Ben Horan is a freelance writer and sometimes-guide based in Missoula, Montana, and blogs at www.thegentlemanatlarge.com. Tom Robertson is a photographer out of Missoula, whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications, and is currently surfing from bike tour to bike tour around the Americas. Ben, Tom, and two buddies rode their bikes from Portland to Bend, OR, with trailers full of ski gear, in an attempt to ski as many volcanoes as possible in two weeks entirely under human power. You can keep tabs on those guys on Instagram following #bike2skiOregon.
When Scott Fitzgerald boasted that all he needed to write a tragedy is to be shown a hero, I doubt very much that he had in mind a bunch of guys riding bikes around the northwestern United States. And to be fair, I suppose we were only heroes in the eyes of our mothers, and spending two weeks leisurely skirting rain storms in Oregon doesn’t fit any definition of tragic that I know. But that doesn’t change the feeling that our trajectory from resplendent blue skied summit photos on Mount Hood to cowering around a sixpack in a Forest Service outhouse a fortnight later while lighting and hail descended on all sides felt something like a fall from grace. It was at least an inauspicious end to our tour.
See, the weather is a funny thing. It’s the element in our lives that has the most bearing on our mood and well-being over which we also have zero control. As a result of this, it obsesses us. “How’s the weather” is a cliche for small talk when there’s nothing substantial to say. The Weather Channel churns out regional forecasts 24 hours a day, yet when it turns sour the only advice they can offer is to grab an umbrella, stay indoors, or screw plywood over your windows.
When we arrived in Oregon we had the clear skies, warm days, and cold nights that had been typical for the area for a month. After we’d spent a couple of days the horizons darkened and the rain began to fall; we were reminded why sailors are superstitious and ancient cultures attributed storms and drought to having displeased the gods. When our discomfort is inexplicable we search for something to blame, even if it requires fabricating a scapegoat.
I blamed Phil.
Early on the weather couldn’t have been better. Warm sunny days and clear cold nights made for buttery corn snow on Hood, but gave way to turbulent low pressure and rain for the next ten days. Sure, the stormy weather corresponded nicely with the time that we spent on the west side of the Cascade Divide, remaining blustery but dramatically less damp as soon as we crossed back to the east and to Sisters, but it also corresponded nicely with this:
Here, we have an image of Phil swilling a hoppy ale at the top of our first of 6 objectives with the caption, “Mount Hood: #OWNED!”. Oh, the hubris – and so early in the trip. After perfect weather for the first several days, it seemed like hours after this photo got its first like, the clouds formed and opened and we spent the next week in the rain.
Undeterred, we made our way south toward Mount Jefferson, living on 6,000 calories a day of Snickers bars, Swiss (not Swedish) Fish, and freeze dried chow mein. I’ve never eaten so much candy in my life. With bikes as heavy as they were, we were trying to balance carrying as little as possible to save weight with the fact that the only resupply spots before Sisters are gas stations and grocery stores that are really just gas stations but without the gas. For several days I got much more than half of my caloric intake from gummy bears and candy bars, and it wasn’t quite as cool as eight-year-old me might have guessed.
Somewhere outside of Detroit I pointed us toward a steep, winding dirt road which led us 7 miles and 3,000 vertical feet toward a trailhead on Mount Jefferson. I say “a” trailhead because while not technically incorrect it was not “the” trailhead that we were looking for. Phil smoothed things over in camp with a round of fresh greyhounds which at once kept me from being tarred and feathered, and dissolved any animosity I still held toward him for having single-handedly caused all this rain.
The weather delay before Jefferson was also a great opportunity to sleep for 14 hours, because at this point in the trip I was beginning to get very tired. In 11 days on the road, we didn’t take a rest day. Sometimes we might only ride for a few hours, but that’s still a three or four hour ride on a 150 pound bike, which doesn’t count as rest even if all you do for the remainder of the day is eat candy and nap.
When we finally started walking on Jefferson we left camp with a vague idea of where we were headed: through a misty rain and up (kind of left then kind of right then kind of left again until we’re on the top – n.b. don’t fall off any cliffs) and low expectations. In spite of a negative prognosis, the approach through the temperate rainforest, while wet, was pretty and made for an interesting walk.
The rain we’d been riding and living in for a few days had manifested as snow above around 6,000 feet, and so we skinned and then booted to 9,500 or so. Higher on the mountain we found ourselves standing on steep and unfamiliar terrain, and the four inches of heavy snow was only partially bonded to the older surface. Deteriorating visibility pushed us off of the shoulder and we camped another night before heading to Sisters.
Jefferson was far from a low point. Hiking through the rainforest with skis was a fantastical experience, and what glimpses of the alpine landscape that we stole there were dramatic and compelling. Mostly, Jefferson felt like the end of a chapter. We’d been at odds with the weather, and as we rode away the next morning the blue skies over the summit there seemed both to taunt us and promise better luck in the Sisters Wilderness.