August 03, 2009
Keep on Grinding
My family and I spent five days in Glacier National Park last week. My history with Glacier started in 1988, and after working two summers in the park during college, I try to visit at least once a year.
Logan Pass is the pinnacle of the Going To the Sun Highway, which stretches 52 miles through the park from West Glacier to St. Mary, Montana. This stretch of road is breathtaking, chiseled out of vertical cliffs and daunting to the most skilled of drivers. I have always wanted to ride my bike to Logan Pass by the moonlight, and Friday night I finally got my chance.
My friend Jim and I loaded up the bikes and headed to our starting point at The Loop, a point on the west side of Logan Pass, about eight miles from the top. By the time we topped out on the pass, we would climb about 2,600 vertical feet in about 1.5 hours of riding time. Even though it was 54 degrees and clear, I decided to jam a sweatshirt in my hydration pack, even though it barely fit and I was pretty sure I wouldn't need it. We were finally on our way, with the moon providing some light, but far insufficient for our purposes. To supplement the moon, we brought headlamps with five battery packs between the two of us.
Things started out fine. We kept a good pace, and there was little traffic on the road. After all, it was 11:30 pm and all sane people had already called it a night. About four miles into the ride, we could see headlights of a car about a mile in the distance. Right before it passed us going the opposite direction, we heard a loud crash. It sounded like a beer bottle shattering on pavement, but neither of us could fathom what kind of classless moron would do something like that in a national park.
Well, I found out that they do allow classless morons in the park after all. As I was looking to the right at the moon, I rolled right over the shattered beer bottle directly in my path. I heard the crunch, then the dreaded pshhh of a flat tire. Of course, we were prepared, and after 15 minutes of bike repair (and a whole lot of cursing hollered down the mountain at the offender), we were on our way again. I should mention here that my first headlight battery died just as we stopped to fix the flat. This is important as I retell my tale. Rather than using my reserve battery pack for the way up, I decided to conserve it until we were headed down, so I followed Jim up, using his headlamp to light my way.
The higher we climbed, the more I perspired and the colder it got. My chain came off with about a half mile to go, and I had to fuss with it far longer than I should have, which in hindsight was the first sign my mental faculties weren't all there. (At this point the reader is probably laughing and thinking I'm missing them altogether, considering the whole adventure was probably ill-advised.)
We finally made it to the top, and as I unclicked my cleat from my pedal, I fell to the opposite side of my free foot, essentially performing a very ungraceful, slow-motion spill, slicing open the back of lower leg on my chainring. Yep, hypothermia was setting in and I didn't even know it. I replaced my battery pack on my headlamp while shivering in the approximately 40 degree weather, and we headed back down. Not 20 seconds after I turned my headlamp on, the battery died. WHAT???
Jim was on his last battery pack by then, so now we were faced with making it all the way back down to the car with only his headlamp on the dimmest setting, hoping it was sufficient to last. The moon had set behind the mountains, so we were getting absolutely no ambient light from it anymore. The only thing between us and an eight-mile walk back to the car was Jim's headlamp.
Jim led, and I was behind him on his right, using his light to guide my way. Since he couldn't see me at all, he would simply yell back "You OK?" every 30 seconds or so and wait for my response. We made it down about two miles until I realized I was shivering so uncontrollably that I was endangering my ability to keep my bike upright. We stopped and I put on my sweatshirt, which made all the difference in the world. Now that I had some protection from the wind, we made fairly good time back to the car, although there were some dicey moments when we would hit a rough spot or some rogue animal darted out in front of us.
We finally made it back to the car around 1:45 am. We got back to camp at 2:30 am, and had to be back up at 6:00 am for a 10.3 mile hike on Saturday. I was exhausted, and lay shivering in my sleeping bag most of the night, trying to fight off whatever it was I caught high up on the mountain. Thankfully, I'm here in my office this morning retelling the story, so it obviously had a happy ending.
Park visits are up this year. The ranger I spoke with said it's because the economy is requiring people to become much more budget-conscious with their vacations. If a trip to a national park is the option instead of a ridiculously expensive family trip to Hawaii or DisneyWorld, then something good may come from this mess we're in. The national park system is one of this country's biggest treasures, and we should all take advantage of the natural beauty the parks provide.
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