The Two Towers Ride – Revisited

By Seton
July 24, 2012 on 2:56 pm | In Employee Adventures | 2 Comments

Just about a year ago I set off to accomplish a bucket list ride and when I finished I didn’t say a whole lot about it outside of my circle of friends.  After a year of reflection I have come to the realization that I should probably write about it – not for bragging rights, not for chest pounding, but merely to document my experience for historical purposes.  To the best of my knowledge I am the only person to do this exact ride. Who knows, maybe my kids or grandkids will read this one day.

If you are a serious cyclist in this country you know about at least one of the great mountain top hill climbs  – Mt. Washington, NH; Haleakala, HI; etc.  In southern Arizona, we happen to be home to three of the best hill climbs in the U.S. – Mt. Lemmon, Mt. Graham, and Kitt Peak.  Two of these – Mt. Lemmon and Kitt Peak – are visible from Tucson, and when you are climbing either one you can look far across the desert and see the other staring back at you.  Well, over a decade ago I was coming back from a trip full of debauchery down in Mexico with some friends and we were driving by Kitt Peak on our way back to Tucson.  Needless to say, this is when the question was planted in my head, “what would it be like to ride both Kitt Peak and Mt. Lemmon in the same day?”

Kitt PeakThe top of Kitt Peak – photo from http://www.noao.edu/kpno/

Fast forward to the spring of 2011.  I had two big races I was prepping for – Leadville Trail 100 MTB and Ironman Arizona.  I was putting in some monster 300-350+ mile weeks on the bike w/tons of climbing leading into late June, and it magically dawned on me that the moons had lined up and I was going to be in good enough shape to take on this monumental ride.  The catch with this particular ride is that I made one rule for myself – it had to be completed in daylight.  In order to make that happen, the ride would have to be as close to the summer equinox as possible so there is enough daylight.  The obvious downside is that I live in the desert and it is quite hot in the summer. Of course, because the ride window opened up so suddenly (back to my fitness and training cycle), the ride fell into the first part of July (July 9th to be exact), smack at the start of the monsoon season. The monsoons open up a whole other potential issue because they tend to explode in the mid to late afternoon and can wreak havoc due to wind, hail, rain, flooding and lightning.  I figured I would just duck and cover if this became an issue.

About 10 days out I started getting the word out to some other crazies I know that I was going to do this ride.  I was able to get three “volunteers” – one of our sponsored athletes (Chrissy Parks) and two employees (Billy Brenden and Steve Acuna) to accompany me through the 120 mile Kitt Peak leg.  I was also able to get another warrior to join me for the entire ride – Chris Chesher.  Chrissy is the real deal on a road/tri bike, Billy and I had trained for IMLP together in 2009 and Steve is an up and comer in the sport who was there for the beating.  Chris is a BAMF, one of the strongest guys on the bike in Tucson – he will punish you.  If you ever come to do the shootout here in Tucson, Chris is probably the guy in the front making you suffer.

The Train of PainThe Train of Pain – Chrissy, Chris, me, Billy and Steve – on our way out to the base of Kitt Peak.

I didn’t bother mapping the ride because I have ridden both Kitt Peak and Mt. Lemmon many times, but I was guessing about 200-210 miles.  Chris met me near the base of Mt. Lemmon and we took off west at about 4:45AM (just as the sun was coming up behind us). We picked up Chrissy, Billy and Steve by the University of Arizona at about 5:15, and we were off.  To make sure this was a real suffer fest and that people couldn’t come back and say, “but you went the easy way,” we headed over Gates Pass and around McCain Loop and headed out Sandario to hook up to Ajo (Hwy 86).  With the exception of me getting a flat and not having an inflator with me, it was a pretty uneventful ride to Kitt Peak.  Chesher was really pushing the pace as we circled our pace line – he was probably putting out 300W – it was the train of pain and we hadn’t even done a climb yet.  I didn’t mind only because I knew my fitness and knew the longer this went, the better I would feel.  We arrived at the base where Debbie, my wife, brought the kids for a “fun day watching daddy ride his bike up a mountain.”  She played sag support for us on the mountain.  We all rode Kitt Peak at our own pace (leaving the car at different times) and Chris and I rode together at a sustainable 230W.

Kitt Peak (6,880 ft) is a National Observatory that houses 24 telescopes and sits alone in the Sonoran Desert. The climb is about 14 miles long and is unique because it only gets steeper as you climb – there is absolutely no relief on this climb.  A friend of mine who has done Alpe d’Huez several times said that Kitt Peak is equally, if not more, difficult. At the top is the 4-meter Mayall Telescope that can be seen from both Tucson and Mt. Lemmon.  This particular telescope taunts you all the way from Tucson and all the way to when you “think” you are done with the climb.

The Top of Tower 1The Top of Tower 1 – Chrissy, me, Billy, Steve and Chris.

We fueled up at the top and headed back to Tucson where Chrissy, Billy and Steve detached from the mother ship and headed in for the day (a “mere” 120 mile ride – one that not many people ever do).  By this time the temperature was pushing 102F and the humidity was about 60% with no cloud cover.  To make sure, once again, that no one questioned my ability to suffer, I dragged Chris over the back side of Gates Pass (it’s a climb over the Tucson Mountains that pitches to about 16%) before we descended into the Tucson valley and made the voyage across town to do Mt. Lemmon.  I was dreading this part of the ride, dealing with the cars and the lights, but it was actually fun! The crazy thing was that I felt fantastic – yes, 140 miles into the ride and I was feeling fresh as a daisy.  Along the way across town my Garmin 705 was giving me the Low Battery warning so I had Debbie bring me the charged Garmin 310xt I had at home – there was no way I was doing this ride without proof!  Chris and I made it back close to the base of Mt. Lemmon and swapped out our TT bikes for road bikes for a change of pace, and because I wanted the better climbing position, then headed toward the 26+ mile climb.

This brings me to the part of the story where things get interesting.  As we are climbing the first miles of the mountain I tell Chris “yep, over 150 done and about 50 to go, just this small mountain in our way.”  Chris looks over in all seriousness and says “wait, I thought this was a 170 mile ride……I guess it doesn’t matter.” By about mile 5 the realization of what we had already put our bodies through started to sink in.  I think my lungs were literally burnt from inhaling the hot air and I was having a very difficult time breathing – from here to the top it would be short, shallow breaths.  Chris didn’t have enough nutrition so I was donating mine because I knew I needed the company (and a witness).  Both Mt. Lemmon and Kitt Peak are known as Sky Islands because they emerge from the desert floor and host their own ecosystem – pine trees, ferns, bears, mountain lions, skunks, deer – it’s a forest in the middle of the desert.  Another unique thing about these mountains is that they create their own weather, especially during monsoon season.  As we climbed, it was becoming quite evident that a monsoon was pounding the top of the mountain and our destination lay in the middle of the beast.  Luckily, the storm was dissipating about as fast as we were climbing and we didn’t get hit by rain or hail.  As we climbed toward Ski Valley, however, the roads were wet, steam coming off of them, and the temperature had plummeted to about 50F (it felt like 35 after being in the heat all day). The road was lined with about an inch of hail.  My big reward for the day waited for me at the vending machine at the bottom of the ski lift – a Coke.  When I arrived there, thirsting for an ice cold caffeine-laden drink, it was out of stock! In fact, everything with caffeine was out, all they had was Sprite.  What a letdown.  After waiting for Chris (he was about 20min back at this point), he finally arrived and he was destroyed. He had a white rag wrapped around his head and when I gave him the Sprite he dumped it on the rag.  “So, um Chris, are you going to go with me to the top?” Chris replied with a confused and startled look, “we are at the top!” I replied, “no, the real top – up the telescope access road.”  Chris looks at me and says, “you are f’ing crazy, I will head down to where it is warmer and I will wait for you.  See you at Palisades.”  Palisades was about 8 miles back down the mountain at around 7,800 feet and out of the hail-entrenched monsoon war zone.

Hail at the base of Ski ValleyThe base of Ski Valley, the hail was so deep it looked like snow!

So this was it, just me.  There was no one on the mountain but me. I started the final 1000 foot, approximately 1.5 mile climb with a little reluctance.  The monsoon had absolutely destroyed the road.  There was 2-3 inches of hail on huge sections of the road and the sections that didn’t have hail were full of rocks and mud. This would be a challenge on my mountain bike, let alone on my road bike with wet tires.  The real problem wasn’t going up…it was coming down.  This was a very real threat because I knew I would be freezing and, worse, I questioned if I would be able to actually make the bike stop in these conditions. I made my way through the debris without ever unclipping and made it to the gate to the observatory.  I hiked through the hail and rode my way to the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center, the home to several telescopes, the same telescopes you can see from certain parts of Tucson and that stare back at you when you are on Kitt Peak.  I took my self-portrait and gingerly headed down the mountain.  Shivering almost uncontrollably down the descent, I willed my hands to stay on the brakes as I weaved around and through the debris.  I managed to make it back to Ski Valley with the rubber side down!

The top of Tower 2The Top of Tower 2 – the mission almost complete!

After climbing to the very top of Mt. Lemmon (9,157 ft), you would think you could just coast all the way down, which you can except for one ~750 ft climb about five miles from Ski Valley.  A very miserable sight to see for anybody who does Mt. Lemmon.  I made my way over the climb and down to Palisades to find Chris resting.  We joined up and headed back to the desert floor below (about 2300 ft).  We finished the ride as the last little sliver of sunlight was left in the sky behind a couple of picture perfect monsoons that were hanging over Kitt Peak far off in the distance.

To put icing on the cake for this ride, I got up the next morning and rode with Debbie back to Mt. Lemmon (this time only to mile 5). As I made the turn at mile two, I looked over my shoulder out to the west and could see Kitt Peak staring at me.  Probably one of the best feelings I have ever had – I now knew, I knew the answer.

Garmin Stats of Two Towers

Total Stats:

Distance: 209 miles

Elevation Gain: 13,637

Food Consumed: About 2500 calories, but a ton of water!

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