Posted by: pointlenana | July 15, 2012

Alta Alpina Challenge – Death Ride on steroids

Today is the annual Death Ride in Markleeville CA.  Some 3500 riders spent the day climbing 5 passes in the mountains south of Lake Tahoe – Monitor and Ebbetts passes from both sides, and Carson Pass from the north/east.  The ride is 129 miles, has 15000 feet of climbing, and is done at altitudes ranging from 4500 to 8700 feet.  It is supposedly hard, and the name is in the vein of the Terrible Two ride which was in fact terrible for me this year.

I’ve never done the Death Ride.  But two weeks ago I rode the Alta Alpina 8 Pass Challenge, which is the Death Ride plus 3 more passes – 198 miles and more than 20000 feet of climbing.  They claim it is the world’s toughest double century due to the climbing and altitude.  In comparison, one of the tough stages in last year’s Tour de France was 125 miles long with 17000 feet of climbing (steeper climbs apparently).  So Alta Alpina is up there on the gnarly-ness scale.

I left the start area promptly at 3:30am (!) and rolled back in just before dark at about 8:40pm.  Slightly more than 17 hours in transit, with maybe 90 minutes of that off the bike for lunch (20 minutes) and multiple rest stops at the tops and bottoms of climbs (about 5 minutes for each of the dozen stops).

Our family saw a National Geographic lecture recently where the speaker talked about Type 1, 2, and 3 adventure fun.  Type 1 fun is where you should be enjoying it and are.  Type 2 fun is where you should be enjoying it, don’t enjoy it at the time, but look back fondly later.  Type 3 fun is where it should be fun, it isn’t fun at the time, and later on it still isn’t fun.  My son speculated that I had Type 2 fun during Alta Alpina.  Actually, it was mostly all Type 1 fun.  There were moments descending off the east side of Monitor Pass and then during the 100 minute climb back up (the 8th and last pass) that verged on being Type 2.  But once I reached the halfway point coming up Monitor East and knew I was going to make it, it became Type 1 again.

What an awesome ride.  I highly recommend that area for riding – beautiful, good roads that are relatively quiet, epic ascents and descents.  After I finished I couldn’t see doing all 8 passes in a day again, but I desperately wanted to go back and ride pieces with friends or family.  (A couple weeks later I’ve softened a bit on doing a repeat).

A few highlights/stories:

As you can imagine, it’s kind of dark at 3:30am.  Not too many people started that early.  But I have a great light and it was a perfect temperature so the first 20 miles to Kingsbury Grade were fun.  The button on my light jammed about a mile into the 8 mile climb up Kingsbury and the light went out.  Fortunately another rider came along so I tucked in behind him for 20 minutes or so until it got light enough to be on my own.

Driving down Kingsbury the day before, I became terrified of the descent and all the descents on the ride.  I am a total chicken when it comes to descents.  My experience descending around other riders is hearing a “whoosh” as they pass me and then seeing them disappear around a corner ahead about 2 seconds later.  Kingsbury seemed like it would be a half hour of terror.  But it was actually pretty good – an ok grade, no traffic, plenty of shoulder, and no sketchy road surface.  That actually relieved a lot of stress about the day ahead.

Riding up and down Luther Pass (like Kingsbury, not in the Death Ride) was easy and fun.  Less than 3 miles, and I didn’t use my brakes at all on the descent.  I hit my peak speed there (38mph) because it was a perfect grade for me.  Most others hit speeds around 50mph on other steeper passes, while I was clinging to my brakes.

The highlight on Carson Pass was seeing Stanley Tsang, who films these rides and posts them on YouTube. That’s me at 4:33 or so, complimenting his Terrible Two video from last year (which I also made a cameo appearance in).  His movie is a little deceptive – lots of footage and coverage of those early climbs, and the last couple climbs go by in a flash.  Real life was exactly the opposite.  The early climbs went relatively easily, the middle climbs went on for quite a while, and that last couple climbs seemed to take several weeks.

The 3rd and final non-Death pass was on Blue Lakes Road.  That was great – a road to nowhere, meaning almost no cars.  That road by itself would be a fun ride with friends/family who aren’t totally insane and just want a nice, safe ride.

The ride description talked about the climb getting steep part way up the Ebbetts Pass road.  It did, but only for short sections.  Thankfully it wasn’t like Skaggs in Terrible Two where it gets steep, stays steep and then just as you wear out gets steeper.  Ebbetts seemed to take a while but wasn’t killer.  The back side was a very quick descent (maybe 10 minutes?) and then an hour back up.

Monitor Pass was great and hard.  It provides passage from the interior mountains out to the plains of Nevada.   Going up the west side, I had already climbed about 14000 feet and was tired.  Going up the east side about 90 minutes later, I was at 17000 feet total climbing and pretty wiped.  When I started that last climb I was worried about not finishing before dark (jammed light button) but when I reached the summit people at the rest stop told me I’d make it.  I flew back down the west side – finally coming to terms with the grade and maybe not riding the brakes as hard – and pulled into the finish about 15 minutes before the daylight disappeared.

A really great day.  Given that I failed on Terrible Two this year and succeeded here, I don’t know about the “world’s toughest” tag but I was tired at the end and it’s certainly tough.  Highly recommended for insane cyclists.

Heading up Kingsbury Grade at 4:40am

This is what Kingsbury Grade looks like at a distance. About 2500 feet from bottom to top. This is also how the Sierra range dies into the plains of Nevada – steep and sudden.

I think we spent most of the day riding near those mountains in the distance.

Heading up towards Carson Pass. I love the Sierras. All that granite.

This is Blue Lakes Road. Fantastic riding.

Looking back down the valley, on the way up to Blue Lakes.

Having Type 1 fun somewhere on the way to Ebbetts Pass.

Climbing back up the east side of Monitor Pass, around 7pm, looking into Nevada. The road winds around visibly 1000 feet below, and the bottom is on the other side of those hills in the distance. This was pretty spectacular. For most of this 10 mile climb I was counting 10ths of a mile to reassure myself that I would finish it.  Getting to the halfway point was a huge milestone.


  1. […] 200 miles (doh!), and most have a fair amount of climbing.  I did the Central Coast Double and Alta Alpina in May and June, and blew up in the heat during my attempt to repeat Terrible Two in June.  […]

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