Punched in the Face on Boxing Day

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” – Mike Tyson

It was a surprisingly simple plan, especially for one formed on Christmas Day after drinking a couple of beers.  The next morning I’d drop my wife off to spend the day with friends in Mammoth Lakes and then I’d head off to a nearby area for a much-needed training ride before my upcoming trip to Idaho.  The forecast was calling for cold weather and living where I do, I need to take advantage of every opportunity possible to expose myself to it.  I’d ride for the afternoon then meet up with everyone for dinner: the perfect plan.

Put even more simply, the mountains were calling and I was listening.

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The Eastern Sierra of California is home to many volcanic features and one known as Glass Mountain rises from the eastern edge of what is known as the Long Valley Caldera.  The caldera contains the shattered geologic remnants of a massive eruption that occurred 760,000 years ago.  One of the largest calderas on earth, it’s roughly bordered by Crowley Lake to the south, The Sherwins to the west, Glass Mt to the east and Mammoth Mt to the north.  Named after the shards of black obsidian which litter the area, Glass pays homage to the unique geologic heritage of the area and if given the chance it will slash a bike tire or two to uphold that tradition.

I had always wanted to ride Glass Mountain but had never been motivated enough to drive out there, it’s just not the sort of place that most people seek out to ride when visiting the resort area of Mammoth Lakes (ok, I came close last year, but that’s about it).  In fact, most people would tell you that there really is no reason to head out there, except for the good people at Fat Bike Mammoth who recommended the area when I emailed them asking for some information.  Take a look at their site as they have a lot of good information about the area and are enthusiastic to the nth degree about fatbiking, well just “biking” in general.

Speaking of looking, I should’ve looked at the elevation profile for the ride before I started it.  Sure, it was only 20 miles long but the 3700ft of elevation gain packed into those miles might’ve changed my perfect plan a bit especially since I was riding a loaded fatbike in the snow.  Plus, my fitness is not the best right now (there’s a thin line between being a  fatbiker and just being a fat biker, if you know what I mean). Oh well, live and learn – at my age I should be a freaking genius.

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Back to the perfect plan… everything was going well on the ride as I chugged up the lower slopes bellowing like a burrito powered locomotive as I wound through a nice deserted valley or three.  Really nice open country up here with views that stretch forever in an almost infinite solitude.  It’s the type of landscape that introverts retreat to when they suddenly fall silent in a crowd – if you’re an extrovert you’re going to have to trust me on this one.

Facing the distant hulk of the northernmost peaks of the White Mts (which straddle the CA/NV border just beyond the caldera), the wind picked up precipitously.  The slopes above me were suddenly so steep that they obscured the low summit of the cinder cone known locally as Squaw’s Teat which, in addition to being my planned high point for the ride is one of those descriptive place names that pop up in obscure environs that just make sense when you see them.

The other reason I couldn’t see the summit is that a dark cloud had formed in the lee of the mountain as the winds howled straight out of the north like Norsemen hellbent upon destruction.  Whatever moisture was contained within the air mass was being wrung out by the Glass Mt range.  The wind was howling up there, not exactly what I had planned on for an afternoon jaunt in the hills.  A gust of wind blasted my face and I recalled that I had not packed a balaclava or anything to cover up my face with with on this trip.  The perfect plan was not so perfect after all.  Just goes to show you that you can be lulled to sleep when you live in an area surrounded by palm trees.

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I marched on as the wind howled and the trail suddenly went vertical around the 8500ft level… ok not exactly vertical but at least 25% vertical covered with crusty snow.  As a flatlander unaccustomed to this altitude, in these conditions that’s vertical enough for me.  Reaching the top of a minor ridge the wind hit me full force and almost knocked me over.  For the moment the ride hung in the balance.

I peered into my gps for guidance like a gypsy into a crystal ball.  On this lollipop loop route I was now about as far from the start as I was from the finish.  My thought processes went Joe Strummer and mocked my indecision as they sang “Should I stay or should I go” to the tune of the wind. Steadying myself in the face of the gale I decided to go for it, frozen face be damned. “If I stay it will be double”, so onward and upward I trudged (the conditions were no longer rideable).

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Perfect plans are rarely perfect and my preparation for this ride had clearly not been the best.  As I type these words nearly a full two weeks down the road from this ride the patch of superficial frostbite I ended up with on my nose from the combination of howling wind and near-zero degree temperature still has not healed.  Always bring your balaclava.  Oh well, it’s not the first time I’ve frostbitten my nose – good thing I was born ugly.  I won’t lie, it wasn’t a perfect ride but it was a lesson learned to be prepared even in sunny California.

But I will tell you that climbing up the final pitch toward the summit at just under 10000ft over ruddy, volcanic earth enveloped in the incongruously warm ochre of the setting sun while bearing the full force of the wind with snow streaming by and rime ice developing all over my body and gear while the clouds screamed around me, within me, and damn near through me was a perfect climax to an imperfect plan.  So perfect I didn’t even bother taking a picture as it was so damn cold that I would’ve frozen my fingers by even attempting to do so.  Even having to push my bike downhill through snowdrifts was pretty cool.  There is beauty in the harsh and the unusual even if you have to fully expose yourself both mentally and physically in order to experience it.

I descended into the dark back to my car and began to shiver the moment I stopped moving.  Reunited with my wife and friends 30 minutes or so later back in Mammoth Lakes, I finally stopped shivering.  Having pushed myself a little harder than expected I was dehydrated and devoid of energy, but as I ate I started to feel a bit better and reentered the fun little social gathering.  I sipped my beer and began to explain the scene on top of the mountain to them – the exposure, the winds, the earth – but the words rang hollow as soon as they left my mouth.  That moment was mine and there was no use talking about it. Switching to other topics, I emerged from my thoughts and basked in the warmth of the company.

 

 

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2 Responses to Punched in the Face on Boxing Day

  1. James says:

    Very cool story. I know that area very well, I’ve hiked around there more times than I can count. The Eastern Sierra, in my opinion, is one of the most surreal, beautiful places in the United States.
    Keep the stories coming.
    James

  2. Tom says:

    thanks for reading James! The more I travel the more I realize how truly special the Eastern Sierra is – so much variety and beaulty.

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