by George Merkert
I was psyched when I read Scott Peer’s mail asking whether I wanted to head up to the Eastern Sierra for a little skate with him and a couple of his other downhill skater pals.
All I could think was, “Hell yes. I’ll skate it for sure.”
Also, since I was gonna turn 62 in a couple days, I was eager for maximum fun at all times. Real glad I’d been doing those Tabatas too but I’ll tell you why on that later.
First stop on Friday night was Nine Mile Canyon above Ridgecrest, California. I ain’t no whiner, OK? But Nine Mile Canyon has a good name if you want to figure out how far you skated but what it makes up for in name it lacks in thrill. Sorta steep but no braking turns to speak of and inline downhill guys like me like the challenge of having to brake hard, choose the right line, contend with skidding and get that, “I just fuckin’ hammered it!” feeling when you make it through a turn fast and pretty.
So, all in all, Nine Mile Road was a pedestrian beginning to what I’d hoped would be a rapturous 4 day roll down hills on skates …
Anyhow, we rolled down Nine Mile Canyon twice. I labelled the second run “2/3 of Nine Mile Canyon” on my Strava just to make sure everyone got what I was talkin’ about, see?
So just because you probably don’t know what inline downhill is I’m gonna tell you. It’s like a mashup of NASCAR and ski racing except that instead of skis you wear inline skates and instead of sliding down snow covered ski slopes you roll down paved mountain roads and instead of being surrounded by a metal cage your body has a sixteenth of an inch of leather or maybe nothing at all insulating it from the asphalt and instead of gasoline pushing you gravity pulls you down hill. Also, when you fall while skating down hill you slide a lot less than you do when you fall when you’re skiing.
Now I’m not sayin’ I’m brave and I’m not sayin’ I’m scared of a whole lot either but there were some big ass cracks in the pavement and it was almost dark by the time we got to Onion Valley Road on Friday evening. Some of the cracks were full of pothole filler and some were partially full of grass and some were full of nothin’ and I could barely see any of ’em.
My brand new Gravity Master inline skate brakes –– invented by my downhill skater pal and fellow traveler on this very adventure Craig Ellis –– are super effective but, I’m tellin’ you, it was dark. And I was a little afraid (OK. There. I said it) that I might find out too late that two inch wide cracks every 15 feet for three miles might rip the brake pads right off and leave me rollin’ over the edge of forever or, worse, slamming to a quick stop at the foot of an unsympathetic guard rail.
This screen capture of a Roller Derby babe (see video here) gives you a good idea of what a snowplow on skates looks like from behind.
So, I sat out while Scott Peer and our skateboard pal Ian Thompson –– who on this trip was the main brain when it came to knowing where to find cool descents in the Eastern Sierra –– hammered the lower reaches of Onion Valley Road.
But we’d come back to this stretch of Onion Valley Road in the High Sierra above Independence, California later in this adventure and the outcome would be different …
I was all worried and shit about rain when I got outa bed on Saturday. But me and my pal Scott headed out for Mammoth Crest with ski boards lashed to our packs anyway. After hiking for four and a half miles we found what was left of V Glacier hiding under a rock cliff at 10,500 feet.
At the top there was a crack between the snow and the rock of about 6 inches to a foot wide that you really didn’t want to slip into. And getting up to that crack was plenty steep so that if you fell you’d for sure slide real fast into the sharp rocks in the moraine at the bottom of the snow patch unless you did an awesome self arrest with ski poles or something.
Later on, while hiking through the moraine after we were done skiing, Scott DID fall onto a sharp ass rock and even though he bruised ribs, leg and ankle he skated the next day. Scott’s a tough guy.
So, up at the top of the glacier I was real careful when I kicked out a flat spot so I could put my ski boards on. Real careful.
I skied slowly out onto the snow to set up my first turn. Holy shit! It was steep, man.
I stopped to reassess.
Scott Peer said, “How long since you skied? Last time we hike/skied summer before last?”
“Uhhhh. Yeah,” I said.
“Well, nothin’ about this is a warm up run so be careful.”
“Uhhhhh … OK,” I said, and made a jump turn. The little ski boards spun like a hard thrown yoyo and I found myself falling over the tips right onto my fa … No! I pulled it out and stayed upright on those little skis. Tried not to lean forward so far on the rest of my turns and it worked out.
I got another run to Scott’s three additional and then we hiked back down to civilization.
Very civilized civilization.
Nearly snoozing in the jacuzzi at Craig’s condominium complex, I woke up when two women jumped into the jacuzzi with me. Thirty minutes later I had a new business associate who’ll probably wind up helping us with our Thai elephant project but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
While Scott and I were hiking and skiing on Saturday Ian played golf with a college woman ranked 6th in the NCAA.
“Hardly any women can drive a golf ball further than me but she did,” Ian said.
Like I said, this was a very civilized adventure.
You’re still Mr. Nuclear to me.
Meanwhile, Craig was lapping Minaret Road using the mountain bike bus and Lake Mary Road using that faux SF cable car on wheels that hauls tourists around.
Besides Lausanne and Mammoth Lakes, California, I don’t know of any other city in the world in which you can use public transit to lap downhill skate routes.
Craig’s salt and pepper hair, lean frame and red leathers make him a colorful character. He also gets out in the streets where people can notice him. He entertained other mass transit patrons with 33 miles of downhill skating inside Mammoth Lakes city limits on Saturday.
While skating his dh marathon plus seven miles Craig met up with a 15 year old skateboard kid who was also lapping Minaret Road using the bus. Kid was way impressed when he learned that Craig is pals with James Kelly who is the 2012 Downhill Skateboard World Cup Champion.
After he finished playing another round of golf on Sunday morning early, Ian had us rolling down Tioga Pass by 11am.
You feel exposed on Tioga Pass because the road crawls along the side of several massive rock faces. A trip off the cliff side of the road would be an airy deal for sure.
Next up is a place I’ll head back to to skate at first opportunity, though. Before I tell you it’s name imagine ski racing down Tuckerman Ravine Trail. It’s steep, turny, narrow, filled with uphill traffic and highly illegal.
So that’s what skating down Sonora Pass east side is like. Especially the steep and turny part. The uphill traffic on Sonora Pass is cars and trucks instead of hikers like on Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The occasional sheriff or CHP you see on Sonora Pass reminds you about the illegal part.
On the drive up we stopped to marvel twice. Once was just as we started up the pass. There was one of those yellow traffic signs with a black icon of a truck slanting up at a hairy angle and saying, “26%”.
You can no sweat ski backwards down a 26% grade but on inline skates or a skateboard 26% is as gnarly as skiing on a slope steep enough that you can reach out and touch it with your hand without bending your knees.
We all laughed nervously except for me (‘coz I was the only one who wasn’t scared) and got back into Craig’s Lexus SUV which vehicle I recommend highly for downhill skating adventures.
The second time we stopped to marvel was at a chicane so steep that it made everyone (except me) choke with fear. The first of the two turns bent to the right and the second, with exactly 0 feet of distance between it and the first turn, bent hard to the left.
Both turns were so steep that we knew instantly that these two turns were on the 26% grade that the sign at the bottom of the hill warned about.
While we drove on up the pass above the chicane we looked for a landmark, road sign, change in the road surface, change of scenery … something to warn us of when we were about to enter this gnarly set of turns on the descent.
Ian said all cheerful-like, “Don’t worry. You’ll know when you’re in it.”
Thanks two fuck-loads for that useful advice, Ian. ‘Coz if we don’t know BEFORE we’re in the turns so we can slow way the hell down we’re not gonna BE in ’em at all for very long. Good thing there are giant bushes with whip tentacles alongside the road in those turns. That way skaters can’t avoid being punished for making a bad turn.
So, we got to the top of the route and took a fast roll down the west side of the pass just to check it out. Ian assured us that we could dare to skate it without scouting it first and he was right. It was steep but not too turny.
Back at the top of Sonora Pass again and ready to skate down the eastern slope of it we all listened to Ian’s advice.
“Steep and straight as hell at the top, boys. Then you got a right hand sweeper. You’ll roll 50 plus easy. Gotta go slower than that on the turn. All I can say is control your speed.”
We gulped (well, everyone except me gulped ‘coz I wasn’t scared) and went.
I rolled out first and did what I thought was a hell of a good job controlling my speed. Craig Ellis, inventor and most experienced user of Gravity Master brakes, thought I wasn’t trusting my brakes enough. He shot past me like a German Shepherd chasing a rabbit and started to disappear into the future.
I wasn’t havin’ it.
I tucked up tight and rolled down the straightaway faster than I was comfortable rolling on this steep turny route the first time I’d ever skated it. I started to reel Craig in and felt good about it too.
I rolled up on Craig and got within a single digit number of feet behind him when all of a sudden I was in that chicane with a 26% pitch and rollin’ WAY TOO FAST!
I panicked and hit the right brake as hard as I could and steered it through the turn.
Without any time to think about what I was doing I slammed on the left brake and steered it through the left hand turn.
Suddenly, at the exit of the second turn I was comfortable again.
That is, until I saw Scott Peer passing me on the left side in a tight tuck and Craig disappearing ahead of me again.
I tucked up tight and tried to track ’em down but it was too late. They were gone.
I hadn’t used Craig’s Gravity Master brakes enough to know that even on a 26% slope you don’t have to use all of their potential to slow you down enough to turn safely. In panic mode I’d braked three or four times harder than I’d actually needed to.
So both Craig and Scott got away from me, goddammit.
So call me a shill if you dare but Gravity Masters change the game. I’ve been terrified plenty enough times on steep, gnarly routes in the Alps, Rockies and Sierras. I like the security of having too much braking power.
We didn’t see Craig for a long time after that. We thought he might be in the ditch and so drove up and down the hill a couple times looking for his body.
Came to find out that he’d skitched a motorcycle up an uphill section of the route that we were convinced was so long that he wouldn’t skate up it in his leathers. So, we didn’t search for him beyond that point even though after the uphill section there’s a couple more miles of downhill left before you get to the floor of the Owens Valley.
After letting the motorcycle pull him up the uphill section, Craig had rolled all the way down to the Marine Corps Winter Training Camp.
We found some speed down Monitor Pass east side too. Monitor is fast and straight.
On one of the long straights on that route I lined up on Scott from about 100 feet behind him with the lowest tuck I could force myself into.
Not that I mix metaphors except when I have to but I bet that when I passed him Scott felt just like he did that time he was hitchhiking on the freeway and a Greyhound whooshed by and spun him around.
The pitch of the road stayed steep and I kept my tightest tuck on. All those Tabata intervals paid off ‘coz I was able to hold a tight tuck without losing leg strength for much longer than I could have only a few months ago. Maybe those sets of high rep squats played a role too. (http://tabatatraining.org/)
Any which way you look at it tucking tight on a steep slope makes speed, ok?
Next thing I knew my long, six wheel skates were wandering all over the road. I shifted my weight back a little ‘coz that’s the cure for high speed wobbles.
My skates kept wandering.
Holy shit! I’d found the speed limit for these Cado Modus Pro Downhill inline skate frames (designed by Dave Lambert and Craig Ellis). I never thought I’d find a limit to how fast these frames could roll without wobbles but there it was.
Now every move had to be the right move. The wind was strong and gusting and the thought of crashing at that speed made me cold inside.
Veeeeerrrry slowly I straightened my back a little. A gust blew me towards the yellow line. Veeeerrrry slowly I steered back toward the center of the right hand lane.
When I opened my hands I felt the air catch them and jerk me back a little but I was ready for it and adjusted my fore/aft balance to compensate.
As the air pressured each newly exposed part of my body as I stood up I slowed considerably. Soon the wobs went away and I rolled it out.
At the bottom of the hill Scott and I compared GPS data. Scott’s Garmin said he’d topped out at 50mph plus a little.
My Strava said I’d topped out at 61.3mph.
That’s too big a disparity to discount without explanation and I gotta believe that Scott’s Garmin has better circuitry in it than the GPS in my iPhone.
However, I did find the top speed of my Pro Downhill skate frames which is very fast. And I did get one hell of a slingshot off of Scott in a steep straightaway.
But I’m still not gonna put 60mph on my business card like Barbie Bont does because in both our cases it wouldn’t be true.
I’ll claim 55mph, though, and maybe a little more. How about 58?
Monday morning we flew down Lower Rock Creek twice, Pine Creek Canyon (which is a box canyon with thousand foot high cliffs with so many confusing crags and cracks and irregular shapes that it makes you dizzy if you stare at ’em too long) and then headed for Onion Valley Road.
Like I said before I don’t claim to be brave but I’m not scared of all that much either.
One thing I AM scared of, though, is Onion Valley Road west of Independence, California.
In 2003 or so Tim Huber and I cruised up to the top of that 10 plus mile route in his Jeep.
I used skidding to control speed in those days.
Controlling your downhill speed with skidding thrashes skate wheels but since you could buy down the oversupply of inline skate wheels for a dollar a wheel in 2003, it worked out.
Anyhow, I snow plowed through the 10 or so hairpins at the top of Onion Valley Road and very nearly lost it on every single turn.
I wasn’t as strong in the legs then as I am now and so ran out of leg strength by the second or third hairpin. I had to very carefully marshall what little leg strength I had left. I had to find enough stopping power to slow down for 8 sharp turns after my legs were nearly finished. The road was too steep for me to stop completely so it was a balancing act.
It was like being Philippe Petit and running out of leg in the middle of your wire between the World Trade Center towers.
When I reached a part of the road flat enough that I could stop completely, I was beyond relieved. It felt like I’d cheated death.
The engine in Scott’s Subaru started to get a little hot so we stopped climbing a few turns below the top of the route.
I got out of the car and put my gear on hoping that no one else knew how scared I actually felt.
Scott and I started rolling. I started brake testing immediately. I wanted to be rolling slowly enough that I could stop completely with a snow plow in case the cracks ripped the rubber brake pads off of Craig’s Gravity Masters.
Scott had no such qualms and rolled out confidently.
After testing the Gravity Masters on about 15 cracks I got confident too and let that ole gravity fuel pull me as fast as it could.
Once at at least 40mph I braked hard to see if the cracks would snatch away my brake pads when I was rollin’ fast. But all was well. Cracks had no effect at all on the braking power of the Gravity Masters.
I let it rip.
Somewhere down past the turny part of the route I caught up with Scott. We both braked hard for both cattle guards and walked over them. Maybe next time we’ll have the eggs to jump ’em.
When we got back to the campground we were using for a staging area, Ian was nowhere to be found. He’d told us that the cracks fucked with the steering of his skateboard so much that he didn’t want to skate the Onion Valley route. Thus, we didn’t look for him up the hill.
Besides, if he’d gone up the route we couldn’t’ve missed seeing him since Onion Valley Road doesn’t intersect with any other paved roads, right?
We looked for Ian all over Independence. No one in either of the food marts, the Subway shop, the court house nor the police station had seen him.
After we described Ian to a dog walker the dog walker said, “Oh, if he’s around here someone will notice him. We don’t have too many guys who look like him in Independence.”
After searching him up for more than an hour Craig said, “Independence is tiny. If he isn’t in town then he hitchhiked to Reno or LA. Or else he’s up the hill and off a cliff …”
I said, “Too bad he left his god damn phone in the car.”
Scott said, “It’s not charged. That’s why he left it.”
I said, “Oh.”
We were on the phone with Scott when Scott said, “He’s here! He just showed up in someone’s pickup truck. They came from up the hill.”
Ian is a master hitchhiker so I wasn’t surprised that he was hitching. I was still mystified, though, by how come we hadn’t seen him hitching up or rolling down Onion Valley Road when there’s only one way in and one way out.
“Well,” Ian said, “I decided to skate it even though it had cracks so I hitched a ride part way up. On the way down I rolled into a turn too hot and bailed off of my board. I ran it out and didn’t fall but my board flew off the cliff. You guys must’ve rolled by while I was over the edge rock climbing down to retrieve my board.”
Craig, Scott and I stared at Ian. None of us could think of anything to say.
Ian said, “I know. I’m a crazy fuck.”
We loaded up the cars and drove back to LA.