The Larch Mountain Hill Climb

Larch Mountain, Oregon; September 2, 2010: As mountains go, Larch Mountain is not very high—only 4,061 feet above sea level—yet the view from the top makes the trip worth taking. From the parking lot, a trail leads through the woods to stone steps that provide entry to a fenced-in eerie on top of a spit of rocks. The world falls away and visitors gaze across a hollowed out chasm ringed by a circle of fire-formed peaks 20 to 100 miles distant: St Helens, Rainier, Adams, Hood, and Jefferson. On clear days, the view itself is reason enough to travel up Larch Mountain Road.

For road cyclists like me, there’s a second reason. This nicely paved road may be the best mountain climb in Oregon.

The road to Larch Mountain begins east of Portland at the little city of Troutdale, which bills itself as “Gateway to the Gorge.” Crossing the Sandy River a little east of town, the street becomes the Historic Columbia River Highway. A couple of miles along the river, and the road turns eastward and upward. Samuel C. Lancaster, the engineer who designed the road nearly a century ago, decreed that the grade would not exceed 5% and that its design would value beauty as well as commerce. Interstate 84 down by the Columbia River takes the heavy traffic, leaving old U. S. 30—America’s first great road—for people willing to travel at a slower pace.

The little town of Springdale appears at the six-mile mark, and two miles later the slightly larger community of Corbett provides a pleasant place to stop. For more than a century, the historic Corbett store has served residents of the community and travelers along the highway. Today, the cyclists gathered at the store include half a dozen women, middle-aged, trim, and nicely togged in lycra.

“We started in Troutdale,” the gal riding a svelte Serotta titanium bike explains. “We’re going to Multnomah Falls and then Cascade Locks and the bridge over the Columbia to the Washington side.” At the store, as I pay her for my Gatorade, the proprietor comments: “Most bikers don’t realize it, but I spend $70 a month for the porta-john outside the store, solely as a courtesy to bikers. I really appreciate your business.”

Five miles further up the road, just beyond the Women’s Forum where the historic highway swings to the left and drops down the hill, Larch Mountain Road angles to the right. On the left, View Point Inn, in business since 1924, preserves a sense of the gentility that once characterized the Columbia River Highway.

From the junction, Larch Mountain Road winds its way upward fourteen miles—at first, scattered residences and roadsides adorned with high thickets, some blackberry, but mostly, benign, native-to-the-region vegetation; then thick woods, closely packed evergreens, with many long-fallen trunks covered with deep coats of moss.

Despite the mountain’s name, however, there are no larch trees on Larch Mountain. That needle-shedding evergreen lives only on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains.

At the ten-mile mark, three middle-aged cyclists from Gresham take time out to recover from a near collision with a squirrel. A mile higher, a man laboring upward explains that he’s training for CycleOregon. He parked his van on the side of the road and is riding four miles up to the parking lot and back again. “This is my fourth time up, and I’m not sure I can make it another time.”

At the parking lot, we compare our experiences. He’s 70, younger than I but with a longer beard, and there is much to discuss: How to train, how hard to ride, how to make the most of our declining strength, how to go slow and enjoy what we’re doing.

His bike-mounted device registers elevation on the Larch Mountain Road at 5% over much of its distance, but some sections at 6 and 7%, with a few short sections at 10%. With my new, lower gearing, however, I have been climbing with reasonable comfort—steady cadence of about 75 rpm and a speed that consistently stays above 6 mph.

“I’m going to do some stretching exercises,” Ray tells me. “I’ll wait here for fifteen minutes and watch your bike, if you want to hurry out to the point.” When I return twenty minutes late, he is pulling on his gloves ready to plummet down the grade.

A few minutes later, as I begin my 20-mile plunge back to Troutdale, I realize that my doctor had been right. With my hydration pack on my back, I am drinking enough water, and with lower gears on my bike, my heart is taking it easy.

On this day’s ride, no lightheadedness (except for the view).

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