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Heart of the Kootnays SR600
Sometime last summer it occurred to me that I was pretty close to achieving a second Randonneur 10000 award. I had everything that I needed including my 2015 PBP and 2016 Colorado Last Chance 1200 km brevets and two of everything else with the exception of having only completed one 1000 km brevet since that PBP and also needing to do a super 600. So I set myself the goal of getting those two rides done and then perhaps retiring from doing stupidly hard bicycle rides. If I could just achieve this one further goal then perhaps I could kick back with a cold fizzy beverage and cheer on my dear friends while they suffered through heat, cold, rain, snow, dark of night, wild animal encounters, rabid dog encounters, and all the other “joys” of long distance randonneur cycling.
I planned to tackle Bob Goodison’s 2018 Labour Day 1000 in September and then have a go at the Heart of the Kootenays SR600 after that. The 1000 didn’t go so well however. I pulled out in the evening of the first day with muscle spasms in my lower back. Then I went to the Kootenays and never got a good enough weather window to even attempt the HoTK. The best ride that I managed was a 215 km permanent that I call the Soul of the Kootenays. It is a miniature version of the HoTK ride. It is beautiful and challenging but doesn’t count for much except to keep the legs in shape.
That left this year to get the two rides done. In theory next year would be the last year to capture my 2015 PBP within the six year time window allowed for the R10000 award. But I have knee replacement surgery coming up sometime this winter. It would be unwise to assume that I will be able to recuperate sufficiently from that to get into good enough shape to ride a 1000 and an SR600 next year. So this was the year. I needed to get into top shape. I bought an indoor trainer and spent the winter working up a sweat while staring at a blank wall. Then I cycle toured for 1900 kms in Baja in February. Then I did the spring series and did 2 additional 400s in April. Then I organized and rode the Oregon Coast 1000 in May. But that didn’t go well either. I totally ran out of gas on the evening of the second day and bailed out at 623 kms in Tillamook Oregon. Good thing too since the third day was absolutely brutal with gale force headwinds all the way down the Oregon Coast and then drenching rain to the finish.
This was all very disappointing. I wasn’t free to do Mike Hagan’s June 1000. And I was frankly worried that maybe I just couldn’t get into good enough shape any more to have a decent chance of succeeding on the longer rides. But then I thought things through a bit better than I had before. I realized that I didn’t actually need to do a 1000. I had one from 2014 that was still a qualifying ride for a 2019 R10000. So all I really needed to do was an SR600. Still it was a daunting task for an old guy.
The next day Osa and I went to the base of the Idaho Peak road to retrieve the mountain bike that I had stashed there. We then drove up the road and hiked to the fire lookout. On the hike back down a thunderstorm rolled through and drenched us. I was happy to not be riding at that point.
After having a very good omelet I set out for Creston by way of the highest paved road in BC over Kootenay Pass. In fact this climb goes higher but is no more of a climb than any of the others on this ride. It starts higher so actually climbs a little over 1100 meters, just like all the other major climbs except for the Bombi at only 800 meters. Idaho Peak is also 1100 meters on the steep part up from Sandon but there is quite a bit of climbing involved to get to Sandon from Kaslo.
Kootenay Pass went pretty well and the ride down the other side went on forever. A quick bite in Creston and then a beautiful ride up the east shore got me to the Kootenay Lake ferry in time for the 6:10 pm sailing. Some very up and down riding after the ferry got me to Osas house in Kaslo at 9 pm. Another shower and some dinner allowed me to try to sleep for three hours. I didn’t manage to sleep much due to being pretty keyed up by this point. My plan was to leave Kaslo at 2 am so that I had enough time to get the ride done with a bit of time to spare for naps, mechanical emergencies, and the like.
I did leave Kaslo at 2 am, right on schedule. But I was extremely sluggish. I rode the 500 meter climb to Retallack Pass in about twice the time that I normally would. I had felt pretty good the evening before but now I was just out of energy. After a couple of stops with internal debates about how things were going I finally pulled the plug at Fish Lake. I rolled back down the hill to Kaslo and was back in bed by 6 am. In hindsight, and if I was flexible enough, I would kick myself in the ass for doing that. I was at a mental low point. It was just getting light out. In a couple of hours the sun would be up and I probably would have felt much better. I should have gone on. But I didn’t. I thought that I would have to give up on the dream of getting the SR600 done. Later that day Osa drove me back up to Idaho Peak to get my mountain bike (for the second time) and then drove me to Christina Lake to get my car. So now I had ridden 670 kms and climbed well over 10,000 meters in two attempts at the ride. If nothing else these were excellent training rides. I drove back to Coquitlam the next day feeling pretty despondent but also resigned to the idea that it wasn’t going to happen.
Shortly after I got back I got word from Hugh Kimball that he wanted to have another go at the ride starting on July 24. I had other plans for that time and wasn’t yet feeling like trying it again myself. I wished him well. He rode in more bad weather and saw a temperature of three degrees and rain on the first pass. He carried on and eventually made it as far as Creston. His rear wheel failed due to a cracked rim that he was not able to get fixed. He hitchhiked back to Christina Lake. The score was now 7 DNFs, three no starts, and zero successes.
This time the weather forecast was also not that good. Instead of being cold and rainy it was hot, hot, hot. There was a special weather statement from Weather Canada warning about the heat and recommending that old folks (that would be Gary and I) should stay indoors or go to air conditioned places like shopping malls. Rather than going back to plan A where we started in the late afternoon to avoid the heat we stuck with plan B and started the ride at noon with planned sleep stops in Castlegar and Kaslo. Sleeping twice on a 600 is such a luxury; made possible by the generous 60 hour time limit for an SR600.
The first climb was indeed hot. My handlebar computer registered 43 degrees in the direct sun three feet above the pavement. We needed to take a break in the shade halfway up. That slowed us down a bit but we got to Trail in 5 hours just as we had on the first attempt. I had suffered on the climb back to Rossland on the second attempt due to the ride being in full sun. This time wasn’t as bad though due to being a little later in the day and a month later in the year. It was still very hot but the road had just gone into shade for most of the way. I drank almost 4 liters of water in just 10 kms of climbing. Meanwhile Gary was drinking very little. He had read an article by coach John Hughes that convinced him that he should only drink when thirsty. We agreed to disagree on the merits of that idea but I was quite worried that Gary would wind up with some serious issues before the ride was done. I refilled my water in Rossland and we got some food from the grocery store. Then we rode on to Castlegar in the now much cooler weather. Another 4 ½ hours of sleep and a first breakfast at McDonalds this time saw us through the Bombi and down to Salmo at just past 7 am.
We headed straight for the Dragonfly Café only to find a lineup that was out the door. We weren’t sure where all the people had come from. We opted for the Subway instead where we found another insane lineup. Salmo is not a big place. While waiting in that lineup I asked the person in line ahead of me (he was wearing a very interesting one piece bunny suit that looked like sleep attire for a very large 5 year old) what was going on. He explained that this morning was the early opening of the festival grounds for the Shambala music festival. All of these people were here two full days before the music was to start just so that they could get in to the festival grounds and secure a place to camp. We eventually got some coffee and each had an egg sandwich kind of thing. Then we headed down the road toward Creston. About 5 kms out of town we came to an enormous traffic jam. This was the backup of the early arrivals trying to get into the festival grounds. The lineup extended for about a km in each direction.
We sailed past the traffic jam and were soon on our way up Kootenay Pass. This climb went well enough for me but not for Gary. The Subway sandwich didn’t do the job for him and he bonked pretty severely near the top. But he got there and we sailed down the endless descent to Creston where we arrived shortly after 1 pm to another blazing hot day in the lowlands. We had a quick bite at the Tim Hortons and then started riding up the east shore of Kootenay Lake. We did the math and decided that with a big effort we could get to the ferry for the 6:10 pm sailing (why do they call it a sailing when it’s actually a motoring?). We passed on getting a much needed ice cream. We passed on stopping for a dip in the lake at some beautiful beaches. We passed on getting any food in the few stores along the way. We hammered. We got to the ferry with 10 minutes to spare. Only to find that the sailing was cancelled due to the ferry being broken. Fortunately there are two boats and we would now be on the 7 pm sailing. Which of course was way behind schedule. It finally left at 7:20 pm and let us off at Balfour a little after 8 pm. It took us until 10 pm to get to Kaslo and Osas house. When we got there we heard tales from Osa and my son Alex of a nice hike to the Macbeth Icefield and a canoe trip across the lake to have a picnic dinner on the beach. All while we were suffering on the bikes in the intense heat. What’s wrong with this picture? See above under “retiring from randonneuring and cheering on other people while they suffer”.
Another too short sleep stop saw us leaving Kaslo around 4 am. This time I felt a bit better than I had the previous time, plus I had Gary to keep me from hitting that mental low point, or at least to help me get through it. We got to the base of Idaho Peak at around 6:30 am where I switched to the mountain bike that I had stashed for the third time a couple of days ago. Gary opted to ride his Berg bike with 42 mm road slick tires and strong wheels for the entire ride. This worked OK for the ride up. I had somewhat better gearing and could ride some sections that he couldn’t. I walked a good bit of it though. This road averages 9 percent for 12 kms on loose gravel. Some sections are relatively low angle which means that some sections are incredibly high angle. At one point I stopped quickly to take a layer off. When I came around the next corner I found Gary standing beside his bike looking a bit pale. He asked me how brave I was feeling. Average was my reply. He explained that he had just had an encounter with a grizzly bear. The bear had come out onto the road ahead of him and then when it saw him it ambled down the road toward him. It then apparently decided that there was nothing about Gary Baker that was good to eat and so left the road and went on its way. So did we. But we made a lot of noise for a while after that to let the bear know that we were there. Further on we came to a row of concrete barriers blocking the road. We had heard that there had been a cave in where the road had collapsed into an old mine shaft that went right under the road.
We were able to lift our bikes over and around the barrier and continue on up the road. When we finally got to the cave in a km farther on it was a bit underwhelming. There was a hole about the size of a storm drain in the road. You could see down into the mine shaft but it wasn’t that big of a deal. Better to close the road though than lose an SUV full of tourists. Farther up we saw another hole in the road of similar origins. There was a lot of mining in this area back in the day.
We finally got to the top of the road just after 10 am having walked well over half of the distance above Sandon. We took the obligatory control photo, admired the view, swatted some horse flies, and headed down. This was where my strategy of switching to a mountain bike paid off. I had a relatively uneventful descent. Gary had a relatively eventful descent. He was barely in control for most of it. He got blisters on his hands from braking so hard. The problem wasn’t so much with his brakes but with his tires. They just wouldn’t grip the often loose road surface so he would careen from switchback to switchback and only manage to stop when the road flattened out at each switchback. It was frightening to watch. He made it in one piece but probably wouldn’t do that again.
We got to New Denver just after noon. It was of course blazing hot once again. We hit the grocery store and loaded up on food and liquids and took a break in the shade on the porch at the side of the store. There was a young guy there playing his bass fiddle for the enjoyment of the passers by. He was pretty talented.
By now we were entertaining thoughts of actually getting this ride done. We still needed to ride about 100 kms through the incredibly scenic but not flat Slocan Valley to Castlegar and then do one more 1100 meter climb to get to the finish at the Paulson bridge by a little after midnight. It was doable. I figured that if we were able to leave Castlegar by 7 pm we would be good. We left New Denver at 1 pm and pretty soon came to a climb that I think of as the Silverton Slog. It is probably the most soul destroying climb of the whole ride. It goes up 320 meters at a steep enough grade to be very tiring. It’s not what you want to be doing after having already climbed 1850 meters from Kaslo to the summit of the Idaho Peak road. After that it was pretty smooth sailing through the Slocan. We stopped in Winlaw at a store for a few minutes. Gary left his bike in the sun leaning against the wall of the store. When we got out of the air conditioned store Gary looked at the temperature displayed on his bike computer. It showed 55 degrees. I had left my bike in the shade. When I reviewed the ride later I found that the highest temperature that my computer saw that day was 44 degrees.
We finished the ride through the Slocan at a pretty good pace. The lower Slocan is gentler that the more northern parts and we managed to get some fast riding done. Then we turned onto Hwy 3A for the final 20 kms or so to Castlegar. This is also a high speed road and to make it even better the sun was now low enough in the sky to be behind the mountain to the west so we had some shade and cooler temperatures. That all changed when we came around the corner of that mountain and dropped into the basin that Caslegar sits in. It was like opening the oven door. It was a furnace. It was now just after 6 pm so we knew that the heat would be letting up soon. We got some food and what passes for a milkshake at the A&W. Then we went across the street to the Subway to refill our bottles with ice water. This was a strategy that we had learned early in the ride. Subways tend to have excellent machines that dispense all the ice you want and all the water you want. I found that my camelback (which I hardly ever carry but was really necessary for this ride) keeps water cold for a long time. The water in my bottles would go from ice water to very warm water in a half hour. The camelback would still be dispensing cold water hours later.
We left Castlegar at 7 pm just as we had hoped. The first 300 meters of the climb up to the Paulson summit is very steep but then the grade eases considerably. Gary was having trouble with his knees by this time. He had to get off the bike several times to lay down and do stretches to alleviate the pain. This slowed him down but it didn’t stop him. Nothing was going to stop either of us by this point. And nothing did. We finally got over the Paulson Summit and down to the Paulson bridge to complete the ride at 11:18 pm. Our elapsed time for the ride was 58 hours and 53 minutes.
The score is now 7 DNFs, three no starts, and 2 successes for this year. In previous years the ride was done by me in 2015 and by Bob Goodison in 2016. Bill Maurer also did the ride in 2016 but finished in around 60 hours. That would have been a good enough time now but back then the time limit was 50 hours and so he only got credit for doing the ride as a “tourist”.
Thanks to Gary for being an excellent companion for this ride. We had a lot of fun. Most of it was type 2 fun, but we got it done.
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August 30, 2019