The roar and rumble of a big, low-flying multi-engine airplane startled me out of my slumber. I checked the temperature inside the tent: 36 degrees Fahrenheit. It was even colder outside. The sky was clear and out beyond the cliff upon which my tent precariously sat, stars and a sliver of moon winked and warped in the sullen surface of a dark, pre-dawn Pacific Ocean. Off in the woods night creatures stirred.
To the east a pale band of orange sky hugged the horizon. Soon it would be time to make breakfast, then, break camp, load up the bikes and make our way back to the ferry terminal at Orcas. I stretched and tried to rub the sleep out of my eyes. Might as well get the stove going, I thought and rummaged around in the tent for my headlamp.
I sat and shivered waiting for the water to boil. Soon, I was rewarded with a steaming cup of sugared tea. I saw a light go on in T-Bone’s tent, then, his head popped out. “Breakfast ready?” he yawned.
“I thought you were going to sleep all day.”
I peeled and sliced and fried potatoes while T-Bone took down his tent. After breakfast we rolled our heavily loaded bikes up the trail to the main road. The morning had started out clear but by 9:00 AM the weather began to close in. First, a few random flakes of snow whirled about but soon a full-fledged blizzard was in progress.
There’s a steep hill that leads through the forest out of Doe Bay and tackling it first thing in the morning really gets your blood circulating. I’ve pedaled my bicycle up it many times, but today would be the heaviest load yet. This weekend’s tour was a test of my endurance and ability to haul all the supplies and equipment I would need for my upcoming bike ride around the world.
It was a very heavy load, and the ride in the day before had done nothing to shore up my confidence. I’d had trouble on a couple of hills, having to stop and rest where before, with less weight, I had soldiered right along with barely a labored breath. I'd even considered stashing part of my load along side the road, then, picking it up on the way back. I shielded my eyes with a gloved hand and peered through the maelstrom at the towering hill ahead. I was beginning to have my doubts.
Shifting down into my lowest gear, I set to the task at hand. Some people will tell you that a hill is only as steep as you make it. There’s a hill-climbing technique called “paperboying” that involves switchbacking up steep inclines by riding back and forth across the fall line thus increasing the distance but cutting down on the angle.
It works in extreme conditions, but wrestling a heavy touring bike through a series of sharp 75 degree turns can be more work than just going straight up. I started out slow, resisting the urge to sprint to the top and be done with it. The storm increased in its fury and gusts of headwind threatened to stop my progress all together. I paperboyed a couple of yards to catch my breath, then, tackled the hill head on once more.
I was winded at the top and stopped to rest. T-Bone had reached the summit ahead of me and was pulled over waiting for my arrival. “How you doing?” he asked.
I took off my gloves and blew on my fingers. “I think that hill got steeper,” I said between gasps, “either that or I’m getting older.”
There’s a series of enjoyable rolling hills for next couple of miles, then, just past the Olga turn off, comes the granddaddy of them all. It’s a killer hill about three-quarters of a mile long with a steep corner near the summit that tops out at a leg-burning 20%. If you can pedal a heavily-loaded bike up that monster, you’ll never have to prove your courage in any other way.
I’ve actually done it, but only with a relatively light weekend load; never with the kind of weight I was toting that day and certainly not in such vicious weather. We stood huddled at the hill’s base, our shoulders hunched against the gale. The storm had closed in and visibility was limited to a few tens of yards. The wind howled and changed directions at whim, blowing the snow into small tornadoes that danced across the pavement then disappeared into the surrounding woods as quickly as they had formed.
“We’re not getting anywhere standing here,” T-Bone said, “might as well get going.” We mounted our bikes and, heads down, began pedaling into the wind. The storm had picked up and buffeted my bike from side to side. Several times, it was all I could do to keep from toppling to the pavement. One gust blew so hard that I had to stop and plant my feet down on solid earth to stay upright. I glanced back at T-Bone and saw that he was having a time if it too.
This is ridiculous, I thought and swung my leg over the top bar. Time to swallow my pride. I grabbed the handlebars and began to push. Footing was uneven in the fresh snow and I slipped as often as not. I stopped every few feet to steady my nerves and catch my breath. A few times, I considered turning back and seeking shelter in the nearest public house.
But eventually, the grade lessened and we were at the top.“I’m going to reassess my load when I get home,” I said, gasping for breath and wiping sweat from my brow, “I might be carrying too much stuff.” A gust of wind caught me off guard and in my exhaustion, I stumbled and nearly fell.
T-Bone reached out to steady me. He gave me a look. “You think?”