Fire in the Valley, Snow on the Mountain:
Shasta Summit Century

Chris Witt
August 2002

I - Getting Ready

"Hey, Pat", I said, "how about we throw the fenders and raingear into the car, just to ward off the evil spirits?"

We were readying for the Shasta Summit Century, which doesn't really go to the summit of Shasta. In fact, the route ascends to a maximum altitude of less than 7.8k feet up the side of a mountain which towers to 14k above sea level. Regardless, we were both intrigued by the notion of riding in the Shasta area for the first time, and this seemed a perfect opportunity.

This event is staged by the volunteer townsfolk of Mount Shasta City. The community is a railroad, lumbering and outdoor recreation village nestled at the southwestern foot of the eponymous peak which marks the north-south divide between the Sacramento and Klamath watersheds. The AAA map tells us this municipality's elevation is a bit over 3.5k feet above sea level, and the Weather Channel claims the early August daytime high temps are 90F and nighttime lows are 50F. Last year's SSC was rumored to have been punishingly, brutally hot. This summer to date had been a notoriously hot and dry fire season throughout California's mountain regions; most of our preparations focused on surviving these conditions.

Indeed, smoky haze from a large, intense wildfire at the CA-OR state line, several hundred miles to the north of the bay area and not very far from our destination, lay heavy on the southern Sacramento valley the day before the event. We set off through dense, slow-moving weekend traffic on I-80 east into the central valley late Saturday morning, August 3. The mileage from Berkeley works out to about 270 and the drive took us about five hours. This included a couple of leg-stretching stops.

The northbound journey up the Sacramento valley makes the transition from the unrelenting flatness of the agricultural areas gradually to the scenic hill country of the upper watershed, in the reaches north of Red Bluff. Serious scenery comes into view at the vicinity of Shasta reservoir, a grand monument to the universal human endeavor of creating spectacular self-contradictions everywhere. This time the contradiction took the form of an ugly mountain lake. On our trip that day, we found another paradox: as we pressed northward toward the fire, the smoke and haze gradually diminished until, upon our arrival in Mt. Shasta City, the sky was quite clear and the weather most clement. This circumstance was, like many desirable states of affairs, sadly short-lived.

Our studies of local maps, the most useful DeLorme Northern California Atlas, and SSC literature told us that this year's 100- and 135-mile routes consisted of four out'n'backs. The first of these led north to Weed (and for the 135 'Super-C' with its advertised 15.5k feet cumulative total, further past Stewart Springs to Parks Creek Summit). The second, after the return to the edge of Shasta City, led past Siskiyou Lake westward up to Mumbo Summit (shorter for 100m wimps), and thence upon the return to the local country club west of town, southwestward up another watershed for the third to Castle Lake, returning thereupon through town to begin the final chug east and north up Everett Memorial Highway to the old ski bowl on The Mountain.

It was Pat who realized at once that a riotous profusion of mix'n'match, custom-blend, and spur-of-the-moment route variations may be derived from such a setup, limited largely by time constraints. Those who rely on aid stations for caloric and hydrative support will take care not to arrive before opening or after closing time, but otherwise the creative cyclist can mold the day pretty much to whim. Furthermore, it's difficult to fall into the trap of overreaching one's athletic capacity, since each out'n'back was consistently uphill on the way out, making it possible to just turn around and coast back into town at a moment's notice. We were also to find that most of the grades in this event were just steep enough to merit granny without being so steep as to kill us. Many cyclists object to out'n'backs on the grounds that they are boringly repetitive recycled scenery, but we do not find them so. In addition, each leg of this event had its own unique scenic attributes.

II - In the Saddle

Unfortunately, many of these attributes were obscured from view when we set off from our motel in the south end of town at about 0615, around the time of official dawn for this date. The smoke and haze which had somehow been dispersed in the prior afternoon had returned in force, bringing with it partial overcast which dimmed the vistas considerably. Although the smoke diminished over the course of the day, it was replaced by heavy cloud cover. Before leaving the motel, we painstakingly and carefully scrutinized the Weather Channel for any sign of meteorological awkwardness, but detected none. Thus we elected to leave the fenders and raingear in our motel room for the day. Having taken advantage of night-before registration, we set off at once about the business of crossing the divide northward to Weed, enjoying an uneventful loop through the meadows and valleys around the 4k foot mark. We elected to skip the leg to Parks Creek, saving our energy for the final push at the end of the day.

We had prepared for a day of mixing and matching by securing both the 100 and the Super-C route maps and cue sheets. Many entries on the cue sheets indicated elevation, a datum which for me had both utilitarian and entertainment value (though our altimeter disagreed substantially with one or two of the figures). I wish more bike events made this information available. The cue sheet also depicted elevation profiles for all routes, another useful and entertaining planning tool. In many (but not all) cases, the event maps showed closing (but not opening) times for the aid stations, a VERY useful planning tool.

Using these cartographic resources, upon our return from the north leg, we crossed the Siskiyou Lake dam. We then ascended through evergreen forest up the boulder-strewn course of the South fork of the Sacramento, to the Fawn Creek aid station. After a short pause here, we continued upward past Gumboot Lake up to Mumbo summit at about 6.35k feet, the Super C turnaround point.

The Mumbo Summit aid station represented one of several opportunities for lunch around the various course legs, and we took full advantage here. We found the menu at Mumbo Summit and, indeed, all the other stations we saw, to be quite adequate. Cold sandwiches prepared to order by very friendly and accommodating volunteers were accompanied by tasty fresh fruit, manufactured baked goods and a variety of beverages.  Sandwich innards included cold cuts, cheese, tomatoes and lettuce of better quality, and sliced seasoned tofu. We were hospitably welcomed here (as at other stations) and invited to seat ourselves around a ground blanket or on deck chairs with the offer of 'table' service for those so inclined (as in, "What can I bring you?"). (Secondary aid stations featured whole-grain bagels, high quality peanut butter, jams, fruits, manufactured baked goods, bottled and tap water, sports drinks, and in some cases athletic energy bars and goos.)

As we dined, we were entertained by what little of the view we could make out through the haze, and by the hospitality of the volunteers. We also enjoyed the company of a trio of gnarly backpackers fresh off the nearby Pacific Crest Trail, which crosses the road at the summit. These hirsute young men, journeying northward to Canada from the Mexican border, were also enjoying the hospitality of the aid station, and as we sat together, related amusing anecdotes of their trip. Truly this was a crossroads of diverse travelers.

III - Cloudy Skies

So it was with a little reluctance that we tore ourselves away from the accommodations of the summit. Off we went, back the way we had come, down the twisty little scenic, one-lane forest road that led past Gumboot Lake and thence on to the junction with Castle Lake Road. By then it had become clear that we were not to expect the 90 degree high advertised as normal for the date, and in fact appeared highly unlikely to see the mid-seventies predicted for this day. Fortunately the morning chill had induced us to bring at least our leg tubes, arm tubes, helmet liners, full gloves and windbreakers, and we needed all of these as we set off down the hill at an indicated temperature of....... 52F. At approximately midday. Just before we pushed off, I engaged the friendly radiocomm guy in a brief conversation about the weather. We agreed that neither of us had seen official mention of inclement prognostication for the day. We also agreed, looking at a rather ominous-appearing sky, that if it were up to us, we would be predicting rain. Soon.

So it was that we hurried down the chilly hill to Castle Lake Road and gratefully resumed the essential warmth generation of climbing. About halfway up this hill, a light rain began to fall. As we chugged away in granny, Pat and I discussed the precipitation situation at length. We agreed that if the rain became heavy, at this temperature it could be classified as a threat to health and safety. We also agreed that whether or not the rain intensified, each of us would concur if the other moved to scrub the mission. In other words, both of us wanted the other to be the first one to wimp out.

The rain continued unchanged in its intensity, neither one of us wimped out, and upon our arrival at the summit, Castle Lake, we entertained ourselves with the spectacle of a fellow rider who had earlier prepared for a 90 degree day, now decked out in a protective torso covering fashioned from a corrugated cardboard box with armholes cut out. It was very creative and quite a fashion statement. Those who know my sartorial habits will no doubt be entirely unsurprised to learn that I was envious of this finery. Threats of worsening weather hovering at our shoulders, we jumped on and tore down the hill again. This time, while the rain still had not intensified by objective measures, our velocity had increased literally by an order of magnitude compared to the ascent, and the effect on the perceived experience was dramatic. Rain stung our faces and splattered audibly off every square inch. We passed a number of unfortunates still climbing the hill, including our own respected David Lipsky and Bonnie Faigeles (we were ahead of them only by virtue of having skipped Parks Creek Summit, while they did not).

IV - Scrub the Mission?

Pat and I again consulted as we descended, and agreed that if the weather did not improve, since the official route took us next through town a mile or less from our motel, we would divert to our room and re-assess. Options from that point would include, but not be limited to, either re-fitting with fenders and foulweather gear, to resume the climb northeastward toward The Mountain, or mission termination. At this point one of the main virtues of out'n'back showed with profound prominence: Bad weather? Stopped having fun? No problemo: go home and put your feet up. While David L. was shivering his way down the Castle Lake grade (he later told us the rainwater began streaming out of his shoes as he approached town), we were reclining in our room, again watching the Weather Channel. Having arrived at a fortuitous moment, we were still relatively dry.

Pat went to investigate the motel spa, and found that it was lukewarm. She located the timer and switched on the heater. Meanwhile, I borrowed the motel garden hose around the back and rinsed the road goop off the bike with the expectation that we would soon be mothballing it in favor of the spa.

When we again reconvened at our room, we looked out the window and realized 1) the rain had virtually quit;  2) the sky appeared to be clearing in the northwest; 3) after 80 miles and 8k feet of climbing we both felt good and didn't really want to quit riding for the day; 4) it was almost 4:00 p.m. and we probably couldn't make it up to the top of the last climb before the official 6:30 closing time. After about 30 seconds of discussion, I commenced fitting the fenders while Pat went back to the pool area and turned the spa heater off, then loaded some food rations and raingear onto the bike. We shoved off at about 4:15 under a clearing sky with no precipitation. Although we didn't realize the full significance of it at the time, oddly we encountered only one or two other cyclists descending into town as we made our way up Everett Memorial Highway. I suppose if we thought about it at all, we assumed all the others had just gone home early because of the rain, and in that we would have been partly correct. But not completely......

We agreed that we probably couldn't make it up to the last aid station before closing time, and in fact probably not even early enough to get back to town in time for the official century dinner. Our working agreement was that we would climb until we were satisfied, then just turn around and coast back. We'd progressed just a short way up, possibly it was around half past 4:00, when a pickup truck with a sagwagon sign passed us going in the same direction, then stopped ahead and waited for us to draw near. As we did so, the driver announced that 'everything is shut down.' Since this was not unexpected, we waved and called out 'no problem, we are on our own now', and the truck sped off up the hill.

V - Beginning of the End

Possibly an hour or so later, we had reached milepost 7 on the Highway and had rolled up another 2k feet of climbing since our last departure from town, for a day's total of 10k. We were somewhere around mile 87 for the day and Pat announced that she was satisfied with ten thousand and was ready to turn around, so we did. By this time the cool of the evening was starting to prevail; we had 52 F showing on the thermometer. I donned a nice cozy rainjacket over my windbreaker and every other stitch of clothing I had brought. Again we ripped down the seven-mile descent into town and proceeded to the dinner venue, in the city park. Here we were again greeted by friendly, hospitable and tired volunteers, as the third-last and fourth-last diners of the evening. Literally. There were virtually no other participants left. By then it must have been about 6:00. Here we also again encountered the driver of the pickup truck sagwagon who elaborated that the final leg of the route, up The Mountain, had been closed in midafternoon because of rain and temperatures dipping to 42F at McBryde Springs, with the result that 7 hypothermic cyclists required evacuation. McBryde isn't at the highest part of the route... if I understand correctly, it's about 2K feet BELOW the Old Ski Bowl. And to think that all the while, there we were back in our humble little motel room, missing all the fun. Whatta pair of wimps.

While musing, marvelling, and ruminating over all this, we tucked away an adequate postride meal of a giant do-it-yourself burrito with all the fixins, including  a tasty chicken filling, real guacamole, salsa, sour cream and some really interesting corn relish or corn salad, and a fine green salad. Though we were too late for the locally-brewed keg beer (a fine idea and I am sure well worth the $2 extra charge), volunteers again hustled around and knocked themselves out making sure we had our prandial needs tended.

VI - The Last Lap

Thus fully satisfied, we again mounted up as twilight settled, for the last leg of the long journey home: the two-mile stretch to our motel at the other end of town. Midway there, we passed a cafe' and recognized at a streetside table our pals, fellow Grizz David, Bonnie, Emily (not K), and Dan, who had carpooled up and were rooming together. Stopping to chat for a few minutes, we learned that David (and just about everyone else) had arrived at the foot of Everett Memorial after it was closed, and had thus been precluded from even a partial ascent. Either we began our ascent after the roadblock was dismantled, or else we unknowingly circumvented it by approaching the foot of the highway from the direction of our motel, which was offroute. Something about the way David spoke gave me the impression he didn't really mind being deprived of the experience of that ascent. Our conversational pause also gave us a moment to admire the western flanks of The Mountain, finally unveiled from its former cloak of haze, smoke and cloud, bathed in the gathering dusk and revealing on its upper reaches a faint but unmistakable dusty white bloom of new snow.

Concluding our conversational diversion, we again shoved off and made for our night's resting place. As we rolled up in front of our motel room, the cyclocomputer clicked over to 100.0 miles. We had time to put the bike to bed, shower, pour a nightcap, don our swimwear and slide into a nice hot spa before the alpenglow shone off the west face of The Mountain, barely visible if one sits in just the right corner of the tub.

Copyright © 2002 Chris Witt