These are the things people told me about riding Alpine Dam and the Seven Sisters:
– That I’d never get a break from climbing.
– That I’d hit some stretches that seemed impossibly steep.
– That my hands would hurt from braking on the downhills.
These are the things nobody told me about riding Alpine Dam and the Seven Sisters:
– That I’d ride so high I’d be above the clouds.
– That the biggest hill I climbed in training in 2012 would now look and feel like a mere bump.
– That deep in the woods, I’d discover an incredible stillness.
It says something about my tenuous grasp on geography that even when I saw Alpine Dam on my training schedule, even when I saw the reference to the Seven Sisters and the 3300-plus feet of climbing, I didn’t realize we were basically climbing up Mt. Tam. That would be this guy —
Photo by Jesse on Flickr
— where we just ran the Dipsea, where some of my wedding photos were taken, where when a friend recently told me he used to ride up it all the time, my response boiled down to “LOL, that’s nuts.” That Alpine Dam. Those Seven Sisters. That mountain.
Granted, we didn’t go all the way to the top peak. (Though people do that — crazy people.) My vague understanding of the route is that we basically looped around the back side, climbing to the top of that second, smaller peak off to the west in the photo above, then descending around the front side of the mountain before coasting back to our starting point.
I woke up a nervous mess, and the chatter in the car ride up — three of us talking about the various horror stories we’d heard about the route — didn’t help matters. We stocked up our support vehicle with sunscreen and windbreakers and extra water, picked up cue sheets, and rode easy through some residential neighborhoods, chatting to distract ourselves. One of the women in our group was a local who’d done this ride many times, and she was the most wonderful coach — telling us “it’s going to get steep for a while” or “you get a downhill after this” or, most often, simply “settle in.”
We hit the first big climb right out of Fairfax, a steady three-mile rise with a couple of tougher pitches. I was afraid I was going to hit a stretch so steep I wouldn’t be able to unclip — I didn’t want to stop, but once it occurs to me that I can’t stop, the only thing I can think about is stopping — but there was none of that, just long, continuous climbs. Our de facto coach called back that we were about to hit a bit of downhill, and all of a sudden we came coasting up to this:
A bridge over deep blue water, surrounded by tall trees: Alpine Dam, living up to its name.
We stopped there for a while, took some pictures, celebrated making it that far, and then heard what was next: a little roller or two and then three miles of switchbacks, which I’d later learn was about 900 feet of climbing. “Settle in,” our local expert told us, and we headed deeper into the woods.
I was still expecting the road to point straight up at some point; how else could we climb so much? But the grade stayed reasonable (mostly, except for a few curves). It was just … up. Up and up and up. Around a curve and up. Our mountain coach had told us to never look for the top, and so I tried to keep my eyes on the road ahead. Pedal, pedal, pedal, curve around and up. Pedal, pedal, pedal, curve around and up.
I was breathing hard and I knew it, and I searched desperately for something to tune it out. I’d somehow pulled ahead of the little group I’d been with at the dam, and the closest people to me were two other friends climbing together, talking about birds. I listened to their conversation for a while — an osprey’s nest? — and then, eventually, I wasn’t listening to anything.
It was quiet.
I don’t know how it got so quiet. The phrase that popped into my head was “go to the place where it’s quiet” — just like that, awkward grammar and all. I don’t know where these things come from, or why they only come when my heart is pounding and sweat is pouring down the tip of my nose, but they come sometimes, and that was Saturday’s. I don’t know where “the place that it’s quiet” is, or if it’s even a place. What I do know is that in that moment, it was a place where I didn’t hear my breath. Where I didn’t hear the bird ladies. Where I didn’t hear my bike, or my thoughts, or anything except the occasional reminder to snap back into the quiet place. I was riding among redwoods. I was climbing a mountain. And yet I was still.
Pedal, pedal, pedal. Curve around and up. Stay in the quiet place.
What snapped me out of the quiet place were the biting flies. One perched on my shoulder and dug in. A few others dive-bombed my chest or buzzed around my face. At one point I yelled out “leave me alone!” — because flies, as we know, frequently respond to orders. It was definitely not quiet anymore.
Luckily, when I started to lose it, I wasn’t far from our coach’s water drop. Just a few more curves and I came upon half my teammates and five gallons of cold water and a safe place to hop off the bike for a while.
We didn’t stay there long — the flies again! — and soon we were back to climbing, shorter and steeper hills this time. These were the Seven Sisters, and we’d been told to count them so we knew how far we were, but I didn’t even know what counted as a hill at that point. Was the one with the dip and rise one Sister or two? What about the steep one that wrapped around the ridge? Nothing to do but keep on riding and to try not to look too far ahead; there was less total climbing in this stretch, but some of the Sisters were monstrous. We were riding a rollercoaster on the ridgeline, pushing up and rolling down.
At one point, I passed a guy who knew the route and asked what Sister we were climbing. “Six,” he said, “or maybe seven.”
“Wait, what? Six?”
“Oh, thank god. I thought you were going to say two!”
After the summit of that Sister, we had a little downhill to a wide vista point, and I was stunned to see this:
Clouds as far as we could see. Big, cottony pillows. Big, cottony pillows we were far above.
A quiet place.
We descended from there, and it was, to be honest, not my favorite — winding and windy, and steep enough in parts that I did worry I wouldn’t be able to brake hard enough. We had a water refill stop after the first long stretch of downhill, then a few miles congested with cars that stressed me out, and I was so, so happy to bottom out at Highway 1.
There was one last climb before we got back, up Camino Alto, and my little group laughed all the way up it. This hill? This hill that we dread on a normal day? This hill felt like nothing! We were spinning up in our easiest gear and feeling like we were cheating. Nice try, Camino Alto, but you’re hardly a Sister.
The final stats: 32.7 miles, 3,405 feet of climbing (most of that between miles 4 and 16), and a peak elevation of 2,008 feet, per Garmin. Tired quads and burning hamstrings, hands tired from braking and my Shot Blok stash destroyed.