Howard Gap, revisited

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This week I found myself again heading to North Carolina, this time to the Western side around Franklin and Sylva. There would be a few hours for me to kill, and I first planned to climb Clingman’s Dome. Unfortunately Mother Nature did not agree. A huge weather system materialized during my allotted time, so there went that idea.

Plan B was to get a shorter ride along the way before the storm arrived. I decided to take another stab at Howard Gap, which I had previously failed when attempting on tired legs. So I headed out early enough to beat the storm. When I arrived at Harmon Field, it was cloudy and overcast, but the rain had not yet arrived. According to my radar it was close, but far enough for me to get a short ride of around 20 miles.

I prepared quickly and got on the road. Rather than warming up on some flats, I headed straight to the climb, eager to finish up before the rain.

There was a short and steep hill a little ways before the major climb, which was around 11-12%. That was my warmup and it was tough. It made me wonder if my off-season legs were up for the challenge, but I soldiered on nonetheless.

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The climb began slowly, around 6-8%, which was great as it allowed me to get in a rhythm. Early into the climb it turned upward, almost straight upward, and continued at a prolonged, constantly steep grade. It was always in the teens. The highest grade I noticed was 18%.

Yikes. This was tough, both physically and mentally. Part of the problem is that you can see a long ways ahead of you, and can tell that there are no breaks to the grade. It is completely disheartening to turn a corner and see yet another stretch of 200 yards or so at the same incline.

I pushed and pushed, slowly but surely. This was a short climb, but it still seemed never-ending. As I got closer to the top, I could hear the hum of cars on Interstate 26. When I got high enough to see them, I knew I was close to the end, after another few handfuls of steep climbing.

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Phew. I made it to the top and gave my aching legs a break. I figured there would be time before the rain came, and really didn’t want to attempt descending Howard Gap in this weather. Instead I rode several miles of rolling hills until I reached the town of Saluda, where I would then turn onto 276 and descend via the Saluda Grade.

That seemed like good plan at first, until I started feeling raindrops after about a mile. Hmm. I considered turning around and taking the short Howard Gap route, then thought better of it. Even in heavier rain, Saluda Grade would be much safer even though it would mean an additional 10 miles of wet riding. It wasn’t pleasant, but that was the way I went. My Saluda descent was the slowest ever. I even stopped a few times to let off the brakes.

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By the time I reached the car and checked the radar, I realized that this was simply a pocket of rain. Note the blue dot in the radar image below. The big monstrosity was still a little ways away. However unpleasant, it could have been worse. Besides, it was worth it to conquer something new.

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Garmin Link


4 responses to “Howard Gap, revisited

  • Ben Foxworth

    Thank you for the account, Aaron! I renewed my acquaintance with Howard Gap a few weeks ago, so it’s very fresh in mind. I have done it three times now, spaced over nine years. It isn’t really a fun climb, so the frequency seems about right.

    I think you made a wise choice not descending it wet. We rode down it a couple of weeks after climbing it, and it isn’t a fun descent. You have to stay on the brakes all the way, and even that can be problematic. Mark’s son, Logan, a fine high school cross-country runner weighing perhaps 100 pounds, had a rim heat-induced flat near the end of the steep section. I alternated brakes to try to let them cool, but was still amazed to get down without flatting. I wouldn’t want to try it if the roads were wet.

    I mentioned before that it was the first really hard climb the year I did MdS (of three hard climbs, White Oak and Green River Cove being the other two. Trips over both sides of Camp Old Indian, the Watershed and Pearson Falls don’t really rate, ::wink::). Apparently someone did not keep descent speed in check one year, and that’s why Howard Gap is no longer included. Clearly, without it, MdS could only be a pale shadow of its former self. ::wink::

    Wish I could have joined you today. Feeling motivated! Right now it looks like some friends may accompany me to MdS in March of ’12. Then I’ll probably do the Spinners beach trip in early May, and the state RR Championship end of May. Tons of serious training to do between now and then!

    • aaronwest

      I had heard about that accident. I believe someone crashed going down at 50 mph, if I heard correctly. Completely understand why the descent isn’t included, but I think they could arrange the route to go up Howard Gap after White Oak, then to Saluda, descend Holbert Cove and back up Green River.

      I may write another year-end post with the toughest single climbs of the year. If so, this will certainly rank near the top.

      I have MdS on the calendar this year. Maybe I’ll see you there.

  • Ben Foxworth

    Agreed. They could include it using the route you mention. It would probably necessitate the elimination of the Pack’s Mtn. loop to be in the park, distance-wise, but it doesn’t really rate with those climbs anyway. I’ve seen MdS blaze markings around there but didn’t pay much attention. Does that early MdS route go over Pack’s or does it just skirt it, before heading toward Camp Old Indian and the watershed?

    I think the route you suggest might get the White Oak climb back to the original ascent road, then descending Skyuka, which I think it climbs now. That way the descent would be taking riders back toward Howard Gap, rather than closer to the route to GRC. That’s the only way I’ve climbed White Oak (at least, not yet. I’ll climb it that way before mid-March). I have climbed it and descended Skyuka (another NOT fun descent). My understanding is that the loop wasn’t fully paved when MdS began, but I don’t know as I never tried to go over.

    I know you know lots of Freewheelers, but if you like, I’ll kick the idea to Dave P., who was one of two other riders with me at MdS in ’01 or ’02, when I originally did it. Done that way, however, there would be no viable bypass for Howard Gap, and a White Oak bypass would be nothing more than an out and back stretch, before riding back to Howard Gap, which riders would have passed on the way out. Of course, why would anyone ever go to THAT ride to bypass those climbs?! ;)

  • aaronwest

    It goes up Pack’s, which is pretty much the first grunt. I kind of like it there because it gets the climbing legs warmed up early.

    I didn’t even think about the bypasses, and yeah, a lot of people would want to avoid Howard Gap. There really isn’t another way unless they came up Saluda grade, which isn’t much of a relief and would add mileage. I’m sure they’ve thought of these things, and frankly, I won’t cry if they don’t include Howard. White Oak and Green River are plenty enough!

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