Inside the Sufferest: Two World-Class Climbers. On Bikes.
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Not for the last time on this hellish trip, I questioned Cedar’s decision-making. He’d arranged all the cycling gear while I was overseas—everything from the bikes to the spandex. He ordered the cheapest (and I think probably the tiniest) panniers he could find on the Internet. [Typical. Forget the physical challenge. Alex’s biggest concern every day was how hard it was to pack! Maybe he could have helped with the pannier selection if he weren’t so busy scoping skyscrapers for an epic stunt. -CW] As we folded, crushed, and cajoled our pared-down belongings into these two miniscule saddlebags, I realized that minimalism would be key. But maybe this wouldn’t be that big of a problem if we thought of it as alpine-style bike touring. Fast and light? Light is right? Let’s make Mark Twight proud. But then after we got moving, we realized it was a true struggle to pack enough food and water for long days on the road, even with the zippers straining to near failure. I sure wouldn’t argue with the ability to pack more comfortably.
When we came up with the idea of climbing all 15 of California’s 14,000-foot peaks using only bikes for transport, we cavalierly declared it would be “pretty mellow.” I decided I’d make a short film about the trip and began jokingly referring to our proposed mission as the Sufferfest. We figured a leisurely bike ride through California’s premier mountain range with light loads to solo moderate classics on iconic 14,000-foot peaks would be a fun change of pace. It turns out the joke was on us, and the name was quite prescient, perhaps even modest. But at least Honnold was there to remind me how bad I sucked.
Honnold fits into a unique place in my life. I consider him a good friend, but sometimes I just want to strangle the guy. He’s a bro, an inspiration, and a climbing hero. At times I find him socially inept, and at other times he seems wise beyond his years and can cut straight to the heart of a matter. He’s a motivating factor in my life, but sometimes he makes me feel like I should just give up. “Dude, I don’t know what your problem is,” Honnold once said to me after I whipped off a crack climbing project in Indian Creek for the umpteenth time. I wanted to punch the condescending look of bewilderment off his face. He was kind of joking, but there was an element of sincere wonder at how I could flail so much.
We decided to start our Sufferfest at Mt. Shasta, which stands alone, 600 miles away from the rest of the 14,000-foot peaks in California that are clustered in or near the Sierra Nevada. We were driven up by a 70-year-old guy that Honnold called “Old Man John.” John was tough as nails; apparently he once ripped his thumb off halfway up El Cap, but then found it at the base and had it sewn back on. [He was only two pitches up, and someone else found his thumb in the talus. But still tough as nails! True story. -AH] From Shasta, we would not set foot in a car until we had finished on Langley, the southernmost of the 15 14ers. How audacious our plan was revealed itself more and more with every passing mile.
Our bike tour began at Mt. Shasta, in northern California. The hike and descent were straightforward enough, a little cold and windy, but otherwise uneventful. By mid-afternoon we were back in the trailhead parking lot, trying to figure out how to pack our bikes again for the upcoming few weeks of adventure. Piles of random camping and hiking gear were strewn around our friend’s truck, our bikes in the middle. Seriously, how could so much stuff possibly fit onto two bicycles?
At the summit of Shasta, we were suffering from nausea and headaches, and greeted by hurricane-force winds and sub-freezing temperatures—not the fun-in-the-sun summertime romp we had hoped for. “This is probably the worst of it,” I thought to myself. One quality that has allowed me to pull off some pretty cool climbs and adventures is my ability to grossly underestimate the difficulty of a challenge, and then my stubbornness to forge on regardless.
On the descent from Shasta, I realized that while Honnold may be a master of rock, he is not a master of snow. In fact, he might be the world’s worst glissader.[Unfair. I only fell a couple more times than you. Snow is quite slippery. -AH]To my amusement, I watched this super-athlete-world-famous-rock-god fall repeatedly on his ass in the snow like a great big gumby. It was nice to know that he was less than awesome at something.
Now we had more than 600 miles from Shasta to the Sierra Nevada and the rest of California’s 14ers. PSSSSSSSSSTTT. This was what would become the familiar sound of my bike tire going flat. I would go to unclip my pedals, but they wouldn’t come out and I would crater into the dirt. By day three, my quads felt like balloons full of lactic acid and misery.
But still I constantly had to wait for Honnold to catch up, so I had a lot of time to think as I dodged big rigs on the freeway. [Ha! In reality, I arrived in towns at least an hour before Cedar every day, mostly because my butt hurt so badly that I raced to get off the seat as soon as possible. -AH] Mostly I wondered what we were thinking. Honnold said it felt like someone is stabbing him in the kneecap over and over again; my knee pain was more of a dull, throbbing ache. We both were having trouble sitting on our bikes. But at least we were traveling super light.
In the morning, I woke up to second-degree burns on the tops of my legs. We had two more days to get to the Sierra, but I was thinking about giving up. This just wasn’t fun. Why hadn’t I trained harder on a bike? Would these quarter-size sores on each of my butt cheeks ever heal? Why had I told so many people about our plans? We were trapped in an honest-to-God Sufferfest.
It’s always been a pet peeve of mine to try to stuff a sleeping bag into too small a stuff sack. Each morning we would play that struggle out on a grander scale, first trying to get the sleeping bag and pad put away, nestling them just right into our bags, and then slipping our shoes, jackets, climbing shoes, and other random items into the remaining cracks like puzzle pieces. Any remaining space was for Clif Bars and trinkets, like the solar panels for our phones. Which brings me to how we navigated on this godforsaken trip.
We plotted our whole bike tour by smartphone, and because service is limited in the mountains, it meant we were often somewhat lost. Neither of us had done a ton of planning beforehand; we are both naturally more inclined to just go for it and have an adventure. That meant that we rarely had a firm grasp of where we were going exactly. Even when we were on the right road or trail, there was often a fair amount of second-guessing, since we were never quite sure. [While Alex was never really sure where we were going either, he was usually “100 percent sure” that I was wrong. -CW] For the most part, quite fortuitously, our easygoing strategy worked out. The glaring exception, however, was our climb of Middle Palisade.
We had climbed the normal Palisade Traverse the day before just to add some classic rock climbing, starting with Temple Crag, traversing the ridge across Mt. Gayley over to the Swiss Arête on Mt. Sill, and then finally tiptoeing the ridge all the way to Thunderbolt Peak. It was a big day in the mountains, and we didn’t get to our sleeping bags at the trailhead until around midnight. Waking up at 6 the next morning to hike a different drainage up to Middle Palisade felt daunting. We were joined for the Middle Palisade excursion by our friend Sean Leary, who’d climbed the traverse 15 years ago. But he has a notoriously poor memory, and Cedar and I had never been up the different drainage that leads to Middle. Solution? The cute little graphic map at the trailhead, which didn’t show detail but at least gave us a sense of which direction to go once the trail ran out at the highest alpine lake. Right?
The traverse to Middle was decomposing choss. The several hundred yards of technical traversing took us more time than the entire ascent of Norman Clyde, because soloing loose 5.9 in your approach shoes is a fairly serious affair.
It took hours of weaving around gendarmes and down-climbing towers of choss before making the summit of Middle. The standard route up Middle—what we’d hoped to ascend—turned out to be a delightful third-class descent, and the glissade down the glacier was a fast and pleasant way to lose elevation. We were back at the trailhead by late afternoon, exhausted, but just in time to avoid the thunderstorms, which seemed to build most afternoons. Our day on Middle sort of summed up our whole trip: not as easy as we’d hoped, but at least we managed. [This was actually the most soul-crushing day for me. It was pretty funny to have Sean say, “I told you we were going the wrong way,” at the summit of Norman Clyde—when he obviously had said no such thing—and then to hear Alex blame us for not having a map, when he had said to me, “How bad can it be? We just hike up the drainage and climb the biggest-looking peak.” I wanted to just push those guys off the summit for a second. -CW]
After our epic double mission, with the off-route catastrophe in the Palisades where Honnold and Leary led us to the completely wrong summit, we were left with no choice but to take our first rest day in over a week. The Palisades had beaten us to a pulp. It was sinking in that each mission was an epic achievement in and of itself and, that enchaining them would most likely end in permanent damage to our bodies. Each day involved around 6,000 feet of elevation gain on a bike to the trailhead, and then an epic ankle- and knee-grinding hike, followed by a dicey free solo of a technical route.
It really is amazing what your body can take once you set your mind to do something. Despite waking every morning with legs so sore I could hardly get up, a week went by in a blur, and we were eight peaks down. We survived day by day.
The weather forecast for the east side of the Sierra was for inferno-like high temperatures of about 110°F indefinitely. While we’d roughed it in the dirt thus far, I wasn’t about to try to have a rest day in this kind of heat. That would just add insult to injury. From here on out we stayed in hotel rooms, unless we were up on the mountain, and tried to do as much low-elevation biking as we possibly could in the cool of night. Hotels and motels are amazing yet depressing places, where we would partially recover for our next round of abuse.
The ride down was less heinous, because dropping 10,000 feet on a bicycle is pretty fun no matter how tired you feel. [The rare day I felt stronger than Alex. On the hike back down from the summit, Alex said, “I hope our bikes got stolen so that we can just end this stupid trip.” I had to give him a this-will-all-be-worth-it-if-we-can-finish pep talk. -CW] Though doing 40 mph into a 108°F headwind as we dropped into the Owens Valley felt like sitting under a bathroom hand dryer. Just another normal day in the mountains.
A different kind of gear room. Photo by Samuel Crossley
My sister Stasia lives in Portland, Oregon, practically the cycling capital of America, and has never owned a car. She not only bikes more than 100 miles a week as a commuter, but she does big bike tours on weekends and vacations just for fun. She is, in a word, a biker. And by happy coincidence, she planned on vacationing in California the same time we were wrapping up our bike tour, so she joined us for the last few peaks.
It was perfect timing, too, because our morale was on a steady decline. The combined aches and pains in all our joints and the general fatigue conspired to make the scenery a little less beautiful and the climbing a lot less fun. Stasia biked in circles around us, snapping pictures and marveling at the amazing mountains of the eastern Sierra. She biked up to Mt. Whitney with us, and then hiked the third-class Mountaineers Route while we soloed more technical terrain [for me, the Harding Route on Keeler Needle and the Mithril Dihedral on Mt. Russell]. We met back up with her at the trailhead at the end of the day and all biked back down into town together. Enthusiastic by nature, she was stoked to have gone up into the mountains. What for Cedar and me was another grueling day at the office was a beautiful adventure for her.
Her outside perspective, overall energy, and good nature made the whole undertaking a lot more enjoyable. [It was funny to meet the unfamous but equally badass female hippy Honnold who doesn’t own a car and is a vegetarian philanthropist. We were also joined by filmmaking student Samuel Crossley, who helped me document the tour. The two of them together were a shining light. -CW]
After two and a half weeks of constant biking and hiking, Cedar and I were beginning to lose some of the motivation that had prompted the whole adventure to begin with. But when Stasia joined us, we were able to physically draft off her bicycle to save energy, but, more importantly, to draft off her motivation for being in a beautiful new place. While we were ready to just put our heads down and grind out the last few peaks just for the sake of finishing our mission, she forced us to look up and enjoy the view.
Part of what got us psyched for this Sufferfest was the concept that we would avoid standard routes up the majority of the peaks. Instead, we would solo technical routes. While Alex is famous for his solo climbing, I also have a background in the ropeless art that goes back to my days as a dirtbag in Joshua Tree, where I onsight-soloed hundreds of routes. We both liked the idea that our ability to climb ropeless would allow us to travel by bike with nothing more than climbing shoes and chalkbags.
Each time we approached a mountain with a committing section of soloing, I got all serious and even a little nervous. Moments on the old-school 5.9+ route Mithril Dihedral and the 2,000-foot 5.10a Sun Ribbon Arête on Temple Crag were, for me, fully adventurous life experiences, including moments of exhilaration, joy, and freedom. [Seeing it described so beautifully almost makes me feel bad for calling you a pansy the whole time. -AH]
Climbing a route onsight free solo is, in my opinion, the ultimate form of commitment to climbing, and as we headed up the vertical face of Langley, we weren’t even sure if we were on route or not. At times, I improvised beta to reach past loose flakes and blocks or avoid suspect footholds. Halfway up the route, we were still not positive that we were on the right track. Unnerving. At one point I was bear-hugging around a teetering, loose block. I’ve always had a morbid streak, and for a second I pictured what it would be like to fall hundreds of feet to the base far below.
As we neared the summit and the difficulties slightly subsided, a pure joy washed over me, and I felt buoyant and moved toward the top like a diver swimming for the surface. On the summit tears welled up in my eyes. We did the math and estimated that if you were to combine all of the vertical mileage we had covered, we could have climbed into outer space. [Some pretty generous rounding, there, Cedar. -AH]We were—as far as I know—the first people ever to climb all of California’s 14ers by bike, and I was genuinely proud. “Dude, how rad would it be to do this again next year?” I said. All of the pain and suffering disappeared, and left in its place was this moment of pure elation. And I still blame Alex Honnold.
I didn’t touch my bike for weeks after the Sufferfest. But despite all the suffering and Cedar’s questionable judgment (or perhaps because of it), we are indeed planning another bike tour this spring. It should be a bit lighter on the biking and heavier on the climbing, but another big adventure either way. Looking back at it now, it all seems so very worthwhile. Our memories are always a bit unreliable about these kinds of things. [Yeah, it wasn’t that bad at all! -CW]
[Cedar’s 18-minute film titled Sufferfest was selected to tour the world with the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Check banffcentre.ca for showing locations and dates. Or head to climbing.com/videos to view the film in five smaller episodes.]