The year Mt. Hamilton almost blew away (Jan 1 2006)
A collection of ride reports from the wildest-yet New Year's Day ride up Mt. Hamilton, a traditional yearly ride I can thank David Harvey, one of our earliest (and still going strong) customers for. We've done this ride for many years, and in the past have had snow, rain, and spectacularly-clear and warm weather (not all at once!). But never, ever, have we had conditions even close to the wild winds this year. One guy told me he had literally been blown off his bike three times (not a problem I had, probably due to a bit more, er, ballast).

(It was only later that evening, well after the ride, that we found out a local cyclist, Dan Plummer, had been killed in Los Altos when a tree fell upon him while riding. There is no question that this was not the safest day to be out riding a bike, and what was fun for us (in a crazy sort of way) had entirely tragic consequences for someone else.)

For those unfamiliar with Mount Hamilton, it's the tallest peak in the San Francisco Bay Area, topping out at a bit over 4,200ft. You start the climb from Alum Rock at around 350ft or so, and have two descents on the way up, for a total of around 5200 feet of climbing. The trip is 19 miles in each direction. Normally, you'd look forward to the descent, but the truth is that the climb is more fun; too many flat or wrongly-banked corners, combined with too much gravel, make the trip down a bit of a chore.

Past Mt. Hamilton ride reports are available for 2005 (the year of the snow) and a collection of stories & photos from other years we've done this ride.
Mike's report-
1/1/06- IT'S THAT "GUY THING" FOR SURE. Mt Hamilton, our annual New Year's Day ride, virtually never missed (except for 2004, when the wind was so bad that it was raining horizontally). Something to look forward to, something to do on that very first day of the new year, so that, no matter what happens the rest of the year, you know you did at least something.

This year was different. This year, our sales manager in Redwood City, Dick, was getting married on New Year's Day. And not just that day... he was getting married at the top of Mount Hamilton. The plan was that he and his wife-to-be (Janet) would leave from Grant Ranch (about halfway up) and ride to the top on separate bikes, get married at the summit and then ride back down on a tandem.

But the weather didn't cooperate; we rode up from the bottom to Grant Ranch to mild rain and heavy wind, and the bride & groom had decided to have the ceremony at Grant Ranch and skip the ride to the top. Entirely reasonable, given the weather! Unfortunately, not everyone got the memo, and some who were riding just a bit behind my group (which was Richard & Ron) never saw us turn into the ranch, and thought they were chasing us up the hill. Not just up the hill, but into some really nasty weather! I thought that was a possibility at the time, but didn't give it a whole lot of thought; after all, those guys (Kevin & Karl & Jeff) were all reasonably-sensible and wouldn't do anything stupid.
  Meantime, after the wedding, my group (myself, Richard, Todd & Ron) decide that it's so cold and nasty out there that, instead of heading straight back down the hill, we'll ride in the opposite direction, to the top of the first ridge, "just to get warmer." Bad move. All three of us knew that riding in that direction was a bad choice, because it would make it that much more difficult not to go for the summit. Which, each of us knew, was a silly thing to do. But that first little decision, that first step, seems so innocent. Even though you know what it leads to.
In the photo above we find the fateful encounter with Jeff K, who was returning from the top. Darn. This was where we'd planned on turning around, but after coming across Jeff, and his wild tales of climbing over trees and being blown three times off his bike, how could we not continue? 11:25am. Virtually zero wind, no rain (but threatening).   What a difference half an hour makes! We're about 4 miles from the top and Ron has stopped to try and secure his jacket in the gale-force winds.
The inevitable becomes reality when, at the top of that ridge, we meet up with a few riders coming back down, telling us about the wild conditions up there. Darn, one of them was Jeff. He'd done it. Gotten blown off the bike three times, he said, but he'd done it. Our fate was sealed. Richard had to get back quickly, and was able to haul my heavy camera bag back down the hill (so I didn't have to drag it up to the summit), and Todd, Ron & I headed up. To say that it was the wildest ride of our lives would be an understatement; in the final five or so miles, the wind was blowing so hard that, at times, you were literally being pushed up the hill (yes, so hard that you didn't have to pedal!) and at other times blown across the road. When one of the few cars came up behind me, I actually stopped and got off my bike, since I couldn't be sure a sudden gust wouldn't blow me into its path.

Trees had fallen all over the place, and if you tried to listen past the howling of the wind, you could hear things breaking and snapping. Unbelievable. We made it to the top, but didn't spend a whole lot of time there as we figured it was going to be a very long trip back down.

Regarding the top... well, not much going on! One car with a few people (seen in the photo), plus Ron, Todd and myself. We've seen far bigger crowds on years that it was much colder and even snowing. But never, ever, have we experienced the winds that wrapped themselves around the mountain.

In fact, at one point, heading downhill, we were brought to a complete stop, even pedaling quite hard. I had my feet on the ground, trying to push my way down and through the corner. It was almost laughable. Fortunately, by the time we got to the bridge (7 miles down from the summit), it had quieted down and things became relatively normal. Quite the ride, quite the day! An experience we'll likely carry with us forever. An experience which, at the time, seemed rather scary and punishment for a very wrong decision. But an experience which, looking back at it, was not one to be missed.

Definitely a guy thing.
Todd's Turn-
I'd like to start with 4 assumptions that I feel safe assuming most people will believe are true:

1) Eating too much over the holidays is bad

2) Water does not go uphill

3) A person riding a bike must pedal to go uphill

4) Stanford Students are intelligent

The New Year's Day ride up Mount Hamilton proved that there are some exceptions to those assumptions I mentioned. Here's why:

1) I would have benefited from eating more over the holidays because the wind at the top pushed me around like a sheet of paper in a drafty room. There is a lot of talk about power to weight ratio in cycling, but in this case it was frontal area to weight ratio and mine was far too high to battle the strong winds descending from the summit of Mount Hamilton. Although the weather instruments near the top only read about 40 mph for the strongest gusts when we were up there, I'll argue that the wind was much stronger than that (and any subsequent telling of this tale will recount stronger winds). Not only did it require an effort to keep the bike up right, it required a serious effort to keep going forward while we were descending. In this case, it would have been nice to have a little more weight coming down the hill, weight which could have been acquired from overstuffing myself during the holidays. However, maybe my mistake was stopping to use the facilities at the top.

2) Water usually travels downhill. That's why we have "waterfalls".

On Mount Hamilton, the water was not only traveling uphill (propelled by the gusty wind), it was being churned so much that the puddles were turned white as the wind blew them uphill. If we can have whitewater rafting with white water flowing downhill, why can't we have white water cycling where cyclists fight to descend a wet windy mountain where the water is blowing uphill? On second thought, I'll pass on that one after Sunday.

3) Generally when you are cycling, you need to pedal to go uphill. If you didn't need to pedal the Tour de France wouldn't be much of a race.

Or would it? Rumor has it retired French rider Jacky Durand was rather good at hanging on to door handles of team vehicles to get up hills. Generally, you need to overcome rolling resistance, wind resistance, gravity, and the gradient of the hill among other things to move forward (A more technical explanation here Near the summit , when the wind was at our backs, the wind was strong enough to provide the necessary power for forward motion. A truly unique experience.

4) This depends on how you define smart. If SAT scores and GPAs are the only criteria then this statement holds. If you factor in common sense and rationality, then the assumption starts to break down rather quickly. I get to make an example out of myself here, but if you look harder enough you'd find out something they don't want you to know and something that I won't tell you. My rationality went out the window when Jeff came down the hill and said, "The wind pushes you up the hill in some places (point number 3)". So knowing this and being a (supposedly intelligent Stanford student) why did I want to keep going?

Simple. Testosterone (he'd already done so I couldn't let him outdo me, that is no way to start off the year), Curiosity (what is it like to have the wind push you up a hill), and the fact that we were only 7 miles away at that point. Our mistake was truly when we decided to start up from the park to "warm up" before we descended. I think we were all subconsciously thinking about going to the top and that was a good (rational) way to get ourselves a little closer. If you've ever been up Mount Hamilton, you'd know that we really didn't need to head toward the summit from Grant Ranch to go up, because the first section from Grant Ranch heading toward the base is a slight climb. You really do have to wonder what were we thinking. Perhaps that is the wrong question to ask. The right one might be, "Were we thinking?"

Karl's Korner-
The weather had been going back and forth for rain or no rain.  Last check said the rain would hold till the afternoon.  I was also going back and forth as to whether or not I should participate in the annual Mt. Hamilton New Year’s Day Ride, my first time in January. 
Kevin called me at 0700 and convinced me that I would be a wimp if I did not go and he had room for me as well in his car.  I threw together various warm clothing along with my bike and a tub of oatmeal and met Kevin and Leslie at the Park and Ride.  Plenty of clouds but no rain, that is until we get there and start unloading the bikes!  Now it was not quite horizontal, but it was at least 45 degrees. 
Now I am trying to think, which is hard with wind and rain going on and clothing choices to make and put on.  Mike and gang pull up across the street and they look determined.  Me, I am definitely having second thoughts.  I had just cleaned my bike yesterday but good, including chain removal and toothbrush scrub, so it was spotless and freshly greased and lubed.  And I did not think to bring my SKS fenders or neoprene booties. 
Next thing you know Mike, Todd and Ron (I think) head up the road…into the rain.  Well, its not raining that hard…so Leslie and I shove off with Kevin waiting for Mark (recent regular on T/Th ride).  Why am I doing this and why didn’t I bring my fenders!!  The wind is howling out of the Southwest and almost bowls us over several times.  We start to see some people turning around, hmm.  The next wind gust forces Leslie to lean her bike at least 30 degrees to stay up right and I am aghast at the temporary angle.  Then another rider comes down and with a really scared serious look, says “its really dangerous up there”.  That look along with how the trees were moving ahead and our own indecision was the tipping point and we turned around as well.  We come upon Mark and Kevin coming up and tell them that its just too windy and get them to turn around as well.  Now we are back to the car and with the rain easing up just a bit, collectively decide to at least ride around some, after all this is NYD and we are already out here.  So we head up towards Alum Rock Park, me more slowly, sort of following, but grudgingly.  Then we turn up this blocked off road that is both steep and wet enough to have to walk up it.  Now this really sucks, I am thinking to myself.  Why are we going up here.  I am playing Eyore, in case you had not figured this out yet.  Its steep and I am hot in my plastic rain jacket and thermal tights, but I temporarily get distracted by some sheep that I bah at and they back at me.  Then we see some little baby lambs bahaing, likely scared of the crazy storm weather.  Kevin and Mark are ahead, me back with Leslie.  Then our little side road spits us back onto Mt. Ham road again.  Greeaat right back where we started, but at least the rain has subsided.  I get convinced to keep going up under the guise of we will re-eval at Grant Ranch.  I am thinking that’s definitely where I will turn around as its only going to be “windier” up higher, especially on top. 
We expected to see Mike and crew at Grant Ranch, but were surprised to not see anybody at all.  We all take a pee and discuss our options.  Next thing I know I am heading up the road again.  Really hard to stay upright around some of the corners after Grant Ranch with the wind literally swirling around in eddies in the turns.  This makes for forces hitting you on either side.  At least the leaves sometimes give you a warning from which side the wind will be coming from, so you can prepare counter measures to stay up right.  It did seem to help to take off the rain jacket, more aero now.  So on we go, now its Mark and I leading with Kevin hanging back with Leslie.  It was Mark’s first time up Hamilton, so I was telling him how the road will make some turns out on the exposed ridge where the wind was audibly howling loudest.  We braced as we rounded the first left hander and took the full brunt of the gale force blast of not that cold air.  We realized the worst was the initial blast and that once it was head on, it was more just powering into it and less side to side buffeting.  Still it was quite challenging to stay up right and oh yeah, how are we ever going to get down?  I am thinking very slowly.  We come to the tree across the road.  That should cut down the car traffic, I tell Mark.  Then we ascend into the clouds and darkish drizzle.
The road is switchbacking now and I am amazed at the strong downwind on the left sections.  It's more of an upwind downwind as it both pushed and lifted us to the point of no pedaling required to go uphill.  I felt like giant hand or arm chair was scooping me up and shooting me up the hill.  I would whiz past Mark a few times who was enjoying these brief gust less than I.
We are going to do this after all, I am now thinking.  We should get up and down as quickly as possible we agree before the skies open up and deluge us, as it looks it could do at any moment.  We make the summit, passing some other crazy cyclists and then on up to the main observatory where we expected to see Mike and gang.  But no, no one is there at all, must be locked I think, no, its open, we quickly go inside, bike and all.  Its warm, has 2 vending machines, drinking fountain, bathrooms and blasting heater!  We’re saved and strip down to dry out our clothes eat our bars and drink, etc.  Still can’t figure out where everyone else is, but at least its warm in here.  15 min. later Kevin pulls up, but is not as cold as we were.  Leslie had turned around at the clouds.  We poke around a bit and no Mike, no wedding, so re don our duds and congratulate one another for still being alive and each exclaim that “ I will be the slowest down” and then take off …slowly.  To our surprise its not as bad as we thought.  Our speed and confidence grew, but we just had to really slow down and be careful around exposed corners.  I even put a foot down once to stabilize. 
Then we pass Mike, Todd and Ron coming up??  How can this be?  We regroup and discuss how it was possible and then keep going down, down.  I was a bit cold and had the shiver wobbles going for a bit, but was warming up some now.  I welcomed the uphill section as a chance to create some heat. The last section of less steep afforded a fine clear view of Silicon Valley with storm clouds o plenty, but I was not able to look much as this was downwind and fast with road partially dry now.  Had to also watch for large branches and tumble weeds to see which way they were going.   So we made it down without incident and were glad to be alive, all giddy with enthusiasm and adrenalin.  
We survived the mountain and the weather, it was a good day afterall, now just give me that hot shower and a warm dry place to nap.  Happy New Year!
Karl B. Ehlert, DC
Steve R's Story-
Hi Mike,

My name is Steve R - and I'm one of the guys that rode up to the top of Mt Hamilton on New Year's Day - I was riding with Jeff most of the way up (I'm not sure of his last name, but he rode a Raleigh and said he was a Raleigh dealer, if this is the same Jeff you referred to on your Dear Diary page).

I was the guy on the white Trek 5200 (1999) that headed down the hill about 10 or 15 minutes after Jeff. I remember seeing a couple of groups heading up to the summit after I started descending - one was about 1.2 miles from the top and the other group was about 2.5 miles from the top. You were probably in one of those groups.

Jeff was a little stronger than me that day - I was just back from a week at Squaw Valley (but only got one good day of skiing!) and didn't have my regular climbing legs yet - he ended up riding up ahead just a mile before I got to the fallen tree. Since he wasn't there, I assumed he had climbed over it to continue to head to the summit.

So, I did the same thing, but took this one picture with my cell phone camera - I thought you might want to have it (feel free to post it on your website, if you want).

This was my first time doing the New Year's Day ride - I meant to do it 2 years ago, but the ride got canceled due to the rain and wind (sounds familiar!). Last year, I simply wasn't in very good shape and didn't even try. But I've been doing a lot more riding this last year (I work just 3 miles from Saratoga, so I get to go up and down Hwy 9 to Saratoga Gap a few times each week).

So this year, I was determined to do the ride, no matter what the weather was like - your diary entry pretty much summed up what went down that day - once Jeff and I took off from Grant Ranch, we kept discussing how stupid it was to be riding up the hill under such ridiculous conditions - but he knew that a couple of other guys had gone ahead and wanted to see how far they decided to go. One mile lead to another and at some point, you just figured you might as well go all the way - it never seemed that it would get worse than the last curve you had just negotiated (which, of course, was incorrect!).

I have to say, even though it was one of the more dangerous rides I've ever done, it was quite thrilling at the time, in a very strange sort of way. I really started to look more carefully at those trees after climbing over the fallen one at about mile 15.

Then this morning, I read about a 39-year old cyclist that was killed that same morning in Los Altos Hills by a falling tree - weird! And very sad. I realized if we had started that ride just a little earlier, one of us could have been struck down by that tree we climbed over. Makes you stop and wonder...

In any case, I hope to ride with you and your group some day - I've really enjoyed your ride descriptions and have done most of the rides you talk about - including the Bohlman-On Orbit-Bohlman ride! I've also done the Haleakala climb twice (once 3 years ago and once 2 years ago - last year we went to dead-flat Florida for our family vacation!). We're going back to Maui again this August, so I get to do Haleakala again - it's such a great ride!

Also, based on the times that you mentioned for most of your rides, it looks like I ride at about the same pace as your group. Hope to see you on a ride one day - I'll try to get over for one of your Tue/Thu rides. It's a little out of my way, but I have flexible hours with my job (software engineer), so I'll see if I can sneak over to Woodside one of these days...

- Steve R

An email from an old friend-
Check out Mike J. and his friends' stories of their ride up Mount Hamilton on New Year's Day. .  They really do a great job telling the story of how tough the weather conditions were.
 Despite that, I think they should be nominated for a Darwin award.  (Sorry for the dig Mike.)   I saw you on your way to Grant's Ranch as I was descending down to Alum Rock Road.  I quit the climb and turned around just before the top of the saddle before the ranger station.  I also had a wardrobe malfunction and my friend Dino had to hold my jacket arms so I could put it on despite the wind's attempt to wrestle it away from me...... Chris

I don't question that they made a wiser choice than we did, but Todd just pointed out to me that, technically, I can't qualify for a Darwin because I already have kids.  --Mike--

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