Thursday, May 21, 2015


Author:  Leon Matz

As I prepared in my hotel room for the challenges ahead of me, I contemplated Mt Washington which is considered by many as the most difficult bicycle climb in the US if not in the world.  Many compare it to the famous Mortirolo in Italy; but Mt. Washington is steeper.  It is statistically similar to the Kitzbuhler Horn in Austria, generally considered among the most difficult climbs used in European tours.  It is only 7.5 miles but has 4,695 ft. of gain with 11.9% average with a max of 22%.  The road has 1+ miles of packed dirt (at least supposedly).  The route is closed to cyclists except for two cycling events each year.  Both rides cost $300-$375, but - wisely - are scheduled for the middle of summer. The climb ends at 6,258 feet.  It is the highest point in the Northeast.  It is visited by 250,000 people each year.  In 1934 the observation center (where the road ends) recorded the highest wind speed ever recorded on Earth (231mph).  Record high temperature at the top is 72 degees and record low is -47 degees – WITHOUT WIND CHILL.

My challenges for Thursday morning were three fold:  
  1. First, the road - similar to Mt. Equinox - has a gate blocking traffic.  Would I even get a chance to bike up?  
  2. The second challenge would be the weather.  Even though the weather scheduled for Thursday was better than the two days around it, it still meant that I would start climbing at 5:30 in 40 degree temperature with the high scheduled to be about 28 degrees at the top.  The wind near the top was expected to be 25-30mph.  With my Reynaud’s Syndrome, riding in such cold was going to add to the challenge.
  3. The third challenge is the shear physical challenge of climbing possibly the most difficult bike climb in the world.  The AVERAGE pitch of the full Mt. Washington climb is THREE TIMES the average pitch of “The Climb” where we train all the time back home.  Add in altitude and the severe weather (wind and cold) - I was in for something incredibly hard. 

I was up at 4:45 to have some breakfast and gather my gear.  I was preparing to attempt possibly the greatest challenge I have ever had.  By 5:45, I was on my bike starting my adventure up the mountain. As I headed up, the pitch immediately hit a 12% gradient and my legs with 7,600 ft of climbing yesterday are already letting me know they didn’t like this.  My body quickly heated up even though it was only 40 deg.  My four layers of Cyclopath gear seemed adequate. Turning the pedals over in my lowest gear was not easy, and there were no real spots to recover and spin.  Four miles an hour was all I could muster even though I was working hard and my HR was in the high 150’s. I worked hard to get into a rhythm and try and think about other things.  The wind was already noticeable. Over the first couple miles the wind wasn’t too bad as I had the trees protecting me some.  Soon, the large trees disappeared; and the wind started blowing hard into my face. The difficulty of turning the pedals over increased significantly.  I kept checking my Gamin and anticipating making it to the 4.4 mi. point where the gravel section was scheduled to start.  As I came around the next curve, I saw NEW ASPHALT.  Wow, could they have paved the 1 mile gravel section?  YEAH!  Although my speed didn’t noticeably change over the smooth pavement, it was a mental boost that I relished.  After a couple curves of the road, I could see that my hope was not accurate.  The dirt reappeared.   As I proceeded on, it became evident that work crews have been working on the road.  They had put down some dirt down trying to level the road but had not rolled the road yet to compact it.  So, instead of being able to use most of the road to ride on, I had to try and stay in the wheel tracks of the trucks.  Prior to this section, I had done some “slaloming” across the road to lessen the grade and to ease the pain in my legs.  Now, I was forced to go straight uphill.  The wind was increasing in intensity.  The wind was blowing so hard that, even though I was trying to stay in the wheel tracks of the trucks, the wind gusts several times blew me out of the wheel track into the softer dirt.  I came close to falling over a number of times.

I had planned on taking a GU at this point, but I didn’t dare take my hands off the hoods to grab it for fear that I would fall over.  Also, because of the steepness of the pitch, I couldn’t stop for fear that I could not get riding again!  I had read reports that, during the Mt. Washington Hill Climb Event, some riders had been blown entirely off the road by the strong wind gusts.  I sure didn’t want that to happen.  Since the road was not yet “officially” open, it might be awhile before anyone would find me. The dirt section seemed to go on and on.  I actually prayed for an end of it and a lessening of the winds.  Adding to the challenge, my rear derailleur seemed to be malfunctioning.  Every time I shifted up and stood up to take a break from sitting, my gears would go up two gears and then back one gear – which caused me to lose some of the little momentum that I had.   My prayer for the end of the dirt was answered, but not quickly.  It must have been 2 miles on the dirt. The winds actually seemed to be increasing as I approached the last couple miles of the climb. I was relieved to finally get a glimpse of the observatory’s tower.  Soon, I could see that the water in the roadside ditch was frozen; and, in a couple of places, snow that had melted had frozen on the road.  I was now starting to get really cold.  The heat packs in both of my very best mittens and the heat packs in my shoes were not enough.  My right arm started to quiver because of the cold.  I had a jacket with me that would help, but I didn’t dare stop until I could get to the top and have some flat ground.  The last mile seemed to take forever; but, finally, I arrived at an empty parking lot – the top!  I quickly took one picture for proof; and, then, frantically put on my jacket and started to head down.  I glanced at my Garmin – the temperature was 28 degrees.  No wonder I was feeling so cold!

Icicles on the rocks on Mt. Washington...

View from the top of Mt. Washington...

As I headed down, I remembered Summerson’s quote about the descent: ”The descent of Mt. Washington should be among the most difficult; but, of course, who really knows”.  During both races up Mt. Washington, riders are not allowed to descend on their bikes.  They are required to go down in vehicles.  My praying grew in intensity as I started to head down in the wind and cold: “please God, get me down safely”.   My arms quivered as I squeezed the brakes and tried to keep my speed under control.  I wanted to get down quickly – AND SAFELY.  As I approached the dirt area, I encountered construction workers coming up the hill to pave another section.  They were bundled up in multi-layers to deal with the cold.  I had hopes that someone would stop and offer me a ride down, but they were probably shocked to see this crazy guy on a bike and had no interest in helping me!  The dirt section was real sketchy for me.  The wind was mainly behind me, but occasional side gusts made it difficult to keep a straight line and to stay in the “tire tracks” made by the workers’ trucks.  Pretty soon, I was half way down.  By this time, the wind was blocked some by the trees and the temperature had improved. When I finally arrived at the bottom,  I took a big sigh of relief and looked up skyward to thank God for helping me on the way down.  I packed my gear in the car, turned the heat to “full bore”, and headed back to my hotel.  After a hot breakfast, I packed up to head to East Burke and my second climb of the day (Burke Mountain).  As I drove out of town, I saw a billboard/sign that read: “ATTENTION:  The Mt. Washington Auto Road is a steep, narrow, mountain road without guardrails.  If you have a fear of heights, you may not appreciate this driving experience.  Guided tours are available”.   It was an incredible place and an incredible climb.  I am grateful to have made it up and down on my bike.

View from the top of Burke Mountain...
The Burke Mountain climb (#62 on the list) is only 2.5 miles long with 1,770 feet of elevation gain - a 13.4% average grade. Yes, 13.4% AVERAGE grade with a maximum gradient of 24%!  Yikes!
 What a “follow up act” to the Mt. Washington climb!  Summerson indicated that it had a ½ mile section of 20+% grade making it one of the steepest climbs in the U.S. The temperature was in the 60’s, and the sun felt good on my skin. I was extremely grateful for my mountain cassette.  Even with the low gearing, I spent a fair amount of time standing to try and match the steep gradients.  The climb and subsequent descent went smoothly.  After finishing, I stopped at a small bike shop to have my bike checked, had a quick bite to eat and then started my 3 ½ hour drive to would be the final climb on my “Top 100” list - Whiteface Mountain.

To be continued…


  1. I really like this account of an assault on Mt Washington. It is too bad that this is the way some trips up this hill are made (it is the way I made my 2nd trip up) but in many ways it only adds to the drama. Perhaps the most vicious climb on the planet and I applaud Leon's persistence as he took on America's top climbs. Informational and inspirational.