As I sit here daydreaming of an epic climbing weekend, yes epic, an overused word but more on that later, I just can’t contain myself. I am counting down the days until I am free to fly in nature’s most amazing playground – the mountains. Is it only Wednesday? I check the calendar again and yes it is only Wednesday darn! Where am I going and why am I as excited as when I watch brown Santa pull up at my door? I’m headed to the Eastern Sierra Mountains of California!
I’m sure you thought I must be headed off to Europe. Or possibly you thought I must be headed to Colorado. No, I’m driving, yes driving, a few short hours, depending on traffic ugh traffic, a mere 274 miles to Lone Pine, CA for some of the best climbing in California. I will take it one step further and state unequivocally, some of the best climbing in the United States. The Eastern Sierras have some of the hardest climbs in the country in a small and concentrated area. Taking on one of these legendary climbs is a great acheivement but having them so conveniently close to each other enables you to tackle a second and possibly, if you are as nutty as I am, you might take on a third massive climb.
We all value things differently. Our value systems allow us to rank and prioritize things that are important to us. What I value in a climb is how much I will be challenged by it and how great my sense of accomplishment will be when I summit. For some it may be the scenery and surroundings. I understand that as well. However, for me the scenery comes second to the suffering while I’m climbing. Once I summit well then it is ALL about the view!
Now I’m not completely delusional sure I would like to take off to Europe and climb the mountains that have been made famous by the mano a mano battles of my cycling heroes during the Grand Tours. But when time and finances are an issue you can find the most amazing climbing adventures right here in Southern California. No flying, no customs, no worrying about how to get your bike to Europe and back from Europe in one piece and let’s not forget the 9 hour jet lag issues and so on …
Who’s the GOAT?
Do you often find yourself debating with your friends “What are some of the hardest climbs you have done?” This is akin to the other never-ending circular debate “Who is the G.O.A.T? Who is the greatest of all time?” insert sport here _________ And like the GOAT argument I wish to arm you with the facts and stats that we as climbers use to back up our argument. Once you understand them you can use them the next time you fall into the “what is the hardest climb?” trap. I have had this debate for years. So I wish to introduce you to FIETS. What is it? Let’s find out together. Oh and you can thank me later for the tables and graphs.
What is FIETS?
FIETS is a formula for ranking climbs.
The Fiets Index (developed by the Dutch cycling magazine Fiets).
The actual formula is: [H^2/D*10] + (T-1000:1000; but only if greater than 0)
- H = ending elevation minus starting elevation in meters.
- D = total distance traveled in meters.
- T = Height in meters.
Note: Only add T-1000 if that number is greater than zero.
Let me simplify things for you … the higher the FIETS, the harder the climb, and the higher it will rank on a list. If you want a little more explanation of the formula then think of these three things — how much will you climb, in how much distance and what is its height.
The good people over at PJAMM Cycling have taken the time to construct and maintain an excellent interactive website with climbs from the US and all over the world. It is a valuable resource if you love climb, love numbers and data like I do. I have thoroughly enjoyed pouring over the lists which may be sorted in multiple ways. One such sorting is listing the climbs in the US by the highest FIETS which as you may recall means the toughest. I wish to provide for you a few observations. Please bare with me as some may be plain as day but I hope to bring even the novice climber up to speed along with the elite climber.
Hawaii tops the list with the first and second hardest climbs in the US – Mauna Kea and Haleakala, respectively. Mauna Kea has a FEITS of 28.9 and it also has the unique distinction of being the hardest climb in the world. The stats are mind boggling – 42.6 miles long, gaining 13,778 feet, with an average grade of 6.1% Haleakala is no slouch either but its FIETS at 18.2 is nearly half that of Mauna Kea! It’s numbers are: 35.6 miles long, gains 10,059 feet, at an average of 5.3% . As any experienced climber knows the average grade just means that most of the climb is more than the average grade stated.
Now that we have dispensed with the huge volcano climbs of Hawaii let’s move back to the mainland. I created a small table below to illustrate, again in numbers, my mind works best this way, where the rest of the hard climbs are in this great country of ours. Excuse my rudimentary spreadsheet skills please.
It becomes glaringly obvious to anyone, even at glance, that California ranks consistently with the highest number of hard climbs in each breakdown of 20 climbs for the top 100 climbs. It also doesn’t take a math whiz to see in the final tally that 46 climbs out of 100 climbs or 46% of the nation’s hardest climbs are located right here in California.
Another observation, which was rather illuminating to me, was that Colorado ranked much lower than I expected. Aside from their two world famous, 14’ers Mt Evans and Pikes Peak in the top 20, they don’t have another strong showing until climbs 61-80 with five in that category. Mt Evans and Pikes Peak are still on my wish list. I tackled a 14’er here in California White Mountain Peak which shows up on the top 20 list as #9 but only up to 10,114 elevation. You can continue on White Mountain when the paved road runs to dirt up to the summit at 14,252. Not recommended on a Cyclo Cross bike only a crazy person would do that – who me? Yeah me it was very challenging to say the least! Take a hard tail MTB instead.
Yes yes but Colorado has the altitude. Fair point. However, I submit to you that not everyone is effected by altitude. I have ridden above 10,000 feet in race conditions and I felt the usual effects of reduced power but not the most common complaint of not being able to breathe under effort. So not everyone will feel the effects of altitude but everyone will feel the effects of the length of a climb and the steep gradients, those are very tangible. Length and steep gradients is what California offers in abundance.
Even more surprising to me was how well Utah ranked with a total of 11 climbs and a good showing in each bucket of 20 climbs. It seems like you can get plenty of good climbing there as well.
Below are screenshots from the PJAMM website. It can’t be overstated how much work they have put into their website.
Then I got to thinking wow that is a lot of climbs in California and some of these names sounded familiar. So how many of the California climbs have I done? This part of my research was much more fun. It turns out that:
I have done eight out of eight of the hardest climbs in California!
I have completed nine of the 11 climbs – not bad. The two I haven’t done I just haven’t heard of them. I need to locate, close with and destroy the enemy … oh wait that is the former Marine coming out. What I mean is I need to find out where they are and get them done.
I have completed nine of the 11 hardest – One of which I may never do. Hwy 330 is just too narrow and too dangerous and the other I just put on my hit list. There I go again – I mean checklist.
I have completed three out of eight climbs. Interesting to see a few on there that I didn’t know existed or that ranked in the top 80 so I can knock them off fairly easily but I need to travel to them.
I have completed seven of the eight. Same story there is a climb on the list I haven’t heard of before this exercise.
I haven’t made my plan yet for this weekend’s rides but know that they will be epic. Oh yeah I was going to talk more about the overuse of the word. I will just give you my 2 cents on the subject. Far too many use the word too loosely. The short of it is — to me EPIC is something that either weather, mechanicals, terrain, duration or a combination of these four attributes but limited to them, cause you to experience great elation, despair, sense of accomplishment, suffering, soul searching, or a combination of these attributes but not limited to them, and you complete the event, race or training session and you say “one and DONE! there is no way I’m doing that again”. But alas, the entry window opens up for next year and you sign up again. For the long of it I will have to publish a post about epic adventures to give you some sense of what I consider to be EPIC. Your experience may vary.
Is it still Wednesday? yes urg!