Finding the Unknown Mountain Pass

“You have got to be kidding me,” I thought, as I fell back onto the same hip and elbow that had taken the brunt of the earlier crash. Here I am, halfway up a 5mi, 10% gravel climb in the heat of the mid-day sun, 20 miles and a big climb away from civilization in either direction, about to use up more water to clean my wound. My teammate was somewhere up the road, fighting her own fight against this beast of a climb. I guess I just need to get back on and keep pedaling.

I spend a lot of time looking at maps and dreaming up interesting routes. One day, I saw a line on the Strava Heatmap connecting I-90 and SR410, and I knew that I wanted to ride it. Given its location, a loop to include this segment would have to be long. Between Seattle and Tacoma’s water supplies, a large stretch of the lands south of I-90 are closed to public access, and the shortest route for a loop would be roughly 140 miles.

A post to the local gravel riders Facebook group gave me a name: Pyramid Pass. One rider suggested that it could be done, but the climb would be steep, loose and rocky. It was suggested that I approach from the south, but going from the south would make it really hard to turn this into a loop without some very sketchy descents. I figured it would be better to suffer on the way up than to get injured on the way down. (Ha!)

On Saturday July 18th, Claire and I met up at the Landsburg Park parking lot and set off on our adventure. The goal for the day: make a loop of Snoqualmie Pass, Stampede Pass, and Pyramid Pass over 140 miles of gravel roads, trails, and roads. Before we get there though, we had the appetizer climb of Taylor Mountain.

Morning sunbeams on Taylor Mountain

The Taylor Mountain climb is a quiet road climb that becomes gravel and then double track. In the morning light, this was the perfect warm-up. We admired the sunbeams through the leaves as we made our way up the climb. As we chatted and took pictures, I suddenly heard a yelp behind me. I stopped, turned around, and saw Claire in a ditch. What a way to start a big day.

The descent before crossing Raging River is steep, loose, and punctuated by wide drainage ditches. Good thing we took the advice to do this climb first! Before long, we climbed back up to the backside of Rattlesnake, and we were heading towards Snoqualmie Valley Trail, Rattlesnake Lake, and the next sector of our ride.

The Palouse Cascade Trail climb from Rattlesnake to the rail tunnel is a staple for introducing new riders to gravel in the area. On this morning, it was a shaded, scenic connector to the next section of the ride. As we refilled our bottles and packs at Hyak, we were a third of the way in, and we’d ridden what would normally be a good day’s riding. We were just getting to the interesting part.

Switchbacks on Stampede Pass

Stampede Pass is a steep, exposed gravel road that snakes its way up from the I-90 corridor to the Green River Watershed and ghost town of Lester. The descent into Lester is a perfect set of perfect switchbacks. Only problem was, there was maybe a bit more loose gravel than I expected.

I knew the descent was loose. The last two switchbacks had both seen some controlled sliding of the tires, but I was still surprised to find myself on the ground sliding on my hip and elbow. I guess it’s time for new team sun sleeves, bibs and bar tape. After dusting myself off and rinsing off the road rash, we carried on through the picturesque Green River Valley. We rolled past idyllic campsites by the river with families enjoying the summer afternoon as we approached Pyramid Pass.

Pyramid Pass broke me. I don’t think there are any warnings that could have prepared me for this. The full climb gains 3650ft over 9.3mi, with the steep part gaining 2800ft over 5.5mi. That sounds painful, the thing that stats don’t tell you is just how rocky and eroded the road is. It wasn’t quite the “let’s pour some fist-sized chunks of flint in the tire tracks and call it good” style of Kansas road building, but more “we’ll just carve out some rock and pour sand and gravel over it”. Why am I harping on the road surface? It’s how I found myself halfway up the climb, on my butt contemplating my life choices.

I wasn’t going to make progress sitting there, so I pushed my bike until I found some traction, and started pedaling. With grades ramping up to 20% and traction alternating between sandpaper and marbles, I quickly found myself switching between suffering in the saddle and pushing my bike uphill. Towards the end of this first pitch, I saw Claire up the road! Seeing my teammate up the road, I stopped to take a quick picture, before powering up the rest of the climb with renewed vigor.

What I thought was the last pitch

Only we weren’t done yet. Remember how the full climb is 9.3mi at about 7.3%? It goes down before pitching up again. If it was any consolation, at least this part was consistently loose without sharp substrate. It didn’t make the hike any easier though. (Claire made it on her bike like a champ!)

We recover at the top taking in views of Rainier and the surrounding mountains while recounting the horrors of our respective pain caves. I guess there is some payoff when you climb to 5000ft. We ate, drank, and I am sure Claire spent 5 minutes passed out on the road. Soon, it was time to descend. Between the road conditions and my earlier incidents, it was a cautious, bumpy, and slippery descent down to NF70. I was tired, sore, and out of water, but Greenwater was only a short, paved climb and descent away.

We roll into Greenwater at 6:05, and I will be eternally grateful for the kind people at the Greenwater General Store for letting us run in after they were supposed to be closed to resupply. After a quick stop for water and food, we decided that we would ignore the route that took us down the Weyerhauser Mainline and just stay on pavement to get back to the cars as quickly as possible. We had enough adventure for one day.

With that, we aired up the tires for the 36 miles of road ahead, saddled up, and got moving. We soon came upon a stranded rider outside of Ravensdale. Luckily, I always carry a frame pump and enough spares to fix a small peloton. The stop saved his ride, allowed us to catch our breaths, and we rolled into the Landsburg Park parking lot at 8:35, 13 hours from when we started.

This ride was a bonding experience. We laughed, nearly cried (just speaking for myself), and explored just how much we could inspire each other to keep going. This is the beauty of being on a team. Where else do you find a group of people so strong, positive, and supportive that you could find a partner for this kind of adventure? We were broken and hungry, but a message from another teammate checking in to see that we had made it safely bouyed our spirits yet again as we packed up the cars. (Full disclosure: I was totally ordering food when that message came in because priorities.)

We survived the Pyramid Pass loop. Looking at Strava, only twelve people have completed this climb in our direction, and only 3 others have attempted this full loop. I would invite others to ride this route, but I’m not sure I would recommend this level of type 2 fun for anyone.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/32619178

2 thoughts on “Finding the Unknown Mountain Pass

    1. Sounds like an amazing ride. Putting down on the “local gravel bucket list”. Now I just need to find someone willing to go along – seems like a ride for which a teammate would be key

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