Wednesday, May 11, 2016

16: Donner Summit - 'tweren't no party!

Sorry to say goodbye to Beth!
After evaluating our options, working on the bike and enjoying a lovely day of rest at our Warm Showers sanctuary, it was time to get with it.  Either we were going to get over that pass, or not, and there was no way we'd make it if we didn't attempt it.

An Oldie but Goodie
We said goodbye to our host, Beth, and headed out, but not before admiring Doug's vintage Eisentraut Limited.  There is just something about a classic bike.  Every time Roger sees one, he reminisces about all the bikes he ever had.

Roger had managed to get the shifting issues worked out enough that we had access to the small and medium chain rings, and since we were planning to be climbing most of the day, we felt that would work out okay.  And it did!  Over 6700 feet of uphill meant we mostly needed those small gears.

Of course, we got lost immediately, because we trusted Google Maps on a road called, appropriately, "Narrow Gauge."  Best we could tell, it was passable only by mountain bike as it was essentially a gravel path that ran along the rail line.  Since we had gotten to this point by going up and down a wickedly steep hill (16%) I pointed out that we could avoid that on the way back by pushing the bike down the railroad line.  Which is what we did! From the back, we don't look qualified for the narrow gauge, do we?

A beautiful route
Once we got turned around, it turns out it is easy to leave Colfax and find the right road:  Go out Main Street, take Hwy 174, and then pick up Norton Grade Road.

This was a beautiful road, with the "up and down, twisty, windy" characteristic of the foothills routes.

I know it's non-native, invasive, but the broom is beautiful!
The cafe at Alta was closed, so our mid-morning break was a burrito warmed in the microwave from the adjacent store.  No matter - it was delicious!
We kept hoping that the clouds would part and the promised sun would come out, but alas - we were basically riding in the cloud all day.
Waiting for the sun that never came

Scene from Norton Grade Road

Cyclists are allowed here
After a pleasant though arduous climb along Norton Grade, we wound our way at last to Interstate 80. We had gotten route advice from a number of other cyclists and Warm Showers members, most of whom suggested alternate routes that would reduce our time on the highway.  We had considered them carefully, but ultimately decided that our ability to manage the shoulder on the freeway exceeded our tolerance for the steep grades of the foothill highways.  So onto the highway we went!

The higher we went, the thicker the cloud/fog
Along portions of Interstate 80, we estimated visibility at 200 - 300 feet.  It was eerie to have those big trucks roar past us, and then disappear into the mist.

Plenty of shoulder
While I was very happy to leave the highway (after 16.8 miles!) it really was not so terribly bad.  We felt that the grades, while still 6 to 7% for a good portion, were more forgiving than we would have found had we taken the alternate route through Grass Valley.  Even with that option, one must ride about 5 miles on I 80, so there is no "good" way through the pass.
Yuba River

The old Highway 40 - Donner Pass Road was beautiful.  Once we reached this, we climbed gradually along the Yuba River through small settlements, campgrounds and resorts.  There was still a fair amount of snow in the woods, and it was melting and running all along the road.  Such a relief to enjoy the sound of rushing water instead of rushing traffic!

The final climb to the summit came after crossing the Interstate near Soda Springs. We passed the ski areas, the small settlements here and there, and finally reached the top.
At 7135 feet, it's the high point of our tour to date.  We went just a short distance further and rounded the corner to view the iconic Rainbow Bridge - one of the beautiful vestiges of the early roads through the mountains.  And incredibly, as we turned the last corner to the scene below, the sun was shining, the lake was brilliant blue, the snow on the mountains in the distance was stunning white.  It was like the moment in "The Wizard of Oz" where Dorothy enters the Technicolor beauty of Oz!
The Rainbow Bridge is visible in the lower left of the photo.  Donner Lake shines behind Roger and the Silver Queen.
Selfie at summit, Donner Pass

A marvelous moment, but only a moment, because it was windy, we were wet, and it was COLD!  We zipped into our jackets and then zipped down the mountain to Donner Lake, where the blue water and light breeze completely belied the foul weather we had endured for the past six hours. The descent is really the only time that we could have used our large chain ring, so everything worked out okay.  We passed along the shore of Donner Lake, crossed the Interstate one final time, and made it to the bike shop in Truckee with 4 minutes to spare!
Beautiful once we got down the mountain!

It was surreal to ride calmly past the shores of Donner Lake in the sunshine.  Only the clouds hanging over the mountain at the end of the lake gave a clue to the weather we had ridden through.

Our Warm Showers host in Truckee was kind enough to come and retrieve us at the bike shop.  He had prepared a fabulous meal, and we enjoyed a very nice bottle of wine from the cellar.  Mike was gracious enough to include our daughter from Incline Village in the meal, and after considering our options, we opted to ride back with her instead of staying in Truckee with the bike and having her return to retrieve us in the morning.

So we made it to our destination at Tahoe with one day less riding than we had planned, and about 20 miles and perhaps 1100 feet less climbing than anticipated.
Mike with Roger and bikes

Small world part three:  Would-be host Mike and our daughter Dana, while not friends themselves, know many of the same people here in the area.  And, owing to the incredible beauty and appeal of this place, they both came to the region 20 or 25 years ago - and never left!

The day's report:  Colfax to Truckee, 55 miles/810 to date

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