Tour Divide Recap : Days 3-5 : Montana Stole My Sleep

by Andy Amick on August 25, 2014

in Bikepacking, Tour Divide 2014

This post was supposed to cover days 3-7.  Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop.  So, this is a really really long post about 3 days in the Montana rain and snow.

 

Sleep.  Oh comfortable sleep, how I missed you during this section.  Days 3 through 5 would take me from the US border down to Lincoln, MT (That’s map #2 if you’re following along with the ACA Maps).

After crossing the border on day 2, Casey and I arrived at a hotel in Eureka just behind Singlespeed Dan and a few others.  It was around 1AM and I just wanted to lay down and sleep for the night.  The woman at the front desk said that Dan’s group had just taken the last room.  Those were the words that I didn’t want to hear at that time.  She was very nice and talked to us about options – options that didn’t involve a bed or shower.

We ended up laying out our sleeping bags on the floor of the bar/restaurant/video poker room with the stipulation that we had to be out by 6AM.  One woman was playing video poker late into the night as I tried to get my body to sleep.  Not gonna happen on that night.  Throughout the night, other riders came straggling in and setting up “camp”.  Man, they were so loud, or so it seemed.  I never did really get to sleep as riders came in all the way up to 4AM.  At 5:20 (yes, I remember the exact time), the front desk clerk began waking us up.

There were at least 10-15 riders in that restaurant the next morning when I finally rolled out of my bag.  I thought my late night of riding was tough, but they had it even worse.  A few decided to stay and sleep a few hours in a real room once other riders checked out.  Me?  I was ready for day 3 as long as I could find some coffee in town.

Looking forward to a hot meal in the cafe is a sure way to have your hopes dashed on the Divide.  It was Sunday morning and the cafe didn’t open until 8AM.  Gas station breakfast it would have to be.  Luckily, they had some sausage biscuits and a microwave.  And they had coffee, my necessary coffee.  Casey, Michael (who had slept on the ground outside of another building), and I lounged around a bit too much that morning.  We ended up leaving the gas station after about an hour and pedaled off into an overcast sky that held the certainty of more rain for the day.

Day 3 involved the infamous Whitefish Divide and Red Meadow Lake Pass, both of which were going to have snow at the top.  The unknown was how much.  After rolling out of town, Whitefish Divide starts with a fairly gentle climb on pavement.  Once on dirt, the gentle climbing continued until I hit what was the first of many avalanche debris fields.  Whitefish Divide must have had 20+ of these on the climb and the descent.  The debris was a combination of snow and downed pine/spruce trees.  Most of these debris fields involved climbing up through some snow, then hoisting the bike over a downed tree or three, then walking down the snow back to the trail.  Not a huge deal other than the slow going.  There were a few large areas that took more than 5 or 10 minutes to navigate.

whitefish divide, tour divide 2014

Another blurry rainy day. Can you spot the rider in the red jacket in this large debris field?

The one thing I remember from these debris fields other than cold feet from walking in the snow and the misty light rain was the smell.  All of the downed trees left a wonderful pine aroma.  At least I could enjoy the smell while trudging over snow and trees.

Once on the downhill, well the downhill that was rideable and not full of avalanche debris, I was able to cruise and enjoy the riding.  In between Whitefish Divide and Red Meadow Lake is a relatively flat area with easy riding.  I caught up to Singlespeed Dan (that guy who took the last room the night before :) ) and rode with him for an hour or so until I stopped for a short lunch in a meadow and he continued riding.  Up next was the climb up to Red Meadow Lake.

This climb was the first climb where I was having a tough time going uphill.  My legs felt fine, but it was the achilles that slowed me down on this climb and many more to come.  The long push from the day before through mud and rain caused a lot of soreness in both achilles.  I think I was putting my heel down while riding through the mud trying to get a little extra power.  Doing that over 160 miles and then getting a few hours of sleep doesn’t help.

At the start of the climb, I ran into 3 New Zealand riders that looked like they were having a great time.  Chatting and making wise cracks at each other, we kept climbing.  Then the strongest New Zealand rider (2 of these guys would end up in top 10 placings) missed a turn and the other two waited for him to realize his mistake.  I took the turn and started climbing up a narrow road lined with trees.  It was a beautiful road, the rain had stopped, and up I went.

With the achilles becoming really sore, I decided to put in the iPod with my “inspire” playlist.  Before the ride, I told myself to only use the headphones when absolutely necessary because I wanted to experience the ride and nature as completely as I could.  This was my first of only three times that I used the headphones.

The climb kept going and I kept cruising along with periods of walking when the achilles ached too much.  After going around a steep corner the snow started.  And it wasn’t just a section of snow to walk through.  It was several feet of snow that covered everything.  The next several hours were a full on slog through the snow just following the tracks and prints in front of me.

I did manage to catch back up to the New Zealanders who had passed me on the climb.  As the rain fell while we walked through the snow, I commented that we really needed a grizzly bear walking beside us to make this even more crazy.  Luckily, the grizzlies didn’t hear this and they never made an appearance.

After Red Meadow Lake, the terrain went down, but we were still walking through feet of snow.  Eventually, the snow pack ended and we found dirt again.  The 4 of us started riding only to be stopped by another patch of snow that covered the entire road.  There must have been 5 or 10 of these patches which were really frustrating because we all wanted to enjoy the downhill.

Finally we could, but then the cold settled in for me.  My all important waterproof outer glove was no longer waterproof.  The entire glove system relied on this layer which meant I was going to be cold and wet with any rain that would be falling.  Even through the cold, the downhill was quite enjoyable and had a few fast sections.

The descent led into Whitefish where I decided to call it a night even though I originally had plans to ride on to Columbia Falls which was 10 miles down the road.  The cold and sore achilles were too much at that point.

Coming into Whitefish I did run into Singlespeed Dan for the last time at a BBQ joint.  After that, his pace would be too much for me and he ended up as first place singlespeed.  Nice job Dan.

After not sleep much in Eureka, I managed to get a solid night’s sleep in Whitefish and felt much better leaving town the following morning.  The achilles were still very sore and I accepted the fact that they would probably be that way for the rest of the ride.  The pain was annoying, but that wasn’t going to stop me from continuing.

On Day 4, I managed to ride from Whitefish to Holland Lake.  When I was doing my pre-race planning, I thought day 4 could finish in Seeley Lake or even Ovando.  With what I know now (aka Richmond Peak is a monster covered in snow), there is no way I would have made it to Ovando on day 4.

The 10 miles from Whitefish to Columbia Falls were all paved and I enjoyed an easy cruise trying to stretch out the achilles and basically have an easy ride before I got breakfast.  After rolling into Columbia Falls, the first coffee/breakfast place I found was the Basecamp Cafe.  What a find it was too.  They had the ACA map on the wall, great coffee and equally great people.  I talked to an older couple that had done multi day rides back in the 70s and 80s.  Just before I left, a guy that had completed the CDT hike a few years back stopped to talk to me about being out on the trail.  Nothing lifts your spirits like meeting other people that have done adventures and they tell you enjoy the ride and good luck.

Since my outer gloves were no longer waterproof and it was going to rain again, I picked up some dishwashing gloves at a grocery store in town.  It was $4 well spent to see if they would work.  As I was packing up my bike, singlespeed Alice rode up and we started talking about the gloves.  She got a pair as well and we rode out of town together.  Her single gear matched my “go easy on the achilles” pavement gear and we rode together on the paved roads leading to Ferndale.  A cafe was located at one of the crossroads so we decided to stop for lunch.  I love me some biscuits and gravy and they were on the menu that day.  The day was going well.

I had to order a salad to get some veggies and balance out the meal :)

I had to order a salad to get some veggies and balance out the meal :)

I think I could have ridden on biscuits and gravy along with ice cream for the entire ride.  Too bad they don’t carry well in a frame pack.

After lunch, the road turned to dirt and Alice with her incredible climbing pace was gone.  I ended up riding with Alice almost 5 days and was always amazed at her climbing pace.  Within a few pedal strokes of starting a climb, it seemed like she was 100 yards ahead of me.  Those climbing legs would take Alice to the finish as first place woman and 11th place overall.  Fantastic riding Alice!

The roads from Ferndale to Holland Lake were enjoyable except for the rain that kept falling.  The rain would let up during the climbs and then start to fall as soon as I crested the top.  I guess that just makes the downhills a little more “fun”.

Day4_LotsOfWaterAndGreen

As the day wore on, I caught back up to Alice on a flatter section and Durango Casey caught up to me as well.  The three of us wound our way up and down towards Holland Lake.  The roads in this section were narrow with lots of trees.  I’m sure it would have been a beautiful area had the sun been out.  It was still enjoyable until the rain really started to fall just before dark.

road towards holland lake lodge

Cold, wet, and riding in the dark, we all made it to Holland Lake Lodge where some other riders were already asleep for the night.  The lodge was way too upscale for stinky muddy riders.  As equally upscale was the price for a room.  At that point, I wasn’t about to go setup my tarp in the cold and rain.  The price of the room included a full dinner with dessert plus a breakfast and lunch.  Since we weren’t going to be there for either meal, they made each of us PB&Js to go.

That night, I again didn’t sleep very well.  I think I was too wound up thinking about what was next and where the day would take me.  Instead of thinking so much, I wish I could have simply ridden and stopped when I was tired rather than trying to plan out everything in my head.  Live and learn I guess.

Waking up to a steady rain when bikepacking is never enjoyable.  At least I was dry overnight and all of my clothes were warm and dry.  The climb up the infamous Richmond Peak starts right after leaving Holland Lake.  The rain was really falling, but I was able to settle into a rhythm to climb.  About halfway up the climb the rain turned to snow.  A forest service truck passed me as I was climbing and I got quite envious of them being warm and dry as they drove up Richmond Peak.  The climb kept going and the snow kept falling.  Several inches of fresh snow had fallen and then I ran into the existing snow that was at the peak.  It was a winter wonderland in the middle of June.  Pushing a bike through snow is annoying but not too bad.  Pushing a bike through snow while more snow is falling and you can’t see the trail is maddening.  I remember getting to the top and continually saying “This is stupid, this is stupid”.

Tour Divide Richmond Peak

Then the fun began.  Yes, it was just a warm-up to this point.  The trail was singletrack, covered in snow, and then I ran into the steep side slope that I had read about from other riders.  It’s billed as 45 degree angles with snow and downed trees and nothing to really stop you if you fall.  Unfortunately for me, those accounts were completely accurate.

Cold and wet, I tried to push my bike along these steep slopes.  Several times, my foot slipped and I slid down a couple of feet.  The walking got slower as I made sure to put each foot into someone’s footprint in the snow.  It was slow going with snow still falling.  My hands and feet were already numb and I was beginning to get colder.  A little worry crept into my mind, but I could see on my GPS that I was close to the top of the climb.  Close doesn’t mean much when you are pushing at 1 or 2 miles per hour.  In the interest of warmth and safety, I pulled out my down jacket to wear under my rain jacket.  The rain jacket had already soaked through which meant the down was going to get wet and not insulate nearly as well.  I didn’t care and needed more warmth at that point in time.

Push bike up steep incline.  Step.  Push bike up steep incline.  Step.  Fall into deep hole with bike on top of you.  This happened several times as one of my steps managed to punch through the deep snow.  Arrgh!  Frustration was starting to get the better of me at this point.  Luckily I managed to crest the top of the hill and start walking down.  The downhill wasn’t much easier because there was so much snow on the ground.  At least it was somewhat easier and I know that the snow would stop at some point.

I managed to catch back up to Alice just before the snow pack stopped.  We were both frozen and starting to shiver.  The good news was a long downhill was the only thing between us and Seeley Lake where we could get food and warm up.  The bad news is that a long downhill was only going to make us colder.

Do you fly down the hill and get to town faster but colder?  Or do you go slower and stay out in the cold a bit longer?  I like my downhills so I decided to fly as much as I could.  It was cold, really cold, but I managed to make it to Seeley Lake.

Hot food and a warm building were all that was on our minds.  We found a restaurant and walked in shivering, dripping water, and looking miserable.  Lucky for us, the restaurant didn’t care and they were happy to have us as customers.  By the end of the burger, fries, and soup, I felt like I could go out and keep riding.  However, as soon as I stepped outside, I started to shiver again and I told Alice that I couldn’t ride anymore that day.  I was seriously considering staying in Seeley Lake for the night.

Thankfully, Alice wasn’t going to let me put in a 30 mile day on the Divide.  After discussing options, we crossed the street to the bike shop.  The owners, like so many other people I ran into on the Divide, were extremely nice and took great care of all the riders.  I found a new rain jacket and new waterproof gloves, but still wasn’t ready to ride since the rain was still falling.  The shop turned on the space heater, sat me in front of it, and wrapped me in blankets to warm me up.  Oh, that heat felt so good.  Of course, everyone was laughing at me and taking pictures of the poor guy wrapped up in blankets, but I was smiling through all of it.

Wearing my new jacket and gloves on the way to Ovando

Wearing my new jacket and gloves on the way to Ovando

Finally, the rain let up and I felt alive again.  Alice and I packed up and headed out of town towards Ovando and their famed hospitality.  The ride to Ovando was cold, but there was no snow or rain which was ok by me.

Cresting the hill into Ovando, I heard “Hey Andy, you’ve got a message!”  I knew Ovando tracked the riders as they came into town, but now they have a message service for each rider?  “Angler”, as she’s known on the bikepacking.net forums was writing down messages for riders and posting them on a bulletin board.  How awesome is that!  It was great to see the message from my family and I was happy that I had pushed on to Ovando.

After a quick meal at the Stray Bullet Cafe, it was tempting to stay in the tipi, wagon, or jail that they open up for riders.  The weather had cleared a bit more so it was time to head towards Lincoln over Huckleberry Pass.  We were warned about bears on the pass, especially around dusk which is when we would be riding through there.  At some point, you just have to keep riding and see what happens rather than worry about the bears.

Day5_HuckleberryPass1

I’ll leave out the suspense and say that there were no bears.  Instead, what I found was my favorite climb of the entire Tour Divide.  My bear worries fell away, the sun was shining, and I didn’t feel any achilles pain as I wound my way up Huckleberry and a euphoric state.  Riding in real sunshine after after so many days of rains certainly added to the feelings I have for this section.

Day5_HuckleberryPass2

The climb up Huckleberry with the sun setting and then flying down the pass in the dark to Lincoln is something I’ll remember forever.  This is why we ride the Tour Divide.  A single day can bring the worst possible conditions and have you wanting to curl into a ball and hide, but then explode into rays of sunshine, amazing people, and the most spectacular scenery for riding.

About Andy Amick
A little bit nutty in general, a lotta bit nutty about bikes. Each of his boys received a bike helmet for their first birthday and the three of them have been biking together ever since.

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  • Rob Davidson

    Great write-up. Looking forward to more.. Hell – work can wait – just do it now!

    • Rob Davidson

      Great write-up. Looking forward to more.. Hell – work can wait – just do it now!

      Just realized there is more… Well Done!

      • Andy Amick

        Hey Rob, I’m trying to write about the entire trip. It’s taking a lot longer to write it than to ride it.

        Next post will be my 3 days spent riding with Kiwi Ken – I got him to try biscuits & gravy plus sleep in a teepee.

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