Classic Mountain Bike Rides: Angel’s Staircase

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[We’ve gone riding! For 10 days Bike Intelligencer is mountain biking in places so remote an iPhone 4 can’t even find a signal to drop. We’ll report back on our return, but in the meantime we’re running some “BI Classics” from past adventures. See you on the trails!]

Down the Up Staircase

In terms of a pure loop not involving shuttling or out and backing, Cooney/Horsehead is one of the toughest rides our fair state has to offer.The term "ride" may be used advisedly, since for me at least, there’s a fair amount of travel by foot. I’ve actually seen a guy, Pat Norwil, ride just about the whole thing counter-clockwise, even cleaning the hike-a-bike down toward Cooney (he did crash once). But Pat is a Trans Alp kind of rider with bones of steel and a hide of pure kevlar. Hiking up that section, it seems impossible to think someone could ride it down.

When Cary, whom I’d not met before, suggested taking off from the TH at 8:30 a.m., I had to chuckle. Art’s annual Horsehead ride always lists the putative start of 10 a.m. But the ride is popular enough, and Art is laid-back enough, that we’ve seldom gotten rolling much before 11. Which is fine. That usually leaves you 10 or 15 minutes at the end of the ride before total darkness descends. I may be kidding, but a BBTC ride starting at 8:30, while probably well-advised, seems like a fairy tale.

Atop Angel's Staircase near Winthrop WA

So I was taken aback when I pulled up to the TH around 8:35 and everyone looked ready to roll. Credit Cary with stellar organizational skills and the rest of the crew with the good sense to know a leader when they see one. Cary mumbled something about not having done the ride before and not wanting to take chances. But I had the feeling this gang was fast enough they could be back in time for a late lunch if they wanted.

I didn’t know many, and have to say that I didn’t recognize Bob when he said hi, it’s been that long. But one face did jump out at me, and there was a legacy to it. Peter Partel and I had first met on this ride, somewhere back in the ’90s, and here we were again, looking none the worse for wear. Well, at least Peter wasn’t.

Most of the crew was gone by the time we hit the trail, and I figured to be caboose on this tour. But Peter hung back and we had a great talk when we weren’t sucking dust. It was so dry that my "dry lube" (Purple Extreme, usually very reliable) had totally left my chain, which began rasping within the second or third mile. There are a few rolling downhills at the beginning of this ride, and I gave Peter wide berth. At the rate we were going we’d be coughing up Black Lung by the time we got to the top.

Peter said I should write a novel about mountain biking, which didn’t sound like a bad idea. At least I could justify all the time and energy I put on the trails as "research"! We started talking about some of the characters a novel might include. Let’s see… The plot would involve a fateful ride up to Cooney with a gang of mtbers linked by international intrigue and espionage. There’s a mad Russian named Igor who’s working with foreign mercenaries to steal U.S. military secrets. Igor has a secret plan on this ride to kidnap a seemingly laid-back aerospace engineer named Peter, who in reality heads a Boeing development project on a top secret surveillance aircraft. But Anthony, a misleadingly mild-mannered accountant who actually works for the CIA, has gotten wind of the plot and with his faithful assistant, the beautiful but dangerous Mire, has set up a strike team of off-road motos to intercept Igor at the final trailhead. Alas, Igor blasts through the roadblock … and hucks off a 50-foot precipice, seemingly eluding the frustrated intercept team above. LIttle does Igor know, however, that an FBI undercover named Art is waiting for him on the tranny below…

To pre-order your autographed copy, contact…

While Peter and I were outlining the next big international bestseller, the real riders were putting in miles ahead of us. By the time we got to the top, everyone looked like they’d finished lunch and were trying to keep from chilling down. Bob was his peripatetic self, scouting the shoreline and hopping to and fro, when voila! He spotted a big bristly marmot slinking along a creekbed in the meadow below. Never one to be bashful, Bob went up and engaged the little guy in conversation, and the marmot actually seemed to be paying attention except I think he just wanted a handout. Bob ran off some photos before the marmot popped into its abode below a big rock. Bob noted these are the famous "whistling pigs" of the North Cascades, namesake of that well–known meadow below Mad Lake.

The group was kind enough to dally while I got some lunch and got to meet some of the new faces. It turns out that Cary, the birthday-boy (never did find out what year) ride leader, is a former bike mechanic who was active in the 90s but took time off for some adult responsibilities involving work and family, can you imagine?! Whatever, Cary had sure picked the right day for this ride. It was great to connect some other faces to names on the BBTC list: Piset, Scott, Angela, Marvin, Stephanie, Jeremy, and some others I never did quite make acquaintance with. For most of the ride, they were too far up ahead of me.

I thought about jumping in again for a cool-down, but no one else seemed interested. There was a lot of sunbasking going on, though. As long as the sun is above the ridge, Cooney is a veritable spa.

Eventually we decided to assault the ridge, which includes an evil hike that’s almost like climbing a rock slide. If you’ve done Jacob’s Ladder in Moab you have a faint idea of what is offered above Cooney, but let’s just say that this would be hard enough in hiking gear. Add Sidis and the weight of a bike on your back to the mix, and the fun factor really kicks in.

But the views are unrivaled anywhere, and let’s face it. You’re scraping the heavens at 8k-plus elevation. I was feeling pretty light-headed at the top, but that line about riding with angels kept coming back. This was the biggest single group of riders I’d ever been with atop Angel’s Staircase. I knew they weren’t exactly angels in the religious sense, but Angels Staircase could easily double for heaven in my book.

Angels is putatively the highest mtb spot in the state, the arguable rivals being Pyramid Peak just to the south in Entiat and Tiffany Mountain to the north. Ironically, it’s not a 360, unlike Klone, Miller, Jolly and a handful of other spots. But there are spectacular views to the west, marred in this particular instance by rivulets of smoke swirling upward. They were far away and in obviously rugged, steep country, but you hate to see a fire anywhere.

I think on a past ride Armando cleaned all the switchbacks going down, and it only took him two and a half hours to do it (hey buddy, just kidding!). I don’t know if anyone made ’em all this time (never one to back off, Bob took a header trying) but this group was a marvel to behold going down the up staircase. I’ve done this loop both ways, and although there are advantages to both (a chief one being the option of Foggy Dew downhill), the ride from Boiling Lake to the Angel’s cutoff is a real slog counter-clockwise. It’s virtually all uphill, and after climbing from the Crater to Horsehead you’re not in much mood for climbing some more.

Coming clockwise, though, the meadow is a joy. Again, dust was an issue, but most of the ride is rollicking singletrack in open vista. Then you pop out below Boiling Lake at a trail intersection, another good place to kick back. I should say that this leg was the only place we encountered other people, and they were hikers. No other mtbers to be found anywhere, another curiosity for this ride, for this time of year. All at Whistler, no doubt. I had a discussion recently by email with Cary on this topic, the gist being that you won’t find any rides approaching Winthrop in Whistler, but there’s no use arguing the point either. I’d rather let BC and Cali and Colo say they have the best rides in the world and keep our treasures for those with the chops to get to them.

The intersection still contains a little half-moon sign indicating an outhouse, and I hiked up the hill a bit to see that the open-air crapper still exists. In fact, the hikers apparently had taken good use of it.

It’s a quick ride up to Boiling Lake, then up a long switchbacked section of talus to Horsehead Pass. The group decided to explore the wonders  of Boiling Lake, which gave me an opening to avoid eating any more dust. I pushed on, climbing the ridge while watching the little ant people with their little ant bikes roam the perimeter of the lake. I thought of how Preston can ride this abomination up when it’s hard enough riding it down and was glad I was giving myself some distance with the group. If luck was with me I could get back to camp without inhaling any more powder.

Eventually I topped out and took one lingering view around. You never know with a ride like Horsehead if it’s your last time through, and I wanted to appreciate the moment. Horsehead looks less like a horse’s head every time I ride the thing, but Martin Lake and Boiling Lake and the endless ridges and drainages held all their usual splendor. I even tried to pick out Hoodoo Pass to the northwest, in honor of Juju, my carbon fiber Ibis Mojo. I’ve never heard of anyone riding up Hoodoo, but from the Green Trails map it looks like you could do so with a minimum of pain.

The ride down Eagle Lakes trail was a lot rockier than I remembered. I’m thinking the motos and global warming have just worn the trail out. There are lots of challenges, and you can get up good speed on some sections. But I’ll always like Foggy Dew better. It’s longer, straighter, and drops a lot more. In fact, my favorite configuration of this ride has become up to Cooney, then down Foggy Dew. It requires a shuttle or ride to the top, unless you want to do 7 miles or so of road climb afterwards. But FD as a downhill is hard to beat.

I figured I had 10 minutes on the group when I got to the top. Which was good, because I wasn’t back at camp more than 3 or 4 minutes when the rest of the gang started screaming in. Scott had cut his shin pretty bad on one of the rock steps high up, and it was interesting. He just let the thing ooze. I’d be after the Neosporin and cleaning it with soap and water and dressing it with the big patch bandages I always carry, and this guy is like Where’s my beer? But he’s a doctor! How do you tell him Dude, you should look after that!?

As we cooled down at camp and swapped stories, the halo effect was already kicking in. At one point someone finally did a reality check. Yeah it was a great ride, but what about the hike-a-bike? What about the switchbacks down the Staircase? And that horrific climb out of Boiling Lake?

"Were there any rocks? Did anybody notice any rocks?" I chimed in. Of all the photos taken that day, the one I wish I could’ve had most was of Angela’s face as she tried to figure out what planet I was on. After 7 hours in the saddle, irony gets lost a little too easily.

I had to head back to Seattle for those adult responsibilities, so had to offer my goodbyes way too early. I even committed the cardinal sin of missing Bob’s Burrito Bar. But the high from riding with angels stayed with me all the way back to town, and it lingers still. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have a better 3 days in Winthrop, although that won’t keep me from trying.

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