Sunday, October 18, 2015

2015 Whitney Classic Ride Report

All smiles at the start

September 2015

If its the last weekend in September, its Whitney Classic time! At least its been that way for the last 34 years as Summit Adventure puts on it annual fund raiser! This year marked my 17th Whitney Classic. Each year is different (solo, team, SAG or no SAG), but each is also familiar and rewarding. This year with a busy work and travel schedule, it would be a solo effort without a support and gear (SAG) team. Here is this year's story:


Up early and on the road at 0800 so I could plug in the ear buds and connect to the first of 8 conference calls that would fill most of the drive time from Phoenix to Lone Pine California. With just two stops for fuel, relatively light traffic, and constant project updates; the drive went by quickly.

Arriving at the edge of Lone Pine at about 3:30 pm, the organizers were just starting to set up the check-in tables at the event headquarters. Perfect, plenty of time to head into town, secure a room at the Historic Dow Villa Hotel, and take the machine out for a shake-down ride.
Lobby at the Historic Dow Hotel
The Death Valley Park Service, for the second year in a row, refused to issue an event permit for this year's Whitney Classic, so the 2015 route is a variation of the 2014 route, with addition of Lubken Canyon Road and an out and back to Darwin along the original route. Lubken Canyon road was added to complete to loop back to town after the Cottonwood Canyon climb. Never having been down that road, it was a perfect candidate for a quick ride to check out the equipment and wake up the legs from a long drive!
Small pasture along Lubken Canyon Road
Rolling out of the Dow at about 4 pm, it was still quite warm at about 92 degrees! Settling into an easy pace, I rode through town to the Portal Road, up Tuttle Creek Road, and down Lubken Canyon Road. Down meaning that climb up Tuttle creek gains just over 1000 feet in the first 5 miles, so Lubken looked like a fun descent back into town. It was, and although the road narrowed and became quite rough running through private land and a small farm, it went by fast and soon I was on highway 395 headed back into town.
A huge wind was coming from the South, and combined with a slight downgrade into town, meant it was an easy soft pedal for 2.5 miles at 30 mph back into town. The rider check-in was ready so I stopped in, completed the requisite paperwork, and picked up 30+ event t-shirts for my donor team. With t-shirts bagged and balanced on the aero-bars, I completed the loop back to the Dow Hotel and cleaned up for dinner and the worship service.
Pre-event power dinner!
One of the highlights of the Whitney Classic is the Friday night worship service held in the City Park with staff, volunteers, riders, and SAG teams. Music, scripture, and fellowship in the open air at the base of the High Sierras, is the highlight of the weekend. Certainly not typical for an endurance event, but then Summit Adventure is not a typical ministry, and the Whitney Classic is not a normal endurance event!


The day starts at the Lone Pine VFW lodge for the rider breakfast and meeting. After a delicious breakfast, complete with bacon, eggs, potatoes, and hot cakes, the riders are briefed on the course, permit rules, and final updates. Your humble corespondent provided some tips for SAG drivers and the sage advice for riders handed down from former Summit Executive Director Dave Kelly: "Start slow, and back if off from there!"

Since I was riding unsupported this year, I positioned the truck prior to breakfast at the event HQ at the Alabama Hills Motel. The event would start there and serve as 3 checkpoints, effectively breaking the event into 3 stages.

Stage 1 - Cottonwood Canyon Climb
Final instructions and prayer at the start
After the pre-ride photos and final instructions, the event got underway a few minutes after 9 am. The riders rolled out as a large group, but quickly thinned as the road turned west and up the Portal Road.
Rolling through town with Janet Nye
Portal road
The climbing begins on Tuttle Creek Road, through an unlikely oasis in the desert of the Alabama Hills.  With many of the teams making their first rider exchanges, there was lots of activity, conversation, and encouragement! The climbing starts here and continues for 20+ miles gaining 6,200 feet!
Leaving Alabama Hills on the Cottonwood Climb
The first checkpoint is at the top of the switchbacks, about 16 miles into the ride. Two hours of climbing, most of that into a strong headwind, meant this was a two bottle refill, check in, and get back on the climb.
Nearing the top at Horseshoe Meadows
Entering Horseshoe Meadows

With eight more miles of climbing, the route continues through 10,000 feet and enters an active bear area at Horseshoe Meadows. After a quick bottle refill, it was welcome descent back to Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills Motel.

Stage 1 Summary: 46 miles, 6,600 feet climbing, 4.5 hours.

Stage 2 - Darwin

The 2015 route features an out and back to Darwin, a nearly abandoned mining settlement about halfway between Lone Pine and the Death Valley National Park Boundary. It covers 73 miles and includes about 3,600 feet of gentle climbing. It was pretty much a straight shot to the southeast with gentle climbing rollers, on paper, a nice relief from the HC climbs of the Cottonwood Canyon and Portal roads. In reality, this was the toughest part of this year's Whitney. Temperatures were above 90 degrees, and the wind (gusting to 25+ mph) was right on the nose. 

I rolled into Keeler checkpoint and Kathleen McCormick was there cooling off in the shade. I refilled bottles and we rolled out together. This was her first Whitney and we worked together into the hot wind. When the road tilted up I dropped off to a slower pace and she disappeared into the distance.

Heading up to Darwin
The next checkpoint at the Darwin turnoff was a welcome sight. Hot and out of water, it was the same routine; refill bottles and roll out. The route climbs for a mile or so, then descends into Darwin. While a few souls may still inhabit the town, most of the buildings are abandoned,
other that the "U turn here" event sign, there was not much here to see!

Darwin Station
The climb out of Darwin went quicker than  expected, the strong wind out of the southeast was now a friend and provided a gentle push up the hill. With the temperature finally starting to moderate, it was time to concentrate on eating and drinking to reload calories and fluids. Leaving the Darwin turnoff, it was generally downhill with a strong tailwind all the way back to Lone Pine.

Outbound it took nearly 4 hours to cover the 36 miles from Lone Pine to Darwin. Inbound it took less than 2 hours!

Stage 2 Summary: 73 miles, 3,600 feet climbing, 6 hours.

Stage 3 -Mt. Whitney Portal

The last stage is short, steep, and if it was featured in the Tour de France would be rated HC, or beyond category. Meaning steep, very steep. With 13 miles and 4,300 of climbing to go, perhaps the biggest challenge of the event is riding past the Dow Villa Hotel and all it stands for: Hot shower and a comfortable bed!

After a clothing and bike change (my old Trek with triple chainring and mountain derailleur) it was
up the Portal Road for the finale of the ride.

The temperatures were moderate, but the grade was not! The last 12 miles average an 8 percent grade with maximum grades over 14% on some of the switchbacks.  Along the way I could see the tail lights of other teams up the road, and enjoyed the encouragement from other riders that were finished and heading back into town!

The grade finally eases off after the final switchback below the Premier Buttress and it is a welcome relief to roll into the finish!

#17 is in the Books!
Stage 3 Summary: 13 miles, 4,300 feet climbing, 2.5 hours.


Rolling into the finish, I quickly layered up, enjoyed a hot chocolate, and posed for the finish photo.  132 miles, 14,500 feet of elevation gain, 13 hours 24 minutes, wind, heat, and 50+ mph descents made this a Whitney to remember!

Tom Gibson, Whitney veteran and Official Photographer, gave me a lift back to Alabama Hills. As we drove through town, the last two individual riders were passing through ready to make their last push to the finish. I loaded the bike into my truck, picked up some dinner at a convenience store, and drove the short distance to a hot shower and comfortable bed at the Dow Villa Hotel.

Sunday and Thank You!

Sunday morning I grabbed breakfast, cleaned up the truck, went to Mass at the local parish, and checked out of The Dow Villa Hotel. Normally I would linger for the pizza party and awards ceremony to mark the end of the event. This year, however, Debby was meeting me in Las Vegas for a work meeting, so I needed to push out early to arrive in time to pick her up at the airport!

This year's Whitney was a great success. Summit has raised $84,000 toward is goal of $90,000; and you, my faithful support team, have blessed Summit with over $13,000 in donations! Thank you very much for your faithful support!

The Whitney Classic has marked the end my cycling season with a huge exclamation point for many years, this year was no exception!

Thank you again for your support!

Steve Atkins

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:13