Escape Through the Window: A Glacier Roadventure

by Nicholas Haig-Arack May 17, 2016

By Pete Thomas (@ptor)

The Loop and a burned out Livingston Range. Photo Credit: @jeremiahjmartin

Living in the mountains of Whitefish, Montana, I’m a bit spoiled. I admit it. We enjoy our snowy winters with great skiing, but when spring comes around, the soul naturally turns to the sun to recharge. As the snow melts, a smorgasbord of epic rides is exposed, one by one. In nearby Glacier National Park, a burly fleet of snowplows accelerates this process as they make their way up the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road to prepare for the summer tourist season. Pushing toward the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, a path is cleared for the adventurous cyclist willing to brave the unpredictable conditions. But the gamble is solid, as this short window grants our tribe of two wheelers a rare chance to explore some of the most scenic and wild terrain in the world, sans motorists. And this…is what I plan to do after work with a couple good friends.

PREPARATION
There is a beautiful unpredictability in adventure cycling, and today this is amplified. As nature awakens to the season, so too are the large, slumbering critters and thawing high elevation snowfields.

Bear spray? Check. Not kidding. We will see bears.
Food? Check.
Clothes? Check. And ready for just about any weather, and guaranteed chilling descent.
Bike? Check. I’ll be taking my vintage Sycip Cross to handle the mix of surfaces, potentially including rockfall and avalanche debris. We’ll leave the carbon at home.
Headlamp? Oops.
Post-ride beers? Absolutely.

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THE GREAT ESCAPE

I happen to work with today’s riding partners, and Marc is stuck in a delayed conference call, immediately putting us behind schedule thirty minutes. We finally split out of town, but alas, highway construction grounds us for another 15 minutes. Right when we hit our groove, a random train serves up our last speed bump. We know we’re fighting daylight, but keep our cool and try to ignore any expectations to top out at the plows – our goal for the climb. Soon, we navigate in through the West Glacier entrance into Glacier National Park and follow the length of picturesque Lake McDonald, eventually parking at Avalanche Creek campground where a gate blocks the road to motorized traffic. We will begin our ride here.

SADDLING UP
Thrown off of by the delays, my mind is a few miles up the road. I pump up my front tire in haste. Freshly replaced with a beefy 42, I continue to pump with gusto and optimistic ignorance until… BOOM!!!

As the ringing in my ears wanes, so too do the distractions. A decrescendo ensues, triggering a clear shift…out of my head and into the moment. For the first time since parking, I look around at the towering mountains hovering overhead above the mammoth cedars. Feeling punch drunk, and half-deaf, I smoothly handle the repair and properly seat the tire this time. Jeremiah and Marc have meandered slowly out of sight. With a stroke of the pedal, I’m off.

UP THE CREEK

Settling into our pace, we enjoy a low-grade climb along the swollen McDonald Creek, decompressing with post-work small talk. My title as the official Futzer of our posse is reconfirmed and we laugh off our bumpy start. The three of us have developed a weekly routine of leaving work early to enjoy this evening ride, but each outing is different – the wildlife, the weather, the road conditions and, of course, the cycling itself. We keep our eyes peeled for black bears grazing in the grass flanking the road. As we approach the first avalanche chute to the right, we crane our necks to look up the clear swath created by years of repetitive slides ripping down the slopes. These areas are prime grizzly habitat. After leaving their dens in the higher elevations, the open spaces cultivate opportunistic feeding zones with their early season plant growth and occasional remnants of wildlife winter kill. Captivated by the sheer awesomeness of the scenery, we are mostly silent.

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 Climbing above McDonald Creek before before the West Tunnel. Photo Credit: @marc_obrien

THROUGH THE PORTAL

We reach the West Tunnel and enjoy some peek-a-boo views through its windows and get sprayed by a seasonal waterfall as we exit. We gain enough elevation to reveal Heavens Peak, which dominates the landscape to our left along with the expanse of the Livingston Range. Evidence of devastation and re-growth mark the drainage from past forest fires. Jeremiah narrowly dodges a pile of grizzly scat, reminding us that we’re not alone…but almost.

Exiting the West Tunnel. Photo Credit: @marc_obrien

AROUND THE LOOP

Gaining momentum, we round the landmark hairpin turn called The Loop and point our tires east to begin the long, curvy climb, traversing the contours of the exposed road. Carved through the rocky slopes up and over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (elevation of 6,646 feet), the Going-to-the-Sun Road was constructed between 1921 and 1932, and easily considered one of the most impressive feats in road engineering. Bolstered by intricately mortared rock walls and arches, the 2-lane narrow road seems to literally hang off the side of the steep mountainsides. In contrast to the exposure, the gentle grade allows my mind to wander as we climb at a steady pace. I lose myself in the cathedral peaks to my right, rising up proudly over Birdwoman Falls, one of the quintessential scenes in Glacier. I get out of the saddle to stretch my legs and peer over the stone barriers in the right shoulder, revealing a sheer drop. Hundreds of feet below, I can see the creek and smooth ribbon of asphalt weave down valley where we started our ride.

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Heavens Peak, and an exposed Going-to-the-Sun Road. Photo: @marc_obrien

TOPPING OUT

Continuing onward, we make mental notes of gravel, dicey wet corners, rogue rocks that have fallen onto the road…and the disappearing light. With the sun on our backs, dipping close to the jagged horizon, we stop to marvel at the view and assess the situation. Marc notices a male blue grouse strutting on the guardrail and snaps a few shots. A son of diehard birders, Marc will shut down an all out sprint to observe a Northern Pygmy Owl, or a Harlequin Duck. But we love Marc for it, and usually learn some interesting factoids. In the distance, we see the large yellow plowing rigs along the straightaway, just shy of the pass. We feel confident to make our turnaround there, but know we’re in for a dark descent with little room error. An untimely misadventure this far out, this late, could make for a long, scary evening.

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 Jeremiah not thinking about work, or the cover letter he forgot on his TPS report. Photo Credit: @ptor

So, we beeline it. Our accelerated pace keeps me warm as the temperature drops. The yellowish-orange sun reflects off the growing walls of snow. Streaking the road are braided rivulets from the melting snowpack. We move forward passing the signature sites along the route: the archway crossing a cascading Haystack Creek, the appropriately named Weeping Wall, Big Bend and the Triple Arches. With no cars, we are able to relish the moments, taking it in, and hogging the road. Every autumn as the park closes, the road crew disassembles the wooden guardrails along key slide paths, otherwise, they would be destroyed by the winter avalanches. This makes for a vertigo-like experience when too close to the edge, so we appreciate the berth.

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(Left) The road below, and the road above, with Birdwoman Falls and Logan Pass in the distance. Photo Credit: @jeremiahjmartin. (Right) Crossing Haystack Creek. Look ma, no railings! Photo Credit: @marc_obrien

As Logan Pass comes into clear view with Mount Reynolds and Mount Oberlin, we ease up and coast into a wall of snow, now choking the road. The behemoth road crew machines sit in stark contrast to the pristine, raw landscape, yet remain dwarfed by it. We know the clock is ticking, but take a few minutes to soak in the view. In a couple weeks, the plows should reach Logan Pass. In a couple months, the road will officially open to traffic. Millions of tourists will drive this road, and I certainly can’t blame them. Right now, I just feel lucky to be here. I think we’ve seen three other humanoids on the ride so far, which is unbelievable. After our celebratory ‘attaboys’ and such, we throw on all the jackets and warmers we have and shift our mental gears for the descent. And as usual, I’m starting to think about cheeseburgers and beers.

THE DARK DESCENT

While the ride up was a carefree, scenic joy ride, going down turns into a cerebral mash-up requiring compete focus, almost like a video game (with its bulbs burning out). Out of the gate, the three of us gather speed, arcing around the contours with mandatory precision. Marc is leading with gusto and after a minute, I realize we’ve lost Jeremiah. I slow to a stop and Marc disappears around a corner, out of sight. I don’t like these moments, where I sit quiet, in the big, open, unrelenting space, not knowing what’s happening. Alone now, our close group has splintered into three. With zero chance of cell service, I wait for a minute, then two, then three. Finally, Jeremiah flies into view, angled out in a big turn. I push off and join him as he zips by. Ends up, it was just an equipment adjustment. Shortly, we see Marc stopped on the road ahead of us about one hundred yards, giving us the slow down gesture with just enough warning for us to stop.

“See that forty foot skid mark? I almost t-boned a grizzly sow with her cub!” Marc continues, “I think they’re right below the snow bank now.” We carefully peer over the edge and don’t see a thing. Bears typically don’t want anything to do with us, so I’m not surprised they’ve split. We do see some bear prints, however, so it’s clear Marc isn’t lying. A couple high fives later, we’re off again, speeding down the legendary road.

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A black bear reminding us – cyclists are not the top of the food chain. Photo Credit: @marc_obrien

The sun is now setting, and the alpenglow casts a warm hue on this ridiculously beautiful scenery, which both flies by and fills the view. The temperature is just right, I’m perfectly comfortable and my bike feels like part of my body. As I snake down past the myriad waterfalls and cliffs, I notice my two good friends also enjoying the moment. I feel a clear sense of peace, elation and gratitude. I’ve forgotten about the exploding tire, the train, the conference calls and construction. I take my hands off the bars and glide freely and the sun lets go as well.

We finally bank around The Loop and settle in to our collective tuck, committed to getting back to the rig, pronto. Shooting back through the tunnel, we do our best to spot grazing bears off to the side. Now, every large rock and stump seems to move a bit, making us uneasy. For the first time in miles, we start to pedal again. Leveled out with the creek, we briefly conform to a pace line, but decide it’s a very bad idea since it’s dark and we might need to stop quickly for wildlife. We ease up, knowing we’re almost there and casually shoot the shit as we ride the last couple miles. At the truck now, we run into another cyclist who informs us that she just passed two black bears up the road. Exhausted, we load up the bikes and crack open a few beers. We briefly reminisce. It’s been a great ride and a perfect way to round out a Tuesday.

With plenty of miles to cover before the beer, Pete pins it on the descent. Photo Credit: @marc_obrien

About the author:

When we put out the call for writers/adventurers that live the Kitsbow lifestyle, Pete was the first to answer. And boy, are we glad he did. In his words:

“I’m a self-proclaimed ‘Funmonger of the Mountains,’ living in the hills outside of Whitefish, Montana. Along with my beautiful wife, Allison (also a cyclist), we raise two ‘dirt princess’ daughters (Francesca 8, Eva 6) and five chickens. I serve as Design Director for an e-commerce and design consultancy, The ZaneRay Group (zaneray.com), and also work as an illustrator, designer, artist, and now, occasional writer (shop.petethomascreative.com). I’m also one the founders of the ‘Cino’ cycling movement (www.cinorider.com). I ride bikes because it’s a fun thing to do with your friends – for the experience, the adventure, the style and the culture – not the ‘win.'”

The post Escape Through the Window: A Glacier Roadventure appeared first on Kitsbow.




Nicholas Haig-Arack
Nicholas Haig-Arack

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