27.3 mi / 6.4 mph / 4151 ft. climbing
Home: Island Lake National Forest Campground
Today is the day, the day we summit Everest. Well, our Everest. It’s only a little over a third of the way to the top of the real Everest, but crossing the Beartooth Pass at 10,947 feet will be the highest we’ve ever been on our bikes.
“Only” nineteen miles of distance remained between us and the high point, but it would take us at least four hours to reach it, so we were up at 5am and on the road by a relatively-efficient 7:10am, when it was still 41 degrees at the bottom of the sun-shaded valley. Afternoon headwinds were also in the forecast, so avoiding them was another priority, especially since winds on the treeless mountaintops might blow a lot more treacherously than the general forecast predicted.
Upon returning to the main highway, the climb resumed immediately at the 5% grade we’d finished at yesterday, and would stay like that for the next 19 miles. Early on we got passed by a somewhat older couple with a lightweight bikepacking setup, but we at least had confirmation that this is something that people on loaded bikes do.
Other traffic was minimal to start, and even as it started picking up with the sunlight, it was clear that 100% of the drivers were tourists like us, there purely to enjoy the sights and the experience, so we never felt unsafe on the twisting, shoulderless road. There were plenty of spots to pull off to take a break, or take in the view, and we maintained a pace (with those breaks included) of 1000 ft. of elevation per hour for the first two hours. Two thousand feet above the valley floor was the Rock Creek Vista Point, with a big parking lot and loads of motorcyclists also doing the climb. Even though we got a pretty good view from the road, the 1/4-mile path leading to the viewpoint was worth it for the wider perspective.
When we resumed, we did a brief crossover to the east face of the mountain whose western slope we had been climbing, but continued ever upward and soon left the trees below us. That’s the point when the west winds I’d been fearing got stronger. We needed food in us, but there weren’t any great stopping points on the nearly-barren plateau, so we settled for a wide ditch on the side of the road with our bikes set up tightly behind our chairs to block the wind. While we ate we watched a group of four road bikers grind up the shoulder above us, and ten minutes later two young Wisconsin guys appeared, also on unloaded bikes, with one saying to the other as they stopped by us for a break, “see, we aren’t the only idiots out here!” Agreed, and the feeling is mutual! They were just (“just”!!) doing an out-and-back to the top of the pass from Red Lodge, and weren’t carrying a giant load with them, so I’d say were were still much bigger idiots than them.
It wasn’t far after lunch before we crossed into our 15th state, Wyoming, at probably the most-remote border crossing we’ve ever done. The road immediately lost its shoulders, and felt like it narrowed even more than that, but again with the light, respectful, and understanding traffic driven by our kin up here, it still wasn’t a problem.
The problem was the wind, which began gusting unpredictably, and pushed Rett backward into a stop 1.7 miles from the top of the first summit. The combination of incline and wind made it really difficult to start again, so for a while we simply pushed the bikes up the middle of the road. Again, even that didn’t feel unsafe, perhaps partly because we were able to walk at about 3.5 mph, which isn’t much slower than the 4.1 mph we’d been managing while pedaling into the combined resistance. That isn’t to say that the situation we’d gotten ourselves into wasn’t scary, or frustrating, or demoralizing, but there was little we could do at this point but press forward. I was willing to just walk the 1.7 miles until we got a downhill, but Rett kept fighting, attempting restarts during breaks in the wind, which would last until another gust stopped us again, but the incredible part was that for every restart she tried on the 5% into-the-wind incline, she succeeded in her first attempt.
Due to the switchbacks, we were even able to get sections where we tricked the headwind into becoming a tailwind, and we made it to the first summit with our bikes under us rather than next to us. First summit? Yeah, this pass is a tricky one, it has two peaks of nearly-identical elevation, with a 500-foot down-and-up “V” separating them. At least we were aware of the two summits; I’d read plenty of cyclists who had been surprised and angered and anguished when their expected multi-thousand-foot downhill reward came to an abrupt end after only 500 feet, and then had the impertinence to add another 500 feet of climbing back up to their day’s total.
That 500 foot downhill was over in a flash (it felt more like 50 feet), but after a short break to take in more views, Rett hopped back aboard and did the final 500 feet up to the second (and slightly-higher) summit all in one go. Kind of amazing after already climbing more than 3500 feet on the day, and at the rarefied air at this elevation.
Everything between the two peaks, and for miles on the other side, was an absolutely incredible landscape of endless wild mountains with high alpine lakes down below. Something about the position of the road, or maybe just the shape of these mountains, truly made it feel like we were at top of the world, in a way that I have never felt anywhere else. And most of the best views came directly from the road as we pedaled, with the pull-offs being slightly disappointing. In that way the road itself felt like a world-class hiking trail; I can’t think of any other roads that bring you directly to lakes in the sky like this one does. Thank you to the couple we met in Glacier who endorsed this route; if it’s not the 2nd-most astounding road in the country to ride (after Going to the Sun Road) as they promised, I would at least need to think hard about what could take its spot.
The best part about reaching the top was the shower of praise like we’ve never experienced, from our motorized brethren who’d also stopped to commemorate their day. A couple of the more-memorable ones were “you guys are the real heroes out here!” and “you’re crazy, but I admire you.” In several gift shops in Red Lodge, we had seen at least half-a-dozen sticker designs targeted toward people who had crossed the Beartooth Pass, and none of them were bicycle-specific. So this thing we had just done is something that people on motorcycles (and maybe even cars) consider an event monumental enough to commemorate with a sticker. And we did it on bicycles. Super-heavy bicycles! Yeah, you guys are right, we pretty much are a couple of badasses.
I had focused so much on planning our ride to the top, I was surprised by how numerous the switchbacks and incredible views were on the downhill. It was still windy, but luckily not so bad that we were unable to take our eyes off the pavement in front of us.
Seven miles and 1500 feet into the downhill, we came to the first camping opportunity, Island Lake. There was no sign at the entrance saying anything about it being closed to tent camping, but the guy from yesterday had scared us, so rather than making Rett do unnecessary additional uphill on the long gravel road, I left her at the turnoff and went to investigate further on my own. Luckily there were also no signs regarding tent camping at the registration station (and I saw a tent set up on one site, though only one!), and there were plenty of sites available. So we could stay here, but now the problem was, do we want to stay here? Beartooth Lake Campground was several miles ahead, which would shorten tomorrows ride, I had read that it might be a prettier location, and the one store (or business of any sort) in the 60+ remote miles between Red Lodge and Cooke City was between the two campgrounds, so we could stop there for extra drinks and food before dinner. But…it was a risk. If that campground was full, or closed to tent camping, then we’d either need to turn around and do several miles back uphill to here, or continue forward to less-developed camping opportunities. The risks seemed low, but so did the benefits, so I decided to just make life easy on ourselves and call it a day and set up here. It helped that we got not just an incredibly beautiful campsite (our tent was set up right at the edge of an alpine meadow at 9500 feet), but we had the entire A-loop to ourselves.
We’ve been setting a lot of records lately, but today was a record day for record-setting: three new records in single day! The 6.4mph average speed “beat” yesterday’s 6.8mph for our new-slowest, our 4151 feet of climbing smashed our 3587 from two Februaries ago in Baja, and our 152 ft/mile rate of climbing obliterated our 112 ft/mile record also set just yesterday. We aren’t really trying to set all these records, so the fact that we’re just naturally piling them up as we go is the most satisfying testament to our strength that I can imagine. We climbed the Beartooth Pass!!! And beyond just a test of strength, traversing this mystifying landscape on our bicycles is an incredible reward. Now we just need one of those stickers!