donner death ride

I like works of art that evoke memories of the past– of places I’ve been or things I’ve done, or people I’ve met. I think that’s why I like the Crocker Museum a lot. There’s a room in the museum dedicated to California art, and in it there’s a lot of beautiful oil paintings of landscapes that are familiar to me.

Most of those memories are good ones. Happy times with good friends. When I went to SF’s De Young Museum on Saturday I saw one piece that brought back a bad memory. Well actually it wasn’t that bad. It had all the right elements for a good memory–beautiful scenery, good friends, mountain bikes– the day actually started really well. But it ended in difficulty, to say the least. I pointed the picture out to Sam, who happened to be with me on that fateful day, and said, “Remember that? That’s where we almost died…” We both laughed.

It was a wall size picture of a bridge near Donner Lake. What’s interesting was that it was printed as a negative. The black and white negative perfectly illustrates our ride– a bleak experience in an amazingly beautiful area. It’s the area where the infamous Donner party resorted to cannibalism in the 1840’s, even then only about half of the group of pioneers survived to make it to California. Our journey wasn’t nearly as bad– no cannibalism and no deaths, but like the tragic tale of the Donner party it’s a reminder of the harshness of winter.

The funny thing is, the weekend before I saw the picture in the gallery, I took this picture of the bridge on my cellphone and told the story to Gid, who I went skiing with at Sugar Bowl that day.

I’m not sure exactly when it was. It must have been early November or late October in 2009. It hadn’t started snowing up at the ski resorts on highway 80, but it was late in the season. I wanted to get one last mountain biking trip in, and I wanted to do one that was spectacular. I decided to try the Donner Rim trail, largely based on this trip report, and convinced Sam and Dho to join me.

My memories of the area are exactly like in the pictures in that report. It was insanely fun, good single track, nice rock gardens to ride down, even some slickrock granite (which was new to me). If you read the forum posts, you can see that most people finish their ride at the summit lake and turn back. That’s where we made our big mistake. We kept on going and veered off from the rim, and ended up down at the shores of Donner Lake.

But even before we ended up off course, it wasn’t all easy. Actually the beginning was really tough for me because I’m pretty weaksauce at high altitudes. We parked and started our ride at the castle peak summit area, which is at a little over 7000′. When I parked I noticed several other groups of mountain bikers, but it looked to me like they were all just standing around talking, not biking. At times they looked like they were breathing in deeply. “Ahh smelling the beautiful mountain air,” I naively thought. I later realized what they were doing.

So we unloaded our bikes from the top of my trusty Subaru, attached our front wheels, made a quick check of our brakes, then started riding. The trail started with a  relatively easy climb. After a little while I felt really short of breath, my vision started to get blurry, and I started to get sleepy. Really, really sleepy. I got off my bike and walked for a bit. Soon I found myself lying down in the dirt gasping for air.

It wasn’t the first time this has happened so I knew my brain was short on oxygen. I tried to calm myself down and fill my lungs with as much air as possible. Those guys at the beginning of the ride weren’t smelling the mountain air. They were getting acclimated to the altitude. I didn’t and now I was paying for it.

After what felt like an eternity in the cold dirt, I felt better. Sam was near me when I started to blackout, so he had waited nearby the whole time. Dave was ahead of us and was waiting ahead for a while, but came back down to see if we were ok. He had made it to the top, which actually was only a little bit farther ahead. By then I had regained my strength and had gotten used to the thinner air, so we decided to continue.

I was really glad we did, because the next section of trail was seriously fun. Like the trip report said there was fun singletrack, as well as little bits of rock gardens. The trail around here was just challenging enough that it kept us on our toes. At one point we came to a section where the dirt trail seemed to end. But then I saw the pile of stones marking the trail, right on the rock about 30 feet away– “Sweet… slickrock!,” I thought. It was my first time trying to climb up slickrock granite. I couldn’t make it all the way up, but I had a blast trying.

This section of trail was over way too quickly. We made it to the small summit lake which should have been the turnaround point. But I saw some more trail, so I thought we could continue on. I had my GPS with me anyways, loaded with the area’s topographic maps, so I figured we’d be able to find our way back if we got lost. “It’s called Donner Rim Trail for a reason,” I thought, thinking that we can just ride along the rim without too much elevation loss. So we found a trail that seemed to go along the rim and continued on. It was seriously gorgeous out there, with stunning views of Donner lake, which was maybe a thousand feet or so below us. At this point the trail was all dirt singletrack, with a slight decline, so we were picking up speed, flying down the trails. It started to go downward more, but at this point the trail was really fun, and I didn’t wanna stop.

It wasn’t until we passed underneath highway 80 that I realized we were in trouble. We had lost a lot of elevation and getting back to our car was going to be a major pain in the butt. I checked my GPS. To get back we only had two options. One was to ride on highway 80. That’s out of the question. The other was to bike down to the shore of the lake and then take Donner Pass road past Sugar Bowl and Donner Ski Ranch back to the road that connects to Boreal Ski Resort, and then circle back to the car. It looked like about 8 miles, almost all of it uphill. I actually mapped it out today. It’s almost exactly 8 miles and 1500 feet of climbing.

On paper it actually doesn’t look that bad. But believe me, it was grueling. It was later in the day, so it was starting to get really cold. The wind started to blow hard, and it seemed to constantly blow against us in a stiff headwind. Since we were going uphill on mountain bikes, we were going slow to begin with, the headwind made it so most of the time we were better off walking. None of us had enough clothing for the cold wind, luckily I had a windbreaker, which didn’t keep me warm, but at least blocked off some of the wind.

We were not even a quarter of the way up before we were tired. We half jokingly decided to call for help. All the girls were together eating brunch. I remember it was some French place or something. Jess even texted us a picture of the food. “That’s great,” Dave and I thought, but that doesn’t help us. We looked for a truck that we can hitch-hike with, but didn’t see any. We ended up walking about half the time, and biking up slowly at walking speed the rest of the time when the wind wasn’t blowing as hard. That bridge in both pictures up top was actually the worst portion of the ride. The road was steepest near there, and it was ridiculously cold and windy during that portion, since there was no shelter from the wind.

When we finally made it to the car, we were thoroughly exhuasted and completely numb from the cold. We didn’t die and we didn’t have to resort to cannibalism, though at times we weren’t so sure if we’d make it. It took us almost five hours to get back to the car from the bottom of the trail, and we didn’t have much food or water, and none of us were wearing enough clothes for the wind chill.

We all learned some important lessons. I think Sam learned to never mountain bike with me again. Since that day he has never mountain biked with me, though we’ve gone road biking maybe once or twice since then. I think Dave learned to be wary whenever I say, “Hey there’s this new trail I want to try…” I learned that I should plan my routes better and hopefully scout out the route ahead of time, (although I still don’t really do this all the time). We all learned that we need to be better prepared for crappy situations.

One thought on “donner death ride

  • December 22, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    oh my…i think i will stick to road biking. But I’m glad you guys made it out of there!


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