Fatbiking to the Summit of Mt. Greylock

4ºF at the highest elevation in Massachusetts, on a Singlespeed Pugsley!

Mount Greylock has more appearances on this blog than the bike I used to climb it. This is my mountain — I’ve done more ascents of Greylock than any other peak in the Northeast, and with good reason. Mount Greylock has some spectacular trails on all sides, offering variety and new challenges on repeat visits. The mountain will soon be most famous as the site for J.K. Rowling’s new American school of Wizardry. I really wish she had just made up a mountain.

Mount Greylock has an auto-road spiraling to the summit, which is bikeable almost year-round.

Almost.

From January until April, Mt. Greylock becomes another planet. Elevation causes an extremely quick drop in temperature, and as the highest point of elevation in the state, summiting Greylock is akin to traveling hundreds of miles north. Add a constant high wind to the equation, and the top half of the mountain quickly turns to solid ice.

I had summited Greylock as late as January 28th in previous winters, when we had late snowfall and warmer temperatures. Twice, I’ve gotten hypothermia on the descent as I figured out exactly how to layer for a Greylock attempt. More than five times, I’ve had to turn back from lack of traction on the glacier-like sheet ice across the auto road. But this time, I had my best chance yet:

Fatbikes were born for conditions like this. My Pugsley has seen plenty of action on bikepacking trips and a tour through Iceland, but I admit I haven’t put it through its paces on actual snow. Last winter, we got so little of the white stuff that I only got out on actual snow on one weekend. Nearly all of my riding before this winter was on mud, dirt, pavement, and gravel.

That’s definitely not the case this winter! Armed with my favorite bike, I was feeling awesome about climbing Greylock. Still, I had no real plans of summiting. For one, the road was still solid ice!

About a day prior, North Adams got about two inches of fresh snow. The snow sat like fine powder over the glass-smooth surface of the road, causing rear tire slip anytime I took my weight off the saddle, or anytime the grade got steeper than 10º.

I walked about 75% of the way through Greylock’s hairpin turns to Wilbur’s Crossing, feeling good about being out, but with no ambition to summit. The trails spinning out at Wilbur’s Crossing looked absolutely idyllic, and with perfect weather, I didn’t care about the summit itself.

I pressed forward a bit further, considering my turnaround point. Suddenly, for the first time the entire ride, I wasn’t alone!

I’m friends with a couple of Mt. Greylock’s state-appointed caretakers, but I did not expect a treaded Arctic Cat to roll by. I’ve done loads of winter hiking, snowshoeing, and backpacking trips and never saw one before. The two caretakers were very friendly, and checked in with me to make sure I was feeling good. I smiled, talked for a moment, and then very gratefully set forward riding in the tread-mark left behind. The Arctic Cat broke the snow and shattered the ice underneath, leaving a rough patch in an otherwise tractionless path. I had grip!

Suddenly, the summit looked a lot closer…

As the elevation increased, the world froze. Each individual branch was covered with a thick layer of perfectly clear ice. It was incredibly beautiful; the forest sounded like a windchime every time a breeze blew by.

Other than a few breaths of air, it was perfectly still and the sky was crystalline blue. I’ve never seen conditions so perfect. I stopped at the Fitch Overlook and took in the view.

Spectacular!

I could see for miles, and the Beacon was in view, but I had to keep going. The Arctic Cat’s tracks made for smooth sailing. They eventually caught up to me on their return journey, and I chatted a bit more before moving on.

“Looks like you’re having fun!” You bet, guys. You bet.

Snowdrifts caked over in a shell of ice turned the road into a fatbike rollercoaster. I slid out and crashed several times trying to climb up and over the berms.

The overlooks afforded views that just kept getting better and better. I was in absolute awe. It could not have been any clearer.

I kept climbing, further and further. I had been out for three hours at this point, losing slight feeling in my fingertips. My lips were chapped and I was thirsty, but I had only expected to be out for an hour. I had no water. I ate snow as I walked and rode, trying to keep dehydration away. Lucky me, 10ºF is too cold for sweat to form, when you’re dressed right.

This view overlooks the Thunderbolt Trail, the route Jimmy and I ascended when we camped out overnight during Hurricane Sandy. So many awesome memories on this mountain. Today, the weather was decidedly better.

Other than the cold! 19ºF at the base of the mountain turned to near-zero at the summit. I pulled my insulated jacket and gloves out of my pack. A little sweat worked its way through my wool mittens and froze to the handlebar, so I put my rain mitts on. Cold, cold, cold.

I was close, now. The Arctic Cat had turned towards Williamstown, so my traction was gone. I crept forward, either walking, or riding at a walking pace.

I’ve always hated this cell tower, but in the cold crucible of midwinter, it had become an icy monolith. It looked post-apocalyptic, jutting out from the iced-over forest like a knife.

I turned the corner and found myself at the summit. Against my better judgment, with no food or water, and no real plan to speak of, I had summitted Mt. Greylock on a singlespeed fatbike.

The Beacon looked magnificent. Caked on one side by solid ice, the night’s snowfall clung onto it. It looked like someone had sprayed it down with a fire extinguisher.

I was completely alone at the top. I knew that 99% of the time, wind and snow and fog made this part of the mountain all but inaccessible. I felt very lucky to have reached the top.

I took a picture of myself, which I don’t usually do, with wind-bitten skin and an iced-over scarf.

The view made it worth it!

I felt like I was on top of the world. From the summit of Mt. Greylock, you can see Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, the Green Mountains in Vermont, The Catskills in New York, and all the way to Mt. Everett in the southern Berkshires. It was breathtaking.

I was out of time, so I didn’t linger at the summit. I had been riding for four hours, and I had a long descent ahead of me. With the glass-smooth ice covering the road on the way down, I set forth at a cautious crawl; even the slightest bump underneath the ice sent me skidding. I really need to get some studded tires.

It took me another hour, but I made it down the mountain. Definitely my most epic ride, and definitely an experience I will never forget. Seeing the mountain from a new perspective, in a season I had yet to conquer, on a bike I had fallen completely in love with over the previous year — it was one hell of an experience. Epic is a good word for it.

I’ll see you next time, Greylock! Don’t become a Harry Potter theme park while I’m gone!

Keep Climbing,

Max

9 thoughts on “Fatbiking to the Summit of Mt. Greylock

  1. Max very cool almost felt like I was there. Love the writing and I love the pictures. makes me want to do what you do. Enjoy the ride!!!!!!

  2. Definitely a most epic adventure to the top!! I think you should submit to Outdoor mag. It’s really good! It’s a shame Greylock is going to be used for Harry Potter American-style. Maybe I need to get there before the carnies arrive. You should make sure next time you are more prepared with food. Lack of food combined with cold temps can cause a quick spiral down to hypothermia and a foggy brain. I signed up for the PMC today. No Ken this year. His son is getting married that wknd. We told him he has to give us donations. Paul, John and I are going to do the Stockbridge ride if you and Kelly want to join.

    Happy New year and engagement, Linda

    Sent from my iPhone

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