“Are you thinking of doing the Coquihalla?”
“You’re not going to be doing the Coquihalla, are you?”
“You can’t POSSIBLY do the Coquihalla, not with all that gear!”
Oh yes, we can- and we did.
And wow. What a day.
When we woke in Merritt in the morning, it was to the sound of rain drumming on the roof of the tent. Although it made the morning slightly more tricky for us (packing up a tent in the rain with a toddler running around is NEVER fun!) we were undeterred and determined to set off to begin perhaps the hardest part of our journey to date. After researching the maps and potential elevation of the route, we knew it was basically a day of climbing- 40miles of long, continuous hills until we hopefully reached the Coquiholla Summit Recreation Area, where we were anticipating having to stealth camp for the night- an unwelcome prospect.
Once we reached the junction to take us onto the number 5 highway, I saw the hill we would be climbing in the distance and felt my heart sink. Dramatically. Still, we had no choice- we needed to do this- and what’s more, I WANTED to do this, to embrace this challenge. I gritted my teeth, and we began.
Although it was drizzling, it was muggy, warm and humid. We quickly shed our layers in spite of the damp but found that as we pushed ourselves and built up a sweat, it simply wouldn’t evaporate. Clammy and uncomfortable, it did little to support our efforts to tackle the long hill ahead of us- which seemed utterly relentless. With poor visibility due to the weather conditions, you simply couldn’t see an end, a goal, a point at which you could expect any relief- this wasn’t like the steep hills of Kamloops, to which we could see the end and aim for accordingly. These were gradual, never-ending hills that seemed to drain you of every ounce of energy and morale, requiring serious endurance and perseverance. As warned by a sign at the entry to the highway- “High Mountain Road – Extreme Weather Changes – Use Caution” conditions rapidly deteriorated and a dense fog lay ahead of us. Gearing up with our high-visability vests and lights, we proceeded slowly and held as tightly to the edge of the highway as space would allow- the air felt damp, as though droplets of water were suspended in the air around you. A look out to the side of the highway gave me a slight shock as I realized how high we had already climbed- we were level with the base level of cloud that clung to many of the surrounding mountains and were, in fact, entering a cloud. In the clouds.
It started to rain with greater intent. Our waterproofs were rapidly applied as we struggled to plod on- managing a feeble 3-4mph up the slow hills.
After the 5a, I really didn’t like the 5. It was a great deal faster, busier and had far more large trucks and commercial vehicles. Most comically, signs dotted at regular intervals mockingly claimed the route to be a ‘Bike Route’- as we cycled along I wondered just who exactly had determined that status and how it came about that they had the authority to do so. Clearly, they had never undertaken to cycle the route themselves- or at least, not for a good few years!-or, I doubt, even chanced to ask any cyclists for their input. What determines that a route can be classed as a ‘bike route’, in any instance? The shoulder to which these signs referred was in very, very poor condition. Narrow and frequently covered with large quantities of gravel or broken up concrete, it ranged from being tricky and bumpy at best to impassable at worst. In addition, the highways here have a deliberate ‘bumpy’ edge just inside the shoulder- designed, I suspect, to alert drivers as to when they’re too close to the edge of the highway, which in theory, I think is a great idea- but for us, a nightmare. It eats into half the narrow shoulder and is almost impossible to ride on, causing you to slow down dramatically as it shakes, bumps and throws your bike around if you chance to ride on it. Unfortunately whilst the bikes could often be navigated around it, the trailer, being wider, didn’t have the same flexibility. Poor Theo was being jiggled about like nobody’s business.
The rain got heavier and heavier until the heavens truly opened and we were soaked through. I could feel water seeping through my “waterproof” (WHAT a joke!) shoes, gloves, trousers and even my coat. Droplets worked their way down my helmet, trailing off my glasses, my nose, down the collar of my coat…everywhere. My drenched gloves and shoes caused my fingers and toes to become numb with cold and I eventually lost the majority of sensation in them. Not entirely comfortable…!
I reached that point whereby you’re so completely and utterly soaked, you eel as though you may never be dry again. If I tried to wipe a drop from my nose or off my glasses, I’d just smear more water over myself with counterproductive results. My glasses steamed up from the effort and the world around me became a blurred vision of grey and green hazes, as though I were cycling along drunk, almost, unable to focus or determine reality. There wasn’t a single part of me that didn’t feel soaked- now I truly know the meaning of ‘soaked to the skin’!- and my clothes felt heavier by the minute. I started daydreaming about being at my Mums and climbing into a steaming hot bath before wrapping myself in the softest, fluffiest dressing gown, curled up on the huge sofa in front of the fire with a glass of wine as the weather raged outside the window. That image distracted me for quite some time and I clung to it as such! I looked at Theo in the trailer ahead of me with envy. Snug and cosy in his weatherproof cocoon, a sleeping bag tucked around his legs for warmth, surrounded by toys and books and food and drink. Still, it was comforting to know he was content even as we pushed on!
Eventually, Matt decided we needed a proper break and some food. There was no-where particular to stop- the highway was barren, with the side of us ranging from a sheer drop to steep ditches or fenced off forest. As we pulled up alongside the road, Matt quickly hitched up a temporary shelter using our trusted tarp which he tied to the fence and anchored out using our bikes. Actually, it was surprisingly effective (good ol’ tarps!) and god, such a relief to finally escape the rain. We munched on peanut butter sandwiches and cookies as Matt heated some water for hot chocolate- mmm. Holding that warm cup in my hands was exactly what I needed to attempt to thaw me out: perfect.
Although our spirits were admittedly low and we were already (at 28miles) beginning to feel defeated, our gorgeous, cheeky lil bundle of mischief came to the rescue and turned it around. He simply erupted into a fit of the giggles- for absolutely no identifiable reasons what-so-eer!- and his infectious laugh and freely-given cuddles and kisses caused us both to join in almost involuntarily. Laughing together, huddled under this tarp by the side of the highway, I couldn’t help thinking what a sight we must look. But I didn’t mind in the slightest- moments like that were one of the reasons we undertook this adventure together! Thanks to my sunny-natured little boy, I felt refreshed and full of renewed determination as we finally took to our bikes once more. Even slipping on my drenched gloves didn’t ‘dampen’ my spirits: we could do this.
The hills became slightly less aggressive and somehow, our legs kept turning. According to Matt’s elevation map, we’d be hitting the peak of our climb at around 40-45miles and as we edged closer, I was silently begging for it to appear, for this to finally stop so I could rest my worn out legs. We stopped frequently to try and muster some strength and as we hit the last climb, it took every ounce of strength in me to keep myself going. One last push, and we’d be there.
At 46miles exactly, we hit it. That beautiful goddamn sign.
I couldn’t believe it. Actually couldn’t believe it. Of course I knew we’d been climbing, but honestly, I never realized it was that high. What a climb. What an achievement! 4081 feet- over 4000 feet!!!! I was completely hit by an exhausted elation, a huge buzz. We’d DONE IT!
WE CONQUERED THE COQUIHALLA!!
The scenery up top was spectacular, even through the clouds. We were literally level with the mountain tops- on top of the world! It was beautiful- exhilarating. And I felt so proud of both of us- of all of us!- I never knew we had it in us. Amazing.
We had planned to stop at the top, but alas, the rather comical sight of the entrance to Falls Lake completely dashed that- almost 2metres of solid snow blocking the road. Clearly, no-one will be camping there any time soon. And besides, we were absolutely pumped with adrenaline and itching to begin our descent- now wasn’t a time for stopping. Now was a time for celebrating.
We started the descent and woah- what a reward for a day of climbing. 7-8% gradient downhills meant we picked up some serious speed and our brakes were continually applied to ensure we didn’t lose control in the wet conditions- we simply sailed down the roads as view ater view spread out before us. The clouds finally cleared; the shoulder at last became wider, smoother, easier to ride. It was as though this was our prize, our congratulatory prize for having succeeded at conquering such a challenge. Thick, dense green forests covered mountains that followed a valley as far as the eye could see as we weaved our way down the slightly windy highway. I couldn’t stop smiling; absolutely falling in love with the scenery, I never wanted it to stop.
After taking an unbelievable 8 and a half hours (well, that includes the many, many breaks…) to climb the never-ending 46miles to the summit, it took us just under 3hours to sail down the remaining 30 miles until we reached our final destination of Hope. Exhausted, buzzing, running off pure adrenaline and little more, we had been on the road for an incredible 11hours and covered an astounding 76miles- more than twice our original anticipated daily mileage.
We had nothing left in us and settled for a cheap motel for the night. Today, we rest our aching legs and give the bikes some serious tlc before tackling the next, slightly less daunting stage of our journey. But that day’s experience is not one I’ll forget in a hurry. WHAT a day.
Miles today – 76.76!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Total miles to date – 408.