The Inferno

Feb 6-7, 2004

The Warm-up

Dante's View road is closed! This is bad news. How can we have an Inferno without doing Dante's View, the final and most challenging climb of the 155-mile ride? The ranger at Stovepipe Wells has no projected time of opening, either. The storm that blew through a couple days ago has damaged the roads and the park is still trying to catch up on repairs.

At the Furnace Creek visitor center, I check again. The rangers here seem to have a more direct connection to the field.

"There's someone out just checking it now," they say. "We'll know shortly."

I'm already starting to work on Plan B. The marathon being held this weekend is also scrambling to find an alternate route because Titus Canyon Road is closed.

Our group of six Inferno riders meets at the Furnace Creek visitors center at 12:30 p.m. and without much ado begins getting bikes and gear ready for the Warm-up - a 42-mile jaunt out to Badwater with an invigorating return via Artist's Drive loop.

After hearing glowing reports of last November's Inferno 2003, several riders succumbed to the invitation for this ride. The Inferno, after all, has more mileage and nearly as much climb as the infamous Death Ride, and they viewed it as providing some good winter training for more illustrious events like Race Across America and the Furnace Creek 508. Unlike those events, which make extensive use of support vehicles, the only ground rule for the Inferno is that we ride self-supported. No sag vehicles tagging along to ruin the ambience.

While everyone is watching a roadrunner hamming it up in the parking lot, I go in one last time to check on the road conditions.

"It just opened," says the ranger. Yeehaw! I relay the news to the riders, who seem a bit less enthused than I.

The 4th Annual Inferno starts off with a bang. Or a fizz. Tim gets a flat tire in the first mile and Charlie stays back to help. Graham is already off the front after the first Sea Level Elevation sprint, with Ken and Peter in tow. I have no hope of keeping up, so turn back to look for Charlie and Tim. They come along, muttering about having to patch, since there is no spare tube for the recumbent. We pass the Gower Gulch outlet, leaving the mystery of the alluvial fan that is "unlike the others" to be solved tomorrow. By this time, the others have slow down and Ken backtracks to find us, so we finally regroup and ride out to Badwater together.

Badwater cyclists
Badwater cyclists

At Badwater we lick the playa salt and affirm that it isn't all that bad. Charlie points out the flat spot on the ridge far above that we think is the Dante's View parking lot. It isn't quite visible from Badwater Pool, which is consistent with the fact that you can't quite see Badwater Pool from Dante's View. Riders take turns trying out Tim's recumbent in the parking lot, and nobody seems eager to switch bikes. Tim has only 65 miles on it so far and says it "takes different muscles", which he is trying to develop in time for a run on the Team RAAM recumbent record.

On the return, we check out the Badwater Turtleback and some relatively recent fault scarps on the alluvial fans. The tailwind that we were expecting from what seemed to be a headwind on the outbound doesn't materialize, but wind is light wherever it is coming from. Temperatures are a balmy mid-60's, ideal desert riding weather.

Big Dip on Artist's Drive
Big Dip on Artist's Drive

We turn off to Artist's Drive, and Peter comments, "Now you're making us hurt." Well, one could view it as "now the fun begins." The climb up the fan is abrupt, but at least you get it over with quickly. Graham and Charlie take off, with the rest of us following as best we can.

We regroup at the top of the climb and roller-coaster along the range front, getting glimpses out to the glittering salt flats. Graham asks why they call it Artist's Palette. This becomes clear when we turn off on the spur to the overlook and the afternoon sun brings out a kaleidoscope of greens, reds, whites, and yellows in the volcanic sediments.

After the Palette comes some more roller coaster and then the unexpected hard right turn, today mercifully free of gravel. Another steep, but shorter climb, takes us back up the fan. This time there is an ice cream naming contest: Raspberry Swirl, Chunky Monkey, Nutty Buddy, Licorice Ribbon, Vanilla Maple Nut. The idea is to feign casual conversation while working your butt off on the climb. After another short tour through the volcanics, the descent to the highway is for real this time. We make good time back to Furnace Creek.

It is not yet 4:00 p.m., so we have plenty of time to clean up and relax before an early dinner at the Furnace Creek restaurant.

"You didn't really mean 4:30 a.m. in the morning, did you?" Peter asks over dinner. Tim admonishes him for spoiling the question, which makes it sound like there was some talk of a later start. Charlie and I, the veterans of the ride, explain the reason for the early start: It's much better to ride in the dark on the uphill when fresh than to descend Dante's View in the dark when exhausted. The others remain skeptical.

For the Warm-up awards ceremony, Graham is given the Most Rambunctious Rider award and presented with a handicap for tomorrow's ride: the 5.5 lb Jepson's Manual. He thumbs through it, but doesn't seem amused. Everyone gets a merit award for the ice-cream naming contest.

155 miles

The Inferno

"A bit early for bikes," states the only somewhat startled soul up at 4:15 a.m. as Ken and I cruise out of the entrance to Furnace Creek Ranch. We half expect a conspiratorial boycott of the early start, but all riders are present and accounted for at the visitor center parking lot.

We hit the road right on schedule. A full moon lights the way, making headlights superfluous. The stars are dim under the full moonlight, but we can pick out Orion, the Pleiades, the Big Dipper, and the North Star. The planet Mercury shines steady and bright next to the full moon. Temperatures are close to freezing, but it is calm, so doesn't seem bitingly cold. Even before the Daylight Pass climb, there's enough uphill to keep one working and warm.

Glowing at Hell's Gate
All aglow at Hell's Gate

We turn off to Daylight Pass, still in the dark, and stay pretty much together through the first miles of the climb. We pass The Beach, a gravel bar marking the old shore of Lake Manly, but the other riders have to take our word on the cross-bedding, which is obscure in the dark.

By the time we reach Hell's Gate, there is light, but dawn isn't the spectacular splash of color of rides past, since there are no clouds to splash the colors. We take a break to regroup and once the work stops, we can appreciate how cold it is. When all are accounted for, we continue on towards Daylight Pass. Now the sunlight is illuminating Corkscrew Peak and working its way down the slope as we climb up to meet it. Wind is light, but seems to be a tailwind, rather than the usual headwind from Nevada. Once again, Graham and Charlie take the lead and the rest of us do our best to follow.

Daylight approaching
Daylight approaching

We regroup at the summit of Daylight Pass and quickly agree it is too cold to linger. Graham points out the ice along the sides of the road, possibly remnants of the storm that moved through a few days ago.

On the descent, Hells' Gate appears remarkably quickly, and even though we're in sunlight now, the temperatures don't seem much warmer. We stop for another regrouping, and I try some clogging steps to keep my toes from freezing. ATAC cleats work surprisingly well as taps.

A pickup with camper is parked nearby, and the campstove is roaring. The coffee pot is set up and ready to go. I surreptitiously scan for paper cups. Boy could we use some coffee or hot chocolate right now. The people doing the cooking are nice enough, but don't offer us any and we don't ask. Besides, that water is sure taking a long time to heat up and we need to keep moving.

The recumbent speeds by, giving us just enough time to hop on bikes and pursue. We turn back out to the main highway and head to Stovepipe Wells. I'm glad to get warm from pedaling again, and the road is just enough uphill to give us something to do.

At Stovepipe we ditch the lights, grab some food and water, and head for Towne Pass. It's soon warm enough to shed the winter garb, so we stop for a quick strip down. At Emigrant Junction, we regroup and fill water bottles for the dry climb to Towne Pass summit.

Looking at Charlie's nicely done route sheet, we notice how much the Towne Pass climb heads south, even though it seems like you're going east. That explains the tailwind common on the climb, and this time was no exception, especially as we got towards the top. Charlie, Graham, and Peter go on ahead, and Ken and I ride together for awhile. I'm feeling pretty good on this climb, having finally warmed up. In the last mile before the summit, Charlie and Graham pass us going down. "Hey wait for us," I plead, but they will have nothing to do with stopping. They are cold. I get to the summit in time to snap Peter's picture, before he heads down, claiming cold, as well. Ken and I waste little time in getting turned around.

At about the 4000 ft elevation marker we pass Tim on the recumbent, plucking away at the climb. Then, surprisingly, a few minutes later, the recumbent shoots by us. Either the summit was down-warped or he has something in that Camelbak that he hasn't told us about. We slingshot down the descent, no braking needed with the steady headwind. Tim is beelining for the hotel with the aerodynamic advantage of the recumbent, but we finally catch him on the runout into Stovepipe.

At the hotel, we fetch the lights and load up on food and water again. Tim is talking of quitting and meeting us for dinner. Peter is also ready to quit. But we talk them into continuing at least as far as Furnace Creek, where it's just as easy to bail, since the van is parked there.

As we hang out at the grocery store deciding what to do, a couple of mountain bikers ride up. They look familiar, but are on the wrong kind of bike. Graham and Tim have their Furnace Creek 508 jerseys on, and that starts the conversation.

"See you have a couple 508 veterans, " they say. Four actually, and two crew members. "Got two here, also," they reply.

We trade totems: Python, Werewolf, Kangaroo Rat, and Bandicoot, and them: Flamingo and Panther.

"Oh we know who you are!" We had just never seen them on mountain bikes before. We can't convince them to get their road bikes out and come ride with us.

"We're just taking it easy today - we'll be asleep before you finish."

I'm hoping not, as I'd really like to get off Dante's View before dark.

Tim decides last minute to switch to his upright bike, so there's more waiting for the swap. That's about an hour lost altogether -- too long by Inferno standards, where the strategy is to make the best of short daylight hours. The bicycles are getting restless.

We finally get going, with all riders in full and upright position, and head below Sea Level for Furnace Creek. We form a double pace line and I stay at the front for the first few miles to keep the pace in check. Then Charlie and Ken trade off for the rest of the ride. Mr. Ranger comes along and tells us we can't ride "double like that", so we fall into single file. The wind isn't the tailwind we expected, but not a bad headwind either, and the temperature is nice and warm - the thermometer at the Stovepipe Wells grocery store registered 70 degrees.

We get into Furnace Creek, and Peter and Tim decide to continue. We keep this stop as short as possible and are out of Furnace Creek by about 2:30 p.m. There is a bit of headwind up Furnace Creek wash, but it isn't bad. I'm getting a bit of GI distress, so decide to drop back, and Charlie gives up the battle at the front to ride with me, bless his soul. The others are soon way ahead. We have a nice chat on the gentle climb and gradually move up on a couple riders. Surprisingly, one of them is Graham - heading back. He claims sore feet, a recurring problem, and wants to save them for an upcoming event.

We catch up with Tim at the Dante's View turnoff. He is out of water. I give him my second full water bottle, and it is quickly drained. Glad I brought the Camelbak this time. Charlie offers him some of his, and that, too is drained.

We continue up Greenwater Valley at a nice conversational pace. Charlie tells us about borax and the history of U.S. Borax's Ryan mine off to the left. We point out the trace of the Death Valley Railway and Baby Gauge extension to Ryan, a short-lived, but popular tourist attraction in the 1920's. At the turn up the fan, it is already getting dark on this side of the mountain. I'm feeling queasy, so can only maintain a snail's pace, though the legs could go faster without the stomach to bog them down.

At the radiator water sign, I have to take a break, even though we're only a few miles from the top. Then at the radiator water itself, I stop again and tell Charlie and Tim to go on. An Almond Joy settles things down and gives me the quick burst of energy needed to finish the 15% grade up to the summit.

As I roll into the parking lot, there are no riders in sight. Where did they go? Then I see bikes laying on the sidewalk and the door to a camper cracked open. The riders are all packed into the camper, grinning like kids who have just raided the cookie jar. I snap a few pictures of the sun disappearing behind Telescope Peak and then eagerly accept the invitation to get in the nice warm van.

Chillin' on the Dante's
Chillin' on Dante's View

Ken, who summited first, met the people and soon found out they had Colorado Springs in common as a former/current residence, a discovery which resourcefully earned him a seat in the van. Then other riders kept appearing and getting in, as the story goes. The Colorado people are nice and rather humored with it all. We chat a bit and then jump out for a shivering group photo before heading down. Tim doesn't have a jacket, so opts for a ride in the van. I have plenty of warm clothes and don't really mind the descent, other than wanting badly to get off the steep gravelly part before full dark.

We have to switch on the headlights before the turn south. Charlie leads most of the descent, as I am too tired to ride fast. We get to the highway, and turn west for the final leg of the ride. The wind is so strong and variable now that I have trouble staying on a wheel, so drop off the back.

A few miles from Furnace Creek, the headlights of a car parked on the opposite side of the road blind us. I'm pissed at having my night vision destroyed. But as I ride past, I think I hear someone call out "get a ride back if you want." The wind is roaring, the headlights blinding, and only a bit later do I catch up with slow-pedaling Charlie and Ken and realize that it was Tim and Graham in the van. By now they are following us with headlights, though it really isn't necessary now that we're on the main highway. But it is a nice thought.

I motion for them to come around, and when they pull up I ask for a strawberry milkshake and a coke on ice for if we are on the Furnace Creek 508. They laugh and say they'll meet us back at the parking lot.

We soon are back at the Ranch and Tim explains he felt sorry for us out there in the cold and wind and so mounted a rescue party. I apologize for my wind-deafness and we assure him the effort was appreciated. Even with the strong wind in Furnace Creek wash, that was one of the easier descents we've had on Dante's View.

We take showers and get ready for dinner as fast as we can, then converge on Stovepipe Wells for dinner and the all-you-can-eat salad bar. Everyone is too tired for another awards ceremony, so we tell war stories instead. After dinner, we drive to our respective hotels and get a much deserved rest.

Inferno Warm-up
The Infernoites

Inferno Quiz

Match the quotation with the source:

  1. "It's only 155 miles -- how hard can that be?"
  2. "You didn't really mean 4:30 in the morning, did you?"
  3. "You mean we're doing this for FUN?!"
  4. "O.K. boys, let's pick up the pace a little."
  5. "Who are you guys, anyway?"
  6. "Top of Towne Pass? I was hoping you wouldn't ask."
  7. "This is the best Inferno weather we've had yet."
  8. "If you wanted an easy ride, you should have stayed home and done the Terrible Two."
  1. Graham "Off the Front" Pollock
  2. Charlie "I could trash them if I wanted to" Massieon
  3. Tim "It goes fast on the downhill" Woudenberg
  4. Pegasus "It was all my idea" The Bike
  5. Peter "The 508's gonna be more fun" Morrissey
  6. Ken "Nice van you've got there" Holloway
  7. Jeanie "The bike made me do it" Barnett
  8. Flamingo and Panther "We'll be asleep before you finish" Finfrock and Patton


  • 2 or less: An Inferno Wanna-be
  • 3-7: A Purgatorian.
  • 8 out of 8: A true cold-forged Infernoite!


  • Most Improved Rider Attitude: Peter Morrissey
  • Ontogeny Begets Phylogeny: Tim Woudenberg
  • Most Rambunctious Rider: Graham Pollock
  • Most Resourceful Van Commandeering: Ken Holloway
  • King of False Summits and Pseudo-Sprints: Charlie Massieon
  • Whose Idea Was This Anyway: Jeanie Barnett
Total 199 miles 17,400 ft
Stage Distance Climbing
The Warm-up 42 miles 2000 ft
The Inferno 157 15,400