Riding the Range
The list of adjectives streaming through my mind was certainly more George Carlin than Hallmark as I hugged bare dirt and scree in the fetal position and dime-sized hail wailed my noggin at 10,000 feet. I had just clamored up a slope that marmots feared to tread, bike over my shoulder, lungs sucker-punching me all the way, only to enjoy this summer tempest on a completely exposed ridge rife with dangerous lightning, 40-degree rain and hail, and a wind that flat-out mocked me. We had miscalculated the day’s thundershower activity by about an hour, and it left us on bare rock between Hyalite and Squaw Creeks at precisely the wrong time. If you have been here before—trapped on a knife blade with nowhere to hide as lightning literally fries the air around you—then you know what a sentence like “I just s#%* myself” means.
The day was nothing more than six grown men getting together and challenging themselves. There was no race or contest of any kind, nor did we discourage co-ed participation. It just worked out that way. It was the culmination of upping the ante from three-hour rides after work on Tuesdays, to an all-out, all-day affair.
It started innocently enough with a few e-mails in June. Why not start a little after-work workout session? No gym, just mountain bikes, friends, and a different trail each week. Add some beers on tailgates for recovery, maybe a barbeque or quick meal downtown, and it could be fun, too. And so we trained for an epic ride by reconnecting with each other and with some other venues that we had either taken for granted or just not visited in far too long. The rides were steep up and down, and they required pre- and post- ride hydration. We always had fun afterward, but sweat poured, blood trickled on occasion, and bruises often lasted a week.
Tuesday night rides became a tour of Bozeman and the greater Gallatin Valley. We rode all of the favorites: Grassy Mountain, Mystic Lake, Wild Horse, Leverich Canyon, New World Gulch, Pete’s Hill/Triple Tree, the M to Sypes. None of us, in over 200 combined years of living in Bozeman, had ridden them all—and some of us hadn’t ridden any of them. That was the bonus—seeing our own backyards for the first time, or again after letting too much time pass.
Three weeks in, on the single-track coming down from Mystic Lake, Matt Kraska (the organizer of this whole thing) divulged the details for Man Day: 40 miles of self-propelled bliss over the Hyalite divide, going from Squaw Creek, past Hyalite Lake, then to Hyalite reservoir, onto pavement, and finishing in town. August 9 was etched into stone; we gave ourselves a commemorative acronym (H.C.B.A. for High Country Bike Association), threw around the notion of printing up some t-shirts, and set about looking forward to our Holy Day of exercise. We all shook on it and then hit our Tuesday-night rides with a zeal that only considerable goals promote.
Like any difficult physical challenge that you're not fully prepared for, the day of reckoning popped up seemingly overnight, and just like that, Man Day was on. A 30% chance of afternoon showers in the Hyalite drainage translates to “please remove all metal objects, ‘cause this may get hairy,” especially in late summer. If you’ve been up there with those clouds, you know the drill: start and finish early, or at least be off the ridges when all hell breaks loose.
Of course, you already know where our keen mountain senses landed us. I blame it on the weather guy.
We were as prepared as we were going to get, and we started our ascent in Squaw Creek at the Rat Lake fork. We followed the gradually rising, well-maintained road to the Hyalite divide single-track some seven miles later. Those are beautiful miles—it’s just that a person can drive a VW Beetle to that point. But Mother Nature really lays out the welcome mat where rubber seldom meets the pavement, and from that turn onto the single-track, she in no way disappointed us. With pretty fresh legs and a cloudless sky, our conversation was about the excess moisture, greenness, wildflowers, and how lucky we were to live in all of it.
By lunch, our conversation included discussion of varying degrees of fatigue, minor soreness (mostly saddle-induced), and even some dehydration and blood-sugar chat. But spirits were high, and so were the clouds.
At 8,500 feet, and on the wrong side of halfway done, heavy clouds began to form to the southwest. Our first and only quandary of the day presented itself: scramble like mountain goats, or take the longer, flatter approach and risk getting caught in the oncoming weather somewhere above tree line with little or no protection. Hindsight is always 20/20.
The serenity of having all the right gear—extra tubes, tools, water, electrolytes, snacks, jackets, hats, gloves, first-aid kit, matches, you name it—is lost when you sit alone, scattered over barren ground, gnashing teeth, wondering if hypothermia will be a peaceful death or if lightning hurts when it strikes you. Because of the steepness of the slope of different levels of lightning-induced fear, some of us scrambled up faster than others. One or two well-directed bolts couldn’t get us all at once, but misery really loves company when the misery is that miserable, and we each endured about 25 minutes of seriously extreme weather.
We all laughed like it was ha-ha funny when that sun came out, but haul ass we did changing into dry clothes, regrouping, and calculating how long we had until round two gathered up enough energy to work us over again.
That was the first time I stood on the Hyalite divide. It is huge and glorious and all-around-you spectacular, even when you’re cold, wet, and in a big hurry to get down. We worked our way downhill, for the first time in a very long while, and we started the second half of what was already a pretty full task. We carried our bikes again, meandering through and over battleship-sized snowdrifts, hard from months of full sun. When weather’s fury hit again, we had thankfully made it to Hyalite Lake and relative safety.
Enter mud, blood, sweat, and serious fatigue. When you’re tired, you need to be careful. Mom taught you that when you were in kindergarten. From Hyalite Lake to the parking area above the reservoir, we each experienced a little terra firma up close and personal. I slid on rock and crashed knee-first into boulders; I have the scar to prove it. Tim went over the handlebars after stopping instantly in a bog. Matt bounced along a fairly gravelly section hip first, and Ray and Marc were so far ahead of me that I didn’t see them meet the ground. I did get to see the effects: bumps, bruises, cuts, and scrapes in all the usual places.
At the Hyalite Lake trailhead we gathered up for some photos and laughter. We had mud, blood, and sweat all over us, but our senses of humor were intact.
The pavement to town was rewarding in its own, some six hours after we started our grand adventure. We stayed together until Hyalite Canyon Road met S. 19th, and then we went our own ways to tend our wounds, eat, and make plans for next Tuesday.