A tough day ahead of us today: two big ranges to cross between here and Lone Pine 80 miles away. First, the Panamint Range — a nonstop gain of 5,000 vertical feet over 19 miles to Towne Pass. The second, Argus Range, is 3,000 feet over 12 miles.
I’m scared of the Panamint Range crossing in this heat. Though a decent 5% grade, it’s the longest hill I’ve ever ridden. Last year we drove over the range late at night in the same direction. I was nodding off on the back seat and the only thing I remember through my slumber is the constant frenzied whine of the engine on the brink of self-destruction. There’s also an ominous road sign at the start of the hill, “Turn off AC next 20 miles – avoid overheating.” But I tell Masha nothing of my fears, hoping that we’ll be OK by taking things slow and resting often.
We planned to get up at 6 to beat the heat, but a motel worker making his rounds finds us on the store porch and kicks us out at 5:30. Annoying, but for the better. Still, we linger, drinking coffee, buying snacks, and so on, as if subconsciously avoiding the ride. Eventually it’s 9 am and we can’t procrastinate any longer, so we set out.
We make steady progress, taking a break every 500 meters or so, and come across another scary sign, “Radiator water 1 mile.” It’s hot. We stop more and more frequently. Masha’s strength gives out at 2,000 feet above sea level, and we are forced to stop every 50 meters for rest and drink. I make her give me all her water and some of her heavier items. Dangerously little water left; we begin to ration it.
The sun-bleached surface of dry lake Manly is slowly receding into the distance. At 4,000 feet it’s now I who can’t go anymore, but we push on despite ourselves. Out of the original 5 liters, we have just 0.5 left. Luckily, the temperature drop due to elevation outweighs the temperature rise due to the sun’s increasing angle. Masha is walking her bike now. A man pulls over to ask a few questions about our ride and gives us another liter of water.
Finally we’re at the top and we can’t believe it. It took us 5 hours, one for each 1,000 feet of elevation. Like with alpinism (and so many other things), you take it slow and eventually you get there. Today’s highway follows the contour of the historic Whitney Toll Road, but deviates from it in a few places near the top, and we see faint traces of the old road. The temperature is a whopping 25° F lower than it’s back at Stovepipe Wells by now.
I’m adding Towne Pass to the top of my list of the hardest bike climbs I’ve done. The others on the list are: Markagut Plateau in Utah; the mountain pass between Juan Diaz Covarrubias and Catemaco in Mexico; and the crossing of the Appalachians between Burlington and Mount Storm in West Virginia.
Much sharper grades — 9% — as we begin our descent into Panamint Valley; we drop 3,000 feet in just 7 miles. It’s a white-knuckle ride; our hands ache from squeezing the brakes hard throughout the whole descent. When we get down to the valley floor, it’s still three miles to the Panamint Springs way station. I am completely exhausted, though Masha surprisingly picks up speed as if on a second wind, and I trail her into the village. Still, neither of us can help dozing off at the lunch table, despite copious amounts of coffee.
It’s 5:30 p.m. We have to leave ASAP. But Masha’s sound asleep on a bench in front of the restaurant, not in any shape to attempt the 3,000-foot hill and 50 miles to Lone Pine. The owner of the campground agrees to give her a ride and drop her off at the top of the mountain. Masha is afraid to sit alone there waiting for me, so we figure I’ll set out now, and the man with Masha in an hour. But the guy warns us that even though the other side will be mostly downhill for 38 miles, the winds blowing from Owens Lake are finicky and we may be in for a loooong ride in the night. Reluctantly, I concede that it’s best that we spend the night here. We’ve covered only 30 miles today! — one of the shortest days of the trip. Now we really have to get up early tomorrow — and stick to the schedule — to beat the heat and make up time.
Meanwhile, the restaurant has an amazing beer selection: 200 different microbrews from around California, Oregon, and Washington. It’s pricey, but hey, we’re on vacation! No swimming pool, though (we’ve become spoiled); instead we take a walk on the empty desert highway east toward the center of Panamint Valley where we spent a star-filled night with Yura last year. No luck with the stars tonight. That other night was much darker and the stars formed a silvery cape that enveloped the whole valley in an even, magical iridescence.