01 June 2008

Switchbacks in the concrete jungle

SAN FRAN -- The hills in San Francisco are crazy steep. Like ski hill steep. Like tear an ACL muscle/strain a quad steep.

The hill where you'll find Lombard Street (the famous "windeyest" road in America), drops at a 27 percent grade, for example. Neighborhoods are named things like Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill, mostly so idiot tourists will know to walk around them rather than pass out during the climb. Property rates on Telegraph Hill were supposedly super low before the automobile, because only poor people were willing to walking up and down it. Take the dramatic city hills and valleys, and thrown in some serious Pacific fog, and you get a range of micro climates in the city based on the topography. One resident told me neighborhood temperatures can vary by as much as 20 degrees, just because hills hold the weather.

Sometimes, these hills have little stair steps to help you out with the climb, but often you're left to make your own path.

John and I figured out the hills are easier if you take a little tip from skiing and hiking -- and cut the grades down with some switchbacks. It makes you look a bit like a fool, but hey, I was already carrying a camera around my neck and a big yellow backpack. Not much to lose.

And I guess that's the exact technique that makes Lombard Street tolerable for cars. The hairpin curves of the road dilute the grade down to 16 percent, according to a National Geographic travel guide.


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