Friday, April 30, 2010

From the Archives - Death Ride ‘99


De Ronde van X recently got me thinking about the Markleeville Death Ride. The Death Ride is one of the most famous organized rides in California, covering about 125 miles with over 15,000 feet of climbing. I've ridden it twelve or thirteen times, and used to have a tradition of riding it with all three of my brothers. Click to zoom in on the map:

Alas, I won't get to ride the Death Ride this year. Registration is on the lottery system, with so little chance of getting in that my brothers and I no longer bother to try. But to motivate anyone among my readership who is doing the upcoming Death Ride (or any similarly tough ride), and as a companion piece to De Ronde van X, I present to you my Death Ride '99 Postmortem Report. I didn't bring a camera in 99, but to enliven this post Ive thrown in photos from the 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2007 editions.

By the way, there is a literary gimmick lurking in this tale. I will give a prize to the first reader who e-mails me at and correctly identifies the gimmick. (To my brothers and friends who have seen this report before, obviously you are not eligible.) Enjoy!

Death Ride '99 - The Postmortem Report

Bryan and I drove to Markleeville on Friday, July 9, the day before the Death Ride. That night we went to a Mexican restaurant in South Lake Tahoe for dinner, and man, we really packed it in. Then it was a short drive down to Turtle Rock campground, more or less at the starting line of the ride, where we pitched our camp on a brambly dirt patch, next to our car, just at the last hour of the dying day.

The stars came out, and we gazed for awhile, pondering tritely our own insignificance in the face of the infinite beyond. Soon we tired of contemplating our mortality, and managed to fall into a light, fitful sleep (which was all that was possible given our cramped quarters in the tent).

For the next hour or so campers continued to arrive, fitting themselves into smaller and smaller patches of rocky, lumpy ground (there are no actual campsites per se in Turtle Rock park), chattering boisterously, and it seemed to take forever before the noise finally died down. Earlier, I'd really enjoyed the rare treat of seeing the stars, without them being drowned out by city light, and now I savored the dead silence. Not even the chirp of a cricket or the croak of a frog could be heard.

The night passed for me in a series of catnaps, and along toward four o'clock, as I was finally achieving a peaceful slumber, my long-sought rest was cut down in its prime by the most foul, heinous sound you could possibly imagine. At first I almost panicked—I didn't know what in the hell the noise was. It was a terrible screeching, as though an animal were being slaughtered. I finally realized it was music being played over the loudspeaker—or, more accurately, an ill-fated attempt at music by some deadbeat rock band. All I knew for sure was that it was four in the morning, a full half-hour before I'd planned to be awakened by the alarm on my Timex Datalink watch (which I'd set up to beep in its nefarious "step-tone” way while scrolling the word "DEATH!” across its LCD face). I'll probably never know what the first "song” was, but finally the "singer” let out his last gasp and another song, much less irritating, came over the PA. We decided it was pointless to try to continue sleeping, and succumbed to the cruel Death Ride wakeup call.


We'd elected to buy the optional pre-ride breakfast, provided by some volunteer group, though to my dying day I'll never understand why. The food is abysmal—rubbery pancakes, clammy eggs, and sweaty oatmeal, the kind of food I imagine they'd serve on death row. As is becoming a tradition, one of us forgot his ride number, which is the only way to prove to the cafeteria cashier that you don't have to pay at the door for your meal because you already bought it when you registered for the ride. While Bryan went back to the car, I stood in line and killed time talking with other Death Riders. We chattered away in the most breezy and carefree way, as if to deny the grave difficulty of the day's undertaking. Bryan arrived at just the right moment, and we moved through the chow line, which was manned by volunteers offering their hellish fare with cheerful enthusiasm. One volunteer, a rather attractive young woman, I found particularly perplexing: she was holding up a plate of plain, unbuttered, and untoasted bread, which left her very little to do but stand there and do her best to look drop-dead gorgeous. The other volunteers were much busier, and I have a feeling this gal was supposed to be making toast for us, which I would have liked—but I digress, and though I could spend an eternity complaining about the food, I should hurry up and tell you about the ride itself.

First climb

There must have been cloud cover at some time during the night, because it was less chilly that morning than I've ever experienced before on this ride—a pleasant change, but it made us worry a little about how hot it would get later on in the great adventure. The weather looked so promising, we decided for the first time ever to pass on the jackets we would normally have carried in our jersey pockets. Still, it wasn't very pleasant slathering ourselves in sunscreen, but since my once gloriously suntanned skin is now closer to deathly pale, I'm forced to resort to SPF 15 to keep from getting horribly sunburned. Needless to say Erin would kill me if I came home looking like a lobster.

We started the ride at exactly 6:00 am, with a brisk descent—not as bone-chillingly frigid as in years past, but cool enough that when we started the first climb, up Monitor Pass, our legs were totally stiff. The road was thronged with riders — the field limit this year was 2,500, and it had been reached—and yet as many riders as we saw, we know others had started much earlier than we and had probably already crossed over to the other side of Monitor Pass. As always, we marveled at the wide range of body types represented on this ride—sure, we saw plenty of examples of the lean, ripped, almost skeleton-like breed of cyclist, but every year there are also people on the ride who are, well, not so fit. In fact, I'll come right out and say it: some participants are flat-out obese—heart attacks waiting to happen. By the third pass these ones would be goners, but you had to admire their spunk.

The front side of Monitor isn't all that tough, climbing only 2,813 feet in nine miles for an average grade of about 6%, and given the freshness of our legs we were able to dispatch the climb without too much suffering. At the top we each received our first-pass sticker: the way they keep track of who did all five passes, versus the majority of riders who don't make it, is to put a different sticker on your number for each pass you conquer. After the brief (five-second) sticker ceremony, we took our picture next to a very fitting landmark: a tombstone, basically, engraved with the name and elevation (8,314') of the pass, placed there and dedicated (to nobody in particular, apparently) in 1954. We also filled up on energy drink; bananas, a potassium-rich favorite; boiled new potatoes, an unlikely but very welcome Death Ride staple; and this year's innovation, Wheat Thins, which I'm normally not all that fond of but which, under these circumstances, were just to die for!

First descent

The descent down the backside of Monitor is probably the most dangerous part of the ride; although nobody's every actually died on this ride, this would be the place to do it. It drops 3,274 feet in just 8 miles, for an average grade of almost 8%, and because it's so early in the ride, cyclists are still bunched closely together (not like lemmings exactly, but almost). This fact, combined with the breakneck speeds possible (over 50 mph is a given for Bryan and me), mean that this would be a thrilling descent even if there weren't cattle guards. But of course there are, which caused me to ponder, as we flew down the mountain, what happens to the especially stupid cows who fall into them and break a leg . . . after all, isn't it standard procedure to shoot any horse that breaks a leg? Assuming cows are treated no differently, isn't the cattle guard like a Doomsday device for any cow stupid enough to wander into the road? Then I remembered that the whole purpose of most cows is to be slaughtered anyway, so there's no point worrying about it. Anyway, the game Bryan and I play is to see how often we can make it over the thin steel strip, maybe an inch or two wide, that crosses perpendicularly over the pipes of the cattle guard, so as to avoid that annoying series of bumps each time your tire crosses the bars.

Second climb

It was a totally killer descent, reminding us why the climbing is always worthwhile, and before beginning the long haul back up the backside of Monitor, we stopped only briefly to got some more energy drink and, of course, our second-pass sticker. The backside of Monitor is much harder than the front, not just because it's steeper, but because our vigor had been deadened somewhat by the first climb. Soon enough, though, our spirits were lifted by the appearance of what I could only describe as the ride's only full-motion water stop. This Death Ride institution, manned by a skeleton crew of tireless volunteers, apparently has as its charter the filling of every single empty bottle without a single cyclist needing to stop. A volunteer sprints like a hundred meters down to you, takes your empty bottle, and then practically kills himself running back to the water jugs to get the bottle filled in time to hand it back to you as you ride by. It's an inspirational thing to witness—those guys are out of this world!

The remaining six or so miles of the second climb passed away uneventfully, albeit with the standard-issue suffering that, although long dreaded, always somehow manages to astonish me with its intensity. It's always kind of demoralizing to reach the top of Monitor for the second time, feeling significantly worn out, and realize you have almost 100 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing to go before the ride finally comes to an end some ten hours from this moment. I'd also managed to develop a saddle sore (only the second one in my entire life); it barely hurt as we dismounted at the rest stop, but was positively killing me as we got back in the saddle after filling up on food and drink. I pondered, bleakly, how Laurent Fignon believed it was a saddle sore that cost him the 1989 Tour de France (a loss from which his professional career never recovered). I cheered myself up by recalling LeMond's inspirational victory that year—his big comeback after a near-fatal hunting accident a couple of years before.

Second descent

I wish the mother of the kids across the street growing up—who earned the nickname "Mrs. Trapdoor" for her constant safety warnings such as "Bicycles are deathtraps!"—could have seen us descend the front side of Monitor. The riders were more spread out by this point, so we had more of the road to ourselves and hit what would end up being the top speed of the ride, a seemingly death-defying 53.8 mph. Don't worry, though, this was really a very safe and reasonable speed—my self-preservation instinct has increased dramatically since I set the all-time Death Ride land-speed record of 60.5 mph back in 1993 (or perhaps 1995, I can't remember for sure). Glorious as it was, though, our swiftness only served to bring us that much sooner to our greatest nemesis: Ebbetts Pass, the climb that every year claims hundreds of riders—as if they were veritable human sacrifices to this diabolically steep, winding, asphalt shrine to suffering.

Third climb

Remember "deadlegs"—the sudden punches to the thigh that bullies inflicted on you with impunity, knowing you couldn't show the bruises to parents or teachers without lowering your pants? Well, imagine feeling that kind of acute thigh pain for over an hour, and you'll begin to understand why Ebbetts is such a killer. As we labored up monstrously steep grades, negotiating switchbacks that practically stop your bike cold, all conversation ceased, kaput. We became pedaling zombies. We were too close to breathless to utter more than an occasional moan, groan, or whimper. This is the part of the ride when it's dangerous to think about whether or not you'll make it to the top of Ebbetts, much less complete the whole ride. The best way to motivate yourself at this point is to look at the relative novices around you, who never did a race in their lives, the Fuji Road Look set who seem criminally unaware of how hard this is, whose presence on this climb make you deny how difficult Ebbetts is—in short, you succumb to a totally unspoken, tacit peer pressure, and chastise yourself for thinking this is hard. You almost want to turn it into a race and charge to the top ahead of everybody—but all you can do is hold on for dear life and try to keep your composure.

At the top of Ebbetts, elevation 8,730', we were toast. We were spent, gone. We were completely knackered—shadows of our former selves, ghosts, spectres. We were history, we were in the archives, we were lemures—in fact, you might even say we'd had the stuffing knocked out of us. Fortunately, the Death Ride provides the best support of any ride I've ever done, because we were in grave need of calories. Specifically, we needed that miracle elixir of life—no, not energy drink, I mean plain old Coca-Cola Classic. Of course they had it, ice-cold, and we chugged it greedily as we sprawled on a grassy hillside, our lifeless legs spread out before us like dirty laundry.

A fellow rider was deliberating aloud about whether or not to cash in her chips, so I told her what I thought was an inspirational tale about a 65-year-old man who told me, under identical circumstances atop Ebbetts during my first Death Ride, "You finish the first three passes on ability, and the last two on guts." She stared at me like I was some kind of imbecile, which I supposed I was, or am. But then, she departed for the backside of Ebbetts, so either my little speech got to her, or she'd simply decided not to be outdone by such a wanker. After a short rest—well, okay, a fairly long rest, something just short of eternal rest—we headed down the backside of Ebbetts ourselves, fortified with carbonated water, sugar and/or corn syrup, natural and artificial flavorings, caffeine, caramel color, phosphoric acid, bananas, oranges, cookies, and What Things (a fine nickname for Wheat Thins, if you ask me).

Fourth climb

Of our climb up the backside of Ebbetts and passing back over the top, absolutely nothing is known.

Fourth descent

We descended the front side of Ebbetts with jubilance, carving up the serpentine roads and drinking in the slide show of scenic vistas overlooking the great beyond. There is an impulse, on such descents, that has nothing to do with suicide but everything to do with the repressed desire to deliberately miss a turn, to fling yourself and your bike off the edge of a drop-off and whoosh your way along in perfect freedom through open sky. Needless to say, I resisted the temptation, or you'd be reading a much briefer Death Ride report—in the obits.

Final climb

On the way to the fifth pass, my bike suffered what is proving to be an epidemic of broken spokes. If I couldn't find the technical support truck, I'd be doomed to ride a drunken, wobbling, ungainly bike for the next 42 miles. At mile 90, we were told tech support was nine miles and a scant 1,500 feet of climbing away, at Pickett's Junction (who Pickett was I have no idea, unless it's the General Pickett of the ill-fated Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, in which he lost three fourths of his Confederate troops). Since fixing the bike could take some time, and Bryan's legs were even deader than mine, I charged on ahead—well, okay, I limped on ahead—solo.

Sure enough, technical support was there, and my bike was fixed in record time by a mechanic who looked exactly like Alfred Packer, the survivor of an ill-fated mountain expedition who ate his fellow explorers, and who appears on a mural at the University of Colorado's Alfred Packer Grill (motto: "have a friend for lunch"). From Pickett's Junction to the final summit, Carson Pass, is only nine miles with 1,573 feet of vertical gain, for a paltry average grade of 3.31%, so for the life of me I can't explain why it's so hard. Much of that nine miles is a "false flat," meaning it's not really a climb but rather a diabolical stretch of road that looks flat but feels like a climb. When it begins to get steep, it's almost a relief, because the cause of your hellish suffering is at least more obvious.

For awhile, our spirits improved as we realized the end was near, and we took some pictures in which we're actually smiling. The top section of Carson is really steep, though, and in the last mile our jubilance died down and we settled into a rhythmic pedaling drudgery. We were dead to the world by the time we rounded what we believed was the final curve (but without optimism, because there are so many false summits on a ride like this one). But sure enough, the Carson Summit sign was dead ahead, and our suffering was finally near its end!

I turned and looked over my shoulder at Bryan, who was about fifty feet behind me, intending to congratulate him on surviving Carson and to suggest we stop for a photo-op. Imagine my shock to see him sprinting, all-out, hell-bent on beating me to the summit! Nothing could have motivated me to sprint at that point—nothing, that is, except the mortification of being beaten to the summit despite having a good head start and a lighter and more expensive bike. It was a sprint to the death, and to this day Bryan insists I wouldn't have beaten him but for my Dura-Ace 9-speed STI, which enabled me to shift into a higher gear, under full power and without taking a hand off the bars, to nurse a little more speed out of the mighty Guerciotti and eke out a victory.

Final summit

At the rest top atop Carson, we grabbed more Coke and the long-awaited ice cream bars (another Death Ride tradition), and headed for some lawn chairs to rest our much-abused nether regions. At the time, we were vaguely aware of the difficulty of what we'd done, and certainly unable to calculate some of the statistics I'll now quote: roughly 16,000 feet of total vertical gain; .2244 horsepower (167 watts) average on the climbs (.2480 horsepower, 185 watts, for Bryan, who's heavier); four hours and forty minutes of climbing to end up here; 8,573 feet closer to heaven than our earth-bound peers back home. Our achievement was overshadowed, though, by that of another Death Rider: a man in his seventies, thinning hair white as snow, had finished all five passes! I would kill to be that fit when I'm his age!

It's hard to recall the full gravity of our suffering now, as I sit in a comfortable chair at home, and even harder to describe it. Suffice to say we were wasted, spent, totaled, used-up charcoal briquettes, mere smears of ash, quivering masses of protoplasm. But we had survived, and what's more, as we sat on top of Carson, which seemed at the time the top of the world, we had twenty-one miles of descending ahead of us.


A glorious descent it was, too, the highlight being when we blew this guy away, rode him right off our wheels. Then, we returned to the parking lot and enjoyed the hard-won opportunity to go to our reward: the poster signing ritual, a privilege granted only to those who finished all five passes. Even as we realized we were finally done, though, we were already contemplating our return to Markleeville and to the suffering in the California Alps, every year to our dying day.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

De Ronde van X


I’ve done dozens of organized, supported rides over the years, starting with my first century ride when I was twelve. Each ride tends to have its own character, but I did one recently that was completely unlike any other. I shall describe it to you in this post, while withholding various information like who, what, where, and when (though I’ll explain why). I have substituted an X for the final word in the ride’s name to keep that a secret, but at the end I will provide you with a way to learn more.

Why the shroud of secrecy?

The best thing about De Ronde van X is that it’s free. The cost of organized rides has steadily climbed over the years, mainly due to the cost of providing police and road closures. The STP double-century is $95, the Death Ride is $105, and Levi’s Granfondo is now $130. There’s often a usurious transaction fee on top of that.

De Ronde van X is free because there is no police support, no medical support, and no road closures. In fact, you don’t get official support of any kind—just the camaraderie of other riders, a really cool route, and signs painted on the road showing you where to go. It’s a nice stripped-down, minimalist format.

Of course, without permits and road closures and cops, a ride better not get too big, and this year there was a serious threat of that happening. The ride started in 2007 with about a hundred riders; the next year it attracted close to four hundred; then, last year it drew between 600 and 700 riders and got some media exposure. This year it was quasi-canceled: virtually no information was available on the web in the weeks before (I couldn’t find it even by searching on its name). The 2010 edition was finally announced on an obscure (.org) website five days in advance. I’d never have known about De Ronde van X except through word-of-mouth, which is what its organizers actually wanted.

I’m no fan of “Critical Mass,” a monthly ride that takes place in San Francisco (and lots of other cities), which seeks to get the hugest number of bikes possible on the road at once, to raise awareness of bicyclists among motorists. (I think Critical Mass frightens and annoys motorists.) In general, I dislike crowds, and in a society where the growth imperative rarely goes unquestioned (in fact, where companies must either continuously grow or die), I admire a ride like De Ronde that tries to limit its own growth. Frankly, I enjoyed the elite aura of it; think of a speakeasy, or the scene in the movie “Swingers” where the characters navigate a labyrinth of hallways and such en route to a nameless secret nightclub. To keep the low-growth spirit alive, and keep the Ronde promoters out of trouble, I won’t say when or where the ride took place. Suffice to say it was in the year 2010 in a western state.

The rendez-vous

My friend Peter lives in X, and before heading to the ride's start, I did about forty miles in the hills nearby. De Ronde isn’t a century ride—what it lacks in mileage it achieves with climbing—and we wanted at least 100 for the day for tradition’s sake. After this pre-ride Peter and I met up with Dan and his pal Brian at De Ronde’s official starting place. There was no announcer, no start line, no pandemonium, just a whole bunch of cyclists. (There’s a quasi-offical start time but we’d seen a few dozen earlier starters already.) I’m no good at estimating numbers; see for yourself:


One great thing about a non-supported underground ride is that you can take little dirt paths without worrying about how emergency vehicles might get to you. The route took us into the dirt right away. It was no problem, of course, but with cloudy skies I wondered how muddy things might get later.

The truly rigorous thing about this ride is the climbing. Before my bike computer died (more on this later), I was able to see a total of 10,300 feet of climbing, more than 7,000 of which was along the Ronde route itself. And yet, no single climb was longer than maybe a mile, tops. It was just a saw-blade kind of topography where you could never really settle into a rhythm, and there was no way to gauge your progress … no peak to keep your eye on, just a seemingly random distribution of gravity-induced suffering. I’m tempted to describe it as the cycling equivalent of being waterboarded, but of course we were always free to stop pedaling and take a rest (which we actually, did, once). My friends and I all love climbing, so we were in good spirits throughout.

The steepest climb, I’m told, was 23 or 24%. Whether or not this number is accurate, that climb was certainly the steepest grade I’ve ever ridden up. It was actually scary—I worried that if my gears skipped, or one of my (utterly worn-out) cleats popped out of the pedal, I’d tumble down the hill backward, mowing down other riders like a bowling ball, until I reached the bottom. Here’s a video of the climb, in which I attempted to show how high my heart rate got from the climb. (The effect was underwhelming, as my heart rate plummeted once I stopped pedaling. It’s also the case that steep climbs never look steep in photos or movies.)

I’ve never seen so many riders walking their bikes, even in our modern age of triple cranksets and compact chainrings. At each driveway along the road, numerous riders would make a quick loop to rest his or her legs for just a few seconds; at one such driveway I stopped to take pictures. As a hedge against my video not working right on this website (as has happened before), here’s a still shot.


One great thing about the ride was how little traffic we faced. (This isn’t always the case, with organized rides; I did a charity ride in Napa Valley a couple years ago that was downright scary, with a constant stream of alcohol-impaired wine-tasters driving by us on a narrow highway.) De Ronde put us mostly on residential streets winding around the hills of X—not on any useful corridors for cars. Look how relaxed Peter looks here (notwithstanding the hill he’s pedaling up):

Another thing I loved about this ride was unexpected support from residents along the way. About five hours into the ride (two hours into the Ronde proper) we came upon what looked like a kids’ lemonade stand. We almost blew right by it, but the kids were all yelling, “It’s free! It’s free! Suddenly everybody was stopping. (Lesser riders might have caused a massive pile-up.) Three little kids and their mom worked double-time to give out cookies, fruit, and energy drink.

The next rest stop offered a place to go to the bathroom. I don’t mean a stinky San-O-Let, either: the resident was letting riders go into her home and use the bathroom! (Another benefit of keeping a ride small.) This rest stop was accepting donations for a nonprofit animal rescue organization. (I will provide all kinds of information about De Ronde van X to anybody who promises to donate to this outfit; just e-mail me at Looking at the photo now, I realize I didn’t see the brownies when I was there. Dang it!

This stop was, by our imprecise calculations, “only” like ten or fifteen miles from the finish, though we overestimated how arduous those miles would be. On this basis, and on the recommendation of my doctor, I took advantage of an amenity I’ve never before seen at a bike ride rest stop: ale. Here is my doctor himself partaking of the miracle elixir:

I cannot express how joyful it is to get unexpected, free support during a ride like this, simply from the goodness of people’s hearts. (This was the polar opposite of the STP ride, where there were—surprise!—paid rest stops, meaning they had led us out to starve in the wilderness unless we thought to bring cash.)

Naturally, along the Ronde route there were plenty of other riders to chat with. One guy gave me a pretty good history of the ride. He also told a chilling tale of his buddy coming unclipped from his pedal, going down, and breaking his shoulder and his hip. (Especially unpleasant for me because of my worn-out cleat.) “Did you see the kid on the fixie?” he asked me. (I had, but am not used to people my age describing twenty-somethings as “kids,” so this made me feel really old.) The guy went on, “His bike club is sponsored by a body waxing outfit, and he just took second place in their annual hair removal contest. The goal was to remove every bit of hair below the neck and I guess he somehow came up short.” I can’t think of a bigger disappointment than second in such a contest. But then, doing this ride on a fixie means the “kid” was clearly a nutjob (in the best possible sense).


There were no maps given out for De Ronde, but it was (and is still) posted online. The route shown looked like a long measure of yarn dropped from six feet onto a map; we didn’t bother to print it out. We did take a couple of seriously wrong turns during the ride, causing us to have to do two more tough climbs, which only made the ride harder and thus more glorious. The route markers on the road were pictures of the Lion of Flanders painted on the road (this ride fancies itself a U.S. tribute to the Tour of Flanders). I’m pretty sure the painted markers were left over from last year. There were a few flags as well. The important thing was that we didn’t miss the really cool bits of the route, like this trail toward the end:


Our ride had two finishes: the official Ronde finish atop some big hill, where the skies opened up and dumped rain on us, and the second finish ten wet miles later at my friend’s house. My last photo is from the Ronde finish, after which I put away my camera in a Ziploc bag to keep it dry. Alas, I didn’t think to protect my bike computer, which leaked so badly the screen went completely blank. I lost all the stored ride data, so I can’t provide you with a course elevation profile. Maybe next year….

For more information

I have plenty of information about this ride: links to the interactive map, the official website, a news site describing it, and so forth. I could probably provide all that info on this blog and not substantially affect the number of riders showing up next year, but I’m curious about how many cyclists, if any, read my blog. Thus, I will provide you this info only if you either a) promise to donate money to the nonprofit animal rescue organization mentioned above, or b) write a 50- to 5,000-word essay about why you would like the ride information. (You don’t have to worry about making your essay any good. I would accept, for example, “eatmebailey” fifty times over since that would be a literary allusion to a fine work. Actually, now that I’ve used that idea, you’ll have to think up something else.) If I get any good essays I’ll post them here, with the author’s permission of course. E-mail me at dana albert blog

Friday, April 16, 2010



I’m with my family at a motel to be near my mom’s house during a visit. When I’m traveling on business I find hotels a bit depressing; something about them makes me lonely. With my family here, this feeling is absent, giving me an opportunity to investigate the institutional setting from a fresh perspective. This post delivers my findings. In short, it is precisely because this utterly satisfactory motel is completely typical of its kind that I worry for the American people. The people’s tractability is a cause for alarm, as they blindly accept certain amenities that ought to repulse them.

The lobby

My eight-year-old and I are on day four of a tradition of getting up before her mom and her sister and sneaking out to the lobby, she to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and I to write. Alexa’s eagerness to read brought about this morning tradition: she is forbidden to read her book if anything or anyone else (e.g., my brother’s family) is reasonably competing for her attention.

There’s no TV in the lobby, but I can hear the blather from the one in the adjoining breakfast room, seeping in like second-hand smoke, with phrases like “mysterious murders at the resorts,” “won’t press charges against the quarterback” and “illicit sex with a minor” and nauseatingly upbeat ads for things like Zyrtec, whatever that is. Other than the TV noise the lobby is a fine place: it features a faux-ornate picture frame surrounding a “painting” of flowers so innocuous they are incapable of being looked at for more than a couple of seconds; big dark-red armchairs that are surprisingly comfortable, their underlying foam structure being utterly pristine, as though we’re the first ever to sit in them; the carpet a red and gold and green pattern of diamonds and stars and curlicues trying and almost achieving fleurs-de-lis, made of fabric a bit plusher than Astroturf; and fake plants minimally convincing, at least at a distance of four feet or more. A giant baseball trophy (“Father’s Day Tournament Champions 2009”—I’ve just dispatched Alexa to read the plaque for me) is the only d├ęcor element not obviously chosen by the home office.

I have no need for aesthetic elegance in a motel, and this lobby is a great place to get some writing done while Alexa enjoys her book. But in addition to the TV, the breakfast room next door exerts another negative influence, which persistently threatens our arrangement: Alexa has known the pleasure of the simple starches it offers, and they exert a powerful attraction for my kid which I must periodically combat. For now I’ve bought some time by letting her have a Danish.


You may be wondering, why not just bring my daughter in there and give her breakfast? For one thing, I’d rather have breakfast with the other half of my family, and I like to get some writing done while I have the chance. But the main thing is, if we wait long enough, the breakfast room will clear out and I can silence the TV. I’m not some lunatic who thinks TV is pure evil and cannot tolerate it at all, but I have a big problem with its presence at meals. I won’t even read while eating if I have my family to talk to, and a blaring TV is hard to ignore. Meanwhile, in the breakfast room we aren’t even free to choose the program.

Another horror of the TV-afflicted dining area is the spectacle of other guests eating while watching. Of course I shouldn’t look at them, but it’s like a train wreck—you can’t not look. Yesterday an old white-haired couple, presumably not in town on business and thus here on vacation like me, completely ignored each other while watching the “latest” “scandal” on the screen, their jaws working mechanically on their meal, their gaze never leaving the screen. The “scandal” in this case was the unimaginative media’s attempt to wring yet more morbid fascination out of the Tiger Woods story. I guess the media have become so addicted to this story they’ve lost track of what is truly scandalous; this time it’s a Nike ad that—gasp!—is using Tiger’s late father’s actual voice, from a recording made before he died. Without his permission! Imagine!

Now, I’m sure the ad agency that handles Nike’s marketing is savvy enough not to commit a single misstep, so it’s doubtful they did anything truly scandalous or even questionable. I cannot imagine the voice-over of Tiger’s father was anything like “Go ahead and cheat on your wife, Tiger … you’ve earned it.” I’m sure the sound bite in question is something life-affirming that will help rebuild Tiger’s image, as Nike attempts to recover their substantial investment in this sports icon. So where could the scandal come in? Pure fabrication I’m sure. (I can’t comment with precision because I was trying my best to ignore the broadcast entirely. I can say that it somehow managed to span two segments, each bracketed by ads. Unbelievable.)

The TV itself and the fact that people choose to watch it are two separate problems. If the TV were like a swarm of mosquitoes that everybody complained about, that would be one thing. But I have to face the fact that people have actually learned to need (if not enjoy) the TV at mealtime. A stat-shot in the “USA Today” I glanced at during our stay here showed that of all dinnertime behaviors, the most popular—36% of the total responses—was watching TV. If I were to grab the remote and turn the set off in the breakfast room, these fellow guests would be as taken aback as if I suddenly snapped off the lights. They actually want the TV to be on. I can generally live in a state of denial that this is the case, until I’m faced with the squalid spectacle of people actually giving this box—and a program as intellectually bankrupt as this—their full attention. This slap in the face and the TV itself are, though intertwined, two discrete annoyances.

Breakfast room fare

Like the TV in the breakfast room, the food offerings are attuned to a clientele that has lost its way. Perhaps as a general rule, food that makes children wide-eyed with anticipation is on the wrong end of the charisma/wholesomeness scale. The Danishes looked tasty enough and weren’t grotesquely oversized, which is nice, but I instinctively avoid the muffins. During a multi-week business trip some fifteen years ago, I enjoyed a large breakfast each morning at a hotel in Pasadena, and one morning I didn’t have time to finish my muffin and brought it along to my meeting, perched on the dashboard of my rental car. When I got to the office and grabbed the muffin I saw that it had left a large grease spot on the dash, right through the paper cup. (I associated the grease with with the ten- to fifteen-pound weight gain I observed during that trip. The weight gain itself didn’t much bother me, but the suddenness of it did.)

So at this place, not because the Danishes would actually be lower in fat than the muffin, but simply because I was indulging an irrational desire to avoid an unpleasant association, I initially steered Alexa toward the Danish. I was thinking of having one myself, and exacted my standard parental tariff from hers. Normally my kids cooperate very well with this process, but Alexa was really protective of her Danish. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “I shall be merciful and swift.” One small bite was enough to change my mind about having my own Danish. It was cloyingly sweet, strangely springy, and left a waxy, powdery grease residue on the roof of my mouth. How do people eat these things?

The presentation of these items does nothing to increase my appetite. There are Plexiglas domes, with hinged doors, over trays of innocuous items like English muffins, biscuits, and bagels; what’s unsettling here are amateurish labels stuck on each saying “Please use tongs.” Somebody at this motel, or from the home office, had to go buy a label-maker and make all these labels because something was happening in these breakfast rooms the dome manufacturer never anticipated. In theory, tongs wouldn’t be necessary, if you only touched the pastry or bagel you took. Had there been complaints of people fondling the pastries? Poking and prodding them like produce? Or something even worse?

There’s a giant juice dispenser that seems to work awfully hard. When you dispense juice—which really ought to be poured to begin with—there’s this amazing turbine sound, like something serious is going on within the machine. Of course what comes out of the spigot is scarcely drinkable so it’s not like actual oranges are being squeezed or anything. Even when the machine is not in use, it hums and throbs much louder than any fridge (and I’ve had some loud ones). What is its deal?

On a tray, covered with nested Plexiglas domes that swivel so you can line up their apertures as necessary for access, are six or eight peeled hard-boiled eggs. The eggs are eerily small, suggesting that they either came from unhealthy chickens, or that more than just their shells have been removed. Surely labor costs are too high to have a human peel these. Is there some machine that does it? What would that look like? Each day, at the tail end of the breakfast hour, there have been plenty of eggs left. Does the motel staff put these in the fridge overnight and then put them out again tomorrow? If so, is there a system for tracking the age of an egg, or could some loss-leaders have been recycled in this way for weeks or months?

I learned through bitter personal experience that the biscuits-and-gravy offering was horrific. I never meant to try it. Lindsay had asked for a biscuit with just butter, and since the biscuits were cold I cut one in half and toasted the halves for her. This took surprisingly long; they must have been really dense. By the time the biscuits were hot, my mind had wandered and I found myself unconsciously ladling the lumpy, chunky, slightly congealed gravy over them. It was just one of those totally brainless motions—I had biscuits on a plate, there was gravy, so I put them together. “What are you doing?” Erin asked in astonishment. “I … I don’t know!” I said. Lindsay refused to eat my mistake, so in the spirit of not wasting food I gave it a try. I have nothing against MSG except when it’s used as culinary Bondo to mask deficiencies in a prepared food, and especially when it fails in its lowly task. But in this gravy the MSG had no flavor to enhance except that of the salt. The gravy’s texture, meanwhile, was that of reduced saliva. In short, the gravy was a dietary travesty. I threw the whole plate away. “I hate to waste food,” I said to Erin, “especially when a pig died for it.” She replied, “Well, not much of a pig.” (I immediately thought of Charlotte’s Web and “Some pig!”)

There is fruit. But the apples are shrink-wrapped. Why?!


When selecting breakfast on the first day, Alexa pointed at the Froot Loop dispenser and asked if she could have them. I told her, “Absolutely not.” She begged me, and demanded to know why she couldn’t. From the parenting standpoint, I considered Alexa’s appeal to be entrapment: by not blindly accepting my decision, she brought a long lecture on herself. Here it is, as close to verbatim as my memory can achieve:

“Well, Alexa, let me explain to you how the food industry works. Food companies buy produce from farmers. If they just sold this produce directly to consumers, they wouldn’t make much money. But if they do something to it, to make it more convenient or tasty to eat, that’s called a ‘value-add’ and means they can charge more money for their product. So a company will take something like oats—when’s the last time you sat down to a plate of oats?—and turn them into Cheerios, which are easy to eat and which, due to the ring-shapes, are fun.

“Now, if the food producers want to make even more money, they need to either sell more of their product, or charge more for it, or both. In the case of Froot Loops they add tons of sugar, so that the cereal ends up having more sugar than oats, and they add food coloring. Do you think food coloring is good for you?” (Alexa answered, “No,” which suggested that she was actually paying attention.) “You’re right, it’s not. But kids like the bright colors. And all the sugar enables the manufacturer to sell more, because sugary foods actually make you feel even hungrier. And so they can charge more, they give the cereal a fancy name, Froot Loops, and advertise it during Saturday- and Sunday-morning cartoons, so the kids will beg their parents to buy it. If the parents don’t, the kids whine—and you know how I hate whining.

“So, the sugary cereal is basically poison, and the advertising is poison, too—poison for the mind. So if I let you eat this cereal, I’m basically rewarding this company for poisoning both your mind and your body.” (As you read this, you may decide I’m some sort of fascist, or hugely overstating the case with my synopsis. Both may be true. But I cannot combat blatant marketing to my kids with subtlety and restraint.)

At the same time, I felt conflicted. I had the impulse to reward my daughter for having the attention span and open-mindedness to be inculcated, in dribs and drabs, into a worldview resembling mine. So I decided to throw her a bone. “But you know, Alexa, I did get to try Froot Loops as a kid. In first grade, we used them to make abacuses. (Perhaps abacuses represent the only truly valid use for Froot Loops.) And of course I was curious what they tasted like, having never had sugary cereal, so I decided to try a few. I had about five—and I got in big, big trouble for it. The teacher was furious at me and sent me to the corner so I couldn’t continue with the project. To this day I can’t figure out why she was so angry. Anyway, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to let you have five Froot Loops. And you won’t even get in trouble. That’s a better deal than I got!” Alexa acquiesced to this.

Of course, dispensing the Froot Loops was easier said than done. The cereal dispenser struck me as something you might feed cattle with. It was literally impossible to dispense a small amount. A massive pile of Froot Loops spewed forth, as from a grain silo. This gave me plenty of Loops from which to select a pair of each color (one each for each of my daughters). The rest I threw away. I’ve always exhorted my kids not to waste food, so I explained, “I’m not wasting food, because this isn’t food.”


The encouraging fact that Alexa seemed responsive to my lecture gave way to another compromise: she asked for a waffle, and I capitulated, though I knew the batter probably doesn’t have a single thing going for it nutritionally. I was relieved that there was no aerosol anti-stick product involved, as there had been at other motels. That non-stick aerosol is pretty wicked stuff: scanning the ingredients once, I noted that it contained both butane and propane. Why is there an allowable amount of butane and propane the government lets food companies put into our bodies? It seems insane to me. I don’t know what’s in the latest version of Golden Malted batter that makes this spray unnecessary, but I suspect it’s not a petroleum-based propellant. That gives me some tiny sense of progress being made. (The waffle-making process isn’t immune to further criticism, of course: the alarm that sounds when it’s done is an incredibly loud, shrill shrieking tone, like the hotel elevator sound that has replaced the simple tinkle of a bell. Why do people put up with this?)

When Lindsay arrived, and I offered her Raisin Bran, Cheerios, plain oatmeal, or a waffle, she accepted, without reluctance, unsweetened plain oatmeal. I added milk and she said “when.” She proceeded to eat it, despite the fact that it wasn’t ultra-refined, artificially colored, artificially flavored, and highly sweetened. That Lindsay can still gratefully accept simple fare, and Alexa will give me her attention for a long lecture on why she can’t have Froot Loops, gives me hope for the next generation. I’m up against a giant machine that is trying to turn people into the mindless automatons that blindly ladle inedible gravy on their biscuits and then eat this while watching monstrously mindless TV, but at least within this tiny sphere of my family, at least for now, I can beat back the flames. Perhaps tractability itself isn’t always a bad thing, so long as a person can be guided in the right directions. dana albert blog

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Teens Gone Wild


As I’ve mentioned before, “Outside” magazine shows up in my mail unbidden. I’m not a big fan of it, but the April issue had an article I found interesting about a thirteen-year-old named Jordan Romero who hopes to be the youngest person ever to climb Mount Everest. (Jordan flew to Nepal yesterday and will attempt the climb within the next two months.)

I have all kinds of reasons to think this is a completely dumb idea. First of course is the prospect of a kid needlessly dying in the wilderness. As a parent, I’m irked by the irresponsibility of the kid’s dad, who will lead the effort (instead of a professional guide); the difference between glory and tragedy is largely up to nature, and luck. And as a person who was a teenage boy once, I fear for the kid’s ego; if he succeeds, and gets an SUV named after him, his own line of clothing, and endless adoration, he’ll probably become the most insufferably egotistical teenager on the planet. I mean, who wouldn’t? Meanwhile, having this distinction would beg the question, “Now what?” What does he follow this up with—being the youngest teen ever to climb Everest without a chaperone? Without supplemental oxygen? Without a shirt?

The writer of the “Outside” article does a good job of not weighing in too heavily on whether or not this is a good idea (he can’t afford to burn bridges, after all, if he wants to write the follow-up story). He does cite the perspectives of various climbers, guides, a medical researcher, and a climbing historian, all of whom think this is a bad plan. I know nothing about mountain climbing, but I believe I have another useful perspective to add here: as an irresponsible teenager I undertook a vision quest of my own, a 130-mile bike ride featuring Trail Ridge Road, a mountain pass in Colorado which—peaking at over 12,000 feet—is the highest continuous highway in the U.S. Now, I’m not trying to compare my feat to this kid’s goal; obviously climbing Everest is a much huger deal. But I got in enough trouble on Trail Ridge to shed some valuable perspective on the problem of teenagers with mountainous ambitions. In this post I will tell my tale, comparing it to Jordan Romero’s aspiration as I deem appropriate.

How it started

The idea of riding up Trail Ridge was born in the summer of 1983 when my mom drove my brother Max, my friend Aaron Pickett-Heaps, and me up it and down the other side on the way to Steamboat Springs for a bike race. It was cold, foggy, and raining on the pass, and as we rode along in the car Max and Aaron were arguing about whether Max’s professed bike handling skill meant he didn’t need a helmet. They abruptly stopped talking when we saw a lone cyclist making his miserable way up the mountain. We took in the guy’s suffering for a good while, and then Aaron said, “I want to do that.”

It seemed like an abominable idea to me, but also intriguing. That was the summer I turned fourteen, and I was doing a lot of cycling. A favorite ride was up to Estes Park, an eighty mile round-trip from our hometown of Boulder, with a couple thousand feet of elevation gain. That ride had almost come to seem routine, and having done a number of centuries (organized, supported rides of at least 100 miles), I was ready for a bigger challenge. Some weeks later, Aaron announced to our bike club, during the Saturday ride, that the next week we’d tackle Trail Ridge.

Here’s what I looked like back then. It was my third year of racing. My helmet was as hot and heavy as it looks. I was years away from needing to shave my legs, much less my face.

The route would take us from Boulder, via Highway 36, through Lyons to Estes Park, where we’d enter Rocky Mountain National Park, take the Park Entrance Road to Highway 34 (Trail Ridge Road), and climb some twenty more miles to the summit. Then we’d come right back to Boulder via the same route. For a map of our route, click here.

Purity of motive

I want to emphasize that our motive with this ride was simply to have an adventure. We couldn’t do this for bragging rights, because nobody we knew had even heard of Trail Ridge Road. Besides, we had no idea what the elevation was, and that it was the highest pass in the country; we just knew it looked like a really hard ride. Moreover, in 1983—even in Boulder—cycling was not a sport you talked about to other teenagers. Being a cyclist was almost a stigma.

We also didn’t have any pressure from our parents; at least, I didn’t. Quite the contrary, in fact: I made sure not to mention the idea to them. Why? Well, on the morning of one of my Estes Park rides, I was heading out Highway 36 towards Lyons with my friend Nico, and suddenly my dad showed up in his car and stopped just ahead of us on the shoulder. He’d been oblivious when I’d done this ride before, but somehow on this day had caught wind of it, and now gave me a stern lecture about the frequency of thunderstorms at higher elevations. He handed me a backpack with a space blanket in it and ordered me to take it with me. I was embarrassed, of course, and then I had to schlep that backpack for the next seventy miles. I learned my lesson and thereafter kept my plans to myself. No way was I going to carry a backpack all the way up Trail Ridge.

Contrast this to Jordan Romero’s case. His dad has set up a fund-raising engine to raise the $150,000 it will cost to make the Everest journey; is coaching his son through the preparation; has borrowed hypoxic tents to simulate the high altitude; and is home-schooling Jordan so he’ll have more time to train during the day. That puts a lot of external pressure on the kid, of course. His dad unconvincingly claims otherwise, saying, “If Jordan comes home tomorrow and says he’s done with mountain climbing and he wants to play basketball, we’ll shut this whole thing down.” Yeah, right. There’s also the matter of the article in “Outside” and all the other publicity the kid has already gotten. You don’t just walk away from that without feeling some disgrace.

So why does the motive matter? Well, the way I figure it, nobody can tell how that thirteen-year-old is really holding up on Everest except for the thirteen-year-old himself. So when his dad says, “Can you keep going?” that kid will need all the judgment, maturity, and humility in the world to admit it if he’s had enough and needs to turn back. External pressure will interfere with all of these traits, which in my experience teenagers don’t have a lot of to begin with.

Our ride

On the appointed day, Aaron and I met up at the bike shop (the High Wheeler, or Thigh Feeler as we called it), and to our great surprise not a single other rider showed up. There were normally at least a dozen guys on the 9:30 ride; looking back, I’m guessing that—being adults—they didn’t want to admit that the ambitions of a couple of kids were too much for them. In other words, they chickened out. I was frankly relieved; I figured Aaron and I wouldn’t attempt the ride without a couple of adults along. But Aaron was undeterred, and being a natural-born follower I went right along with him.

According to tradition, we stopped for provisions in Lyons, about twenty miles into the ride. I cannot remember what I bought, but it can’t have been much because I remember really envying Aaron, who had enough cash for a large bar of Tangy Taffy. I was saving my last few bucks for the entrance fee into Rocky Mountain National Park. We made our way up the gradual twenty-mile climb up to Estes Park, entered the Park, and then the real climbing began.

As long ago as this was, I well remember well some steep sections and sharp switchbacks at the beginning of the climb. Right away, Aaron dropped me. Why? Because he could. Because thirteen-year-olds don’t differentiate between the hardest physical endeavor of their lives and a run-of-the-mill opportunity to show up another guy. I don’t fault Aaron whatsoever for leaving me behind; if I’d been stronger, I’d surely have dropped him instead. That “never leave a man behind” ethos just doesn’t occur to a teenager. You don’t believe me? Go ask one.

Soon after that, that the sun went away and the afternoon got kind of dark. As I climbed, it started to get cold. Then wet. As of around 9,000 feet in elevation, I was inside a cloud. I’d never been in a cloud before. White and puffy it was not. Despite my exertion I was getting cold and damp. I didn’t have a jacket, or arm warmers, or leg warmers; in those days I owned exactly one jersey (purple, wool) and one pair of shorts (Shaversport, Lycra, which was a pretty new thing at the time). I washed this outfit about once a week. I don’t even think I had socks, or gloves.

Out of gas

I ate through my food—all I remember was a little bag of gorp I’d brought from home. At some point I bonked, but didn’t realize it at the time. I tended to bonk a lot in those days, but I didn’t know the term bonk and didn’t really grasp that a sudden loss of energy could be food-related. My bike had just one water bottle cage, and I never had energy drink. There was nothing methodical about my preparation for a long ride; I simply brought whatever food I could scrounge up. So whenever I bonked, it just seemed like a spontaneous failure of my musculature. My body was to me utterly unpredictable, even unreliable; I envied the older teenagers and the adults who could go hard for a long time without spontaneously blowing up.

The immaturity of my body in those days made me think of a chicken wing I’d had once at Red Barn. The bone was a reddish-pink color and oddly rubbery. My dad explained that the chicken it had come from was so young it hadn’t even fully developed. That was how I thought of myself. It seemed a shame to have to wait for several years until I would magically grow up and be robust and resilient. Until then I just did my best.

At perhaps around 10,000 feet I came upon an elderly couple whose  car—a big old American station wagon—had overheated. They were making the most of it, having a picnic on the tailgate. They asked if I’d like something to eat, and I spent the next ten minutes stuffing my face on everything they had, washing it down with Coke. At the time I didn’t fully appreciate how that had saved me. It was just free food from nice folks.

This isn’t to say I felt good after the picnic. I was still completely blown, and just churned away in my lowest gear, endlessly. Incidentally, my Campy-equipped Pro-Miyata had a 42-tooth inner chainring, and the Suntour New Winner freewheel had a 22-tooth large cog. This wasn’t a particularly steep grade, but that’s not very low gearing by any measure, and it dictated my pace as much as anything. At least as long as I kept pedaling I wouldn’t get too cold.


Two hours into the climb I had become a total zombie, , my body locked in position as if from rigor mortis. Perhaps I figured I’d be warmer if I didn’t move, like a fragile film of warmth might build up if I didn’t tremble and knock it off. Still, I managed to notice that the terrain started to get really weird. The tree line here was at about 11,000 feet; beyond this point, conditions were too harsh for most vegetation to thrive. I knew none of this at the time, of course; I merely wondered at the sudden lack of trees.

In fact, it was tundra. There was a thin, scabby layer of vegetation over everything, like varicolored Astroturf, with pale rocks poking out there and there. Though it was still only afternoon, it was pretty dark, so the effect was like being on the moon or something. There must have been stunning vistas, but I don’t remember seeing any. Probably my neck wouldn’t turn far enough.

For some reason, cars started backing up all along the road. Something must have blocked the way far up ahead; I never found out what. All I knew is it was stop-and-go for the cars. I compared notes with Aaron recently, and he remembers seeing the same cars and passengers over and over again—they’d pass by and wave, and then he’d come rolling by again and, their windows being down, he’d hear them say, “Here he comes again!” A few people cheered me on, but mostly the line of cars was just another obstruction to my progress.

Suddenly I saw Aaron coming back down the hill; he’d reached the summit. I don’t think I even waved to him; I was in a daze and my attention was completely absorbed by one thing: he had a jacket. My entire response to seeing him was to think, “Luck-y!” I didn’t ponder the foolishness of not bringing a jacket (I didn’t own one); I didn’t consider cutting my ride short and joining him; I didn’t wonder how far I might be from the top, knowing he’d been there already; I just thought about how nice it would be to have a jacket. I don’t believe Aaron waved at me, either—probably too busy working the brakes in the wet conditions.

At no point did I consider turning around. This wasn’t an internal battle between my will and my desire to be off the mountain; I was just mindlessly resigned to continuing my struggle until it was over. You could say I was tenacious, but I think it’s more correct to say I have a talent for resignation. The loss of face I’d suffer by quitting never entered the equation, because I was simply climbing the mountain as if I had no choice.

This isn’t to say Jordan Romero might find himself similarly resolved in his effort. I have to hope he’s acutely aware between an endeavor that’s unpleasant and one that could be fatal or at least life-altering. (The current record-holder for the youngest to climb Everest, a sixteen-year-old, lost five fingers in the process. I wonder if he feels it was worth it—he must really miss those fingers, every day of his life.) The other big difference with a Trail Ridge attempt is that giving up is a simple process: you can just turn around, whenever you want, and literally coast all the way back to Estes Park. If the weather turns on Everest, giving up doesn’t necessarily buy you anything—you still have to fight to survive.


I reached the summit without realizing it. There was no celebration, no glory, and no sense of relief, because I was so disoriented I didn’t even notice the climb had ended. By this point, there was no vegetation of any kind—just heaps and heaps of broken-up stone, like the whole place had been bombed. It is no exaggeration to say I was in a trance, just turning the pedals like an automaton. I had descended for quite a ways before I realized, wait—something has changed! I’m not climbing anymore! (It is a pity I didn’t realize this a minute or two later, actually; I’d have reached the visitor’s station at Fall River Pass, and could have warmed up.)

I turned around and started pedaling up the backside of the pass, and this time I was paying more attention when I reached the summit at 12,183 feet. I didn’t have a camera, though I’m not sure I’d have bothered to take any photos. Here are some I took six years later when I repeated the ride with my brothers Geoff and Bryan and our friend Bill. Needless to say we had much better weather that day. (I also had much longer hair.)

I still wasn’t celebrating, though: I was dreading the descent. If I wasn’t drenched yet, I would be soon, as I heard thunder and presently it started to hammer down rain. Within minutes I was caught in a major thunderstorm and was completely drenched.

Even at fourteen, I was very competent at descending. Flagstaff Road in Boulder had been washed out and thus closed to cars the year before, and my friends and I practiced until we could carve through the curves perfectly, taking the optimal lines. So now, to get my suffering over with as soon as possible, I absolutely bombed the descent. I was running the Modolo Professional brakes, which had pretty good pads for riding in rain. The black rubber dissolved against the rim, causing my wheels to fling black water all over me, but I did have pretty good braking control. Perhaps halfway down the mountain I passed Aaron. He had those Suntour Superbe Pro brakes, with these shellacky orange-ish pads that really suck in the rain. He was having to ride the brakes the whole time to keep his speed down, so there was no way he was staying with me. I don’t think we said anything to each other as I passed.

I was so cold I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering, and my body from shaking. I had absolutely no sensation in my hands or feet. I couldn’t even feel the brake levers against my fingers; the only way I know I was gripping them at all is that I could feel the bike slowing down. The rain just wouldn’t let up. As fast as I was going, the descent nonetheless seemed to last forever. I carried on in quiet desperation. I made up my mind I would head into the first building I could find to try to warm up, and hoped they wouldn’t throw me out for not buying anything; I had no money left.


Finally I made it to the bottom. As it turned out, the first building I encountered was the visitor’s center at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. I left my bike outside and went into the lobby. I collapsed on a bench and tried to stop shaking. I closed my eyes. I just couldn’t get warm. I was a skinny teenager, even skinnier than I am now; I imagine I looked a bit like this photo, only even paler and of course twenty years younger (this is from the end of La Marmotte in 2003):

After some time—five minutes? ten? twenty?—I was too messed up to tell—I heard some women talking in concerned, maternal tones, and it dawned on my they were talking about me. They summoned a park employee, who brought me back to a little office and wrapped me in a shiny silver space blanket. She disappeared and I sat dazed for a spell before she returned with a giant thermos of hot cocoa. This she administered to me over the next half hour or so. I must have drunk a gallon of it, and felt my body gradually returning to service, like a flattened inner tube being slowly reinflated.

I became increasingly aware of my surroundings and started to appreciate the care I was getting. Eventually I could actually fathom the thought of getting back on my bike. “How are you feeling?” asked the park employee. I said I felt much better. “Great!” she said. “Now, when you get home today, be sure to tell your parents you were treated for hypothermia at the visitor’s center at Rocky Mountain National Park!” I promised to relay the message, thanked her again for the space blanket and cocoa, and left. The rain had stopped, and other than my squishy, soaked saddle, being back on the bike wasn’t so bad.

On home

As I dropped down from Estes Park to Lyons, the sun came back out and it got nice and warm again. (I miss that about Colorado.) The ride from Lyons back to Boulder on Highway 36 is kind of infamous based on how many guys have suffered inordinately on it. It’s not such a bad stretch other than some rolling hills, but it’s often the last bit you have to contend with after an epic mountain ride, and really dreaded it. But oddly, I didn’t feel so bad (probably because of all the cocoa) and even got into a rotating paceline with a couple of grown-ups and made pretty good time. I got home just before dinner. I’d covered more than 130 miles, and more than half of them solo.

I wasn’t sure whether to mention my exploit during dinner. On the one hand, it was a pretty cool way to have spent the day. On the other hand, I remember the lecture from my dad about thunderstorms at higher elevations, and that was on the occasion of a mere Estes Park ride. Moreover, our dinner table discussions, though lively, didn’t generally center on the doings of us kids; the general format was for the oldest boys, Geoff and Bryan, to ask some really good question about science so our dad could give us a fascinating lecture. It wasn’t easy to hold the floor.

Ultimately I decided to mention my ride, because of the promise I’d made to the woman at the visitor’s center. At a lull in the conversation I said, rather casually, “I rode up Trail Ridge Road today and got caught in a thunderstorm. I was treated for hypothermia at the Rocky Mountain National Park visitor’s center.” What happened next I cannot recall, other than to assert with confidence that it was no outpouring of praise or astonishment. My best guess is that my dad gave a short response, something like “Good” or “Good show.” (This would have been consistent with my dad’s background as a naval officer; I’m told that onboard ship, such brief responses are typical of those given by a senior to the report of a junior.) My brother Max, when I asked him recently, said it was more likely that our dad said something dismissive or even hostile, such as “You’re not very bright, are you?” I really doubt he said that. The brevity of his response, whatever it was, may have been the result of his being conflicted about how to respond. On the one hand, I'd achieved something pretty cool; on the other, I'd ignored his warning about thunderstorms at higher elevations, with exactly the consequences he'd feared. I think I came away simply relieved that I didn’t get in trouble.

What does it mean?

What is the point of such a journey? Certainly I had a memorable adventure, and I don’t doubt it was character-building, but the better answer is that it doesn’t need to have a point. After all, what had the venture cost me? Less than five dollars and a day of my summer. It was simply a grand day out—certainly not in the context of Everest, of course, but scaled to the proper ambitions of a fourteen-year-old.

Contrast this to Jordan Romero’s enterprise. “I just focus on the goal I set when I was nine,” he tells the “Outside” writer, “which is to climb the Seven Summits.” I see a bit of a disconnect here. Climbing the seven summits, especially (perhaps) Everest, is largely a matter of serious logistics—planning, research, preparation, a lot of checklist-type stuff. Is this the stuff nine-year-olds’ dreams are really made of? I have an eight-year-old and I’m trying to picture her saying, “You know what would be really cool? Borrowing a couple of hypoxic tents to simulate oxygen deprivation.” Uh-huh.

My dad clearly wasn’t a champion of my athletic exploits, but at least I never had to worry about the point where his ambitions ended and mine began. Aaron and my Trail Ridge experience wasn’t the stuff of legend, but it was our experience—nobody else’s. One thing that struck me about the “Outside” article was how lopsided it was: I got a very clear impression of Jordan’s father, his ideas, and his ethos, but Jordan himself was barely quoted. The father describes the Everest team of himself, his son, and his partner as “Team Romero.” Why not “Team Jordan”? I couldn’t help but wonder if Jordan was just part of the human payload being dragged along on his father’s ego trip.

Of course, a kid climbing Everest isn’t just an adventure, it’s a symbol—and Jordan says he wants to use this effort to inspire American kids to put away their video games and go outside. But I don’t really buy this. A journey that costs $150,000 and requires you to be home-schooled and have a professional adventure racer and life-flight medic for a father isn’t really within the reach of most kids’ dreams. It’s kind of like a supermodel saying her career goal is to inspire young women to have more beautiful skin and better chins. Frankly, I can think of a lot of ways that $150,000 could do more good than shaving three years off the Everest age record.


As you’ve gathered from the photos, that wasn’t the last time I rode up Trail Ridge Road. When I rode it with Geoff, Bryan, and Bill in 1989, it was part of a larger ride that totaled 200 miles. In 2001 my friend Peter and I rode it again, and instead of turning around at the top we descended through Grand Lake and came back over the divide via Berthoud Pass, making for an even harder 200-miler. I was much better prepared for these later ventures, and of course bigger and stronger, but this was a mixed blessing in that it made the effort a bit less epic. That original journey, precisely because it lacked that space-blanket sensibility, was much truer to the spirit of being a carefree teenager than the later trips. Trail Ridge Road in 1983 was the perfect adventure for a youth who, though a bit reckless, was intent on getting home alive, with all his fingers and toes intact, and without anyone knowing where he’s been. dana albert blog