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My Heart(s) of the Kootenays Super 600 Permanent(s)
I have been in striking distance of earning the coveted Super 10000 pin ever since it was announced; there was just that one missing event… a Super 600. When Bob Koen designed and received approval for the Heart of the Kootenays route, I was excited. I had worked for two summers as a student in the Kootenays and had spent many summers vacationing with my family there. Most of the H of the K route, actually all of the route, I had ridden or driven many times, even up Idaho Peak. The route beckoned, but injuries and atmospheric conditions (heavy smoke) forced me to forgo any attempt to do the ride year after year.
Bob knew I was keen to do it, and as he planned to do it for a second time this year, he extended an invitation to accompany him. The plan was put in motion for an early July attempt (July 3rd). Eric Ferguson and two SIR riders (John Pearch and Hugh Kimball) were also interested, so as a group of five, we met up at the start location: Christina Lake.
We planned for a 4pm start to take advantage of the cooler night temperatures (it gets HOT in the Kootenays.) As it turned out, the temperature was going to be a problem, but not as we anticipated. We headed off at 4pm as planned in overcast, suspect conditions.
Bob, John and Hugh set off at a brisk pace. By the time we reached the start of the big climb (about 5km into the ride), they were out of sight. Eric and I were settling into a steady pace, but then……
There was a construction crew working at the Paulson Bridge (25km up the climb). Eric and I stopped there to see if they had any tools that we could use. They were very helpful, moving heavy equipment out of the way that was being used to barricade their tool shed. They had a set of allen wrenches but the 10mm was not to be found, darn! We thanked them and pushed on. About 5km further up the climb, two ‘recovery tow trucks’ were attempting to wench a camper truck and the boat that was being towed up an embankment to the road. What a mess (thankfully no one had been badly hurt in the rollover/crash)! They had a 10mm allen wrench, but tightening the retaining bolt was not the solution to the problem. When I tightened the retaining bolt the crank locked up and couldn’t be turned. I had to re-loosen it and live with the problem. Onward we went over the Blueberry-Paulson and Nancy Green Summits and started the big descent down through Rossland to Trail. What a drop! It was now dark (9ish) and the temperature was below 10C. With the windchill (we were rolling at 50kph+) it was bloody cold. I started to shiver uncontrollably so of course the bike started to shake as well. It was not fun. We reached the control point (the bridge over the Columbia River) at 9:30pm and headed back to the A&W where we had seen three bikes parked outside. There we joined Bob, John, and Hugh who were just finishing their meal. They left at about 9:50 and we were out the door shortly after 10pm to start the huge climb back up to Rossland. I had probably climbed this hill on my trusty Peugeot 10 speed back in late 1960s three dozen times, I think it was easier to do this time, being dark. What you don’t see can be a blessing.
As we rode through Rossland and past Red Mountain (ski hill), the crank really began to wobble, and the weather was turning foul, cold and damp. It was now after midnight, and I was really concerned for my safety given the weather conditions and likelihood that the crank might actually fall off. I decided it was best to coast back to Rossland where I talked my way into the best hotel in town at a ‘cut’ rate. It was sublime!
I did some thinking and formulated two plans. Plan A: Coast back down the hill to Trail ( the LBS opened at 9AM) get the bike fixed and take a taxi back up the hill to the where I abandoned and resume the ride. If all went ‘very’ well, I might still be able to do the ride within the 60hr time limit ( in hindsight silly me). Plan B: Get the bike fixed and then ride from Trail through Castlegar and Nelson to Balfour to meet up with the other riders and complete the remainder of the ride with them.
First thing in the morning I headed down to trail. Checking my e-mail and messages as the bike was being repaired, I learned that the weather had got the better of Bob, John, and Hugh and they had abandoned at Castlegar and ridden back to Christina Lake. Wow, they had climbed the Blueberry Summit three times in less that 16hrs!. The messages indicated that Eric had pressed on to Salmo. With this information, Plan C was a no brainer, take the bus back up to Rossland then either ride or hitchhike back to Christina Lake. After 75minutes thumbing, I got a ride back to my motel a C.L. I tracked down John and Hugh and joined then for beer and steak. No one knew where or what had become of Eric. At about 8pm that evening, Eric called. He had abandoned in Salmo in the cold and had worn the rubber off his brake pads on the descent into Castlegar and down Bombi Pass. I told him I’m get him the next morning as I was a bit under the influence. We had a long but leisurely drive back to Vancouver, Eric to prepare for PBP; moi to plan another attempt to get a SR600.
Bob was equally keen to complete the ride and tried again a week later but abandoned after day two (see his write-up). Bob has told me that Hugh also made a second attempt but DNF’d due to a mechanical at Creston). I was prepared to try a solo attempt in early August when I learned that Bob was game to try again. We explored some possible dates and agreed to go again starting at 12 noon on Tuesday, August 5. Sheryl and I decided to make a vacation of the trip as Christina Lake is a summer paradise. We drove up on the 3rd, visiting friends in Midway. On Sunday we stopped in Greenwood at a neat coffee shop and then explored Grand Forks (enjoyed a stop at another coffee shop) before driving on to Christina lake. On Monday we explored the town and a section of the Columbia & Western Rail to Trail section of the Great Trail (formerly called the Trans Canada trail) by bike. After lunch we kayaked the southern half of the lake.
Day # 1: Bob and I departed as planned shortly after 12pm, on Tuesday….it was HOT! I felt great and we rode well together arriving in Trail at 5pm. The descent from Rossland to Trail was a hoot with fast sweeping corners and then it hit you. Rossland was hot but alpine. Trail down in the Columbia River Valley felt like an oven; the temperature jumped at least 10C; it was oppressive! It was A&W for dinner and then the long climb back up to Rossland (in daylight…), over the Nancy Green summit and down the long but gradual descent to Castlegar. It was a short day (149km) with two of the major climbs completed. Bob had arranged for us to stay at his friend, Osa’s son’s place.
Day # 2: We were on the road shortly after 4 AM, stopping at a local T.H. for a quick breaky. Bombi Pass beckoned. This low pass from Castlegar to Salmo is much tougher than its profile and distance implies. It just seems to go on forever. The views down the Columbia River Valley are absolutely spectacular. The descent down to Salmo is steep, and the ride into Salmo itself is flatish.
We arrived in Salmo at approximately 8AM, and it was already getting HOT, with intentions to have a second breakfast. All the restaurants (1) and fast food joints (1) were packed. Everywhere one looked there were folks climbing out of campers, the backs of pickups, from cars (mostly wearing their PJs or rather interesting costumes). It was a human zoo! Why, the Shambhala Music Festival was about to start. This is probably the wildest hard rock music festival in North America. The festival grounds are south of town on the way to Kootenay Pass. Traffic was backed up for over a kilometre getting onto the site. It was crazy!
Kootenay Pass is a vertical and visual monster: 68km end to end, a 24km climb from the west and a 43km descent to the east…total elevation gain 1296m. I have driven this pass literally dozens of times; what I remembered was that you could see approximately half of the climbing distance ( 12km) as it works its way towards the summit. Somewhat visually like the upper section of the Coquihalla, but much longer with a hell of a lot more vertical. Psychologically demoralizing, at least in my mind. NOTE: The Coquihalla from The Othello Tunnels Rd. to the summit has slightly more vertical spread over 34km).
Something was not right. Literally, as I began the climb I felt awful; no energy, headache, burning thighs. Bob just pulled away from me. I was having to stop every 2 or 3 km to rest. This was NOT ME, climbs don’t hurt me like this! Was it the lack of food, had I screwed up my water intake routine, was it electrolytes’? I don’t know but I came very close to throwing in the towel. Bob tends to descend faster than I do (mass and gravity….) but with some effort I can more or less stay with him. There was no energy to chase. I arrived in Creston about 10 minutes behind him. I have ridden the next 70km up the east side of Kootenay Lake many times, it has been rated as one of the 10 best rides in North America, it is wonderful; but I was not looking forward to it at all. And, the pressure was on as we would have to hustle to get the targeted ferry from Crawford Bay to Balfour. If we missed it, it was going to be a long delay and a late night.
But something happened, the head ache vanished, the legs recovery and I felt ready to go. T.H. food seemed to have done the trick. We had to hustle (and did) and arrived in time to catch the ferry as planned, but as we arrived at the terminal about 10 -15 minutes early, we could see the ferry pulling away. What the ^&%*$^0! We quickly learned that the scheduled ferry was out of service and the remaining larger vessel was shuttling back and forth across the lake as fast as it could go. We had the better part of a 2 hour wait. Darn!
Fortunately they load bikes first, so we were at the head of the line in the cafeteria. We both stuffed the food down and were fueled up for the remaining 35km from Belfour up to Kaslo. When we arrived at Bob’s friend ,Osa’s place, she had a meal waiting for us. There is a cycle Goddess!
On reflection I think the problem I has summiting Kootenay pass was likely a direct result of me deviating from my usual water/food plan. I had been having problems with frequent bio breaks so I cut back on the frequency and volume of the water and food I was consuming. Choosing to make such a change on such a demanding ride was a ‘rookie mistake’.
Day # 3: What a day, and it got even HOTTER than on Day # 2. Departing from Kaslo we were immediately confronted by a short but very steep climb. This was followed by a gentle climb to the summit of Retallack Pass and a steep descent down to the turn and climb to Sandon. Bob had stashed a mountain bike at the start of this climb, good plan. With the biggest climb of the ride about to start we jettisoned all non-essentials, hid it in the bushes. The gravel road up to Sandon (6Km) was smoother than some of the paved road we had been on.
As we left Sandon, it became abundantly obvious why Bob wanted to ride his mountain bike. I was riding 42mm semi-slicks. Oh my!!!! First the road had a closed barrier across it (to discourage tourists) as it was completely blocked to vehicle traffic at the 5km point due to a developing sink hole over an old mine shaft. From Sandon to the Idaho summit parking lot was 12km that was one long mix of gravel, boulders and sand. I ended up walking about 10km of it, pushing the bike….is this fun???? But there is more to tell.
There were lots of signs indicating the presence of bears and guess what (?). As I rounded a curve there was a GRIZZLE bear standing on the road just ahead of me. I STOPPED, the bear turned, looked me over then did a 180 and disappeared into the underbrush. When Bob rounded the corner, he likely wondered why I was glued to the spot. I asked him, “How brave he was?”, then explained the situation. Time to strategize our next move. We had to get to the summit parking lot to achieve the required elevation gain for the event. After a short delay, making lots of ‘human’ noise we carried on.
The Idaho Forestry Fire lookout is one of the highest in B.C. The views in every direction did not disappoint, but they could not detract me from the thought, how the *..* am I going to get down that road: ride, walk, crawl? Let’s just say it was crazy. I had lots of braking power, although the hands were in a death grip much of the time. I had virtually no braking traction; if I braked to control my speed (why else would one brake?) I would lock up one or both wheels on the soft sand and gravel.. Bob told me afterwards he thought I was going to kill myself. I thought I was going to kill myself for much of that 12 Km descent. Remember that 6km stretch of gravel road from Sandon back to the highway’ it was oh so smooth; I rarely touched the brakes and was often rolling at 45-50kph.
I suspect that 12km climb and descent on Idaho Peak qualifies as one of, if not the squirreliest chunks of road on any Super 600 in the world.
Bob ditched the MTB, we gathered up our gear and enjoyed a rocket ride down to New Denver on Slocan Lake. I had forgotten just how beautiful it is. While refueling we met a guy who has lived there for decades. He recognized our ‘kit’ and examined our bikes with knowledgeable interest. We learned he had virtually every issue of Bicycle Quarterly. He relished talking to riders who understood the nuances of different frame materials, tires sizes, tire pressures, etc. How cool…in New Denver.
We were on the home stretch. Two climbs to go, the Slocan Hump and The Blurberry-Paulson back to Christina Lake. The Hump is a soul sucker, a 6km 1000’ climb that sort of follows the lake shore. Why couldn’t the road have just hugged the shoreline like the road along the eastern shore of Kootenay Lake? And to add insult to misery the 20km decent to Sloan City was peppered with miserable short climbs. Thankfully the next 70km was for all purposes a gentle (<1%) incline (with a few tiny rollers) all the way to Castlegar. One BIG climb to go!!!!!
We had 68km with approximately 750m of climbing to do. All but for a 4km section near the start of the climb and a few shortish pitches (approx. 1-2km) of a 7/8% grade the climb was most in the 1 ½-2 % range. We had 5hrs and the final 10km was steep….DOWN to the Paulson Bridge. We could do it!
We were both getting weary and my knees were starting to demand short breaks, probably a product of the decreasing temperature as we climbed into the night. We made good time and at one point walked a half kilometer or so up the last of the steep pitches. In the cool air and mountain darkness this was a joy. When we saw the summit sign, I think complete elation set in, forgetting that long steep descents are hard in their own way. I find I don’t move around or squirm on the bike and rigormortis sets in.
The finish control was at the Paulson Bridge, still over 20km from our motel at Christina Lake ( all down hill). I wasn’t looking forward to those gratuitous bonus kms. To our surprise, the bridge was lit up like a suburban mall parking lot (the night shift repair crew). They were taken by surprise by our sudden appearance. The foreman came out to meet us and was agreeable to signing our control cards. What an end to an epic ride. Then it got better. A set of headlights appeared behind us, it was Sheryl!!!!!!! OK, I had called her from Castlegar and told her approximately when we would finish. I hinted it would be ‘nice’ if she could meet us and drive us back to the lake. Salvation!!!!!
In hindsight this ride was an epic adventure. One of the things I relish about this crazy sport is ADVENTURE; the new, the different, and yes the challenge. This ride had it all. How hard was it ...really?
It was probably one of the two hardest rides that I’ve ever done; it was certainly the craziest with that Idaho climb and descent. What qualified this ride as so hard was the complete body collapse the morning of day two. It took everything I had to push through that, but that’s what Randonneurs try to do. Sometimes the push works; other times it doesn’t. If it hadn’t this time, there would have been another S 600 attempt somewhere. Perhaps I’ll still give Bob Goodison’s new S 600 route a go next year, just for the adventure.
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August 30, 2019