Flying on Instruments

DISCLAIMER: The material presented in the blog entry is for informational purposes, only, and may or may not be true. The reader is discouraged from attempting or following the steps outlined in this posting. The availability of this information should not be taken as an endorsement. Please use discretion and ride safely and within your limits at all times.

Yesterday, Anna, Dave, and myself attempted to climb Mount Mitchell. At about 6700 feet of elevation, Mt. Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi river in the United States. It is taller than Mount Washington and, unfortunately, has the same sort of unpredictable, evil weather. Unlike Mt. Washington, the access road to Mt. Mitchell is “open” to bicyclists brave (foolhardy?) enough to attempt the climb.

From a starting elevation of 2000 feet here in town, the ride to Mt. Mitchell poses over 7000 feet of climbing in just 35 miles of riding. In true mountain fashion, every mile is colder, foggier, and more miserable than the last.

After two days of hard climbing, I was ready to give the climb a shot. Anna, Dave, and myself ventured out on our bicycles, dressed for the usual 40-45F conditions we've been seeing for the past few days. The climb was tough, and the cold was wearing us away. By the time we got to Craggy Gardens, we decided that conditions were no longer safe, and headed home. (Rather, they decided this. I quipped that I would have kept going, and have no sense of what's safe or unsafe.) It didn't help that we were worn out from the previous days of climbing. I don't think I can be in much better shape, given that it's only March!

Why were these conditions unsafe? The climb has its own weather pattern. As we got higher, it got colder. We were climbing into a cloud of mist. By the time we were within about 1000 vertical feet of Craggy Gardens (5500 ft), the fog was so thick that mist was collecting on our bicycles, clothing, and glasses, and our visibility was roughly ten feet. It was pretty awesome.

This is about where the title of the story comes into play. We had spent a few hours climbing, so naturally, we had to spend some time descending. The good news was that the foggiest sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway were closed to automotive traffic, meaning that we didn't need to worry about any vehicles. The Blue Ridge Parkway is perfectly graded for 35-45MPH automotive traffic, so the turns are all very smooth, continuous, banked, and predictable. The bad news was that visibility was still about ten feet, and, due to the humid conditions, my braking distance was really long.

This is where I started “flying by instruments.” I had just enough visibility to see the double yellow line on the road. My Edge 705 GPS told me where the turns were, so there were no surprises. I was comfortably descending at 35-40 MPH, pedaling all the way down to keep warm, and barely touching the brakes.

I'm a huge fan of technical riding, where skill matters just as much as power. I returned home weary but happy.