by Adam Kachman
3:00AM. Downtown Seattle. Pioneer Square is desolately silent for the next forty minutes as rice cakes are wrapped, tubes are packed and film is loaded into a small, ride ready point and shoot camera. At this point, I have not slept, but the sun, and mountains do not wait for the weary. Thus, packing continues as freshly roasted Miranda beans from Elm Coffee Roasters make their way into a hand grinder and I spend the next few minutes contemplating our route to Chinook pass, my preparedness, and whether or not this is an absolutely terrible idea. With coffee grounds ready, I pack up the remaining equipment: Snow Peak pocket stove, fuel, an AeroPress, canteen, Rainiers (obviously) and some extra rice cakes for Ben who will be leading me up to the pass, pushing me though my many stages of exhaustion that await.
3:45AM. Ben Popper is outside, ready to go, his Team Rock Lobster CX loaded up in a way that clearly demonstrates his familiarity with this type of ride. With bikes in the car we head towards Rainier National Forest, where Ben feels most at home amongst the old growth and the gravel.
Arriving at the park entrance, the forest was still asleep. A lone pigmy owl sounded off just above us to a distant companion who echoed the calls into the darkness as we check over our equipment by headlamp and moonlight. This is why we are here, to immerse ourselves into a realm that is very much so not ours. The forest belongs to its inhabitants, and we are made very are of this fact as family of elk silently cross the road just ahead of us, the parents keeping a watchful eye on the plaid creatures on two wheels as their young slip back into the shroud of the trees.
Pedals turning over, breath heavy and head slung low, I try to find a rhythm. But it eludes me. Too little sleep to make mind and body work together. I fumble with the shifters, adjust my backpack, get out of the saddle, but it is all a futile effort in the face of a 4,000 ft climb. I succumb to the current state of affairs and find Ben's wheel, the only thing I can rely on this early in the morning.
Blue hour is upon us, no longer dark and not yet near light. It is a surreal state to climb a mountain pass in. Everything transmits its presence as a denser version of its fully lit self. The mountain, snow, and trees, breathe their first morning breath and we can feel every expansion of our surroundings. There is a certain awareness that comes with a lack of stimulus, the flutter of hawk’s wings can be heard from 200 yards away; as the only other sound is four tyres on the smooth pass roads.
Mt. St. Helens reveals herself after we crest our first ascent, as the golden glow of sunrise peeks around the ridgeline that is our horizon. Ben yells out a resounding “whoooooooo!” which reaches the mountain and makes its way back to us ten times over. This is why we are here, to playfully echo amongst our surroundings.
The climbing continues through 6-foot snow walls against the backdrop of snow covered evergreens and I cannot help but realize that up until this point we have not passed a single car. But moments later, a snowplow comes barreling down the switchbacks. Its driver giving us a knowing nod. Nobody comes up here this early, at this time of year on road bikes. Clad in flannel for the simple pleasure of a cup of coffee. Nobody but Ben Popper and I.
We take this moment to get entangled in conversation about solitude, the other, immersing yourself into a setting, and the proper way to form a snowball. The sudden appearance of another person on this road. Even if they are in a massive truck, reminds us that there are others up here, most likely in search of the same thing, most likely of the same mindset as us.
A few more miles of cold toes, a couple more photo stops and we find ourselves at our destination. Ben quickly scales an 8-foot snowdrift and decides that this is our spot. I toss up his Rock Lobster, followed by my Land Shark (we have a thing for mythical creatures) and make my way up to our coffee shop at 5,500 ft.
First things first: Rainiers are cracked and we take a moment to digest where we are. There is pure silence, no breeze, no cars and we don’t say a word. For a while we just sit there, ginning like fools. The exhaustion has lifted and the elation of being where we are truly sets in. Time for coffee.