The night was warm, still, and dark, a thick heavy lid of cloud settled tight over the valley, a huge sandy cul de sac ringed by peaks rising over 5,000 ft. above. By morning, large breaks into the blue told us the storm was moving on. Before first light we were out doing chores, easy at 47 deg. F. By 8AM we'd retraced our path down the dirt road and regained Hwy 190, staring straight into the mist-shrouded wall of the Panamints, 11,000 ft. Telescope Peak to the south back-lit by the rising sun, draped in bands of fog like a Japanese ink painting of Mt. Fuji.
What followed was a brutal climb that tested us deeply, long stretches of 9, 10, even 13%. When the grade backed off to 7%, it felt like a holiday, delightfully "flat" after the crux pitches. Confined to our lowest gears, we ground it out, thrilled to occasionally break 2.5 mph. Django sometimes looked bored. Only Lord Schlumpf, the inventor of our super-low gearing packed into the bottom bracket, allowed us progress, saving our knees. Slow moving banks of cloud drifted across the mountain's rugged face and ridges, gullies, huge boulders held to the wall by nothing more than a politician's promise. We inched along only too aware of our prolonged exposure to these Boulders of Damocles.
Fountains of sweat poured off our straining frames. Legs and butt muscles ached. Every 500 ft. or so of altitude gain we took a break, the day in the 40's too quickly cooling us as we jammed down calories and jumped back into the fight. Calves and quads, hamstrings and ankles, backs pressed into the seats, we lay into the job hour after hour. Near the top, my glutes began to complain most of all. Chained together, Django panting on the still-damp pavement off my right shoulder, we winched our bloated rig into the sky...2,000 ft., 3,000 ft. the summit just shy of 5,000 ft. somewhere out of sight above.
In a car we'd close the distance in seconds to that next elevation sign. On a fully loaded Greenspeed tandem trike, ages passed in quiet desperation. For all the grinding effort, however, we were happy in our way and exactly where we needed to be. We were a team, working hard, the summit within reach.
And then, and then, and then...the angle released its iron grip. Degree by blessed degree we left the cliff face below us and rounded toward the top. In fits of wild optimism, I up-shifted. And we could hold the gears. Hallelujah and pass the chain lube, Zeke. This climb was gonna end. Finally, Towne Pass was ours.
I stood unsteadily and released my aching buns from the cage of ascent and stretched in victory. We snacked and suited up for the virtual space shot down to Stovepipe Wells, 18 miles and 5,000 ft. of continuous descent below. Django wore Jodi's Goretex; she pulled on fleece and down hoodie; we both put three layers over our legs. I slipped into fleece and Goretex on top, neoprene booties and double gloves, windproof headband under the helmet. Gun for sea level, fools, and Devil take the hindmost.
Mile upon glorious mile we flew on Greenspeed wings into the incredible basin of light and distance. We plunged out of the clouds and at long last into the sun. We feathered the disc brakes, keeping our speed between 30--35 mph. My fingers froze into barely useable claws, stiff but sufficient to the task of pulling levers. My upper-body armor proved inadequate, and deep shivers wracked my arms and shoulders--but great God! The beauty! The wild crazy beauty of the storm-scrubbed sky, clouds fringing the peaks, sun bathing the deep stark sink. I shivered and shook but held the line true as we plummeted into Death Valley.
At Stovepipe Wells, at last in the warmth, we stood weak and dizzy from the trike and peeled off layers, although it would be some time before I would reclaim my fingers or Jodi her toes, the ungrateful little piggies having gone walkabout in the chill. I grabbed a celebratory brew from the store and we ambled over to the tenting area, reveling in the warmth, swimming in the thick atmosphere. A big pasta dinner tonight and Furnace Creek tomorrow and a much needed rest day. Damn, is this the life, or what?
Miles: 27.5; Total: 83
Climb: 3,400 ft.