Of all the weather on all the meteorology maps in all the world, we never counted on smoke.
It’s been a hot, dry summer. And in the days leading up to Sunday’s climactic FRF Fondon’t to Mt. Baker, we all hoped that trend would continue.
But the downside to hot, dry summers in this part of the world is the tendency of forests to catch fire. It’s been happening a lot. Careless smokers, lightning, spontaneous combustion; all of them conspiring to char the landscape and choke the air with woody smoke.
Which is exactly what wafted over us early Sunday as we car-pooled to the launch rendezvous for our 160 km roundtrip ride up the Northwest’s tallest peak.
The smoke settled in the valleys, dimmed the horizon, obscured distant peaks.
By the time we fell into a quick paceline after clearing U.S. Customs at Sumas, the smoke tickled our throats.
Otherwise, it was a fine day. Warm but not too warm, no breeze to slow us.
This year’s FRF Fondon’t contingent comprised seven regulars and three privateers joining us for our big day out.
It was a fast bunch, and by the time we got into the meat of Silver Lake Rd., a quieter but longer approach, I had fallen off the pace, lost contact.
But I didn’t fret, just fell into a comfortable pace. The purpose of our ride, the 20 km ascent to Artist’s Point atop Mt. Baker, was still a long, hilly way off.
FRF’s entire season had been structured for this ride. That meant lots of climbing.
In the weeks leading up, I’d ascended Mt. Seymour twice, Cypress Mt. once, Burnaby Mountain more than a few times. I’d made it out to a number of the regular Tuesday night climbing rides.
I’d never ridden Baker. I wanted to be prepared.
It’s not a hard climb; grades rarely nipped past six or seven per cent, and usually only in the switchback hairpins.
But it’s long. And it’s official 16 km route is rendered even longer by the approach from Glacier that rolls up and down into a river valley for another 20 km.
At the service yard that marks the official start of the mountain’s ascent, my thighs were already sore.
Again the speedy climbers shot away, leaving me with only my heavy breathing to keep my company.
A few times along those early ramps, my Garmin mocked me by going into Auto Pause. I blamed the trees, maybe the smoke. I hoped it wasn’t because I was going so slowly.
Sadly, the smoke obscured the peek-a-boo views of sprawling valleys and distant peaks which Baker’s veterans assured me were all around.
But it’s a beautiful climb nonetheless. The towering trees of the lower slopes shade the road.
As they thin towards the alpine, the road begins twisting and turning in ever-tightening switchbacks. They lessen the gradient, but they also demoralize the spirit.
Seeing those switchbacks rise up and away above me, I thought a couple of times of packing it in, waiting to catch the group on their way down. The climb seemed never-ending, and my legs, my belly and my lungs weren’t happy.
But you don’t ride this far, prepare all season to only get part way.
The magnificence of the surroundings kept me going.
Riding up Baker is a true mountain climb, the closest thing we have to a Tourmalet or Mt. Ventoux.
I imagined the crazed tifossi lining the narrow, rocky shoulder, their cheers pushing me through my limits.
More importantly, I anticipated the leans and sweeping turns of the speedy descent. I didn’t want to deprive myself of a single switchback, skip a hairpin, neglect a ridge.
Because for every gruelling, arduous ascent, there’s a beautiful, exhilarating descent.