Humbled [Updated 10/10, 10/16]

Panorama at Mt Um
The View of The South Bay From Mt. Umunhum

Staring at the cube on top of Mt. Umunhum as a teenager I wondered what it would take to be able to cycle all the way to the top. In the 1970s Mt. Umunhum was under the aegis of the US Air Force and the road to the summit was strictly off-limits. In those days I thought Mt. Um was the tallest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but it turns out that was incorrect and it’s only the fourth tallest peak. Nonetheless it’s 3,486 feet making it not that much less than the summit of Mt. Diablo. When the Air Force gave up operations at Mt. Umunhum in 1980 many of us thought that it would not be long before the area was returned to civilian use. Boy, was that wrong! Finally just four weeks ago it opened for public use under the auspices of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District after many improvements including the removal of a significant quantity of hazardous waste, repaving of the road, and the creation of parking, bathrooms, and informational kiosks.

Naturally I would have gone up the first day it opened but I had a sense it would have been an utter mosh pit—all that pent up desire fueled by years of delay. In fact, I hear that turned out to be the case and the rangers had to do car control on Mt. Umunhum Road because there was so much traffic. In any case, I posted the ride and led it this past Sunday. I would have thought the ride would have brought a number of Spokers out of the woodwork due to the challenge and mystique of ascending Hicks Road just to get to the start of Mt. Umunhum Road. Five years ago David Gaus led a foray up Hicks Road and it was brutal. Being a warm day with full sun we baked up the climb and after the descent to the valley I got some of the worst leg cramps I’ve ever had. Hicks had also just been freshly chip sealed making traction a pain and I kept getting stones stuck between my front tire and fork. I don’t remember everyone who was on that ride but I do remember racing Peter Graney and Tim Offensend up Hicks. I also remember poor David Gaus, exhausted, arriving at the summit and recounting that he had to walk. Hey, Hicks is no walk in the park (pun intended): it’s a sustained 14% grade for well over a mile with absolutely no relief. This year I didn’t get much interest from the animals in the club. Everyone who had RSVPed eventually backed out for one reason or another. Well, we know there was really only one reason they all backed out, don’t we?

In the meantime my hubby decided he wanted to go up Mt. Umunhum too even though I thought it wouldn’t interest him in the slightest because, let’s face it, only the foolishly ignorant and testosterone addled would do this climb without a gun being held to their heads. Thinking that no one else was ballsy enough to tackle Mt. Um, we left the house in a leisurely fashion only to get a phone call from Bill Knudsen, “Hey, where are you guys? I don’t see anyone here at the start!” Oops. Bill, Wanderson, and Joseph showed up and now we were late. We arrived and apologies and excuses were exchanged along with the requisite whining and sandbagging. Then Bill indulged me with a request: “Hey, I’ve only ridden 20 miles since August. Is there some way I could do Mt. Umunhum without the climbing in between?” Like the sound of one hand clapping, my third eye pondered this request. “Um no, there isn’t. But you can start off with us and see how you feel, and you can bail at the next Starbucks in 17 miles.” Like a herd of bison to the cliff’s edge, off we went.

For those of you contemplating going up Mt. Umumhum, let me ‘splain it to you: this is a dead-fucking serious climb. Hicks is just the taste of what is to come. I had mistakenly read somewhere online that Hicks had a section that was almost two miles of 14%. The last time I rode it I was so focused on reaching the top first I didn’t give a shit how long it was, so I didn’t pay any attention to my Garmin except for the heart rate numbers that indicated it was ready to explode and spew oxygen-deprived blood all over the road. This time I measured it and it is “only” about 1.2 miles of unrelenting 14% grade. If you’re now breathing a sigh of relief, don’t because even if it is “shorter” it is nonetheless hellaciously lung destroying. In yet another mistake—the first being letting time rose-color my memory of climbing Hicks overwhelm the bare facts in front of my face—I had blithely glanced at the elevation profile of Mt. Umunhum and thought, “Oh, it’s flatter than Hicks so it’s all cake to the summit.” If I had spent just two minutes studying the elevation profile I would have noticed that it’s pecked with steep sections worse than Hicks. After arriving at the top of Hicks and thinking it would then be easier, I was subsequently devastated at each of those fucking 15%+ sections. Man, talk about soul destroying.

At top of Redwood Gulch
At The Top of Redwood Gulch

But I’m jumping a bit ahead of the narrative. The route I had planned had a little amuse-bouche: rather than starting such a serious ride sensibly close to Hicks, which is outside of Los Gatos, we started waaay over in Sunnyvale so that we would enjoy the climb up Stevens Canyon Road and Redwood Gulch to Highway 9 first. Stevens Canyon is a delightful romp in the redwoods up a deserted forest road with hardly any traffic. The quiet and cool humidity from the forest just make it a great ride especially in hot weather. Unfortunately after you make an abrupt left turn onto Redwood Gulch the road practically leaps up from underneath your wheels. There are two 15% ramps on Redwood Gulch that you think must be visual illusions until the reality of pedaling four miles an hour and grunting tells you they’re not. Suddenly time turns to molasses and the beauty of the surrounding redwoods disappears. The ramps are not overly long but just long enough to make it impossible to gut it out in an explosive effort. It’s kind of like donating blood: it’s going to hurt for quite a while and then you get a cookie at the end. At the top where it meets Highway 9 Bill and Wanderson were already looking, shall we say, a bit piqued. We eventually rolled into the Starbucks on Blossom Hill Road, Bill and company called it quits and decided to take the flat route back to the car, saving Mt. Umunhum for another day (if ever). Well, at least they tried. But a lesson lurks here: do not underestimate doing Mt. Um and don’t do anything else except Mt. Um if you hope to enjoy the experience (or not).

After refreshment and a steeling of nerves Roger and I took our leave and headed to Hicks Road. On the way I got a phone call from the Den Daddy, Derek Liecty, “Hey, where are you guys?” “We’re on Shannon.” “Oh baby, you have a looong way to go!” he chortled. Derek was interested in seeing Mt. Umunhum but under four wheels and a turbocharged engine rather than two wheels and no-charged, broke-ass engines. So he and his friend Denise had zoomed up Mt. Um and were waiting for us. Well, he was in for a long wait.

Hicks starts off in a leisurely fashion. It’s a narrow two-lane road heading into the mountains with a moderate amount of weekend car traffic no doubt heading to the same place we were, and it gives no indication that it has a brutal kick at the end. You soon leave the few suburban homes behind and are riding on the border of Almaden Quicksilver County Park. There is a leap up to the spillway of Guadalupe Reservoir and then it deceptively seems to settle down. At the hairpin just above the reservoir the road shows its full anger: it’s like staring at a wall. Oh. My. God. If you’re young, strong, and well-trained you can make it up Hicks in what has become standard road gearing, a 34×28 or about 32 gear-inches. But you’ll be standing much if not all of the way to the top or you’ll be forced to weave back and forth to lessen the grade. Since the road is narrow and there is occasional fast downhill traffic that does not respect the center line, I would be careful weaving. Oh, and there is no shade so don’t do this on a hot, sunny day unless you relish tasting the river of sweat that will soon be running down your face. But if you’re less inclined to suffer, I suggest even lower gearing. On this day I used a 30×30, a one-to-one ratio, which works out to about 26 gear-inches, and I was “comfortable”, i.e. I could sit and grind up the climb and occasionally shift up and stand with ease.

The summit of Hicks couldn’t have come any sooner, and instead of locked gates we were greeted by an all-new entrance to Mt. Um! After a brief respite we took off only to discover as I mentioned above that Mt. Um Road doesn’t seem to be any less steep than Hicks! And it was over five miles to the summit. Like Mt. Hamilton and its observatories, you can tantalizingly see the Cube above you yet it is literally thousands of feet above. [The top of Hicks is only about 1,400 ft elevation.] However MROSD did a splendid job of improving the road. Mt. Um Road is a stellar strip of two-lane blacktop all the way to the summit. There are sections with little shoulder but we found the drivers to be very respectful. And the speed limit on the road is 20 mph! On this day there was only moderate car traffic and hardly any bicycles perhaps because we had started so late all the intelligent cyclists had come up and gone down already; but perhaps it was because the climb is so daunting. No matter the condition of the road or the amenities there is no mistaking that Mt. Um Road is even more deadly than Hicks. There were a couple of sections where the grade eased to 5% and many sections that were an “easy” 9-10%. But it was just plain draining. Keep in mind that before we had even started up Hicks we had over 2,000 feet of climbing in our legs at equally brutal percentages.

Top of Mt Um
The Cube on Mt. Umunhum

Roger and I have done many long ascents in the Alps and the Pyrenees and there often came a point when all we could do is tick off the tenths of a mile and exercise mind over body. Mt. Um Road was no different this day. It seemed like an eternity of pedaling, only to look down and see we had not even done a quarter-mile! In the midst of this sufferfest I see a red Supra rolling down the hill: the Den Daddy! He yelled, “You’re not far from the top!” By my Garmin it was still a mile and a half to go. But Derek was right; at around a mile and a half from the summit the road flattens—hallelujah! Derek turned around and passed us on the way back to the top.

A quarter-mile from the top there is a day parking lot—this is where cars have to stop. They actually are able to continue all the way up to the Cube but there is no parking there except for rangers and those with disability placards and only passenger drop-offs are allowed. Derek and Denise greeted us with cool drinks and congratulated us on our ascent. All told it was 34 miles and about 6,100 feet of climbing. We had a nice long chat with one of the rangers and took in the spectacular views of the South Bay. Today it was hazy from smog and we thus could not see Mt. Diablo. But it was easy to spot Mt. Hamilton with its observatories on the other side of the valley. From the lookout, which is immediately adjacent to the Cube, it feels like you could launch into space above the South Bay such is the steep height to which you ascend. There were a few other cyclists although I bet none of them had started as far away as we had nor had climbed as much. They all certainly looked much fresher than we did! And the mountain bikes we saw? I bet they had ridden up the road just as we had but were able to take full advantage of the low gearing.

There are no shops, stands, or restaurants once you leave Los Gatos and there are no amenities in the park except for pit toilets. You have to bring all your own food and water. I imagine any drinking water to be found in the area would be highly suspect anyway as the area is littered with abandoned mercury mines. Fish caught in the nearby reservoirs are strictly catch-and-release due to the danger of mercury poisoning. We each brought two full large water bottles and consumed it all since Los Gatos, and it wasn’t even a hot day.

The ride isn’t over once surmounting Mt. Um. Now you have to return to the valley! As you might imagine Mt. Um and Hicks are not the kinds of roads with “payback” descents. With such steep gradients you will pick up speed in a flash, and with the road being relatively narrow and curvy you have to have your wits about you. On the positive side Mt. Um Road has a perfect surface (at least for now). Unfortunately Hicks is not is as good a shape and you will encounter divots, bumps, and incongruities which will threaten to upend you. Make sure your brakes are in perfect working order because you will be using them a lot on the way down. Roger had the fortune of having disc brakes but I had rim brakes. We were both braking a lot in order not to splatter. Halfway down Mt. Um Road we pulled off into a small parking lot with a pit toilet in order to let the brakes cool down. My rims were so hot I could touch them just briefly before flinching. When we turned onto Hicks, that 14% section was like going down a water slide—down and down we went with only a vague sense that we were in control. Past the spillway Hicks finally settles down to a “normal” descent.

The rest of the return was essentially mundane, making your way across the flat sections of Santa Clara Valley back to the car. When we got back to the car, I was grateful for surviving the climb AND the descent, both. I had underestimated how difficult Mt. Um would be. I mean, how hard could it be? I had done all the other major climbs in the Bay Area (except one: Mix and Gates—stay tuned!) and Mt. Um couldn’t be any worse than Centennial, Marin, Zayante, etc. right? Wrong. Hicks and Mt. Um are a double-whammy with not just ridiculous gradients but ones that are also long, persistent, and unrelenting.

My advice if you decide to go up Mt. Um:

1. Just do Hicks/Mt. Um—don’t add on any other climbing like Mt. Eden or Redwood Gulch. Mt. Um is plenty and steep.

2. Start in Los Gatos—don’t add any mileage that you don’t need before the climb. The ride up Shannon and the lower section of Hicks is good enough of a warm up.

3. Take lots of water because there isn’t any on the hill. And food too!

4. Use the lowest gearing you have. If you’ve got gearing higher than 34×28, may God have mercy on your soul. Or plan on going seriously slow uphill!

5. Make sure your brakes and tires are in excellent condition; the descent is not to be taken lightly.

6. Go on a clear day so you can fully enjoy the spectacular view!

Jerome has the right idea and here’s his route. Note it is just up and down—no frills & functional—and starts and ends in Los Gatos.

UPDATE 10/10: If you are interested in the convoluted recent history of Mt. Umunhum and why it took over 30 years before MROSD was able to open the former Air Force base to the public, here is a great read by Ray Hosler.

UPDATE 10/16: Former Spoker Bill Bushnell also went up Mt. Umunhum shortly after it was publicly opened. You can read his account and see his photographs here. He also has interesting comments about the history of the fight for public access to Mt. Umunhum as well as the “backdoor” cyclists used to use to get to Mt. Um, Loma Prieta Road, which is an eminently rideable dirt road . The ranger we spoke to on top of Mt. Um the day we rode up mentioned that if we were caught on Loma Prieta Road we’d get a $400 fine. Ouch! It pays to skulk carefully.

One thought on “Humbled [Updated 10/10, 10/16]

  1. What a great description of your ride. Glad you made it to the top. Glad I didn’t ride it. Thanks for writing up the story.


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