The Fourth Lemmon - Winterlude 2021 - CycleBlaze

January 7, 2022

The Fourth Lemmon

The Fourth Lemmon.  I like that - it sounds like a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Or, we could call it The Return of Rocky, because at the end of today’s climb up Mount Lemmon Rachael was almost ecstatic about how well she felt.  She said she felt better after a twenty mile, 5,000’ climb than she had after yesterday’s seven mile neighborhood walk.  Rocky Returns!, she announces triumphantly as we drive back to the apartment at the end of the ride.

Video sound track: The theme from Rocky, by Vince DiCola

This is the fourth time we’ve climbed Mount Lemmon in just over five years.  Last night I reread the posts from the previous three times to put myself in the right frame of mind: in November 1996February 2020, and February 2021.  It’s starting to feel like an annual event, a challenge to ourselves similar to biking my age in miles each year.  It’s one of our favorite climbs anywhere, and one we anticipate with mixed feelings.  Will we still be physically up to it, and will we still enjoy the experience?

Rachael, who’s coming back from a prolonged period when she’s had more difficulty with climbing than in past years for several reasons, is especially apprehensive this year.  She lays the groundwork well: she insists on keeping the keys to the Raven, warning me that if she has trouble she’ll just turn back and wait for me in the car while I charge up the mountain alone.  

I know what that means - another day of Rachael disappearing in the distance and waiting for me at the top.

We have the perfect day for this year’s assault: sunny, light winds, an expected high of 73 in the basin and 50 at the summit.  Almost exactly the conditions of our ride two years ago, I see as I look back through previous posts.  We leave the apartment shortly before 10 and drive the 20 miles northeast out to traditional spot for the start of this ride: the Safeway near the corner of Tanque Verde and the Catalina Highway, the road to the summit.

We pull out of the parking lot and start biking, staring at the mountains ahead.

The ride to Mount Lemmon begins sort of like this, with five miles of fairly flat riding before the real climb begins. Just enough to stretch the legs before starting in.
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The visual cues were all there, if either of us had been paying attention.  The sun is in our eyes, we’re actually slightly losing elevation, and the mountain profile seems just a bit off.  Our GPS routes kept insisting that we turn back, which really should have been a clue.  Hard to believe now that we actually biked this way for two miles before we finally stopped and realized we’re going the wrong way.  We biked out of the parking lot  without paying attention to our Garmins because we know where we’re going, and turned the wrong direction.  We’re biking southeast on Tanque Verde, toward the Rincon Miuntains.

Feeling rather sheepish, we finally obey our Garmins and turn around, cutting our losses short by turning north on Houghton to connect to the Catalina Highway.  a novel but suboptimal way to start off a 5,000’ climb, but the ride north on Houghton gives us an awesome view of the Catalina Range that we haven’t seen before.

Northbound on Houghton. It’s worth a few extra miles just to experience this view.
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A spectacular view from this angle. In the back is Lemmon; and the middle ridge is the craggy north wall of Bear Creek Canyon, the one that separates it from Sabino Canyon. That’s Thimble Peak on the far right.
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Not bad.  Ten minutes later and we’re back on track, eastbound on the Catalina Highway with the correct formation in our sights this time.  A couple of miles further on we come to the entrance of Soldier Canyon and the climb begins.

And the fun begins.
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So like I’ve said, this is our fourth time up this road.  When I reread the three previous posts last night I was of mixed minds about what to post this time.  I’ll take the camera along of course, but do we really need to see another set of photos of the same ride?

Yes, we do.  Because it’s so amazing.  Even though it’s only been a year since we climbed it last, I’m still stunned by it all and stop at many of the same places in amazement.  I’ll skip the blow by blow description though, and just note how satisfying it is to experience this climb again and feel so good doing it, hopefully not for the last time.

As expected, Rachael disappears in the distance at the first photo stop, and I won’t see her again until she waits for me high up the climb at Windy Point.  Other than stopping periodically with the camera though, I keep a reasonable pace myself.  It really is a well-behaved climb, keeping a very steady grade between 5 and 8 percent.  It really felt easier this time than either of the last two times as I think back on them.

It helps that I have a pacer today, a guy climbing at about my plodding 6-7 mph speed.  He passes me right at elevation 5,000’, but then we stay within eyesight of each other for the next ten miles before he eventually turns back at the Hoodoo Vista, a point about a mile shy of where we’ll finally stop ourselves.  A fairly young man from near Boulder, we chat a couple of different times at stops on the way up.  He’s ready to turn back at Windy Point, where I finally catch up with Rachael too; but I talk him into going just a bit further to make it into the spectacular hoodoo zone, my favorite part of the climb.  

We won’t make it to the top, which we haven’t done since our first climb over five years ago.  The pavement continues on up above 8,000’ before ending at the ski resort, but today I’ve set a mental goal of 7,000’ - further than last year I think, and definitely further than two years back.  

We finally turn back just past 7,200’, above the dramatic hoodoo zone and into the pines.  The road is leveling out, the views are no longer as spectacular and there’s starting to be considerable snow on the ground, so it just feels like the right time.  Later I’ll reread last year’s post though and see that we stopped short - we made it up to the San Pedro lookout then, only a third of a mile further and only 40’ higher.  If I’d known that we were so close I would have wanted to keep going just a bit further.

Entering Soldier Canyon, at the start of the climb. We’ll double back soon. You can see our route angling up the opposite wall.
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Rachael’s gotten far enough ahead that I decide to wait until she’s across the canyon from me for this shot.
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The view south to the Santa Rita Mountains. The long road is Freeman, which eventually becomes the Old Spanish Trail. The national park is off to its left by the base of the Rincon Mountains.
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These two zip past me but then slow down and bike at my pace. They’re not a couple, and soon she’ll pull off. The guy and I more or less keep even for the entire climb though, until he finally turns back a mile or so shy of where we eventually stop.
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Climbing up Willow Creek Canyon. I think I end up taking a photo somewhere along here every time.
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On the long climb up the south wall of Bear Canyon. After another five or six miles we’ll finally break through to the other side.
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That’s Rachael, so we must be past Windy Point now and just coming into the hoodoo zone.
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Looking south to Mica Mountain in the Rincon Mountains,
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Another favorite spot. We started seeing snow beside the road almost as soon as we left Windy Point.
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Goal!
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Looks like a reasonable spot to stop.
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We layer up for the descent, but it’s warm enough up here that we don’t bother with long pants.  We coast back down to Windy Point, the traditional spot for our lunch break.  We’re mindful of conditions on the way down, because there are a few patches of ice on the pavement to avoid, and in the shadows it’s frigid.

Windy Point is a surprise.  Rachael thought it might be too windy and cold to stop for lunch here, but it’s actually calm and quite pleasant.  It feels wonderful sitting in the sun on the granite, and lying down feeling the warm stone on my back.  Looking back now I see that it’s just how I described it two years ago.  It’s also very quiet today, with few others on the rocks with us.

It’s all downhill for the next twenty miles.
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This is the most snow we’ve seen up here.
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Somebody’s having a good time today.
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We don’t stay long though, because it’s starting to get late in the day.  We  need to get off the mountain before it gets too cold or dark.  We’ll just coast without stopping, until I decide we have to stop at the Thimble Peak viewpoint because it’s just so wonderful.

But then we really do just ride nonstop all the way back to the car, coasting along at a steady 18-20 mph the whole way.  So wonderful to experience this again!

Looking down Bear Creek Canyon. The knob ahead is ThimblePeak, the same formation we saw from the south at the beginning of the ride. I think that’s Kitt Peak way in the distance on the left.
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The upper end of Bear Creek. Far below are the Seven Cataracts, a series of falls at the end of one of the most popular hikes in the Catalinas - we’ve taken it twice ourselves.
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In Bear Creek canyon.
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On the drive home, following a car we liked. Tucson has some kindred souls, is our kind of town.
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Ride stats today: 46 miles, 5,000’

Today's ride: 46 miles (74 km)
Total: 1,408 miles (2,266 km)

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Comment on this entry Comment 5
Susan CarpenterGreat post and great ride! Your words, photos, and video really captured the joy you two experienced. Delighted for you both.
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2 weeks ago
Rachael AndersonTo Susan CarpenterThanks. It’s a spectacular ride!
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2 weeks ago
Patrick O'HaraNice work, Team Anderson!
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2 weeks ago
Kelly IniguezWoohoo! Look at you go!
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2 weeks ago
Jen GrumbyLoved watching that descent with the Rocky theme song!

What a spectacular day for this ride .. and even more spectacular that you both had so much fun. 🙂
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2 weeks ago