Misadventures on the High Pass Challenge

What better way to spend a Sunday then to get up at 4:30am in Centralia, drive 90 minutes east to a small Washington town called “Packwood”, and bike 115 miles with 7500 ft of elevation gain in 92F heat? If you answered, “riding the 2011 High Pass Challenge“, you’d be correct! It was probably my most challenging bike ride to date. It was undoubtedly my most incident-filled one.

The planning started a few months ago when my friends Dan and Tom invited me to join them for the ride. Having done the 200 mile (but mostly flat) STP last year, the “115 miles with some hills” of the High Pass Challenge, while not exactly sounding like a picnic, didn’t seem too daunting either. And since Tom was making the trouble to fly up from California and I haven’t ridden much with Dan lately, I thought “why not!”.

This summer, however, I haven’t trained nearly as much as last year. Prior to July 30th, I had one ride under my belt that was longer than 15 miles. Time to step it into gear! I did manage to put in some longer weekend rides in the intervening weeks, including a 75-miler last weekend, which I had hoped would give me enough stamina to grind out the hills on the High Pass Challenge.

I didn’t realize until a few days before that Packwood is two and a half hours from Seattle, making a 7am start line departure challenging. We weighed our travel options, and decided to cut the pre-ride trek in half by staying at our friend Brian’s cabin in Centralia. So, on Saturday evening, I loaded up the car and headed south on I-5. Dan and Tom had left a bit earlier.

After making it to Centralia, I then drove the three miles up the highlands towards Brian’s cabin. The cabin is on a rocky, unpaved road, and I wasn’t too careful avoiding potholes. On one of them, going down the hill, I heard a bit of a thud, but didn’t think much of it a first. But when I got out of the car in the driveway, I noticed that the front of my bike had become disconnected from the fork mount on my roof rack. Initially, I though it was because I didn’t clamp it down enough. In reality, it was likely because I had clamped it too tight, causing the jolt from the pothole to sheer off the left dropout from the carbon fiber fork.


8:45pm on the night before a 4:30am wakeup to drive to the ride, and no workable bike!

We brainstormed options. These included going back to Centralia to see if the bartender at McMenamins had any connections, or knew the bike shop owner to replace the fork (a 1″ one, no less). After this much effort, bailing on the ride, a semi-logical option, was not considered. The best option I decided on was to drive back to Seattle to grab my hybrid commuter in the hopes of throwing some slicker tires on it to make it a serviceable replacement. But that would likely have put my return to Centralia in the 1am range. Oh well. Back I went.

But, as I was pulling back on the freeway, I got a call from Dan. Turns out, his friend Ryan’s brother-in-law had an older road bike sitting in his garage in Olympia that was available for borrowing. Interesting. The bike was an unknown quantity, but given the choice between a late night 2 hour+ round trip to Seattle and a random loaner nearby, I decided to go for the latter. On the phone with Ryan’s BIL, I stumbled around looking for the spare key, got into the garage, and checked out the bike. It was an older Raleigh Technium that looked to be in reasonably good shape. It had flat pedals and old-school downtube shifters, but when I took it for a spin, it fit and rode well enough that I was sold on giving it a whirl (and not driving back to Seattle). I figured we could swap some parts at the start line to make it race-worthy.

Raleigh Technium

So, I headed south to Centralia back to the cabin, unloaded, and tucked into bed. I slept surprisingly well (normally I am quite antsy the night before a long ride). 4:30 came way too early, but Tom made eggs and coffee, and after scarfing down breakfast, we packed up the cars and headed east.


The start line was open from 7am – 8am, and we rolled into Packwood around 7:15, well after the majority of riders had left. We passed a large peloton underway on the drive into town. Getting the loaner bike in order proved to be more of an ordeal than anticipated. It took a while to borrow a pedal wrench to swap my clipless pedals onto the Raleign (otherwise it was going to be 115 miles in flip flops!). Also I needed to adjust the seat height, re-wrap the handlebars with some new tape that Tom had, and of course, take care of important details like mounting the GoPro and Garmin GPS.

Things were getting tight, but threatened to be denied entry by the paranoid start line staff, we hopped on the bikes and embarked on the ride at 8am on the dot.

We stopped less than a minute into the journey when the fender on my bike was rubbing slightly on the rear wheel. Not wanting to be bothered with that issue for the next few hours, we took the fender off and handed it to a nearby ride support vehicle for safekeeping. And then we continued on.

We made good time for the first fifteen miles from Packwood to Randle, maintaining a nice pace line and alternating lead position. Aside from my getting acclimated to the old school shift levers, the Raleigh was holding up quite nicely and my mind slowly shifted from worrying about the bike to worrying about me. But, so far so good on both accounts.

The next ten miles started with a brief and strenuous climb, but quickly mellowed out into a gradual descent. We stopped for water and snacks at mile 26, and then the real slog began. Thirty miles of nearly constant climbing in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to reach the Windy Ridge overlook of Mt. St. Helens. For the first half or so, we were at least protected by the shade of the winding forest roads, but the latter half was more exposed to the rising heat. Scenic views of the St. Helens landscape provided some distraction from the climb, but not enough. Reaching Windy Ridge (the highest point of the ride) at mile 53 provided a nice respite and an opportunity to soak in the view, but I didn’t linger long, eager to wrap up the remaining 60 miles.

We stopped for a nice lunch at the Cascade Peaks overlook, a few miles on the return route after Windy Ridge. Typical for a long, supported ride, we stuffed our faces with bananas, PB&J, cookies, and whatever other high carb munchies were laying around. After refilling the water bottles, we took to the bikes again.

The next 25 miles were largely a continual descent with two moderate hills thrown in to make sure the legs were still working. But overall, the fast, windy downhill was a welcome change from the vertical assault that dominated the earlier part of the ride. Soon enough, we were back at the Iron Creek rest stop with 80 miles under wraps. 35 to go!

The mechanic working the repair stand at Iron Creek said “it was mostly rolling hills” for the rest of the ride, but with a 500 foot gradual climb over the next eight miles, I didn’t find much “rolling” – just a hill. At mile 92, I stopped at the last water stop to fill up the bottles for the final push. The lady helping out there assured me it was all downhill or flat for the rest of the way. I was doubtful, but it turned out to be accurate.

My next incident happened a few miles later when I crashed on a downhill. I’m not exactly sure what happened. The bike was a little prone to overshifting on the rear cassette, and the front gears were occasionally a little off too. Combined with my lack of familiarity with the down tube shifting, I’d occasionally slip the chain off the front chain ring. Whatever I did this time, I caused the chain to wrap around the crank arms, which basically locked up the chain and caused me to quickly lose control. Fortunately I was able to scrub off a bit of speed on the downhill and do a “skid crash”, but I ended up going down fairly hard.

After regaining composure, and getting me, my bike, and the scattered debris of bottles and pump off the road, I figured out what was next. Body damage was limited to some bad scrapes on my arm and legs (and some ripped shorts), the chain was wrapped around the crank arm about three times, the handlebars were loose, and the right brake lever was displaced quite a bit from the fall. I was also hot and I was tired. I thought about waiting for the sag wagon, but as I settled down, and gradually began to deal with the bike issues, I became more determined to finish the ride. “I’ve ridden 95 miles so far, half uphill, I only have twenty to go. I am going to finish this fucking ride.” Or something like that stuck in my head.

Once I was convinced the bike was “ridable enough”, I ventured on. I finished off the descent back into Randle, and then turned right onto Highway 12 for the last sixteen miles, mostly flat, back to Packwood. I considered stopping off at a gas station to clean up the cuts, but I didn’t want to lose momentum and really I just wanted to be done with the ride. I counted down every last mile into town. Around 4:45pm, fifteen minutes before the 5pm cutoff, I rolled into the finish line, exhausted and stoked to be done.

We chilled at the finish line festival for a bit, enjoying a beer and throwing down more food. But with the three hour return to Seattle, we couldn’t hang long and soon packed up and headed back.

Upon returning home, Meagan dealt with my bruised body and Montlake Bike Shop is dealing with the bruised bikes. The Raleign has been restored to good working order, helping to assuage my conscience for crashing a bike that a kind stranger graciously loaned me. The Dean awaits a replacement fork, which is serving as a reminder that carbon fiber bike parts are quite freaking expensive. It’s also a little worrying that I’m getting to be on a first name basis with my bike mechanic.

The GoPro 30-second time lapse footage was “OK”. The battery crapped out about halfway through the ride (and I left the spare on top of my car in the parking log during the mad scramble to get ready…).

For a relative lack of training, I was pretty happy to finish the ride. Thanks to Dan and Tom for sharing in the fun and goading me into the adventure and to Alex for the loaner bike (and Ryan for helping secure it)!


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