By Clinton Koontz
Crystal Mountain, Corral Pass/Noble Knob, and Suntop
63 Miles, 12,500 ft of elevation gain
I spent a lot of time Friday night trying to sort out food and packing for the day. The longest ride I’d ever done was about 8 hours, and this one would be 12-14 hours. I’d ridden a road century with a lot of climbing that took about 6-1/2 hours but it had aid stations. A lot of the longer mountain bike rides I’ve done either involved a strategically placed car or campsite for refueling. Aid stations? No, none of them, you carry what you need for the day.
It probably wasn’t the best strategy but for nutrition I went with what one would do for a ride that was a few hours long, try to stay fueled every 45 mins or so to avoid burning glycogen too early. The problem with that is, a snack every 45 mins for 12-13 hours is a lot of snacks, and a lot of weight. Add in the extra peanut butter and bacon wraps I made, and I had enough food to live stranded in the woods for a week.
I figured better safe than sorry. I threw in my light, a backup headlamp, an extra layer, a water filter, maps, toilet paper, a small first aid kit, gorilla tape and zip ties, along with the typical repair kit you take on a mountain bike ride (tube, pump, CO2, multi-tool, chain quicklink, patch kit, tire levers). It seemed like a lot of weight but I’d rather suffer with the extra weight than be unprepared. I did pick up a saddle bag to get the tube and some repair tools out of my hydration pack to make room for the extra stuff, and the water filter meant I didn’t have to carry a full 3L of water to start.
In hindsight, a top tube mounted bag of some sort would have helped a lot with the weight on my back.
I had breakfast and left Seattle about 530 and arrived at the Suntop trailhead about 730, I knew this would be a small event but I had no idea how small. Martin got out a clipboard with a sign-in sheet, we signed in and he left the clipboard on his bike rack for any late arrivals. Three of us rode off together a little after 8am, it was 38 degrees when we left. I fell way behind quickly on the ride up the road, I just wanted to ride as slow as possible for as long as possible.
The ride started at ~2,600’ about 1,500’ below the normal Crystal Mtn trailhead but it was a nice gradual grade forest road climb that made for a nice warm-up before the single track climb started. I went stupid slow, or what felt like it with fresh legs on a cold morning.
The climb up Northway from ~4,000’ to 6,800 was all single track, steep and rooty in parts but mostly at a manageable grade. I walked quite a few sections that on any other ride I’d have powered through without a thought in an effort to conserve as much energy as possible, and not burn any matches too early. It felt a bit weird walking some of these sections but I knew it was the right thing to do until I got a better idea how my body would respond. Martin and Bryan were doing the same. The scenery was incredible and the crisp morning air warmed up quickly in the sun as we slowly worked our way to the top spinning slowly and walking steep technical sections as needed.
The view from the ridgeline getting near the top of Northway
We all got to the top of Crystal at about 11am. I felt pretty good, except for an urgent need for a bathroom stop at the Summit House. I probably spent about 15 minutes up there between the bathroom break and taking the time to eat my first PB and bacon wrap before beginning the descent down the Crystal Mountain trail. Martin and Brian had moved on while I was in the bathroom. I sent a text to Emily as promised, I told her I’d text her at the top of each of the 3 climbs to say I was ok and if I was moving on since the only cell signal was at the top of the mountains.
From near the top of Crystal: Mt Rainier and the White River Valley
Since I was riding a 6” travel Bronson, I was looking forward to the descents on this ride and made quick work of it, except for walking the very exposed cliff edge section with loose rock. Today wasn’t about pushing technical limits, it was about being safe and finishing the ride. As I got to the bottom I passed a group of 3 riders that looked like they were taking a snack break. I stopped to have a snack before starting the climb up Corral Pass Rd and the 3 riders caught up with me there. They told me they were also attempting the Triple Crown today. They wanted to get an earlier start so they had started at 7 and never officially registered.
The beginning of the climb up Corral Pass Rd, not necessarily recommended for tired mountain bikers either.
I chatted with one of them for the first 1/3 of the way up Corral Pass Rd, we introduced ourselves but in the excitement of the day I can’t recall his name. It sure made the very steep climb a bit more enjoyable. We stopped for a snack and a stretch and I moved on alone as he waited on his friends to catch up. I couldn’t help but be concerned that these guys were already way behind in their goal for the day. I really wanted the company but knew I needed to move on if I wanted to finish. At this point I was alone for the rest of the ride.
The last 1/3 of Corral Pass Rd was when I began to really struggle. This is a steep, brutal climb up a forest rd that is rocky, rutted, and consistently over 10% and 13-14% in many places. When I’m feeling good I can attack the steeps and absolutely crush it in around 1:15, but when you aren’t fresh it can be miserable. It took 1:45 on this day to reach Corral Pass.
I found quickly that you can only go so slow on these steep grades, to the point where your back starts hurting to keep balance and the bike wobbles. I didn’t want to increase the pace, it was still too early in the ride to attack a big climb like this. The weight of all that food and supplies I was carrying probably didn’t help.
I was feeling miserable and spent, I couldn’t find a rhythm at this pace and was pretty exhausted. I elected to hop off and push and stretch and eat for a few minutes. My philosophy for the long day was always moving forward, so instead of stopping again I walked while I ate and stretched. It was then that I realized how much fresher I felt after a little walking, and how close the walking was to the slow pace I was trying to ride at to conserve energy. So the last really steep mile of Corral Pass Rd I decided to mix in walking and riding to keep myself fresh and still move forward.
There is a spring near the summit of Corral Pass that flows under the road when the gradient lets up to flat for the last ¼ mile to the pass. I stopped here to filter some water, eat a snack (powdered Mighty-O mini donuts – pure amazing), and rest for a few minutes before starting the beautiful up down traverse and gradual climb along Dalles Ridge on the Noble Knob trail. I felt refreshed and ready to ride.
Clear, cold creek near the summit of Corral Pass
Noble Knob trailhead at Corral Pass (Picture taken 7/16/16)
As I started down the trail I felt really good and was riding along at a good pace, stopping occasionally for a few seconds to enjoy the scenery, I was attacking small climbs and worked my way to the short hike a bike up to the highest point along the ridge.
View of Rainier along Noble Knob Trail
Hike a bike on Noble Knob Trail
It was here where I stopped for one of my few long breaks, probably 15-20 minutes to eat another PB and bacon wrap and enjoy the scenery.
Lunch with a view, off in the distance I could see Glacier Peak, the Enchantments, and Mt Stuart. The wide angle phone camera had a hard time capturing but all are off in the haze on the horizon.
Lunch: Peanut Butter and Bacon wrap, with honey
I sent Emily the second “summit text” and began the long ripping, calf burning descent down to Palisades trail, and then to the White River trail 3,000 feet below in the valley. It was so much fun, I love Palisades, coming in and out of the forest to the cliff edge, big piles of roots that can be launched by timing the preload on the first root in the bunch. You land and clear the entire set and can smooth the trail out to the point that it feels like buff singletrack. It felt good to make time and cover miles quickly.
One of the many cliff edge views on Palisades. Crystal Mountain summit is straight ahead just to the left of the tree in the center. Suntop would be just behind the tree in the right of the picture. My last mini donut in the plastic bag J
It was while descending Palisades that I realized from my lunch at the top that if I ate a lot of calories near the top of a descent, due to not burning through them as fast on the descent that my body could actually absorb the calories, and I could feel refreshed again, even after a big bonk on Corral Pass Rd.
I took a break at the bottom of the ladder near the beginning of the switchbacks from hell at the bottom of Palisades. A few with good trials skills can probably ride these tight switchbacks, but not many, and they are quite exposed, where a fall is going to turn into quite a tumble down a rocky slope. I have learned with these switchbacks not to attempt them with low blood sugar, as every pedal hitting a rock, or your shin while hiking down them can cause some serious anger towards your bike, and yourself. So I had a snack, stretched, picked my bike up and made quick work of them down to the White River trail.
The “hangry ladder”
I took another 5-10 minute break to filter water for the last time before beginning the rooty ride up the White River trail. The ride up the White River Trail, and down the Skookum Flats trail to reach theSuntop climb were without a doubt the part of this ride that no one thinks about, but are probably the toughest mentally.
I’m not sure of the exact mileage, but the combo of the two, up White River and “down” Skookum flats is about 10-12 miles total, and it would take a while to hammer them both out. It was 4pm and I knew I needed to ride them as quickly as possible while conserving as much energy as possible. These trails can both be described as “the way grandpa walked to school”, or uphill both ways. Technical with lots of roots and rocks and punchy climbs, a washout with a sketchy hike around, and a couple hike-a-bike spots. This can take a lot out of you, even when fresh, but at this point in the day I knew it would be a bigger challenge so I had another snack and recovered well before getting started.
I had another burst of energy due to the long Palisades descent and made good work of both of these trails. I attacked the climbs and rode with good rhythm through the technical sections to conserve energy and ride as efficiently as possible. I kept telling myself, no brakes, as little pedal strokes as possible and focused on good riding technique to smooth the turns as quick as possible.
I arrived at the end of Skookum Flats where I would begin the Suntop climb at about 5:20-5:30. I promptly stopped and lied on my back on the ground to stretch, eat, drink and get myself together before the 3,000 ft, 10% grade climb up to the Suntop lookout. I tried to eat my last PB and bacon wrap but had to choke down the last 1/3 of it, my stomach was starting to act up a little. I took the Zantac 150 I had packed and hoped that would take care of the issue.
Unlike the Corral Pass Rd, the road to the Suntop lookout is well kept and is a pretty consistent grade, and even though its 10% most of the way up, it felt flat compared to Corral Pass Rd. I started the climb feeling fresh but very quickly felt dizzy and weak. I tried to eat a few shot blocks but just couldn’t eat anymore.
I could go into much more detail, but to be as brief as possible: I suffered pretty good riding up to Suntop, it took me ~1:50 to reach the top and I knocked this climb out in ~ 1:10 last year when I was fresh. I rode as much as I could, and as slowly as possible to keep from getting dizzy, turning the pedals seemed impossible at times. I stopped once and just stared into the woods before making myself start walking. The Zantac finally took effect and I was able to choke down a couple more shot blocks with caffeine. I walked on and off the last 2 miles of the 6 mile climb and was absolutely elated to see Rainier when rounding the last switchback before the lookout.
Mt Rainier appearing in the evening light as I rounded the final switchback going up to the Suntop Lookout
I talked to a park volunteer at the top who was on a 24 hour shift staying in the fire tower that night. What sweet gig! We got to talking and he offered me a chair. I really, really shouldn’t have but I gladly accepted the offer and enjoyed the view and got some rest before the last leg of the ride. I also managed to bum a Rainier tall boy while I was up there and it was quite tasty, while looking at Rainier in the evening light.
At this point, from what I remember from the one time I rode Suntop last year – all the climbing was over and I just had a quick uphill section separating a ripping 3,000 ft descent back to the car so I spent at least a half hour hanging out at the top until 7:30-7:45. I even debated watching the sunset and riding down with my light.
Enjoying a Rainier, with Rainier in the background. All smiles at this point
Looking down into the valley from the beginning of the Suntop descent. Crystal Mountain is in the clouds off to the distance in the center of the picture.
Another shot from the top of the Suntop Trail. The Palisade Cliffs, where I was earlier that afternoon can be seen off to the left, the Palisades trail descends along those cliffs. Crystal Mountain in the clouds to the center right off in the distance. The evening sunlight lit up the cliffs enough to make me wish I’d added to my weight and brought a real camera.
I looked at my GPS and the mileage indicated I had about 8 miles to go, this couldn’t be right, it must be wrong. The steep, rocky, technical descent from the top of Suntop was difficult with low blood sugar and fatigue from the day’s ride. I managed to actually ride it pretty well, then after crossing the road the singletrack tilted back uphill.
I had forgotten about the big ridgeline singletrack climb and had no energy left. Suntop climbs from 4700 back up to 5400’ here. My GPS wasn’t wrong, I had a long way to go still. I was miserable and walked every step of it. I tried to get on the bike at one point, after about 5 pedal strokes I got lightheaded and had to rest for a few minutes before I could walk again. There is one more section on the ridgeline where it goes back down to 4,700’ and back up to 4,900 before finally tilting downhill the rest of the way, I walked all of this as well, if it required a pedal stroke, I walked.
It was around sunset at this point, and getting very, very dark in the woods. If you’ve been in an evergreen forest in the PNW an hour before sunset you know what I mean. I didn’t want to stop to get my light out and just wanted to be done. I said just go and was ripping down the descent in near darkness, I knew the trail wasn’t very technical and just said don’t hit the brakes if you encounter anything bumpy. It was pretty stupid, but I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I should have been.
The fading evening light just after sunset coming down Suntop
Finally I had to give in and fish out the light from my pack and get it on the bars, which at the time was a frustrating task. I got moving again as quick as possible and felt much better and was able to enjoy the last part of the descent with a well-lit trail.
I then managed to take a wrong turn on a steep, loose set of switchbacks that descended 100-200 ft down to a creek. I thought this couldn’t be right, and got my phone out, turned it on and waited for it to boot up to check the gps (I had to turn it off earlier due to very low battery) and realized I’d gone off trail with only ½ mile to go to the car. I thought of just riding it out and riding back up the road to the car, but I was too stubborn and knew I should get back on course and finish right after going this far.
I hiked back up the switchbacks to the trail, got going again and cruised to the car at about 9:15 where Martin was waiting for me with a high five. I had a chicken wrap from my cooler and a beer and chilled out for at least a half hour before heading back to Seattle.