Mountain Pass Mentality

MountainPass Mentality

…of the Interstate kind

By Tom Mehren

What do Snoqualmie, Lookout, Siskiyou and Deadman passes all have in common? They’re all mountain passes in the Northwest with an interstate running through them. And that’s not fun – right?

The fact is that at one time or another we have to cross over these passes on the way to where we’re going or coming back from. And while that may not seem like much fun, if we do it with a mindset that it’s not so bad and we can deal with it, the unpleasant part of it goes away and the ride is better for it. In fact you may actually find yourself having a good time in a place you used to dread.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be speaking specifically about my many adventures over Snoqualmie Pass, and while all passes aren’t created equal, the ones here in the Northwest share many of the same geographical characteristics. The mind set you use when you enter into and ride over them is virtually the same as well.

For the last ten years I’ve been crossing Snoqualmie Pass about a dozen times each year and I’ve done it on no less than a half dozen motorcycles (but relax – I only ride one at a time). I’ve crossed the pass by motorcycle in virtually every month and season of the year and I’ve done it in the best weather conditions and almost the worst. In the beginning, I used to dread the crossing. The worst part of it for me was the ability to feel in control on the way down the other side – more on this in a moment. The other challenge has always been dealing with the variety of weather, traffic and speed variations along the way.

Going Up/Going Down

My first trip over the pass by motorcycle was in 1998 on a trip out to Yakima. I’d watched the Mariners win their Saturday day game and planned to ride out of town on my Tupperware Queen – a 1996 Honda PC800. At 800 cc’s she qualified as a queen; I’m not sure who the Tupperware King is. Anyway – it was a lovely day in June, the bike was new for me having purchased it used from Renton Motorcycles a month before. The ride up into the pass was fine, but the sudden change of traveling downhill after having ridden some 40 minutes in an upward motion totally took me by surprise. The bike still being very new to me, I wasn’t comfortable trying to keep up at the recommended speed limit and hastened my way into the slow lane with the semis. But from time to time, I had to pass, another terrifying thing to have to do while trying to get into the groove of the downward ride. I never did get into the groove and I knew I had to come up with some way to deal with this.

Today I have a way of doing that. Whenever I reach the summit of a pass, if there’s any question in my mind that heading down the other side is going to be a sweeping change I’m not comfortable with, I pull out at the top and take a break for five or ten minutes. This allows my mind to forget about riding for awhile and when I get back on the bike the ride starts over again from ground zero, only this time I begin the ride with the downward groove, instead of heaving to instantly shift into it from the upward mode. At SnoqualmiePass there’s a fueling station with a store that makes it a handy stop. Other passes such as Deadman and Lookout provide rest stops you can use to take a break.

Weather I go or not?

Almost anytime of year weather can become a situation you have to consider and prepare for ahead of time. In April of 2000 I had taken a trip to Idaho for a meeting at Beaudry Motorsports. On the way back to Seattle, the wind was up and looking west toward the mountains offered a glimpse of what was ahead. It was at least going to be raining, if not snowing. Just before ascending into the pass I stopped in Cle Elum and asked travelers at the fuel station how the weather ahead was. Just a light bit of snow was the word so I figured I’d be okay. Up I went and by Easton there was a good inch of snow on the ground. It was also sticking to my face shield causing me to do a little finger wiping every thirty seconds or so. I took a position behind a semi whose tread line was providing me some traction as I rode. I had packed my Gerbing heated clothing which I had put on earlier in the day, so being cold was not an issue. Keeping the bike perpendicular was and it caused me to tense in my shoulders and hands all the way up the pass.

In hindsight I shouldn’t have done it, but after Easton there are few choices to turn around and knowing it would most likely be raining when I got to the Puget Sound side of the pass I trekked on. I was right, just a few hundred yards over the pass the snow turned to rain and I rode down the other side. I pulled out at Denny Creek to give myself a back rub as best as I could so I could loosen up an otherwise tightly-wound upper body.

The heated clothing was a lifesaver. Had I not had it I would have focused more on the cold and less on the road and probably lost my balance at some point.

Would I do it again? Probably not.

…and then there’s the rain

Right, you might skip the snow ride, but rain is more likely to catch up with you at some point. And with it comes lots of sand spray from the road where sanding is just a regular part of a DOT worker’s life in the pass. And the sand tends to stick around into the summer. The trouble with sand spray is that it gets on your face shield and needs to be removed. Of course we’ll use our finger to wipe it and in doing so we’ll scratch the daylights out of the shield – almost literally. Is there some other way? Not really – the mind set here is to be prepared to replace your face shield as often as necessary, which for some of us who put on a lot of miles is at least once a year. The other thing to keep in mind is your bike is going to get very dirty up there and you will want to wash it as soon as you get home. There’s a lot of Magnesium Chloride in that sand and it’s corrosive properties vary across the different surface textures of your bike.

The other problem with rain is that if it leaks into your clothing in a mountain pass, you can expect to get cold. Very cold, because water has a way of drawing heat off your skin faster than any other element when you’re riding. And that means you’ll become more concerned with your body temperature and less with the road in front of you. This is not how you want to travel. It’s been said in this magazine many times before, but can be said again – ‘if your raingear leaks fix it or throw it away and invest in some good quality MOTORCYCLING rain gear’ – not the stuff hikers and hunters wear.

Yikes – Sunshine!

Bright sunshine in the passes can have a few negative effects. If it’s hot, as it can tend to be in the summer, riders are lured into shedding clothes down to a tee shirt. This means no protection from the pavement and the start of what can become heat stroke if you ride like this long enough. Remember, you’re several thousand feet closer to the ozone layer and more susceptible to the rays of the sun. The simple solution is to invest in an evaporative cooling vest and wear it under your riding jacket (with the vents open) so it can do its job correctly.

The other problem with bright sunshine is that in the early morning and at the end of the day it’s at a level that tends to beam you right in the eyes blinding you from the road ahead. There are several ways to deal with this. For starters you can tape a piece of black electrical tape across the top of your face shield allowing you to tilt your head down and escape the direct light. The other is to wear a good pair of sunglasses. The combination of the two usually does the trick very well. If your face shield is tending to ‘star’ the light as it comes in, it’s a sign that it’s time to replace it.

Speed Variations

The passes are not a place you can just lock down a cruise control and glide along. It seems like everyone is doing a different speed than yours. At times you’re being passed by speed demon in a BMW Series 5, at others you’re passing three semis all in a row. As long as you understand this is the way it’s going to be before you get into it, then you’ll be a better rider for it. The mind set here is to go with the flow and do it as keenly as possible.

The other speed variations you’ll encounter in these passes are the ones on the reader boards that are placed there by the local DOT to slow you down if the weather and other road conditions dictate it. Keep an eye out for them.

Are we at the race track?

Well…sort of… The ascent into Oregon’s DeadmanPass from Hermiston begins with a series of hairpin turns to get you up into the Blues quickly. This type of road building lends itself well to working on your performance cornering skills – even at the legal speed limit, but again it can be said to go with the flow and play well with the others around you. They’re in their cars and not having nearly as much fun as you are on your motorcycle. In fact, keep in mind – they probably don’t even know you’re coming up from behind and aren’t watching for you. And to double your fun, the ride back down is an entirely different set of curves.

What’s the alternative?

In many Interstate pass crossings, there are alternatives you can use if you want to skirt the freeway at high elevations. It’s best to check in advance and be sure they’re not closed for snow or a washout.

Deadman Pass offers a paved alternative by way of the Old Emigrant Hill and Old Oregon Trail roads. Through Oregon’s SiskiyouPass you can use the Old Siskiyou Highway and SR99S. For SnoqualmiePass you can use the Old Denny Creek road and SR 906. If you have a dualsport and would like to incorporate a little gravel into the ride there are such stretches on either side of the pass to allow you less time on the Interstate. For Idaho’s LookoutPass, your only alternative is gravel roads.

A new way to look at these passes? Perhaps. They may be called Interstates which would lead you to believe they’re just straight and boring ways to get around, but in reality each one of these passes will test your riding skills and force you to refine them as each mile goes by.

Tom Mehren is the publisher of Sound RIDER! and author of Packing Light/Packing Right – a practical guide to packing for your next motorcycle trip.