Monthly Archives: March 2012

Clingman’s Dome

Clingman’s Dome is the tallest mountain in Tennessee (it straddles the NC border) and the third tallest mountain in the Eastern United States. Needless to say, it is an epic climb and cannot be done without some planning. The best time to climb the dome is between December and March, when the 7-mile road to the summit is closed. From what I understand, it can be congested during the season and not comfortable for riders. The problem with the winter season is that it is difficult to find a time when weather will cooperate. The elements can be chaotic and unpredictable, especially at 6,600 feet.

March 10th turned out to be the day. The weather was nearly perfect.

I met my friend Neil at 10am in Cherokee, NC, where we prepared for the long climb. At the start we were at just over 2,000 feet elevation and would end up at 6,600 feet. The plan was to ride all the way up to the summit, a 22-23 mile climb (!), descend into Gatlinburg, climb back up and descend back to Cherokee.

The sun was shining brightly and it hardly felt like 40 degrees when we started. We wore layers, knowing how cold it would be at the top, and especially coming back down the mountain.

The climb begins easily enough along Highway 441. In the beginning we barely could tell that we were climbing. I would glance at my Garmin occasionally and would see that we were on a 1-2% grades. In no time and with very little work, we had accomplished 500 feet. It was a surprisingly easy start. From there the road pitched up into the 6-8% range and stayed that way most of the way. There were a couple of flats and even some brief descents, but most of the latter 15 miles were spent pushing lower gears.

It was a long climb and aside from the Oconaluftee River that climbed along with us, it was not too scenic at the bottom. Our view was mostly obscured by the dense foliage over and around us. After a dozen or so miles, the road banked around where we were able to view the area we had just climbed. By that time we were more than 4,000 feet in the air with a splendorous view. It would get better.

We stopped for our food break just after turning onto Clingman’s Dome road and walking around the closed gate. It was a breathtaking view. We saw much of the road that we had climbed below, and then understood why the road had done a big loop before the gap. If it had come up straight, the road would have been far too steep!

5 of the previous 15 miles we had just climbed.

It was a pleasure riding a road without any road traffic. We saw a number of walkers and some runners, but no cars. The only obstacles on the smoothly paved road were gravel and tree debris. That was to be expected given that the road had been closed for a few months and we hardly complained.

The grade was a lot easier here. It was in the 4-6% range with a few steeper sections. It was a nice, casual ride, where we owned the road. Right when we were about to cross 6,000 feet, we found ourselves descending a few hundred feet. Groan. We would have to make all of that up again.

The last part was by far the toughest. The road ended at the parking lot for Clingman’s Dome park. We took the paved trail to the summit. It was only half a mile, but steeeep! It was mostly within the 14-18% grade range, similar to Howard Gap or Becky Mountain. It felt a lot worse having already climbed 20-something miles for the last couple hours.

We weren’t quite done yet. At the very top there is a man-made observation tower, built in the 1950s. We rode up the short, circular ramp, which was also steep, but not nearly as bad as the paved road we just conquered.

At the tower we met two guys who were hiking the Appalachian trail, which intersects at the summit. We asked where they were going. ‘Maine,’ they answered. Gulp. And we thought we were hardcore!

The view was gorgeous. It was a clear day and we were able to identify notable Blue Ridge mountains. Mount Pisgah was not far away. We were barely able to make out the shadow of Mount Mitchell way out in the distance. A lot more of the ‘Southern Sixers’ were at eye level. It was a magnificent sight.

We decided against Gatlinburg. One thing we didn’t like about 441 was the amount of traffic. Now that it was later in the afternoon, traffic would pick up, and we didn’t want to fight it for a 15-mile climb. Another time.

We put on a couple more layers and descended the dome. It was cold, real cold. We passed through a shaded area of maybe 100 feet with a wall of ice. It felt like we had walked into a freezer. We dodged the debris and quickly were out of the park. We stopped by the parking area at Newfound Gap and found it mobbed with people. That will be Clingman’s Dome next month. No thanks.

Descending 441 was a blast. Without a lot of turns and a smoothly paved road, we were able to pick up speed without hardly trying. We still had to deal with traffic, but that turned out to not be an issue. As we descended the upper, steeper section, to our surprise we caught a group of cars. The speed limit was 35 or 45 and we were right there. Neil was a little ahead of me and caught some draft on the way down. I tucked down and went at my own pace, topping out at around 50 mph.

This was a beautiful day and an epic climb. Another one is now scratched off the bucket list.

Strava link


The Class

As I’ve previously discussed, a group of us recently hired a personal trainer to jump-start our cycling fitness. There were eight of us with varying goals, with about half of us training for Mount Mitchell. The unofficial leader of this group named us ‘The Great Eight’ and programmed the class to tear us up and make us stronger.

I have participated in a number of gym classes, ranging from full body, spin, core, etc. Nothing has even remotely compared to this. The class is, simply put, a beast. The workout I get in 1.5 hours makes me feel nearly as chewed up as I would after climbing Mount Mitchell. When I get finished I am literally drenched in sweat and find it difficult to climb stairs. It definitely has succeeded in tearing me up. We’ll see how much stronger it makes me.

We start the class with foam rollers. These things are flat out amazing and have helped me so much. I have already bought one for the home and use it regularly after workouts. Our trainer, Michele, will focus on a specific muscle. One week we worked on calves. We have worked on glutes and IT band at other times. Some of these spots are tender, but it still feels amazing, like a good, deep massage.

We then move on to lower body circuit training. This can be a number of exercises and she splits the class up into small groups to alternate on machines. I tend to get the leg press, walking lunges, split squats and occasionally step ups. These are all tougher than your garden variety exercises as we add weights or different postures. The idea is to warm up and exert the muscles at the same time. This period lasts about 5-10 minutes.

The real beast of an exercise comes next. This gym is on the bottom floor of a 5-floor building. She has us run up the stairs a few times. Sometimes we take one step at a time, sometimes two. Sometimes we bring weights or a medicine ball. The last time we went up once with weights. I chose two dumbbells of 17.5 lbs each. After a couple of climbs we had to raise one above our head. Ugh. When we reach the bottom floor after the climbing is done, we do wall squats in the hallway. These hurt. The last time she had us alternate by sticking one foot out while maintaining the squat. We did this a couple times for each leg, holding it out for 10-20 seconds. Ouch. Tough to do.

Up next comes the spin bikes, where we spend the majority of the class. In the first week we determined our v02 max and perceived exertion, which we have used as a benchmark in future classes. We’ll quickly start putting on the pressure by increasing the max and pedaling faster. We all wear heart rate monitors so there is no hiding or laying low. She begins by having us simulate climbing. Once we reach a smooth climb and our heart rates rise, we will perform intervals. She will have an over and under period. The idea is that during the over the climb pitches upward or we have to work harder to conquer it. During the under period we are still climbing, but not nearly as hard. After about eight minutes of this we recover and then do another set or two of these.

At the end of the workout we’ll do our last intervals. She’ll have us crank up the resistance and try and go faster and faster for two minutes at first. Then we’ll recover and do the same for 1:45, then 1:30, and so on until the workout is complete.

A couple weeks ago I was feeling stronger than usual and had trouble getting to my heart rate zone. Some days are like that for me, not sure why. In order to get there, I had to crank the resistance way, way up! I ended up maxing out the resistance and continuing there for the first and longest. I could barely push the pedals, managing just a miniscule cadence. With every revolution, my quads would scream at me. My heart rate shot to my target and beyond. That may have been the hardest I worked out on any bike, spin or real.

Afterward we stretch. That is one area that I’ve almost completely neglected as a cyclist. I had no idea how helpful it would be. I also found out that I’m a pretty flexible guy. She leads us through a number of stretches for about 10-15 minutes. This helps with recovery, but I am still spent after the routine.

The problem with some of these workouts is that they are so intense that they leave me sore for a few days. They happen on a Thursday and the after-effects will often bleed into the weekend. I definitely felt it when climbing Caesar’s Head last weekend. In hindsight, this class might have worked better earlier in the season where it would not intersect with outdoor workouts. This would be the ideal training program for the cold winter months (not that we’ve many this year).

We have four weeks left, including a recovery class next week. The last three are going to take place after daylight saving’s time and when I’ll be making trips to the mountain. I may back out of these, or at least only attend if the weather outside doesn’t cooperate. Either way, this has definitely been worthwhile and will give me ideas for the future.


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