entertainment factor (he’s hilarious). I am definitely looking forward to Big Day 2 and beyond.
Words & Photos by Bob Kruger