Friday, March 13, 2015

Assault(ed) on Mt Hopkins

After 300km, mostly off-road in three days, I was completely wrecked. Guess I underestimated how well mostly skiing and running would carry me into a trip like this. Isaac put in about three times the saddle time and other cycling specific leg work than I did this winter, and I have three USAC age groups on Isaac. Put the two together, I felt really old staggering out of bed this morning.

I could sense Isaac really wanted to do the dirt road climb up Mt Hopkins about 45 miles south of Tucson. Low risk, low impact compared to much of the bony terrain around Tucson, and almost zero cars. The road, one lane gravel most of the way up, accesses an observatory up top at about 8500ft. The climb starts at 3000ft. A vertical mile-plus on trashed legs? Sure, why not dig that hole deeper.

The overcast looked threatening. Hmmm, forecast showed 0% chance of precip the night before. Now there were pockets of rain around Tucson. I've frozen myself silly on Hopkins before. Could be 80F at the base, head up in short sleeves, only to find the summit covered in rime ice. You wouldn't think on the Mexican border to find temperature gradients like that. We took some extra layers along.

Heading up on the gradual approach, I found only 2 of 8 cylinders firing. That did not improve with warming up. Reaching the visitors center where the real climbing begins, I commented to Isaac that was all I had. He was like Whaaaat? I wasn't joking. And just like that, he was gone out of sight ahead of me.

I could muster no better than L2 intensity level, essentially conversation pace. This was going to be a long, slow slog. Over the next hour, riding in my own little world, only one car went by coming down. That is one of the great features of this climb. The scenery and serpentine route alone put it on par with any Euro climb in the Alps. But then factor in near zero cars? It puts Hopkins over the top.

I tried to pick Isaac out on upper switchbacks to gauge time gap but could never spot him. Turned out he was just way too far ahead. At least I made the summit without cramping in about 2.5hrs. Isaac put 17 minutes on me in the last 90 minutes and wasn't even pushing the pace. It was cold up top, but probably above 50F. With the wind, you didn't want to stand around too long soaking wet. At least the menacing clouds didn't soak us. Could feel a random drop every now and then.

It is very tempting to rip the descent with reckless abandon. But the one-lane road is barely wide enough for a car much of the way. Just can't risk it. Nearing the visitor center, there's a paved section where you can let your speed run out to 40mph. It rises and then drops again, completely blind behind the rise. Little did we know, two border patrol officers were just about to pull out in front of us off a side trail. That caused me to panic brake and almost sent Isaac into me. Had they not seen me in the last millisecond, it could have been ugly.

Apparently the area is very active in illegal immigration. Not sure seeing border patrol out in remote areas makes me feel safer or at risk instead. Regardless, it was a great ride, and Isaac thought that was possibly the best climb he'd ever done. It was at least my fifth time doing it, hitting it solo at least twice, once with Dave, once with Alex and now with Isaac. We both were done for the day, for different reasons. I've hit bedrock bottom in the hole I dug myself into, and the choppy descending over the last few days is giving Isaac some tingling in his hands, maybe nerves getting abused. Today's track,

View from Mt Hopkins summit to west, with crow hovering in place.
Visitor center nearly vertical mile below in center right of image.
Note switchback straight down about 500ft.

View to south with upper half of climb in view. Blast to bomb down.

View to east of Mt Wrightson wilderness. Our first big ride of the trip was just
on the other side of Mt Wrightson. The finishing grade shown here and way
down out of sight was about 20%.

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