The Sleeping Giant

Pour your Pumpkin Spice Latte down the drain, kids… Autumn is over!

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“Want to climb Greylock this weekend?”

“Sure!”

Such sweet naiveté.

No, you cannot decide to climb Greylock casually in November; that mountain is a bastard. Perched centrally between North Adams, Adams, and Williamstown, Mount Greylock is the tallest peak in Massachusetts and a must-ride for cyclists. Whenever I think to the mountain, it appears in my mind’s eye as an innocuous sunday ride, beautiful and placid and safe. A grand adventure, and how!

Reality hits when you’re 1,000 feet into the climb and you realize you’re woefully unprepared, freezing to the bone, soaked in perspiration, surging with adrenaline, and beyond the reach of any reasonable rescue other than your own two legs.

Kelley and I knew it was going to be cold, of course. I sat in my room packing the previous evening, grabbing two pairs of everything for us to split between ourselves. Today, the temperature fluctuated between 30 and 40 degrees, and I have a bad habit of thinking anything above 32º is balmy enough for light winter gear. When we got to the mountain, we were reasonably bundled right from the start; Kelley took our one pair of wind pants since I had knee warmers, we split the fleeces, matched up gloves, slipped hats under our helmets, and started moving.

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Up here, winter was in full force. The windchill pushed the temperature well below freezing; we could watch our tire tracks glaze over. Ice and snow covered everything.

Still, we weren’t the only cyclists on the mountain. A pair of locals on much more terrain-appropriate mountain bikes strapped skis to their back and flew past us at the base of the first hairpin turns. We couldn’t come close to matching them, but we’d see them skiing by us later on as we attempted the same path on two wheels.

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The road was frozen solid after about a third of the climb. Huge sheets of meltwater slide off the mountain wherever the sun hits, freezing overnight as black ice across the road. Luckily, we had about an inch of fresh snow to chew on with our off-road tires, so we managed to caterpillar our way up the steeper sections with relative ease. There’s this nagging question at the back of our minds the entire time… “How are we getting back down?”

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Don’t worry, we didn’t break the rules. There’s a huge network of trails on Greylock. Some of them, like the Bellows’ Pipe, are open for cyclists with wanderlust. Others are restricted, and hardly overused; unlike similar peaks in Vermont and New Hampshire, Greylock doesn’t have the battle-worn atmosphere of a heavily traversed mountain. Climbing Greylock, you pass crossroads after crossroads, criss-crossing networks ranging from the AT to the Thunderbolt Ski Trail. The actual mountain road, which is open to traffic during the spring, summer, and fall, is pretty safe for cyclists even in the peak seasons. During winter, it shuts down, and with good reason.

We had left around 12:30, and we were taking the steep side. As we got closer and closer to the summit, pockets of ice and snow transitioned to full road coverage. The occasional dry spot felt like cheating.

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It’s hard to describe how interesting the climb was. Truck tires from the off-season DCR staff left deep, icy ruts that threatened to tip you if you approached from too shallow an angle, like inverted railroad crossings. Just tapping either of your brakes threatened to send the bike into a skid. Gullies and ruts in the side of the road hid menacingly underneath pillows of welcoming snow, which took me down once (Kelley’s two inch tires rolled right over it). In fact, Kelley maneuvered more skillfully than I did for a great deal of the climb and descent. Her fat tires and low center of gravity served her incredibly well, and flat bars kept her upright through the most difficult maneuvers.

Kelley also climbed the mountain with a 22 tooth chainring… My single chainring is 38. What’s not in your gears had better be in your legs; the grades on Greylock approach 15% for long, winding sections.

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Conditions worsened with altitude. Snowflakes tossed off of trees by light breezes quickly became gusts of actual snowfall. The surrounding peaks whited out. Frozen fingers and toes vacillated between discomfort and painful soreness.

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No excuses, though. Never miss an opportunity to Free Solo a mountain.

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Almost to the top. The Fitch Overlook taunts us with views of Greylock’s beacon. Anticipation is indiscernible from masochistic obsession. Twenty minutes later, we’re there.

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We spent about thirty seconds at the summit. My left foot was numb, Kelley had cold hands, and both of us felt the wind pretty intensely. Kelley was wearing a fleece, a wind jacket, two baselayers, a pair of Polartec gloves, a thin hat, and a thin balaclava. I was wearing a baselayer, a fleece, a raincoat, the same gloves, and a windproof hat. We both had a baselayer and riding shorts, but I used knee warmers and Kelley had those wind pants. Both of us had warm socks, but not quite warm enough…

The descent was hell. Climbing was easier; if you slid out or skidded your back wheel, the worst that happened was a full stop. It was easy to jump off the pedals and put a foot down, even for me running clipless. On the way down, control was an illusion and about three miles of the mountain road was just a continuous, nail-biting, white-knuckled skid.

I donated my fleece, spare mittens, and headband to warm up Kelley; I had paid my dues on Greylock several times in previous winters, and I had a tentative truce with hypothermia. I knew the soreness and numbness well enough to push the limits of frozen digits just a bit further than her. We both battled against stress; it was a long descent, close to an hour and a half, riddled with near-accidents.

And then, suddenly, the hairpin turns break into the parking lot, and the dormant mountain is conquered.

The spoils? Some truly humbling views as the snow squalls break apart just as we reach the peak.

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In all, the entire journey took us about four hours. We rescued two other cyclists that slid down the mountain just behind us and drove them back to their car in Williamstown; Mt. Greylock has a way of bringing people together in desperation.

In a few weeks, the whole experience will have a golden tint in my memory. The hardships, bitter cold, disorienting lack of traction, and utter despair will have faded almost completely from recollection, and we’ll be conveniently prepared to, once again, attack Greylock with about half the preparation we actually need.

Keep Riding (All Winter),

Max

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Sleeping Giant

  1. Shouldn’t have read this before bed, got the adrenaline going thinking about that decent. I love actual winter biking stories they remind me how good we ve got it in CA in the “winter”.
    Happy trails
    Matt

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