Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride - Lake Tahoe (CA)

After both a shuttle ride on the Downieville Downhill and some laps on Armstrong Connector & Corral, we were feeling warmed up for a more spicy run in the South Lake Tahoe (SLT) area. With Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (or simply, Toads) being the famed ride of this zone, we set our sights on that and looked over the various maps and guidebooks to determine our specific route. In the end we decided to do a partial shuttle to the top of Fountain Place Road, where we'd ride up Armstrong Pass Trail and then traverse over to Toads on the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT). For this adventure we'd be down a few riders who wanted to bag the 38 mile IMBA Epic, which I certainly didn't have the legs or lungs for, especially while riding between eight and ten thousand feet in elevation.

After eating breakfast and readying our gear, we packed up the cars and headed out from our rental house in Meyers. Within a few miles we found ourselves at the parking lot at the bottom of Toads, where we dropped off a car and continued up the steep one-lane road. Along the way we passed by a few bikers who were riding up the pavement, and although we felt a little guilty about driving up, we were on vacation and do plenty of that in our own stomping ground. Once we reached the top of the road at the gate, we unloaded our bikes while under assault from the hungry mosquitoes that must have been awaiting our arrival. I sprayed myself down with some bug spray and quickly geared up so that I could keep moving, hoping to leave the blood-suckers behind.

Now that we were on the trail and making our way up toward the pass, the bug problem was minimized, but another kind of suffering was only beginning. Since our hometowns in Oregon are near sea level, the elevation proved to be a factor, and even though the trail was climbing at a fairly modest pace I found myself much more winded than I would be on climbs that were much steeper back home. Furthermore, the trails around Eugene are not nearly as technical so the punchy ups with rock moves were especially exhausting. After a bit I did settle in, and as my legs started to warm up I was able to find at least a little bit of a rhythm. Speaking of the technical features, the rounded granite rock scattered along the length of the trail created a lot of really fun puzzles to solve. Although most sections weren't overly difficult going down with momentum, climbing up, around and through them was certainly challenging in spots. At around the 3.5 mile mark and after climbing around one thousand vertical feet we reached Armstrong Pass, which had a nice open flat area to catch our breath and take in the amazing high Sierra scenery.

Danika, early on during the climb up Armstrong.

One of the more technical stretches on Armstrong

Kim picks her line through a typical section of Armstrong

Tait, enjoying the climb

Sandra, closing in on Armstrong Pass.

Since I didn't want to stiffen up and also knowing that I wasn't the strongest climber in the group, I decided to jump out ahead while the others were still snacking. Now on the TRT, the climb continued, only this time along a sidehill traverse, alternating through sections of wildflowers and rock gardens. Once the trail had gained the top of the ridge, it flattened out and traveled through some sandy sections that were reminiscent of the riding in Bend (OR). Soon after, the trail started a short descent with some really fun rocky bits, including a drop down some stairs that were hand built using the readily available granite for its structure. As we rounded one of the next few corners the trail opened up into a large meadow, with wildflowers adding an impressive array of color to the amazing setting, which also reminded me a bit of Oregon.

Typical scenery on the climb up the TRT

Just like Bend (OR) on the top of the ridge

Emily C., leading the pack.

Randy, in hot pursuit.

Danika drops down a fun rocky bit.

Kim prepares for another rocky section

Randy gives the stairs a go

Entering the large meadow

Danika and Kim, deep in the meadow.

Hard to complain about this!

Once most of the crew had regrouped, we continued on through Freel Meadows, and eventually started our descent down toward the start of Toads. There were actually some pretty fun drops in this section of the TRT, and I could only imagine what it was going to be like once we were on Toads itself. Upon reaching the intersection I found a nice flat piece of granite to sit down on and armor up for the descent. About the time that the rest of the crew showed up I was all geared up and ready to go. I figured this would be a good opportunity for me to start heading down the trail and setup for some shots at one of the rock drops that I knew would be starting just around the corner.

One of the only views of the lake from this section of the TRT, which provided a great place to regroup.

Randy rockets down the final descent to the Toads intersection

As I dropped in I tried to stay light on my pedals, unweighting my front and rear tires over the rock obstacles that seemed to grow in size and difficulty as I made my way down the trail. Sure enough, in about a 1/4 mile I found a sweet little rock pitch to get some shots of the crew coming down. Like clockwork, just as I was pulling out my camera both Randy and Tait came flying into view. I quickly gave them the "It goes!", and without hesitation they both cleaned the drop in style and then disappeared around the corner. I quickly jumped back on my bike and gave chase, hoping to find a different spot to take photos of the second wave of bikers.

Randy and Tait, coming in hot!

Tait, between a rock and a hard place.

Before long I came up on the tail end of Randy and Tait, who were both off their bikes. I was coming in too fast to process what was going on but soon discovered for myself what they had dismounted for -- a rather nasty boulder jumble that I was only able to ride about halfway through before getting lost in the mess. Apparently Randy had also pinch-flatted on this drop and was in the middle of the repair process, with Tait lending a hand. I could see that directly below us was another tricky drop or two and that the trail seemed to be descending at a rather alarming rate. With that, I leaned my bike against a tree to see what lay in front of us. What I found was at least two more sizeable drops and who knew what below that! From my scout it looked like both drops looked fairly ridable, with the first being both more chunky and more difficult. Since the other two were still putting Randy's bike back together, I figured I may as well give the drops a go and report my findings back to them. With only a short flat section to clip into my pedals, I barely got into them before my front wheel started to crawl over the baby heads that lined the entrance of the drop. Even though I was able to line up like I had planned, as soon as I entered the crux of the drop my front wheel fell into a pocket that just about sent me over the bars, forcing me to dismount. After seeing our buddy, Andy, blow out his shoulder and fracture his ankle the day before by going over the bars, I decided to walk the drop instead of giving it another go.

Looking back up at the first drop in the crux section,
which felt much more chaotic when entering from above. 

The second pitch was also a bit of a mess

The author, able to put it together on a more recent trip
(photo by Bill Riedl)

The third pitch, which I was now above, was much cleaner than the other two and more akin to the many drops I'd ridden in Squamish and Whistler (OR). It ended up going pretty smooth and I was stoked to have cleaned it on my first attempt. After getting off my bike and finding a nice place to get some shots, I relayed my findings to the others, who had just finished up with Randy's bike. Like me, no one else was able to clean either of the first two drops, but the third went well for a few more in the crew. Just below here was another tough section that was both rocky and loose as it made its way down a couple of switchbacks before finally flattening out to a more manageable gradient. This ended up being quite a series of drops and in my opinion fully deserving of the double-black rating that was indicated on the map.

Tait with a solid line down the third

The author somewhere in the mix during a more recent trip
(photo by Bill Riedl)

Now through the crux section, Toads continued to descend at a rapid pace, with many technical rock features along the way -- they weren't nearly as difficult as the stuff above, but they still provided plenty of fun lines and excitement! Tait was also taking photos in this section, which helped to slow him down and allow me to leapfrog while getting some shots of my own. At one point, the trail rounded a right-hand bend and dropped down a long series of stairs, built from rock and pressure treated wood beams. They continued for quite a distance and by the time I had reached the bottom my eyes felt like they were going to bounce out of my skull. I quickly jumped off my bike to snap some photos of the others coming through, who were also a bit shaken up by the experience. Just after the extended staircase the trail continued down a technical rock pathway, which showed off some more impressive workmanship.

A typical section of upper Toads

On to the next

Emily C. drops into another rock garden

Sandra and Tait finishing up the stairs

Kim, about halfway through the stairs.

More fun rock!

Lining up another drop

The author makes a rare appearance on one of the many fun rocky pitches
(photo by Tait Grundyson)

The further down Toads we went the less technical it became, and eventually it turned into more of a flow trail, with some fast straightaways and banked turns. There were also a few rock drops and kickers scattered throughout to spice things up a bit. Mixed in there somewhere was a deep puddle where Tait had setup for some photos. Not wanting to disappoint the camera man I hit it full speed, and I must say, I'm pretty happy that it wasn't any deeper...

The author going full Moses
(photo by Tait Grundyson)

The author, loving Toads!
(photo by Tait Grundyson)

Tait nears the end of the techie stuff on the top half

Gotta love the sub-alpine landscape!

Danika, somewhere along the second half of Toads.

  All too soon, the gradient tapered off and the trail surface became quite dusty, to the point that we needed to increase the space between us. There were few more technical bits in this bottom stretch, but nothing that is really worth mentioning. Probably the coolest part down low were the rock bridges that had been built over the small stream crossings, which if you weren't paying attention you may not notice. After regrouping at a trail intersection, we rode down the last three quarters of a mile of trail to where it ended at a dirt road, which we then followed back to our awaiting car for some cold beers and clean clothes.

Some fun berm sections on the lower half

Rock drops too!

Tait, kickin' up dust near the end of Toads

Parting thoughts:
Mr. Toad's Wild Ride is certainly that, and then some! If you're in Tahoe and a 6 mile descent with plenty of technical rock features is your cup of tea, this ride should not be missed. The top part has some spots that will challenge even the most aggressive downhill folks, but seasoned XC riders will also enjoy it, assuming you're okay with walking a few of the drops. I do wish that the bottom half was a little more technical like the top, but that's being a bit nitpicky, since you certainly get your fill early on. Even with the partial shuttle, getting to the Toads trailhead was a grunt but also very rewarding, with some fun punchy climbs and short descents, all while riding through spectacular sub-alpine meadows and forests. This is definitely a ride that will be on my to-do list whenever I'm in Tahoe with my mountain bike!

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