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 by: Bill Oetinger  7/1/2014

Sonora ImPasse

Last month in this space, I talked about how the Tour of California is never going to achieve any real significance in the world of racing until their route planners find some real mountaintop finishes…ones that can really make a difference. This month, I can report that I found a climb that would do the job very nicely, except for the deal-breaking fact that its finish is in the middle of a pristine wilderness, with none of the amenities that are needed for a stage finish. Not only that, but it might be closed by snow during the Tour's May dates.

Sonora PassThe climb in question is the western approach to 9624' Sonora Pass. If you've done it, you won't need me to make the case for you that it is an epic challenge. If you haven't yet had the dubious pleasure of making its acquaintance, let me tell you about it. Actually, I'll hand off the description of the climb--the most severe crux of the climb--to another writer: John Finley Scott, a former UC Davis Sociology professor, member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and one of the founders of the cult classic SuperTours. That's a colorful resumé, but Scott was even more colorful than those few lines suggest. Even his departure from this mortal coil was colorful: murdered in 2006 by an itinerant tree trimmer.

A good portion of the reason I'm writing this column about Sonora Pass is to give Scott's description of the climb another airing in the bike-o-sphere. It's classic bike blarney, but is no longer so easy to find, even with the help of Google. But before I hand the mike over to Scott, I need to throw in some backstory about my part in this tale.

I had been invited to participate in a weekend of power touring back at the beginning of June. My old friend Linda Fluhrer of Martinez had put the plan together and had invited seven of us to come along. The idea was to start from the Gold Rush boom town of Columbia on Saturday and ride over Sonora Pass and down to an overnight in Walker on Hwy 395. Then on Sunday, ride over Monitor, Ebbetts, and Pacific Grade on the way back to Columbia. Linda arranged for a sag wagon to haul our luggage over the hills for the overnight, and to kind of keep an eye on the riders. The whole package, with some classic Linda embellishments, would be approximately a century a day and around 22,000' of gain in total. She organizes approximately this same loop every two or three years, but for all sorts of reasons, I never managed to get on board for one before. I should have done it 15 years ago, when she first made the offer. These challenges don't get any easier with the passing years.

The shortest way I can describe my weekend is that I didn't complete the full package. I struggled mightily on Sonora Pass on Saturday but did manage to finish the ride. However, I made the crucial mistake of neglecting to apply any sort of bag balm or Chamois Butter in the morning. (I only use such products when I think the ride is going to be very hard and long, but in this case, although I anticipated a tough day, I simply forgot to use anything. As any experienced cyclist will tell you, screwing up a detail such as this can be the undoing of all one's best-laid plans.) By Sunday morning, sitting on the bike was an agony. I made it over Monitor Pass and down to the base of Ebbetts, but I could do no more. I've done Ebbetts and Pacific Grade before, so no great loss to miss them. But it was still a painful and disappointing end to what had been billed as a grand adventure. All of the other riders in the group made it, on a Sunday that would hit 100° in the afternoon.

But this column is not so much about my own successes or failures. It's about Sonora Pass and where it ranks in the pantheon of great bike climbs. Before I give you Scott's copy, I will just add that with our start in Columbia, and with the medium-steep climbs of Big Hill and Middle Camp Roads at the beginning and then the long grade along Hwy 108 leading up to the main Sonora ascent, we already had 53 miles and over 6000' of climb when we reached the approach to the "real" climb at the mountain lodge at Dardenelle. I'll let Scott take over from this point onward…

Past Dardanelle, you cross the middle fork of the Stanislaus River and climb to the Baker maintenance station and soon come to the snow gate with its legendary, laconic sign: SONORA PASS AHEAD / STEEP AND WINDING ROAD / HOUSE TRAILERS NOT ADVISABLE. (Note from Bill: this was written back in the '70's, I think; the sign now includes a warning that the maximum grade ahead is 26%.) Now begins the test you are here to meet: your pulse races and adrenalin knots your stomach; you imagine that you are hitting the beach at Normandy, or leading with no belay on a worsening friction pitch, that you have sold naked call options in a strong rising market, or are confronting Special Agents from the Department of the Treasury. This is the testing-ground, this is the day of reckoning, this is the moment of truth; your time is come.

You ride boldly through the gate and shift directly to low gear (you will see why shortly). The first grade you see is steep but deceptive, as it worsens round the curve. As you climb, the view opens up to Kennedy Meadow and the great bulk of Leavitt Peak: now lift your eyes to the left wall. Espy the incredible road above, audacious climber, and despair! What you now face is the legendary Q de PORCA incline, .84 miles averaging 13%, too long to charge in oxygen debt. The grade worsens. … Now the road winds right and left on constant reverse curves, while the view improves rapidly. Now you draw on your reserves, for the next .55 miles lift you 443 ft. for an "average" grade of 15.1%. Finally go beyond your reserves as you approach the rock defile of the Q de PORCA: here raw courage (aided perhaps by unusually low gears) will yield up your salvation, for God hates a coward. The grade increases still more, to well over 20% in the defile (Bill adds: see photo), and you will be relieved to learn that this is the steepest pitch on the whole ascent. A short level section past the defile leads to a long section that elsewhere would be a terror but here is relatively mild: 1.8 miles at an unrelenting 9.6%. You round a switchback and climb along a steep hillside till, just past the first ELEVATION 8000 FT sign the grade eases, and the next 1.8 miles (including the 150 ft. retrograde) average only 2.5%.

At the second ELEVATION 8000 FT sign the iron discipline of the western approach resumes. The next 1.79 miles to the ELEVATION 9000 FT sign average 10.7%. For 1.2 miles the grade is only 7.5%, and so we may calculate what greater travail is yet to come. Along a short tangent, where the road bears directly towards the rock wall ahead, you can see the gradient increase sharply. You have now arrived at the GOLDEN STAIRS section, named for the yellowish granite terraces on the cliff to your left. Peaks and precipices stand at every hand, snows of a severe winter repose in rubble-strewn avalanche chutes, the environment is wild and desolate in the extreme, and the only human intrusion is the precarious road you are about to ascend. For .49 miles from the first left-hand turn, sweeping curves lift you towards the ELEVATION 9000 FT sign on an "average" gradient of 16.9%. Finally the road turns sharply left parallel to the steepening gorge of Deadman Creek. You look up the road and see the elevation sign and a further increase in the grade. But there is more. Past a curve to the left the grade increases again: here, at 9000 feet, after the wrenching climb from the Baker snow gate, you must now prevail over a grade of 20% for 800 feet. Like the hard fists of the Zen Master, whose silent blows open your eyes to wisdom, this dreadful journey to the limit of strength and endurance leads you to realize what abstract proof cannot: that Truth, Beauty, Empire, and Victory inhere in small chain wheels.

Yet relief awaits. The grade now quickly recedes to less than 10%. You enter an open alpine basin, the last 2.48 miles climb at an average of only 4%. Sweeping curves and a rising grade lie just below the summit: the Mono County Line, a new highway district, your first view of the high desert ranges to the east, tourists and well-wishers, and a sign announcing your arrival at SONORA PASS / ELEVATION 9624 FEET. The battle is over, and your side has won.

End of John Finley Scott's contribution to our tale today. Wasn't that fun? It gives you a sense of the challenge and of the respect, if not outright dread, which cyclists have for this daunting ascent.

I can tell you that I felt this was the hardest climb I have ever done, anywhere. I thought that while sitting at the motel in Walker that evening, swilling down beer and rehashing the hard day with my tour mates. And I still think so, a few weeks later, after a little time might have done its work of healing all wounds and granting me a bit more perspective. I believe all of us on that little tour agreed on at least this much: it is the hardest climb in the Sierra. (And I can tell you that we are a very experienced group of riders, having done pretty much all the significant climbs on either side of the Sierra, plus most of the other major climbs in California and many of the most famous ascents in France and Italy and around the western USA.) My only caveat about all this is age: I did many of those passes many years ago. I am nothing like the climber I used to be. So that may have some bearing on my subjective impression at this point.

But here's where I get a bit puzzled. Since that brutal day, I have been looking for some official confirmation--other than Scott's over-the-top prose--that the cycling world in general holds this pass in as high a regard as I now do. And the answer seems to be no…the official documentation does not accurately reflect the gritty reality that confronts riders on those fearsome pitches.

My Ride With GPS plotting of the route yields 96 miles and over 11,000' of gain. But nowhere on the steepest pitches do their little gradient numbers exceed 18%. I am willing to discount the big Caltrans sign announcing 26% as a typical example of highway department hyperbole. They seem to do this often: listing grade percents that are at least a bit over-inflated. But Scott's break-outs of the individual pitches support the idea that there are at least a couple of stretches on the high side of 20%, and that would agree with my own subjective impression. (Ride With GPS has come a long way toward getting their overall elevation gain numbers to be more accurate, but the little telltale grade numbers they display are almost always too low.) The Q de Porca and Golden Stairs sections both brought me to a stall: I had to stop and catch my breath on several occasions.

Climb by Bike, that wonderful compendium of uphill lore, appears to have gathered their Sonora Pass figures from the same GPS data that Ride With GPS employ, with the same "18% max" listing. Not that 18% isn't pretty fierce. It certainly is. But the reality of Sonora Pass West seems much worse, at least in a few places. Scott's account may reveal part of the problem: there are assorted spots where the grade eases, including the approach miles out of Dardenelle, the short, retrograde section in the middle, and the last 2.5 miles at the top, across an alpine meadow. Added into any average rate of difficulty, those softer sections are going to dilute the intensity of the hard parts. They do offer some blessed relief, I have to admit, but the relief is short-lived.

Because of all the above, Climb by Bike lists Sonora Pass as only the 73rd hardest climb in America. To that, I have to say: No &$#@ing way! Okay…I can't speak for the climbs on the list I have not done--and there are many--but I can compare this climb to all of the great Sierra climbs, and as noted above, all of us agreed this was harder than any of the others. Horseshoe Meadows, Onion Valley, Whitney Portal, Bristlecone, South Lake, Rock Creek, Tioga Pass, Carson Pass, Ebbetts Pass, Pacific Grade, etc. None of them matches up to Sonora, and yet most of them are ahead of Sonora in Climb by Bike's difficulty index. How can this be?

I have recently picked up an interesting book on California climbs: The Complete Guide to Climbing in California by John Summerson. It purports to be a comprehensive listing of all the important climbs in the state. (There are a lot of them, although I have found a few gaps.) He too lists Sonora West behind most of the other Sierra climbs listed above. I'm guessing he pulls his climbing numbers out of the same GPS database. I'm skeptical as to whether the author--a resident of North Carolina--has really ridden many of the nearly 300 climbs itemized in the book.

So I'm left in a muddle…sort of an impasse of information. I believe this pass is the hardest climb I've ever done, but none of the authorities agrees with me. My very knowledgeable friends--whose impressions I know are based on real-world, on-the-bike experience--all agree that it is, at the very least, the hardest climb in the Sierra. And yet all the definitive, encyclopedic climbing lists beg to differ. Are we crazy? Could we--the riders--be that wrong about that many other passes? I don't think we are, and it makes me question the validity of the data being presented by these self-appointed experts. I'm willing to accept that there may be several other climbs out there that are harder. There are a few mentioned in Summerson's book, and many more farther afield in the Climb by Bike rankings, that certainly look harder…on paper, or by the numbers. Some of those that I have not yet done may be harder. But all of the ones mentioned above, throughout the Sierra and elsewhere in California? All of the ones I have done myself? No.

One other climb that appears pretty much the equal of Sonora Pass West is Sonora Pass East, coming up from Hwy 395. The Caltrans sign at the bottom of that one also says 26%. But my friends who have climbed it say the steepest pitch--the supposed 26% pitch, halfway up the hill--is not what really gets you. What really tears it is the last pitch, which is 15% right up to the summit (unlike the 4% meadow at the top of the west side).

Well…let the climbing rankings say what they will. Based on my own experience, the matter is settled. Sonora Pass had been on my personal bucket list for half of my adult cycling life. Now I can call it done, although not done with dignity intact or with anything resembling style or panache. It humbled me as few climbs ever have. It slapped me around, stole my lunch, and handed me back an empty sack. I wish I had taken the opportunity to ride it years ago, with younger legs. That would have counted for something…at least a little bit of an edge. But it would be hard for almost anyone, at any age.

If you like climbing and yet have not included Sonora Pass--either side--on your dance card, then you should do it sooner rather than later. Get it while you still have the legs for it. You don't have to incorporate it into a big, two-day loop, the way we did it. You can just ride up from Dardenelle--or from Hwy 395--and package it as an out-&-back. Scott alludes to the beauty of the surrounding landscape, and I can vouch for that as well. When you have to put a foot down on the climb to get your heart rate back inside its box, you will have fabulous scenery to admire, from the soaring granite cliffs and towering peaks to the plunging Stanislaus River--more an endless series of thundering waterfalls than an actual river. It is about as spectacular as any road I've been on in the Sierra. On that score too I would rank it #1.

Check it out this summer…if you dare...

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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